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On New Year's Eve, 2009, Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker (center) responded to a constituent's Twitter message calling on him to help her father shovel his driveway; volunteers that had seen the exchange of tweets joined in to help. Photo: City of Newark

Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, N.J., is a hands-on kind of leader.

In addition to reaching out to constituents at scores of events, he's one of a growing number of public officials tapping into Twitter, Facebook, and other social media outlets as a communications tool.

He has a personal Web site — www.corybooker.com — on which he shares his daily schedule and blogs his thoughts on life in the city. On his Facebook page — which has nearly 20,000 fans — he shares updates on city programs and services. And, through his @corybooker Twitter feed (with more than 1 million followers), he's been a one-man public works force.

On New Year's Eve, Newark and much of the East Coast got socked with snow. Area resident Ravie Rave (@BigSixxRaven) connected with Booker via a tweet: “Can u send someone over 2 my dad's? He's going 2 try & shovel. He's 65.”

Booker didn't just dispatch a snow truck; instead, he tweeted back: “I will do it myself where does he live?” Soon after, he was at the house with shovel in hand, joined by volunteers that had seen the Twitter exchange and showed up to help. The team cleared Dad's walk and driveway, then serviced other Newark homes, saving residents a great deal of backbreaking labor.

In addition to organizing good Samaritan missions, Newark and other municipalities use Twitter to inform citizens about programs, including parks events, road construction, and yard-waste pickups. The immediacy of Twitter proves especially useful for emergencies such as severe winter storms. The city of Denver (@DenPublicWorks) uses its Twitter account to warn residents of impending snow, and to drive visitors to its snow-emergency Web site at www.denversnowplan.com. Des Moines, Iowa, independent of its main account (@CityOfDesMoines) has a dedicated snow-focused Twitter feed (@dmsnowremoval) to alert followers, and to issue gentle reminders about sidewalk-shoveling and winter-parking regulations.

State agencies are also getting in on the social media action.

Last month, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) released a survey in which 26 of 32 responding states reported using Twitter to communicate a range of issues, including significant traffic incidents, road closures, and severe weather. In addition, approximately half of the states have a Facebook page, and more than half post video on their Web sites.

“Social media tools allow us to carry messages to constituents through the forums they already use rather than expecting them to seek us out,” says Washington State Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond. “We have improved our agency's credibility with the public, improved communication efficiency, and saved taxpayers money.” Washington, one of the first state DOTs to jump on the social media train, has approximately 8,000 followers on its main WSDOT account (@wsdot) and 3,000 followers on its Seattle-area traffic account.

In 2009, Twitter continued its explosive growth, expanding its number of U.S. members by 368% over the previous year. Each new user is looking to reach out to others; through the use of social media, public works officials have a unique opportunity to reach back.

— Jenni Spinner is a Chicago-based freelancer and former associate editor of PUBLIC WORKS.

Web Extra

To see videos of Mayor Booker's snow-shoveling excursion and other events, click here.