A Virtuous Cycle

Susan M. Grant-Muller and Ayelet Gal-Tzur discuss the role of social media in the service of transport authorities where quantity is the basis for quality.

The use of social media by transport authorities and by transport operators as a way of communicating with the traveling public is already a daily reality.  However this raises the question of how those involved in the transport sector can encourage the public to offer more voluntary comments, feedback and engagement in improving transport services via social media. In other words, how can the social media asset be used to the maximum potential by the transport sector.

Probably the most common social media applications that transport authorities and operators use to communicate with travellers are Facebook and Twitter.  Out of the seven categories of social media defined by Sterne (ie Forums and Messages Boards, Review and Opinion Sites, Social Networks, Blogging, Micro Blogging, Bookmarking and Media Sharing), Facebook belongs to the Social Networks category whilst Twitter belongs in the Micro Blogging section.

The widespread use of these two types of social media is supported by the findings of a survey conducted in 2012 by Bregman (Uses of Social Media in Public Transportation, TCRP SYNTHESIS 99).  Bregman’s survey of 34 transport providers known to use one or more social media platforms in the United States and Canada also revealed that the vast majority of social media activity by transport agencies concerned information dissemination.  In particular, the sharing of news and service alerts was found to be the most common type of activity.

As important as these two activities are, they are not maximizing the potential of social media as a means for two-way communication between the transport sector and its customers, ie the travelling public.  There is enormous potential to use the transport- related information captured by applications such as Facebook and Twitter that has been posted by the travelling public. This can act as a rich source of information concerning experiences and opinions that would traditionally be collected through other means (such as surveys) but which would require substantive resources.   This is not to say that traditional surveys have lost their role in transport decision-making, but rather to regard social media as a new and unique source of complementary information.
The willingness of the public to provide transport-related content through social media means has already been demonstrated through an exploratory study focusing on transport-related Twitter messages regarding transport services to and from Liverpool Football Club matches (Gal-Tzur, Grant-Muller, Minkov, Nocera, The Impact of Social Media Usage on Transport Policy: Issues, Challenges and Recommendations, forthcoming in Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences).  This study showed that travelers voluntarily post a vast amount of messages regarding their traveling needs, transport-related events they encounter (traffic jams, over-crowded trains and so on) and opinions regarding the quality of service of public transport.

However, a number of challenges remain in order to transform textual messages written by the users of the transport system into concrete, reliable and useful input for decision-making processes.  Techniques developed in text mining within other sectors (such as the semi-automated annotation of messages to categorize them by topic) are being gradually adapted for transport sector purposes.  These techniques are the key for processing massive amounts of textual information without the need for unreasonable amounts of human effort.

One of the key factors in the ability to further explore this potential and move from the research phase to the deployment phase is leveraging a high volume of user-generated transport relevant content.  The larger the corpus of messages written by the travelling public is, the higher the chances of identifying common needs and common preferences between clusters of travelers.

The inevitable question is what actions transport authorities can take to increase the size of this corpus.  The most accessible and straightforward source of information is the social media accounts of the authority itself.  Increasing the volume of messages posted within these accounts should therefore be the primary target of an authority wishing to exercise a fruitful bi-directional communication with the public.  The most basic, yet effective measure to do so is to reply to users’ messages.  The one-to-one reply that takes place in the context of traditional written communication (letters between the public and the authority) doesn’t necessarily apply in the social media context.  For example, several messages addressing a similar topic can be answered by a single post by the authority.

A virtuous cycle 2

21st Century transport agencies and authorities can leverage a high volume of user-generated transport-relevant content

Nevertheless, responding to messages posted by the public is only the most apparent means to maintain an active exchange of information with the citizens.  Another means to encourage the public to post messages is to incorporate “fun” activities into the social media sites. Such activities attract people to enter the account and whilst already logged in, to take a short further step in posting a message.  Such measures can span from simple features like incorporating fun videos into the sites (created by the authority itself or contributed by the public) to more sophisticated means of transport-related games.  Serious games – meaning games designed for purposes beyond sheer entertainment – is an emerging trend in many areas.  Such games can serve to provide transport related ‘education’ and at the same time attract users to repeatedly enter the social media account.  Contests within the social media account can also be a useful in attracting the public to be active through social media.

One example of the use of a contest by a transport authority, described in Bregmans’ report, is the one initiated by the South Coast British Columbia, known as TransLink.  The agency began to use Facebook as a way to generate interest in the agency’s new fare card by holding a contest for a new name. Encouraging people to post attractive or amusing images and vote for the best image is a means already used by various bodies as an incentive to engage, and this could easily be adopted by transport authorities.

Rewards can also be innovative and cost effective, for example using “fame” by publicizing the contributor of the winning image may be an effective motivator.

The dedicated social media accounts of the transport agency are only one source of relevant information on users’ needs and preferences.  The second source is social media accounts handled by related bodies.  Accounts of transport operators and transport-related NGOs in the vicinity of the transport authority are also likely to provide relevant and valuable information.

As the essence of social media is a means of voluntary cooperation between people for the good of all individuals engaged in this arena, it would only be natural to expand this concept to the cooperation between bodies for the common good.  One of the first measures that can be taken by authorities is to become “social” with other transport-related organizations.   Transport operators and transport-related NGOs who already use dedicated social media accounts to communicate with the public, are the most apparent candidates for such cooperation.   Combining the transport related content held in separate social media accounts of the various bodies into one corpus will readily result in a broader and more solid foundation from which to analyse user’s perceptions of the transport system and of the quality of transport services.

The idea of cooperation with other key partners to promote transport policy goals has already been applied in other areas of transport.  For example, as part of the SUNSET EU project, key partners were identified to promote the use of the Tripzoom journey planner aimed at encouraging the use of sustainable transport modes.  Finding the grounds for a win-win cooperation is the key for a successful long lasting collaboration between these partners.  Ensuring the benefits for each key partner, whether a transport operator or an NGO organization, is a process based on the understanding of the goals and concerns of each.

The key message is that where both parties gain by engaging more via social media – whether they are members of travelling public, transport authorities or other third parties – social media use enters a virtuous cycle and the potential of this modern asset is more fully realized.


Susan M. Grant-Muller is Senior Lecturer at the Institute for Transport Studies, University of Leeds, UK
Email: S.M.Grant-Muller@its.leeds.ac.uk
Web: www.its.leeds.ac.uk

Ayelet Gal-Tzur is Head of Traffic Management Research at   Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, Israel
Email: galtzur@cv.technion.ac.il
Web: www.technion.ac.il