Monday, June 09, 2008

Transit and Social Networking

I've been getting a lot of SMS's from the CalTrain Twitter Feed lately.

There's been a little bit too much information sometimes, I suppose as new posters sign up and try to be a little too helpful. A train being late by < 5 mins is not news, people!

The last couple of days the system seems to be earning its salt, though. There was a fatality around San Antonio on Friday, and the feed was a-twitter reports of delays and the painfully slow process of getting trains running again. I had the good fortune to not be working that day (Accidents seem to happen a lot on my days off. I don't know what this means. Perhaps CalTrain should pay me to keep riding?). This morning the line was snarled by a broken down train in Mountain View (I think they need to hire Thomas to keep this railway moving), and armed with foreknowledge, I W@H'ed in the morning, and rode in to the office without incident on a completely punctual noon train.

So a few musings--can we improve the usefulness of social networking, and perhaps make it more officially sanctioned, and more easily available to non-cogniscenti riders?

Suppose Twitter (or whatever) messages actually showed up on the electronic signs in stations. That'd be cool. Of course, it'd be an open invitation for spam and pranks (and maybe more benign misuse like happy birthday messages and marriage proposals...). Perhaps the system could be made somewhat self-regulating, Yelp-style, if power users could provide "was this message useful to you?" style feedback, and only posts from the most highly rated contributors made it to public signs.

It would take a pretty gutsy transit agency to go for this, because if service sucks, it'd just be giving digruntled passengers a place to vent--"@!#!$ trains are late AGAIN". An agency would be ill-advised to try this unless it was confident that it had its riders respect--which is really that hard to earn, actually, if you just start with a little respect for them! Btw, I've lost track of how to post messages to the CalTrain Twitter feed via the web, I'm never did know how to do it via SMS. There really aren't clear instructions on the feed's homepage. Anyone know?


Fritz said...

Here's another idea: GPS tracking used to send text messages to your phone to tell you arrival times. You send a txt message with information about your transit provider and stop location, and you receive a text back that tells you when the next bus arrives.

Here's another idea -- let the Caltrain dispathers actually post useful information about train delays on the sign boards. The announcements that trains will be "30 minutes to an hour late" or wortheless. We already figured that part out -- I'd like to know what time the next train will arrive and which train it will be, like BART and numerous other transit agencies alredy do.

Ravi said...

Any community based service will have this problem, I think. What doesn't help is how organic the service is. I didn't really think that far ahead with setting up suggested guidelines for updates or formatting. I'm only now getting some important improvements to increase the potential user base which will hopefully help a little.

Re: Nextbus-like updating... I'm not sure how it would help if a train is disabled. Certainly you could alert when it arrives at the stop before yours, but if there is a mechanical problem there is no way to communicate what is going on. In fact I would argue one of the big frustrations for people on the train is not knowing what is going on during a delay. While I would still be frustrated by a delay I would be less so knowing that it is because some idiot decided to jump in front of the train than not knowing anything at all.

Fritz said...

Ravi, your Caltrain Twitter service was wonderful last week. Word got around pretty quickly last week that it was a fatality.

I didn't go into the office today so the Mountain View breakdown didn't impact me. :-)

murphstahoe said...

I'm looking forward to this thing really getting good, I did manage to get the message about the fatality before I passed the Vietnamese quickie mart by Mountain View Caltrain on Friday, and I stocked up for the ride and passed out a few beers on the platform.

Which beats the heck out of what the drivers on 101 got today when the diesel truck jackknifed, even though they could get better updates on traffic on 740, I preferred my beer on the platform.