What the world needs now is social media that can help solve social problems: Is there an app for that?

To paraphrase a song from the Sixties, what the world needs now is solutions, sweet solutions. The latest celebrity gossip or whether someone that I hardly know ate blueberry pancakes for breakfast is all well and good. But after awhile, going on and on about such trivialities is a waste of resources. I think of time, energy and the brains behind such mathematically complex concepts as Google Ad algorithms as resources.

My vision for the future of social media would include using “the wisdom the crowd” and real-time communication systems to find solutions to long term problems. In his TED talk, Clay Shirky talked about the uses of Facebook and Twitter to help Chinese citizens participate in bottom-up real time news reports, illustrating that social media can spread egalitarianism. I’d like see what Google-like algorithms might turn up for solutions to mass unemployment, global warming, and so on.   I’d like to see social media crowd sourcing and algorithms used to generate solutions to the national debt crisis,  rid Congress of the political gridlock that characterizes its proceedings on just about any issue, and figure out how to help the housing market recover. It would be nice, also, if we could figure out how to assure that no one goes to bed hungry in this country. I can imagine a lot of beautiful connections if a match.com meets twitter application was designed to help resolve real world social problems.

But let’s start simply, thinking locally, imaging how social media might “make a difference” in the daily life of one Austinite stuck in traffic.

Old media style traffic reports via local radio or TV broadcasts only scratch the surface. Reporters hover in the air in helicopters telling us the obvious every single day: It’s congested on Interstate 35 and Mopac and 183 between the hours of 7 to 9 a.m. and 3:30 to 7 p.m.  It sure is! What a waste of resources – all the way around. Reporters say the same thing on the few stations that still report local news. People stuck in traffic, sit idly while the fumes from their cars pollute the air.  Imagine all the people, being able to — without violating the no-texting while driving rules – communicate in“real time” solutions to traffic problems.  We could tip off folks headed to the location: “Steer clear of Wm. Cannon exit  I35.”

This idea came to me a few weeks ago. I’m driving from San Marcos back to Austin after my late night class at Texas State has ended. It’s around 9:30 p.m. I’m cruising along, thinking about what I will fix to eat when I get home, when abruptly, I slam on the brakes, and go from 70 mph to less than zero in less than a minute.  What I wanted to know right then and there: What is happening? Is this road construction? Is there an accident? How long is this going to take? What information can help me to decide whether to exit and take an alternate route or stay on I35 and where can I get this info? Where can I get the data I need now? I try old media, I turn on the radio. There’s nothing about the incident on the few truly local news operations. KUT’s playing somebody else’s idea of jazz. KLBJ-AM is airing yet another right-wing blowhard’s talk show. How prehistoric!

If I could have seen above the numerous Mack trucks ahead of me, I might have seen the sign (another older form of media) that blinked: “Lanes closed.”  Meanwhile, huge trucks usually relegated to only the middle lane, are competing with cars to merge into another lane, one that appears to be moving a tad faster than the others. But as far as I could tell, no one can tell which lanes up ahead are closed. Everyone’s playing musical chairs, changing lanes in an effort to position themselves in the lane that might eventually be the fastest one.

As my car has come to a complete stop, I’m in no danger of violating the no-texting while driving rules. I use my cell phone to search for traffic updates. I find no info. I call my boyfriend to ask him if he knows of anything. I ask him to go  online and check the Texas Department of Transportation’s website for road work closures. No info.

Eventually, it becomes apparent that ALL the lanes are closed. Police officers direct traffic to an area left of the “fast lane” that’s become the ONLY lane open.

In all, I spend over 30 minutes driving a stretch that I’d usually speed through in under five minutes.

Life is short. Time lost sitting in traffic isn’t recoverable. It’s gone.  I’d like to have an app or some sort of messaging device that connects me to other drivers up ahead of me so we could chat. Maybe it would be like a Facebook group page for only people on I35 heading north? I don’t know how it would be defined. But I imagine I would be able to get information from someone – an authority, another person sitting in their car, but further up ahead of me, who could tell me what they see ahead and help me determine a course of action. Perhaps this device would interface with my cell phone’s GPS and allow me to communicate to my fellow drivers. Perhaps we could “crowd source” our way toward some “real-time” solutions. Imagine if I had a way to tell the guy next to me who ignores my turn signal, who turns his head when I look at him, that I don’t want to “cut” in front of him and make his journey longer. If I could I’d say to him, maybe something clever, in twitter speak, about how I just want to get in front of him, just for a moment, just en route to the next lane.

I imagine that this form of media would operate mainly through voice activation so you wouldn’t have to text while driving or read texts while driving.  Ideally, there would be some place I could turn to that would give me the info before I needed it. I’d be alerted to fact that ahead was traffic and be offered a recommended next available exit and alternate route with directions. If so, I could have avoided the traffic, gotten home sooner and who knows what I would have done with those extra 30 minutes. There are many ways to make the world a better place, and I would have been available to do my part.

Oh, imagine that.


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