Transport's becoming more sociable...


Posted on: Jul 10, 2009 by Rob Price

I have been fascinated by the emerging application of social computing to corporate business. Last month I picked up on two examples of concepts in the Transport space that I particularly like.

Firstly I met with Headshift (www.headshift.com), providers of social computing consultancy and solutions. At the end of 2008, they delivered an information sharing site for British Airways transatlantic passengers (www.metrotwin.com) that effectively 'twinned' places, events and things to do between New York and London - a concept extending Amazon's, "ah, you've bought this, so you'll like that" idea and relying on their customers to provide, score and maintain the content.

I like it. It reminds me of the magazine on the National Express East Coast train I catch every day, advertising the delights of York, Darlington, Newcastle and Leeds. I love this train for the simple reason it's got wireless networking available for free. Hundreds of willing online volunteers who could create something similar - commuters flagging the best lunch locations in London, tourists pointing out the best coffee shops or wine bars. I like it. Nice idea.

The second example was the announcement in May by First Capital Connect that they had launched a Twitter service for telling commuters about late trains. It's always important to remember that commuters are happy so long as they know what's happening, and exploiting another channel of automatically pushing personalised information to them makes sense.Of course, to be truly encapsulating the spirit of Web 2.0, the service ought to be extended to collate information posted by their customers too, creating a mash-up of the "approved" and the "public created" content. Surely this would generate additional value, understanding and even empathy amongst the travelling public.

I really like the idea, but also knowing the complexity of real time rail information systems and algorithms, recognise that it isn't necessarily an easy thing to achieve. Importantly though, the real time rail information systems are well established - the information exists - it's simply a question of:

a)      repurposing effectively for the new channel

b)      homing in on the question that the commuter is effectively asking and

c)      determining what aspects of the mash-up are relevant to answer that question.

Further afield, the Highways Authorities in the Netherlands are already utilising similar Web 2.0 solutions to collate information on traffic delays and accidents from the travelling public. It does present an interesting challenge to the traveller though. I remember a study done around 6 years ago that determined approximately 1% of drivers paid attention (ie. believed and changed their behaviour due to) roadside digital displays concerning road conditions or delays ahead. Advances in the spread and currency of information have improved that significantly. What impact could we expect to see through the display of mashed-up traffic information?

It makes me wonder what other information and knowledge there is hidden in the depths of the legacy systems that we and other IT service providers operate. Perhaps Transport Direct (www.transportdirect.info): how might that utilise social computing to extend its boundaries of applicability and usefulness? Again through direct real-time information, again through public maintained useful information, but potentially much more.

What about the setting of the football fixtures, our work at the Olympics, our work in Healthcare, our work in Central Government and interestingly in professional service firms such as the Legal business? Each has vast quantities of information and interaction, and ought to be a fertile ground for social computing adoption, albeit a fertile ground with the odd minefield. I hope that this emerging trend inspires some new thinking across our business and the wider industry to adopt and pilot new social customer services sooner rather than later.

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About Rob Price

COO for Worldline UK&I and member of the Scientific Community
Rob is COO for Worldline UK&I, the European leader in the payment and transactional services industry. He was previously Head of Digital for Atos UK&I, is a member of the Atos Scientific Community and was a founder of the award winning CIO/CTO Atos blog, the predecessor to Ascent. He successfully melds inspiration and creativity with strategic direction and implementation, focusing on driving more efficient and effective exploitation of technology and services to drive positive business outcomes and better connect our clients with their end consumers. The insight gained through both operational delivery roles and strategic Digital evangelist roles ensures that he views the Digital Revolution from multiple perspectives. Find him on twitter @The_Digital_COO

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