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Using Facebook to Fight Dangerous Driving in Delhi
Dangerous Delhi drivers are now under the watchful eye of Facebook's "digital informants." Photo by Mani Babbar.

Dangerous Delhi drivers are now under the watchful eye of Facebook's "digital informants." Photo by Mani Babbar.

With just 5,000 traffic officers in a city of 12 million people, Delhi Traffic Police are enlisting the help of Facebook to crack down on traffic violations, as reported in The New York Times today.

The DTP created a Facebook page a couple of months ago to help manage traffic safety and congestion — especially important for Delhi, which is gearing up for the Commonwealth Games. India is known for its fatal road conditions and needs all the help it can get to improve the situation. “Delhi Traffic Police cannot possibly succeed without the active cooperation, participation and support of all the citizens,” says the DTP’s Facebook page tagline.

With more than 17,800 fans and close to 3,000 photographs (plus nearly 50 videos), the Facebook page is an example of how online tools can be used to help improve transportation in cities around the world.

By examining license plate numbers from user-submitted photographs, the DTP have issued 665 tickets, according to the city’s joint commissioner of traffic, Satyendra Garg.

“Traffic police can’t be present everywhere, but rules are always being broken,” he said. “If people want to report it, we welcome it. A violation is a violation.”

Groups like The Urban Vision, a Mumbai-based think-tank, go a step further by encouraging residents from cities across India to report issues on interactive maps (created by SeeClickFix), embedded on a customized “Citizen Watch” website.

Of course, there are some concerns with this new “crowd-sourced” model of traffic policing.

For starters, some are worried about the possibility of incriminating people with digitally altered (i.e. Photoshopped) images. “What happens when petty revenge and Adobe Photoshop get thrown into the mix here?” writes Facebook fan James Foster. “Myself and anyone I know could easily spend 10 minutes forging a picture of ‘me’ doing any number of road-related crimes.”

Also, what about the possibility of turning neighbors against each other? Or creating a culture of fear against the omnipresent surveillance of the government? As written in the NY Times article: “Relying on people to turn in their neighbors online is ‘Orwellian,’ said Gaurav Mishra, chief executive of 2020 Social, a social business consultancy.”

Then, there’s the problematic “digital divide“: What if you’re a Delhi resident without Internet access, let alone a Facebook profile? “Just one in four people in urban India has Internet access,” the article says, “and Internet users tend to be the wealthiest.” (We’ve written about improving access to information for everyone, including non-Internet users, in Washington, D.C. — it’s a far cry from Delhi but still relevant.)

Finally (and ironically), what if all this cell phone picture-snapping distracts people from the road, creating even more traffic accidents?

FOLLOWING IN OTHER FOOTSTEPS

Using Facebook to bolster law enforcement, especially for traffic violations, is nothing new. In India, the Chennai Traffic Police already have a Facebook page.  Traffic officials in Hyderabad are now considering the idea. And it looks like Ahmedabad has jumped on the bandwagon, too. There are other examples from other countries: Cities from Jakarta to Toronto are turning to the largest social networking site on the planet to help make streets safer locally.

Transit agencies, in particular, are using social media — Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn — to connect with their citizens and spread information, recognizing that transportation systems inherently create a community of people. The topic even got the attention of the Transportation Research Board, which is asking people to submit letters of interest to produce a synthesis report of the “Proactive Use of Social Media in Public Transportation.”

As the rampant activity on DTP’s Facebook page shows, the possibilities for public engagement through online media are endless.

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