Tracking Metro’s tweets, or, around the learning curve

The Washington DC Metrorail’s system has been on Twitter since March, according to a recent Washington Post story.  As the article points out, the tweets (mainly aimed at riders of the subway system) haven’t completely mastered Twitter’s 140-character limit:

  • Back to Plan A, then.No Line: Beginning this evening at 9:30 pm, Red line trains will not operate between Brookland, Fort Totten, and Takoma stations while Metro
  • Blue Line: Due to scheduled track maintenance there is no Blue line train service between Rosslyn & King Street. Shuttle bus service is est
  • Red Line: Due to track circuit repairs at Fort Totten, every other Red Line train will offload at New York Avenue station. Customers are en
  • No Line: Every evening during the month of August, Red Line trains will share one track, starting at 9:30 p.m., between Fort Totten and Tako

As the article notes, this pattern has inspired complete-the-tweet contests at the Unsuck DC Metro blog.

Metro hasn’t asked for my in-depth analysis, and I don’t have a lot of data to go on.  I do see some areas worth investigating, though:

What’s the point? I think it’s a great idea for a transit system to get instant updates to interested passengers — but is that what Metro wants to do?  And if so, does it also want to hear back from them?  Maybe the answer’s “yes, but not through this account.”  That’s okay, too.  My real point is that you first figure out what you want to accomplish, then choose the tool(s) that will do the job.  I can imagine a little family of Twitter IDs:

  • metroupdate for, well, updates from Metro
  • metrotalk for sending messages to (and getting them from) Metro; this ID would monitor all the messages sent to metroupdate
  • line-specific IDs (the Metro system has color-coded routes: the Red Line, the Orange Line, and so on).  Ironically, I found MetroTweet, an unofficial service that converts Metro’s email alerts into line-specific tweet streams.

Who’s tweeting? Is this a regular assignment?  Something for Colleen to do along with her “real” job?  Or is it a communications Post-It that gets handed to anyone in the office with a little spare time?  Which leads to a related question:

Has the tweeter seen the tweets? Like someone with a bad phone connection, he might assume that since he knows what he meant, so does everyone else.

Who’s following? Commuters tend to have strong opinions about the level of service, and often many ideas about how to improve it.  Is Metro making any use of that source?

I also detect a certain inertia in the text of the message.  Stock phrases troop through the stream like clichés in a sports interview.  Let’s try fixing a few:

  • Orange Line: Trains are sharing the same track between Vienna/Fairfax-GMU and West Falls Church due to scheduled track maintenance. Expect d (140 chars)
    • Orange: single track between Vienna & W Falls Church (track maint).  Delay likely both dirs.  (92 chars)
  • Red Line: Trains are moving at reduced speeds between Fort Totten and Takoma stations due to track circuit repairs. Expect delays in both di (140)
    • Red: reduced speed both dirs bet Ft Totten & Takoma (circuit repair).  (70)
      Maybe it’s the English teacher in me; I figure if you’ve reduced speed, I’m going to be delayed.

It’s too easy a target to go after the bureaucratic passive voice (“bus service is established”), and you probably can’t completely avoid the local-politics burden of multi-name Metro stations (Archives-Navy Memorial-Penn Quarter is one place, not three).

I’m also thinking about the feedback Metro must be getting on this, some of it likely sarcastic, impatient, or both.  Which brings up another performance challenge: there isn’t a lot of time for that learning curve.  At least not once the act goes on the road (or the rail).

I think Metro’s experience is a good example that “training” isn’t going to automatically fix things, though after the Post article I’m sure board members will call for that.  A little pilot testing could have paid off, and a performance-improvement approach certainly will.

“Plan B” image adapted from a CC-licensed photo by petrr.

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