During this unprecedented time of social distancing, infrastructure projects will continue to be a key driver of Australia's economic wheels - both now during 'hibernation' and as we enter the recovery phase to come.
While infrastructure projects roll on, the usual face-to-face engagement we undertake with communities about these initiatives has had to take a backseat. So, how can we ensure the decisions we make about infrastructure today deliver community benefit for the long-term?
According to the latest Digital 2020 Global Overview Report issued by We Are Social and Hootsuite, 88 per cent of Australians use the internet, with 71 per cent active on social media. Internet users (aged between 16-64) spend an average of one hour and 44 minutes every day using social apps and platforms.
With social isolation now in force, these usage numbers are likely to skew even higher in the weeks and months ahead.
While we can’t engage face-to-face, there are insights to be gained into what people think about infrastructure by looking at what they are saying online. Using algorithms to analyse the words and phrases used across social media posts can help us to investigate and understand community sentiment - be it positive, negative or neutral.
While social monitoring is by no means new and will never replace the deep insights and feedback we get when we engage communities in two-way conversation about initiatives that impact them, it can give us clear indicators about how people feel about projects.
When we do it right, a wealth of data becomes available that we can use to tailor engagement and communications strategy with the right level of detail, in the right places, at the right time.
Social monitoring isn’t just useful for projects already underway or in operation, either. Rather than a ‘captive audience’, social isolation is delivering a ‘captive sample’ from which infrastructure proponents can gain valuable insights for the future.
What are people saying about existing infrastructure services or products? Who in the community is talking about these projects? Where is need concentrated? What can be learned from the successes or mistakes of the infrastructure that has come before?
COVID-19 (and the increase in social media usage that will likely result from it) provides another opportunity – to connect with those who are often silent or underrepresented in engagement around infrastructure.
Across our social monitoring, we can identify which groups aren’t part of the conversation and explore new digital options for bridging the silence.
Roy Morgan research from 2018 revealed that the average Australian over 14 spent almost six hours on social media every week. The age bracket with the highest level of social media screen time was 14 - 24 years, with men spending 8.8 hours and women 13.7 hours per week.
When we consider that these age groups are among the least represented in traditional community engagement processes, it’s worth asking the question how the time of COVID-19 separation can be used to connect with these hard-to-reach stakeholders in a space they know and are comfortable?
While social isolation and economic slow-down might be a challenge, there’s a lot of opportunity in it for those willing to tune in and listen.
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