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San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and Twitter spokesperson Biz Stone today announced that users of the online messaging service will be able to contact 311 operators by sending text and photos in addition to phone calls. This comes at “no extra cost” said Newsom at the inevitable press conference held at the 311 call center, where he was joined by Twitter’s Biz Stone.

“City departments need to act more businesslike,” said Newsom at the press conference. If so, then why is 311 only supporting text messages via Twitter, and not simply through regular SMS and MMS messaging? It simply adds a fourth party as a layer of complexity between the citizen, phone company, and government agency. As it stands, one has to register with Twitter in order to contact 311 with a text message and receive a response in kind.

And Twitter, while more reliable of late, hasn’t exactly been without problems. Besides frequent downtime early on, a recent error sent dozens of messages to users — at up to $0.15 each — on accident. But no competing messaging service, like instant messaging clients, Facebook or even email (except via a web-based form), are offered as competing auctions.

“City departments need to act more businesslike,” said Newsom, If so, then why is 311 only supporting text messages via Twitter, and not simply through regular SMS and MMS messaging?That even the official announcement from the Mayor’s Office of Communications (which miraculously not only avoided cuts but will grow under Newsom’s proposed budget) included the Twitter user names of both Newsom and Stone shows how close the relationship between the mayor and the company have become. According to the press release, the idea arose through casual conversation at the private company’s offices, which apparently means there’s no need for public notice or comment the official press releases make it a fait accompli.

I will applaud Twitter and the mayor for providing a case study in how informal barter exchanges can work in tough economic times. For a second there, I was worried Twitter had found a way to make some money — though I wouldn’t be surprised if someone doesn’t figure out how to charge it from the SFMTA’s account eventually. And I think we can all be glad that this little experiment in entrepreneurial public-private partnerships involves 311.

Because no one in their right mind wants rely on Twitter for 911.

Appeal reporter Chris Roberts contributed to this report.

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  • Karl

    A rhetorical question, of course. Just like standing in a brothel and asking “why is there prostitution?”
    I’m surprised Biz Stone (co-founder, BTW) lowers himself to that level.