On Tuesday, I was invited to join a bunch of other London based scribes to have a lunchtime round-table meeting over at Transport for London’s iconic HQ building office round the corner from their iconic HQ building to get some feel from TfL about their communications strategy.

While no deep secrets were revealed to us, the meeting was very informative in getting a general feel from TfL as to how they see their success, or not, in trying to communicate their information to the public, and to get feedback from us lot as to where we think they are going well or badly (our humble opinions mattered!).

The meeting was started off by Richard Parry, TfL’s Head of Strategy, who explained the long term plans for TfL. Nothing surprising as most of the information exists on various locations, but often buried inside 200 page documents, or summarised in two sentences in those free comics you get on the tube each morning.

The key is to find some sort of balance between the two – and it sounds like the company is really giving a lot of thought to how to communicate not just the "its happening now" type alerts, but also the long term strategic vision. It’s a lot easier to tolerate the Victoria Line being shut early every evening if you understand the long term benefits.

One key message was that the disruptions are likely to last for the next decade, as the company has to find ways of working which minimise disruption caused by its massive upgrade program, but also allow for problems occurring and building in necessary contingencies.

This is where improving the communications about disruptions is so important for TfL – and obviously, us Londoners.

I was interested to learn that they have been pulling in focus groups over the past few months and working on improvements to their website based on feedback from actual users – and they showed us the recently revamped travel information page – which incidentally, I hadn’t actually seen yet. They will start a big media push in a week or two to let people know about the new services on there – or more accuratly, let people know about things which already existed but were hard to find.

I get the weekly disruptions email every Wednesday which is quite useful, although I expressed a rather technical issue with the email platform (geek overload) – but was surprised to learn that there is an SMS service which can warn you of any problems on your preferred route home. I was actually involved in bidding for the original contract at my previous employer, but didn’t know it had gone live – nor that they have about 2 million registered users!

Again – the information is there, but not instantly obvious – which was the point of the meeting.

We were able to provide our comments and suggestions as the lunch progressed and there was a lengthy discussion about 3rd party companies (or kids in bedrooms) being able to use TfL information to make up their own services. An example was that you can embed widgets in websites or onto your computer desktop.

I am a fan of "mash-ups" as they are known, where a company provides the information in a generic format (usually XML) and then let people play with it. So long as the data is accurate, does it matter how it is displayed? Also, opening up the platform means that while most of the uses will be frankly, pointless – someone, somewhere will come up with a revolutionary genius of an idea.

At the moment, I get the feeling that TfL are tentatively moving in the right direction – but we have a long wait before they offer open APIs for website developers to play with.

We also had some discussions about the personality (or lack thereof) in TfL communications. As we were bloggers who tend to write in a personalised manner, we like communications to be a little bit more fluid, and an observation was made that TfL has two distinct layers of communicating – HQ and Station. The HQ is very staid and factual, while the station is manned by humans with a wide range of individuality.

Nonetheless, the conversation was an interesting one, and I certainly learnt a lot about the tensions which exist within a large company which needs to be both factual and yet also not faceless.

The general feel I came away with is that TfL has spent a lot of effort recently beefing up the back-end systems so that information can be both factual and deployed rapidly. Now they want to work on improving how that information is delivered to customers.

Sounds like they got it the right way round – too many firms worry about how to communicate without building the back-end systems first so that the information is accurate.

I was also heartened to hear that they are very aware of the potential for mobile phones – not simply for sending SMS alerts but possibly for also mobile train display boards and the like. Something to look forward to, if they can get it working.

No more quickly finishing off a pint in the pub and walking to the station only to find that there are delays – I could have stayed in the pub for another pint and waited for the line to sort itself out ;)

I was joined by M@ from The Londonist, Annie Mole from Going Underground, LondonReconnections, Lloyd at Perfect Path, OnionBag and Darika

Anyhow, thanks to TfL for bringing us in – it was very informative for us and I hope our humble opinions were of use to them (otherwise they’ll never do it again).

To see the newish travel information page – http://www.tfl.gov.uk/tfl/traveltools/

To have a play with their widgets – http://www.tfl.gov.uk/widgets/

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6 Comments

  1. Good summary of the briefing. Thanks for that.
    I’m glad to hear that LU is actively improving their information services.

    Interesting point that you made “…they are very aware of the potential for mobile phones – not simply for sending SMS alerts but possibly for also mobile train display boards and the like. Something to look forward to, if they can get it working.”

    Service utilising this idea is available at http://byunderground.com. It is free to use (contains some light advertisement) and is supported on all major handset manufacturers devices.
    The key differentiator of the Byunderground compared to the other on-line services is its ease of use on various models of mobile devices.
    With a single click on mobile device the visitor will get an overview on the current service status of each line in the underground of London network.
    Line status information is presented in a table that uses colour coding that many commuters in London Underground is familiar with.
    This helps to identify the line and its status quicker and in more easier way than what conventional text-based mobile sites are offering.

    As it is today service offers pretty much the same (but not all!) information that is already available for mobile devices. The difference is that the information is presented in more mobile-friendly manner.
    One feature that only the byunderground.com is offering is to show the duration of the service exception associated with detailed problem report. Not sure how important this is to know but it may encourage you to consider alternative routes if ‘Severe delays’ has only recently been reported on particular line.

    There is also feedback form on the About page which provides the mobile interface to the editorial staff.

    Moderator, sorry for turning this into cold-blooded promotional message. Just thought to share this with people with similar interests who are following your blog.

    Thanks again for excellent blog entry!

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