Urgent Matters

When dinner awaits, social media can be your friend


How the Chicago Transit Authority leverages social media, including Twitter.

Lately I have written about social media, specifically how public-safety agencies are using it to manage large-scale events, to get people out of harm's way before a catastrophic event occurs, and to improve emergency response in the aftermath of a disaster. A couple of weeks ago, I learned more about how social media is being used by public agencies for more mundane — but still very important — purposes.

Social Media Week is an interesting deal. It was held simultaneously last month at various venues scattered in 13 cities. Chicago — where I work — was one of the host cities, and I found myself at the headquarters of the Chicago Transit Authority, which explained how it leverages social media to provide better service to its patrons.

The headquarters houses a 9,000-square-foot facility that features a wall festooned with large, high-definition monitors that let personnel keep tabs on weather reports, news feeds from local and national media, video-surveillance footage from cameras mounted in buses and at rail stations, and more. During the day, 24 people work and 10 during the overnight hours, and they handle everything from communicating with bus drivers and train engineers, to coordinating with police and fire officials, to cutting the juice to the electrified third-rail that powers the train cars.

During Social Media Week, attendees got a tour of the Chicago Transit Authority's expansive communications center where the walls are covered with track maps, weather, news, cameras and more.
Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  cta web

Speaking of the video cameras, there are 3,600 of them, and every station in the city — 145 of them, serving eight routes — has some. In addition, six cameras are positioned in every bus that the agency operates — a total of about 1,800 buses that serve 140 routes and log nearly 2,000 route miles annually.

So, the CTA obviously is a very big operation — second only to New York City's transit system, in terms of size and scope — serving about 1.6 million passengers each weekday. Working within the agency's communications hub is Tony Coppoletta, the CTA's manager of external electronic communications. According to Coppoletta, passengers all want the same basic things: they want the buses and trains they ride to be safe, clean and reliable.

When something goes awry, passengers tend to suffer from "moments of anxiety," Coppoletta said. And things do go awry, often due to factors that are beyond the agency's control. When something happens — especially when it results in a service delay — it is vitally important to let passengers know as quickly as possible, so that they can make alternate plans.

"Once you're on the platform and a delay occurs, of course that's going to affect you," Coppoletta said. "But if you're on your way to the train … if you know that something's going on that's affecting your route, you may have many other options with a system that's as robust and complex as ours."

The agency employs numerous methods to communicate such vital information, including message boards at train stations and bus depots. Meanwhile, a recently redesigned and upgraded website — "It's no longer a sea of text," Coppoletta said — provides additional information, such as schedule interruptions and route adjustments, in addition to a trip-planning function.

To communicate more quickly with patrons, the CTA worked with website developer AmericanEagle.com to create a template-driven platform that makes it easier and faster for staff to automatically disseminate news when it happens. The template is the key, Coppoletta said.

"It cut down on the wordsmithing," he said. "Ninety-nine percent of service disruptions are caused by things we're familiar with."

He added that sometimes knowing why something happened is as important as knowing what happened, because the former might help a rider decide what to do next. For instance, let's say that a train unexpectedly has stopped.

"Our customers know that a medical emergency may take some time," Coppoletta said. "But it might only take five minutes for a train that just needs a little troubleshooting to get moving again."

As good as the new website was in terms of communicating with riders, the CTA believed that it could do better. It included Twitter functionality into the website, which let the agency launch a social-media strategy about year ago that placed Twitter at the center. (Visit CTA's Twitter account.)

"We looked at a lot of services, and Twitter seemed to be the one where there was the greatest potential for people paying attention on a day-to-day basis and being able to take quick snippets of information and make snap decisions based on that information," Coppoletta said.

The CTA has used Twitter to survey riders about the types of information that they want to receive. It also has used the platform to post historical photos culled from the agency's archives.

"We're trying to show people who we are and what we do, in order to help the public understand what goes into running a system of this size," Coppoletta said.

But the most important use of Twitter is to use it to let people know when a major event occurs that will disrupt the agency's operations. One such event occurred a little more than a year ago in the Uptown neighborhood, which is serviced by the Red line, Chicago's busiest rapid-transit line. A man barricaded himself in a nearby apartment, and it was reported that he was wielding a machete; police feared that he might also have a firearm. As a result of the standoff, Chicago police asked the CTA to prevent trains from stopping at the station in closest proximity.

"This ended up being a really major incident," Coppoletta said, because it occurred just as the evening rush was beginning. "This was going to affect tens of thousands of people," he said.

During the crisis, the agency turned to Twitter to provide updates and to offer alternative-route suggestions.

"We used this as sort of a broadcast service to cover as many people as we could," Coppoletta said. "We sympathized with them — the person who's [receiving those tweets] just wants to get home for dinner, and we want to help them get home for dinner."

A year after the social-media initiative commenced, the CTA is pleased with the results and thinks it can do better. "We're still learning," Coppoletta said.

However, he cautioned that social media isn't a replacement for the agency's customer-service department, which deals with bigger-picture matters, such as complaints regarding employee performance or erroneous charges on the payment cards used by riders to board trains and buses.

"We want to give people personalized help that exceeds 140 characters," he said.

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Insights from Donny Jackson concerning the most important news, trends and issues.


Donny Jackson

Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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