Instagram and Snapchat are gaining enough in popularity and users that public agencies are considering getting accounts. Let’s explore each of these tools to help you decide if their use would be relevant for your agency.

Image from an iPhone device showing an Instagram user profile screen.Instagram
The mobile photo-sharing site allows you to post a stream of photos with captions, and view the same from your friends. The free service launched October 2010, and by the end of that year had acquired 1 million users. In April 2012, Facebook acquired the service. Today Instagram has 200 million active users who post, on average, 60 million photos a day.

Of those users, many are government agencies who are leveraging Instagram’s popularity to share photos of buildings, events, parks, and interesting community sites and people. The following Instagram pages show photos posted by each agency:San Francisco Public Works Department
City of Las Vegas
New York City
U.S. Geological Survey

Even though I found many examples of government agencies using Instagram, I haven’t seen many companies and vendors in our industry making use of it. However, below are two examples of companies on Instagram that are related to the public works industry:General Electric
Geospatial Corp.

To register: While you can always visit the Instagram website to view photos, the service really is designed to work as a mobile app. You must download the app to your mobile device (via your device's Play or App Store) and register an account through the app. Once installed, tap the Instagram icon on your mobile device, and sign up using either Facebook or an email address. If you enter an email address, you’ll need to input that along with a username and password. If you register through Facebook, the app links Instagram directly to your Facebook account.

After registration, the app shows a list of your Facebook friends whom you can follow on Instagram. But don’t worry if you decide not to follow any friends immediately. At any time, you can go into your settings and tap “Find People to Follow” to bring up a list of “Facebook Friends” or “Contacts” or even people suggested by Instagram. As you view the list, you can tap “Follow” for each person whose photostream you’d like to view. You can also use the “Explore” button to view photos by subject matter or from anyone tagged with a specific hashtag (word or unspaced phrase prefixed with the hash symbol: #).Screenshot from an Android device showing the filters available in Instagram.

To post photos: Tap the camera icon in the app and center your screen on what you want to capture. Then tap the large button in the bottom center of the screen. After your photo has been taken, Instagram offers several filters to alter or enhance your image. Once you finalize how you want your photo to look, you are taken to a screen where you can add a caption and tags and choose to share your photo on other social media sites and on a photo map. This screen is also where you can choose to only allow specific friends to view the photo. When you're ready, tap “Share” to post the photo. Users can also use the app to take and post videos.

Photos can be set to public or private. If private, only those who you approve to follow you can see your photos. If an account is private, photos posted by that account will not show up in a hashtag search. By default, photos are set to public so they can be seen by anyone searching either the account’s username or through a hashtag for that photo.

As with any social media tool, it's important to check with your legal staff before creating an account and using the site. And make sure to check out Instagram’s specific amendments to their terms of service for government use of their app.

Screenshot of the sign-up screen for Snapchat.Snapchat
The free mobile app is another social media tool that has grown quickly in popularity since its launch in 2011. Like Instagram, it allows people to post photos and captions. Unlike Instagram, Snapchat offers a unique method of sharing: When uploading or taking a photo, a user chooses how long someone can view that photo. If I take a photo, add a caption, and set it to 10 seconds, my friends who follow me on Snapchat can only view that photo for 10 seconds. After that, the photo disappears and cannot be seen again. It's a popular tool for people who don’t want their images forever available on the Internet.

Another feature is the ability to caption and draw directly on the photos you take. This may be useful if I was out in the field and needed to send a few photos back to my coworkers in the office. If I was checking out a group of valve boxes or manholes in the field, I could circle the one that I found with a problem and the people in the office could receive my photo, screenshot it, and then use that image for reference.

So far, the only government agency I am aware of that uses Snapchat is the Utah Division of Emergency Management. You can find them on the app as BeReadyUtah. They are using Snapchat to offer information about how people can be better prepared for emergencies. And because most Snapchat users are between 13 and 25, using the app helps their division promote emergency preparedness among a younger demographic that is often difficult to reach.Screenshot of a SnapChat

Large brands including restaurants and clothing stores are also using the tool to reach Snapchat’s user base, which is now estimated at 26 million in the United States. These companies post photos covering product launches, rewards, behind-the-scenes shots, and contests. I haven’t noticed any companies in the public works field using Snapchat, but perhaps they will start as the number of users grows and more public works professionals sign up for the service.

To register: Download the app to your mobile device, tap the icon to launch the app, and then tap "Sign up." This takes you to a log-in screen where you can input your email address, a password, and your birthday. Once logged in, you will want to connect with friends and spend some time getting used to the tool before rolling it out to customers or citizens.

Government agencies might find the tool's unique features somewhat of a challenge, because of the need to retain and archive certain communications. With Snapchat's temporary posting method, there's a change that items shared through this medium might not meet these rules. One solution is to take screenshots to archive posts. As always, consult with your legal counsel first.