TRUE GRIT: A localgov winter social media case study

Every mile is two in winter, the Elizabethan poet George Herbert wisely said.

True words then and true today and he never had to drive a Vauxhall Astra on the M6 in minus five degree weather.

In local government its worth going the extra mile in wintry weather.

Get things right in sub zero weather and you’re laughing.

Get it wrong and you’re not. Just ask the Scottish transport minister who resigned after scathing criticism.

For the past two weeks Walsall Council – the council I work for –  has been using social media as a key way to keep people updated on wintry weather.

It’s not the first time. Last year, we were one of a small number to use social media. We used Twitter to flag up gritting and service disruption.

This time, we expanded a touch. During the icy period of November 26 to December 11 2010 we used the council website, Twitter, Facebook and Flickr.

What did we do this year?

Staff were primed to email the communications unit, members of the team by 8am every day as well as individuals. When the gritters went out the engineers e-mailed and even called to flag up what they were up to.

Council website www.walsall.gov.uk

With new digital channels taking all the attention you’d be forgiven for overlooking your website. Don’t. It’s where a lot of your content can go.

We used one page on the website as a links directory to more than half a dozen potential service areas so people didn’t have to search around the website.

It’s where most people will go first.

Twitter @walsallcouncil

Stats: 2,200 followers (a five per cent rise in two weeks)

261 tweets at almost 19 a day.

Content: Updates on gritting, school closures, service disruption.
Links to council gritting pages, school closure page organised by education provider Serco.

Links to winter shots taken by residents and posted on Twitpic and Flickr.

Links to BBC weather.

Link to the @mappamercia grit map.

Did we RT?: Of course. Social media is supposed to be social. We retweeted the Met Office weather forecasts, neighbouring authority grit updates and advice on

Facebook: Our Walsall fan page

Stats: 345 likes (up 10 per cent in two weeks)

Daily post views up 3,105 or 82 per cent.

Updates: 27

Each status update received between 159 and 783 page impressions.

Content: Three to four updates a day with links to a general page.

Flickr and Twitpic

Stats: 6 pics posted on Flickr and 12 pics crowdsourced and retweeted on Twitter to provide content from residents themselves. Shots varied from the amateur twitpic to the almost professional here.

A set of pics were posted of the gritters in action at a training event in late autumn designed to test out the routes. These were posted to Flickr but the best pics came from residents themselves. In the spirit of web 2.0 we posted links to good shots.

One pic was crowdsourced for the council website header shot.

Content: snowy scenes taken by residents as well as shots of gritters posted by the press office.

Open data

It’s one of the great jobs of this winter to see a mapping project really take off in Walsall. The Mappa Mercia group are people I’ce blogged about previously. Last winter they drew-up a grit map on open street map for Birmingham. You can take a look here. They spotted the grit routes for Walsall and Solihull too and quietly added them. So, when winter came we were quite happy to link to their map. It shows residents spotting a need and doing it themselves.

Content: grit routes.

EIGHT things we’d suggest:

  • Get service areas to tell you what they are doing.
  • Communicate to residents in good time.
  • Monitor, respond and communicate every four hours. Have a rota to do this.
  • Put the same message across different channels. But in the language of the platform. Don’t RSS it across everything. It won’t work.
  • You can crowdsource good picture content.
  • Have an idea what the frequently asked questions are and think about the answers before you are asked.
  • Take a screen shot of the positive and negative comments from Facebook and Twitter. It gives the service areas an idea of what is being said if you email it to them. The positive stuff will go down very well and make them more supportive of what you are doing.
  • You can reply to negative comments. But if people swear or are sarcastic think twice. You may not have a constructive conversation.

ICE INNOVATION: Ten case studies and ideas to innovate in the winter

Oh, the weather outside is frightful but the idea of doing cool things is always delightful.

Last year, the idea of tweeting when your gritters was going out was revolutionary.

Around half a dozen councils were leftfield enough to do it and the idea spread.

Public sector web standards organisation SOCITM picked up on it making it mainstream with their report for subscribers.

Is that enough?

Can we stand still now?

The fact is local government needs to innovate like never before.

Someone famous once said when you innovate, you’ve got to be prepared for everyone telling you you’re nuts.

So, where’s the innovation this year? Here’s some ideas and pointers on how straight forward they are…

1. MAP YOUR GRIT ROUTES

In the West Midlands, there’s some amazing innovation from mapping geeks.

Bright people from Mappa Mercia including the excellent Andy Mabbett last year built a grit map on Open Street Map to show grit routes in Birmingham. They dug out the routes from pdfs on the council website.

Now, they’re adding Solihull and Walsall too ready for the winter onslaught.


Birmingham City Council have linked to it from their transport pages and we at Walsall Council are tweeting it when the weather gets bad.

That’s a good example of working with a talented and community-minded online community.

Advantage: Community engagement.

Disadvantage: You need mapping geeks to be grit geeks too.

2. TWITTER GRITTER

Everytime you go out you tweet the fact. If you’re not doing it you should. It’s not enough to provide a service at 2am. You need to tell people. Why? Because they won’t know your council tax is being spent in such a way and they may well ring your harrassed staff at a time when they are thinly stretched.

It’s something I blogged about last year with a case study mapping more than 70 tweets.

Advantage: Community engagement. Cuts down unneccesary contact.

Disadvantage: You’ll need some kind of rota or it’ll all fall on one person’s shoulders.

3. YOUTUBE

A short clip to explain what the gritting service is all about. Shot on a Flip video It’s a good way of communicating what is being done.

Embedding the video in the service’s pages should be straight forward. Linking to YouTube and posting via Twitter and Facebook is easy. Tweet the link when you’re team are hitting the road

Advantage: Creates blog-friendly web 2.0 video content.

Disadvantage: You need a Flip video. The process isn’t instant.

4. MAP GRIT BIN LOCATIONS

Publish grit routes as open data? Why not.

But beware the perils of derived data that quicksand argument that means anything based on Ordnance Survey is mired in dispute.

Advantage: Publishing open data increases transparency

Disadvantages: It can’t be based on OS maps.

5 FACEBOOK

As local government Facebook sites mature and grow there’s more reason to post grit updates there too.

Drawbacks? Not all phones will allow you to post to fan pages and you may have to log on at a PC or a laptop.

Advantage: You reach the massive Facebook demographic.

Disadvantage: Your Facebook fanpage is harder to update than a profile.

6. LIVE TWEET

A trip around the borough in a gritter with a camera phone geo-tagging your tweets. It works as a one off and builds a direct connection.

At Walsall, we tweeted the testing of the gritters in a dry-run for winter including geotagged shots from the cab itself as it trundled around the streets.

Advantage: A service from a different perspective.

Disadvantage: Labour and time intensive.

7. TEXT AND EMAIL ALERTS

Sometimes we can be so struck by new gadgets that we can forget the platforms your Dad and mother-in-law have.

Simply speaking, there are more mobile phones in the UK than people.

Many councils are charged around 8p a text to issue an SMS. That’s a cost that has to be picked up from somewhere. But using the standard costs per enquiry of around £7 face-to-face and £5 over the phone the 8p charge starts to look viable.

Advantage: You can reach large numbers of people and cut down potentially on unavoidable contact.

Disadvantage: It costs.

8. BIG SOCIETY TWITTER GRITTER

Not every council has the resources to tweet its gritting. In Cumbria, the community of Alsthom high in the dales regularly gets cut off in the snow. Fed-up with the council response the town clubbed together to buy their own gritter.

Community and digital innovator John Popham floated the interesting idea of the community stepping in to tweet gritting activity. In effect, a Big Society Twitter Gritter It’s a fascinating idea, would share the burden and may fill the gap where a council doesn’t have the digital skills or the staff.

Advantage: If there are residents willing it’s a good partnership potentially.

Disadvantage: It’s dependent on volunteer power.

9. QR CODES

What are they? Funny square things that your mobile phone can identify and can download some information about. I don’t pretend to fully understand them and I’m not sure if they’ve reached a tipping point in society just yet. However, Sarah Lay of Derbyshire County Council is looking at adding QR codes to grit bins to allow people to report problems. It’s a fascinating idea that needs looking at.

Advantages: Tech-savvy citizens can use them to pinpoint problems.

Disadvantages: A format that is still finding traction amongst the rest of the population.

10. OPEN DATA

What can you publish as open data? Wrack your brains and consult the winter service plan. There’s grit routes themselves. There’s the amount of grit stockpiled. There’s the amount of grit spread day-by-day.

Advantage: Open data is good for transparency.

Disadvantages: Day-by-day updating could be tricky as engineers are snowed under. If you’ll forgive the pun.

Links:

Creative commons:

Walsall grit pile Dan Slee http://www.flickr.com/photos/danieldslee/5087392858/

Four Seasons bridge http://www.flickr.com/photos/fourseasonsgarden/2340923499/sizes/l/in/photostream/

Twitter gritter Dan Slee http://www.flickr.com/photos/danieldslee/5115786276/

Road m4tik http://www.flickr.com/photos/m4tik/4259599913/sizes/o/in/photostream/