TWITTER GRITTER: Case study: Gritting and social media.

Tyre tracks in the snow. Pic by lovestruck from Flickr.
Tyre tracks in the snow. Pic by lovestruck from Flickr.

It’s 3am, freezing and snow is about to fall.

Within an hour roads will be covered with a snow blanket children will squeal at and commuters will swear at.

It’s a race against time. And a time when the myth ‘all local government clocks off at 5 o’clock’ is tucked up along with everyone else.

If roads are not gritted there will be rush hour chaos, anger and hell to pay. Just ask the councils who look after Reading and Basingstoke.

Gritting is one of 800 often unseen vital local government jobs.

So as local government isn’t it a good idea to use social media to let people know what we are doing?

Or in other words, it’s not enough to do the job and hope residents pick up on what you are doing. That’s trickledown public relations. It doesn’t work.

What is increasingly important is doing the job and letting people know you are doing a job.

Gritting is a perfect way to marry an important service with social media.

It’s fast, immediate and talks to the resident direct. No need to wait for the evening paper to come out and people – hopefully – turning to halfway down page 16 to read what you are doing.

At Walsall, in the winter period we decided to tweet gritting information. In winter time gritting is becoming – like school closures and the cancellation of markets and events – important to communicate by social media.

At Walsall, in the winter period we decided to tweet gritting information. That was on top of schools closures, household waste and which schools are open.

There is a winter service plan at Walsall. It’s a 49-page document that sets out the 16 gritting routes covering more than 250 miles of road – that’s 50.1 per cent of the network.

A duty engineer checks weather data and assesses the risk of freezing temperatures. It’s down to them to make the call to order the fleet out.

Why? We already had a twitter feed @walsallcouncil with 1,000 followers. As the result of regular press queries we had good relations with the transport officers responsible for it. It was a small step to actually tweeting the info.

How? Engineers were primed to email when they made the decision to order out the gritting teams. Press officers are equipped with Blackberries and are able to pick up the email and use Twitter.

When? FHow? Engineers were primed to email when they made the decision to order out the gritting teams. Press officers are equipped with Blackberries and are able to pick up the email and use Twitter.
When? From December 28 2009 to January 8 2010 we tweeted 71 times. We’d warn we were going out. We’d also link to advice on our website and issue urgent advice. There was a spate of thefts from the 175 grit bins, for example. Two incidents were reported to West Midlands Police. That was tweeted too. We also retweeted relevant @wmpolice advice and @metoffice updates.

Here’s some examples:

Grit update – Careful on the roads tonight. We’re gritting at 10pm after a sharp fall in temperature.

Grit update – We’re out. You’ll not be suprised to know. Take it steady on the roads. We’ll be monitoring the weather through the night.

Thanks @richjohnstone_. Heard back from a gritting team in Pheasey. A trip through the night is highly likely.

How was it received? Very well. There were two negative comments about what we were doing. But overall, there was a heck of a lot more positive feedback. We even had a couple of positive blog comments.

Spotted a @walsallcouncil gritter in the Crescent, Walsall! Good work guys.

@WalsallCouncil How about gritting upper station street? Lots of pedestrians walk up it from the station into town centre. Very slippy today.

We also responded to incidents in almost real time. A burst water main was flagged up as an ice hazard at a busy junction. We called engineers who were able to send out an emergency gritter as part of rounds…

@WalsallCouncil looks like a water main has burst – leighswood ave / middlemore lane WS9 – traffic lights being set up – traffic chaos

We responded…

Thanks @stevieboy378. The Leighswood Ave / Middlemore Lane water leak has been added to the duty gritters’ list.

We got some positive, real time response. Forwarded to the team on the ground it was a boost to the drivers.

@WalsallCouncil thanks . . . best of luck to your guys – its damn cold out there . . . .

We also backed up the Twitter activity with a short film shot on a Flip camera and posted to YouTube.

We supported this with a press release to local media and trade press.

HOW OTHERS HAVE TACKLED IT…

The Walsall Council approach was by no means unique. There have been several other councils looking at gritting and social media.

In Warwickshire, a  gritter was fitted so that it could send out geotagged tweets on it’s route. It’s a great idea in principle. But I do reckon @warwickwinter will need a few tweaks. Or is four or five tweets a minute okay if you lived in the area?

The hugely talented @pezholio took a look at the Warwick approach and drew up a test geotagged map. It’s a fantastic idea that could realy work. You can see a map of where the gritter has been and at what time. It would solve at a stroke the argument from an angry resident that swears blind his road hasn’t been visited.

Kirklees Council has also some good things with @kirkleeswinter 

Essex Council have also been tweeting gritting through their mainstream Twitter account. As this is something that has a 700+ following it makes sense to inform as many people as possible.  Camden Council have also kept up a good output with snow updates through their central Twitter feed.

Also, big up Sutton Council who have provided a map of grit bins. However, with thefts taking place across the country of grit – and the bins themselves – would this escalate problems with crime?

ELEVEN THINGS TO BEAR IN MIND

1. GET PLUGGED INTO YOUR ENGINEERS – arrrange with your engineers to let you know when they’re gritting, find out what the standard questions are and find out what the answers are – or who can tell you them.

2. MONITOR TWITTER – Have someone monitoring who can use the corporate Twitter. Tweet out-of-hours. Explode a few myths.

3. CONVERSATIONAL – Be conversational. On-the-spot tweets are a good way to use Twitter and to turn around important inform

4. YES, YOU WILL GET FLAK – People will accuse you of not gritting. Even when you have. They’ll also want their side street gritted when you don’t do side streets. You’ll need to have a form of words ready. Bear in mind that social media is another form of communication. Those conversations you’ll have over the phone you’ll also have via Twitter. With this stuff you can be part of the conversation that is already taking place.

5. PASS IT ON – Even if you have an answer to the tweet cut, paste and pass it onto the engineers.

6. TELL PEOPLE ABOUT IT – Make a log of your activity and pass it on internally. Don’t keep it t yourself. Create a Slideshare for your power point.

7. RESPOND TO @REPLIES – Where you can, try and respond. Even if it’s just to say ‘Thanks for your tweet. We’ll pass it on.’ People don’t expect a detailed answer within seconds. An acknowledgement is only what you do off-line. But if you can act, then respond quick.

8. YOUTUBE. A film of gritters shot on a Flip video camera is cheap and effective.
9. THINK PICTURES – Tweet pics of what you are doing. Add to the community’s Flickr group pool with your shots of council staff in action.
10. EXPLAIN, LISTEN, PROMOTE – It’s clear that everyone in your organisation won’t be an advocate of social media. Even if the person at the top ‘gets it’ you need to be aware that you may have to re-sell to managers. Possibly at times of great stress and pressure. Be patient.

11. THINK GEOTAGGING – Technology exists to geotag vehicles. It’s a small step to produce a googlemap where people can go to se when and where their street has been treated. Talk to engineers and you’ll find that hours are spent insisting to residents that yes, their street has been gritted. Wouldn’t it be simpler to let people log on if the technology already exists?

LINKS

Sarah Lay’s blog on Christmas social media activity. http://bit.ly/5AGZSG

Snow disruption: Shouldn’t we be using the internet more? By @johnpopham http://wp.me/ppLRZ-2I

An argument why #socialmedia in snow is vital for #localgov. Top piece by the excellent @timhobbs http://ow.ly/UdPB


11 Comments on “TWITTER GRITTER: Case study: Gritting and social media.”

  1. Dan – this is a great piece – thanks! Good advice in here. We (Socitm) are doing a mini-survey of how councils are handling communication of disruption to services via the corporate website and social media. Will keep you informed as to the results…

    We’re asking councils to share their experiences in the Web Improvement and Usage Community at http://www.communities.idea.gov.uk/c/1212756/forum/thread.do?id=3028897
    I’ll put a link in to your blog post.

    Have you seen an increase in the number of followers on Twitter and an increase in web traffic during the snow?

  2. James says:

    Another great article Dan – I’m so pleased that Walsall has such a switched-on forward thinking press officer and although I now live just across the border in Wolverhampton, I take a lot of enjoyment/pride in seeing how you’re doing things in my home town!

    The @WolvesWinter Twitter account works the same as the Warwick one and is a great idea, although it’s a little annoying as it tweets a lot and often. It would perhaps be more useful if it tweeted gritting summaries, such as which roads had been gritted in a certain postal code, or of there were multiple accounts – one for each postcode.

    As a social media geek and a parent I’m hoping that more schools will use Twitter and Facebook in order to inform parents of snow closures etc. This seems a much more sensible way than everyone trying to find a working radio in the house and tuning into the local radio station. I check my email & tweets in bed before doing anything else in the morning, so this method would certainly suit me. But maybe I’m too geeky!?

    • danslee says:

      Thanks Helen.

      And thanks for the reminder of the Communities of Practice website. A great resource for local government. Really interesting to see what others are using it for.

      Cheers James.

      To be fair, it’s not just me that’s switched on. If my boss and his boss wasn’t forward thinking too then we’d be doing none of this.

      With your hyperlocal blog wv11.co.uk doing brilliant things and so much else happening it’s amazing to see how things are developing in our end of the West Midlands.

      As far as radio is concerned, it does seem a bit 1960s. But let’s not kid ourselves. For the minute they have the figures but I guess the point is that it’s no longer about only having one game in town.

      Once, this was a note on the school gates. In 2010, that’s just not good enough and local government needs to spot this and up it’s game where needed.

      Dan

  3. Tom says:

    Intelligent, thoughtful analysis, as ever Dan. Thanks for this.

  4. Donato says:

    Good common sense stuff Dan, well done!

  5. [...] Walsall used twitter to update the public when the trucks where going out and members of the public where suggestion ideas of where the gritting needed to go, especially after a water main burst in the early hours of the morning. Check out Dan Slee’s blog Twitter Gritter [...]

  6. [...] in Eden include releasing information on where gritting lorries are / or have been, on the model of how Walsall Council did it last winter, this is not “nice to know” information, it can be vital in a rural area for people to get [...]

  7. [...] by using the various tools that are available. The perception of the council from great things like Twitter Gritter by Dan Slee of Walsall Council,  is easily undone by actions of ill-informed elected members in [...]

  8. [...] Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council reckon they saved £8,000 last winter simply by having a winter news facebook page and using twitter. In 2009 they didn’t, in 2010 they did. In 2010 they got 50% fewer calls than in 2009 and LOTS of people got their news through the social media channels. For more examples of good social media use by Councils last winter check out this post by the mighty Dan Slee. [...]

  9. [...] others – boldly decided to use Twitter to tell people they were going out. I wrote about it here in early [...]

  10. […] Twitter Gritter: Gritting and Social Media – A post about the idea of when local government goes out and does something that it tells people. What a fine idea is that? […]


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