A bit more about train information

If you were reading my outpourings a year ago you may remember a distinct preoccupation with train operating information. In the great range of public-facing datasets out there, the ones that offer the very highest utility, in my opinion, are those about real-time and real-world things: a picture of what’s happening right now and in the near future.

Transport information, weather, location, revised opening hours, where things are etc. etc. Sure, there may be treasures to dig out from the big dumps of auditable history in other datasets, but when it comes to actually building things people will find useful, there are some targets which are clearly more promising than others. (It’s probably no coincidence that data about timetables, postcodes, maps, operating information and the like are those which are also the most commercially tangled. Value breeds impediments, it would seem.)

I wrote about the problems of there being different versions of the truth about train operation. I wrote it at a time when ice and snow were crippling normal running. So, unsurprisingly, I’m back to revisit what’s happened since.

My idea a year ago – born of the frustration in inaccurate data systems (one could get a different answer from the web, the train station office, the train platform sign, apps and feedback from other travellers via Twitter, for example) was to rethink the way that trains are tracked and described in times of extreme disruption. I’m talking here about normal running disrupted to the point that existing timetables have become meaningless (and have been abandoned), where all trains are out of their normal positions, and the only meaningful data points that might relate to a particular physical train are its current physical location and its proposed calling points.

The notion of “Where’s my train?” was that if these basic data points were captured at the level of the train and made available as a feed, then in the event of utter chaos you would still be able to see the whereabouts of the next train going where you needed to go (even if you couldn’t do much about making it move with any predictability, or at all). Very much about the “where”, rather than the “when”.

This was a departure from information systems which relied on a forecast of train running (that abandoned timetable) or on a train having passed a particular point (for the monitoring of live running information). If trains had GPS tracking (which I heard they did) and the driver knew where the train would call (I was told this was generally the case) then a quantum of data existed which could drive such a feed.

It didn’t get very far. I talked through the principles with operational staff in two train operating companies: one blockage would be that such extreme disruptions were so rare that the usual situation would arise with regard to contingency planning – just not a common enough occurrence to warrant the development of a specific response. In addition, that certainty of where the train was going didn’t seem that certain, after all. Drivers would punch in their intended stops but right up to and even beyond the point of departure this could change. Better information, intended to give comfort to the stranded, might be replaced with false hope and ultimately do more harm than good. And the nagging thought I’d had originally remained: how much use was it really to know there was a train four miles up the track which was going to your stop, if it was quite possible that the points in between you had no chance of being unfrozen?

So, no more of that for the moment. There’ve been other developments. The live running information now seems to be much more accurate. The release of that and other information, such as timetables, is now a political football – should it remain a commercial asset of the train operators to be resold, and controlled, under licence, or are there greater benefits in releasing it to all who may make use of it?

I’m fairly sure that the data will be freely available eventually. There is some sterling work going on from innovators who are banging on the door of the information holders to make better use of it (all Malcolm’s recent posts make fascinating reading). To my mind there is a big difference between the commercial position of providing a physical service, and the commercialisation of the information that describes and records the performance of that service. But we won’t have reached the end of this story until that information is dependable. And at the moment, it’s not. You can still see differences between web information, feed information via an app, and trackside information. All were different on my line a day or so ago.

Yet the teasing paradox is that there is only one ‘truth’ at a particular point in time about a train’s running, even if it may then vary over time. And sometimes, as I experienced last Tuesday evening in South London, that truth is “we don’t know where this train is going”. In extreme circumstances, when lines are blocked and points jammed, I might have known where my train was (I was sitting in it) but I had as much idea as any of the crew (i.e. none) where it was going.

Distributing and presenting this information is far from being a trivial task. I don’t know the details of the architecture behind train information systems. But I can postulate that there are many different models by which highly volatile information, in thousands of different places, could be brought together, indexed, shared, distributed and so on. And they’re all pretty complicated. Before you blithely say “well, they just need to update a single database”, think what that might mean.

The track record (sorry) of mega-aggregation isn’t great. Without doubt it’s been attempted before in this area. Perhaps linked data mark-ups of distributed information sources hold the answer? I’d be interested on any thoughts on this.

But I’m clear about this:

the sorry position in late 2010 that it is still a matter of detective work and guesswork to find out where a large, highly-tracked piece of public-service equipment is, when it’s coming, and where it’s going, cannot be allowed to continue.

I’m fairly forgiving of physical failures in cases of extreme disruption – there is much real-world complexity that lies behind simple-sounding services. But on information failures? We can, and must, do better.

More lift fun

From the archives: originally written on another platform almost three years ago, but in light of recent discussions on elevatorial matters, revived and blogged here. Enjoy.

There’s these new lifts in Portland House. Well, the lifts aren’t new, but the user interface certainly is. (Some readers will know that I have a bit of a thing about the logical design of the perfect lift – mainly as a result of reading too much Douglas Adams too early in life.)

No call buttons anymore, oh no. This is, according to the literature (more of this later) a “state-of-the-art” system. There’s just a keypad. Laid out just like a telephone keypad. Yes, with the asterisk and hash too. You ignore it, of course. A lift arrives; you’re on the ground floor; you want to go up. Naturally, you try and get into it.

Not so fast! A small facilities management elf appears: “Do you WANT to go to floor 16, sir?”, he leers. “Do you? DO YOU WANT 16, SIR?”. You back away in horror… “Erm, no, I want 27…” “Ah, then you have to press 27 sir, then it will tell you which lift to wait by, and it will take you straight where you want to go?” “What? Straight there – a dedicated lift just for me?” I ask.

A little symbol: -TILT- appears in the elven eyes. He’s not used to being asked questions of any depth beyond: “Where is Victoria Station?” (he doesn’t know).

“But, that lift’s going up, can’t I just take it on from 16 to 27?”…. my words trail away. Because I’ve just seen through the rapidly closing doors the horrible secret of the redesigned lifts. There are no buttons inside. There is a taped-up sign over where I suspect the buttons used to be, saying: THESE LIFTS ARE NEW AND STATE-OF-THE-ART WE HOPE YOU ENJOY THEM. I want to rip it aside to find some buttons to prod. Yes, the anger is starting to rise now. Anger? These are just lifts. What IS going on here?

So I can’t take that lift. I have to shuffle over to the giant steel telephone and dial for help. 2 -tap- 7 -tap-, here we are… it says take lift H. I see Liftshaft H lurking by the door. I wait. A lift arrives. I get in. No one else does. They are busy being harassed by the elf.

Not too bad, I think. The doors close. I’m speeding upwards. But horrible thoughts creep in. What if I wasn’t quite sure if it was 27 or 26 I wanted? What if I’d miskeyed? Would I have to go all the way back down and start again? How would I go back down? Would I have to get out of the lift and press Ground. Sweat breaks out. There is no Ground, no “G”. Just a telephone keypad… Should I press “0”? – seems logical, but why should I have to be guessing what spells to cast in order to perform what constitutes 50% of all person/lift transactions?

And what are the asterisk and hash doing there? What mysterious functions could they unlock? Space travel? A plummeting journey directly down to the Circle Line? I want to bash and punch them repeatedly now to make them offer up something.

I am out of control in a small sealed steel box whirring upwards over Victoria with no means of changing my destiny. Now I really do want to rip off the A4 sheet to see what’s there…

I emerge, at 27. Quite quickly, really. Entering reception, I find a handy little sheet of paper which tells me all about this new lift experience. Gosh: they really have gone to town on this one. Shame I hadn’t seen it before entering the lift lobby in the first place, but then again I didn’t want to read bits of paper then, I wanted to get in a lift. Without elvish deterrence.

What a fabulous work of glossy literature is this: much reference to state-of-the-art and so on. And then I see the fatal flaw. At the precise moment when the designer of this insanity thought the killer blow had been struck in the name of reason, the completely-missing-the-point bit is apparent.

“SchindlerID is a new concept in control technology, which answers the question – ‘what is the simplest most convenient way of transporting a passenger from one floor to another in a building?’ – The first and most obvious answer is to treat the passenger like an individual.”


Normally, people are individuals, true. But not people getting lifts. Not people, grey and miserable from being packed into the 0732 from Purley, aching, shivering, damp and cold. They are not people. They don’t feel like people. They don’t want to be empowered by their lift. They certainly don’t want to be given a job to do. A task to accomplish in a packed lift lobby, pushing through three dozen identical wet blue overcoats to dial a number on some ghastly brushed steel keypad. A task awarded by an elf pushing you away from that nice warm lift, yes, just there, yes, that one you tried to just get into without thinking. Silly you.


They feel like sheep. They feel like asleep sheep. They wanted to be treated like sheep. At the shepherd’s “Ping” they want to shuffle forwards into the first available metal womb and wait, huddled in silent sadness, as they lurch floor-by-floor to their horrible Regus office lives.

Treating them like individuals is: Just. Plain. Wrong. This is utter madness. I’m all for changing the world, but not starting with the lift interface.

A final word from Schindler’s Lifts (and was that a deliberate lisping pun? – how lucky we were to get in that Lift, Rachel!…hmm, possibly…)

“Our work will continue over the next year or so until we have a brand new lift system within Portland House. It will be a system that is one of the most modern in the world but more importantly it will be a system that provides excellent service to the busy people of Portland House.” And then we will take over the world, we will build a new Jerusalem, etc. etc. Tomorrow belongs to us… Nutters.

(By the way, I am very pleased I managed to write this without one fucking expletive.)

AFTERPIECE (three weeks later)

A new note has been pinned up in Portland House:

“Dear Lift User”, I paraphrase, “it’s come to our attention that some of you are not quite playing ball here with our fancy new lift calling/booking system. If you’re in a group, it’s no use just one of you pressing the floor you need, and then you all getting in. That way lies chaos and disorder. Lifts may be overbooked. The system will not be optimized. The seas will boil, and verily the sky may turn to sand. Each and every one of your group must press the button themselves. One at a time. Only then can our destiny be fulfilled and the matching of people to vertically-moving boxes be completed. Please spend more of YOUR time making OUR facilities more efficient.”

Or something like that. Wonderful. But of course I got thinking. Knowledge is Power. With information can come subversion.

So now of course I while away my minutes waiting for the lifts by entering my floor a careful, oh, 20 or 30 times. Thus ensuring my large ‘group’ gets express service all the way to my destination, with no wearisome stops in between. And the chances of having to share with Mr Halitosis from East Dulwich are precisely zero.

Showing a better way

In 2008 the UK government announced a competition for innovative ideas using (and reusing) public information: Show Us A Better Way (or SUABW, hereafter.)

The best of the new ideas would be picked for further development, as would a few existing, part-implemented ideas that showed promise.

At the time I had responsibilities for some of Directgov’s future development areas. Whatever came out of SUABW would have some interest, and possibly impact, for me professionally. There were two ways I could keep track of the competition’s progress – the hard way of remembering to check the blog from time to time, or the rather easier one of sticking in my own entry and getting on the update email list.

Fear not, I disclosed my day job throughout – and in any case I am assured the judging was done ‘blind’. (And I am writing this post firmly with my “external competition participant” hat on.)

To my surprise, a few weeks later I was told my idea was one of the winners. So, what was that idea? You can read the entry here. Prompted by a recent experience planning schooling for my own kids, I sketched it out in about two minutes and fired it in. A very simple concept…

We’ve all heard the estate agent babble. The neighbourhood chat. Oh, that house is just inside X catchment area – makes it worth much more. And would you believe that Y street isn’t, even though you’d think it is, as it’s only just a quick hop across the railway line on that footbridge – but they never think of these things do they?

So where does the horseshit stop and the horsetrading begin? Opening up this rather murky area of public information was the idea I submitted.

Let me elaborate on it a little; and in particular start with what the idea was not.

It was not a proposal for a new burden on schools, first and foremost (or indeed on local authorities). It was not a central government dictat to Do Something Entirely New. It was not an instruction to redefine catchment areas (or even to define them where they didn’t exist). It was not a proposal for a new website, or even for a new application per se.

It was merely a proposal for a centrally-sponsored (‘official’, if you like) map. Or more accurately, map layer, available freely to anyone who wanted to display it, or mash it up with other information to make something even more useful. With the map layer showing three things:

1. Those boundaries that had been declared by a local authority (or a school) as defining a catchment area they were prepared to publicise. Call this the ‘black’ on the map. And make sure it’s indexed with the relevant school(s), of course.

2. Those areas which – because of complex geography, allocation policy, local political decision (or any combination) of these – had no meaningful catchment area. Call this the ‘grey’ area. (I used the term ‘fuzzy-edges’ in my submission, in the rather optimistic hope that we’d end up using it to describe the difficult bits between the black areas.)

3. Leaving the ‘white’ zone: those areas where because of uncertainty, disempowerment, stubbornness or good old “lack of resources” – your schools and education authorities weren’t able or prepared to tell you either way.

See the trick there? This didn’t need to be a comprehensive information collection exercise. Right from the outset there would be benefits in seeing the bare facts of where information existed and where it didn’t. My take on the phrase “Power of Information”, if you like. And especially the power of “no information”.

It might be that, pushed hard enough by an engaged public and press, we’d end up with an entirely grey map of the UK. Fine. At least we’d have laid to rest some of the catchment mythology. But I knew that at least some areas were already publicly declared – here’s one example – so we’d definitely have some black areas on the map.

What wouldn’t be acceptable would be the white. Those yawning blank spaces that tell us that no one is prepared to say either that they do or do not operate the concept of a “catchment area”. Here, if there really is no authority prepared to make that commitment, we should be very concerned. And we should all be able to see the way things stand, plainly and publicly.

It’s not a resource-free idea, of course. Tracking down and supplying boundary data (or handling the management discussions that might be required to declare a ‘difficult’ position) would all take time. And therefore money. But it was an idea whose initial implementation could be very cheap – and then improve over time, with some official support, as its coverage became wider.

What happened?

The idea was well-received. I will let the judges speak for themselves if they want to comment here, but broadly I believe they thought: “mapping of catchment areas is a jolly good idea – lots of people would find that useful – let’s have it as one of the (half a dozen) winners”.

I had relatively little involvement in things from here on – fair enough – my role was to contribute the idea, but I did see that the very first fence – the re-presentation of those ‘black’ areas – wasn’t going to be jumped. Why on earth not? See our old friend, the derived data issue, for more on that. There are great complexities in the licensing required to reuse information on third-party mapping platforms if it has been based on information sourced from Ordnance Survey maps. Which in practical terms means pretty much all geographical data held by local authorities.

Instead, a tool was devised by which schools could (and I put a lot of weight on this word ‘could’) map their own catchment boundaries [if they chose], adding them to a map layer which could then be freely shared and used, etc. etc. The reuse of existing data wasn’t going to be attempted.

But that’s not the real reason why the idea died.

For that we have to look at the vexatious issue of how to follow-through service innovation in government. And the key word there is services. Ideas and services aren’t the same thing. An idea is something that can be hatched (or crowdsourced) centrally; but the centre isn’t the place from which services are actually operated and sustained. For that you need to engage the parts of government that look after the relevant service. For good, or bad, they are the ones in whose gift the implementation of ideas actually lies.

The team running SUABW did their absolute level best to run the competition and develop the ideas within the constraints they faced. But in moving the idea (as they inevitably had to) to the front-line, schools – under the oversight of another government department – the idea stopped being an innovation, and became a task.

I’d love to hear from that department about where they’ve got to with it, incidentally. I suspect it has joined a very long queue of higher service priorities. It is no longer an innovative idea, no longer part of a competition – just another candidate for limited resources. That’s reality. (If I’m wrong, and the idea is well on its way to being delivered, I will eat a suitably large chunk of humblecake.)

And as far as I’m aware, the fundamental problem with innovation in public services is this confusion between what constitutes ideas, and what constitutes service implementation. And why I’ve come up with some alternative approaches to crack the innovation problem; more on this later.

And why people so often misunderstand the difference between good ideas and things that actually work. For that you need to build bridges, and remove roadblocks – a metaphor which will be the subject of my next post.

Where’s my train: update 13 Jan

Funny how the return of the snow brings back interest in this topic. And worrying how easily it gets dropped from view the rest of the time.

To recap: wheresmytrain focuses on one particular type of information:

the dataset describing where trains in operation are, precisely, and where they are planning to stop

– with the objective of making that information freely available for reuse.

It’s not about timetables, nor passenger information, nor fares – well, not yet anyway.

As Christopher Osborne has wisely pointed out, to make a comprehensive train information system requires a whole lot more than this. Are the trains full? How many carriages do they have? Are they running a shorter service than normal? Are the platforms busy? Do the platform lifts work at the station? And so on and so forth.

All highly valid questions, and the subject of a far more comprehensive exercise than this one.

Traditional public information programmes (and I’ve worked on plenty of those) undertaken detailed requirement gathering, and gather additional functions, stakeholders (forgive me for that word) and complications like so much moss. And often they bog down in the mud, and don’t actually deliver anything close to their original aspirations.

Which led me to think that there might be a better approach in this case. To keep scope ridiculously small – to a single line, in fact. An approach which wholly disregards much of the existing information infrastructure. That infrastructure seems to be bound up with innumerable contracts, rules and obligations to say nothing of the actual technical complexity of exchanged and aggregated datasets.

Hence the focus just on this one aspect of rail operations. I’ve done some asking around, from industry experts, to developers with track record in this area, to train staff themselves. One conclusion emerges again and again: in times of extreme disruption, the most accurate source of information on a particular service is to be found on the train itself – driven by the onboard GPS and the stopping station information input by the driver. (I accept that may not be true for every operator, but I welcome the conversation with more of them.)

I want this to be freely available for reuse. In fact I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t. They are our trains. Their positions and plans are no type of secret.

Once available – well, you probably know the rest – innovative use is made of the information. Scenario: you may not know (or care) what the late-running, reinstated 0805 to East Grinstead may be called now, but you do know that it is, right now, 3.2 miles up the track, stopping at your station, and your destination. And though prediction may break down, at least you can track its painful progress in real-time. You get the idea.

You never know, the train operators may even start using it to drive those hopelessly inaccurate platform signs we’ve all seen recently. I’m sure there are countless projects going on within the rail industry to do this sort of thing better. I really am. But, with something of a smile, I believe that the heavyweight information projects have failed to deliver to public expectation, and will continue to do so, run as they are.

Train and infrastructure operators lost the right to hang onto this information internally at the point at which they fed inaccurate information through their existing systems, to their passengers.

Even if such a feed does become available there will still be problems, of course. As soon as more than one organisation (and sometimes division) have to work together, disjoints happen. Where infrastructure is shared – problems. When decisions such as re-routing are made (and unmade) at very short notice – problems. No system on earth will keep up with every in-service failure, or last-minute crewing difficulty.

But, by keeping it simple, we can make things a hell of a lot better than they are now. If you want to help (in the next phase, by contacting and chasing up TOCs for more operational information and open discussion of the issues as they see them – ammunition supplied!) do get in touch.

Where’s my train?

What next?

So, a challenge is laid:

I assert that train operators know where their assets are: it would be irresponsible if they didn’t. And that this information is held within their internal systems.

Wheresmytrain has one objective: making this information openly available so that:

a) there is a definitive, raw source of real-time information available (rather than the current confused mixture of messages); and

b) others may reuse it in ways which may be better than those which train and infrastructure operators have achieved to date

What’s needed in such a feed?this is very much a first stab – please contribute to the specification by commenting

– Real-time positions (lat/long or other standard mapping identifier) of all passenger rolling stock in operation, with the following information attributes:

– Final destination (standard Rail Enquiries short code will do) – if this is not yet determined due to live replanning of routes, then marking it as Unknown is required.

– Planned stopping stations (ditto)

Nice to haves

– Predicted arrival and departure times for each stop (but when crisis hits this becomes much less predictable, and might even be less useful than just the station stops. It may be more sensible to set a “threshold of chaos” beyond which attempts to describe anything other than station stops are abandoned.)

Number of coaches making up the train.

Commercial issues?

Is live-running information commercially valuable? Quite probably. Like any other useful information asset, using it well and attracting traffic generates potential revenue streams. As would building saleable applications e.g. for an iPhone. But is the uncertainty over who might profit from it enough to stop any reuse of this information? I think not.

Do you think this information is important and useful enough to be made publicly available for unconstrained reuse?

Other issues

Routes can change; so even with the best information in the world, a train at Formby indicated as stopping at all stations to Southport may be stopped at Birkdale when it gets there. Permanently. That means some previous predictions will be wrong and passengers will need to recheck when they realise something’s gone wrong. We need to accept that.

But overall, this is a simple request. What makes it a little different (I hope) from other cries for data that have gone out recently is that I will keep pursuing this specific issue (with help from others!) with all train operating companies, and keep updating on progress. The first train operator that does implement such a feed will clearly experience some great benefits; reputational, and possibly operational too. Maybe one of them already has? If so, let me know and I’ll happily revise my scope.

I’m bringing together a couple of previous ideas in doing this: firstly that although it is great to go out and gather new ideas for information reuse, sometimes you just need to pick on a particular area and follow through the progress (or lack of it) towards real solutions with bloody-minded persistence.

Secondly, as with the idea I submitted to the government competition Show Us A Better Way last year, there is great benefit to be had simply in exposing what information does or does not actually exist. If we conclude that no train operator actually does have a reliable source of information on the location of its own assets – then that itself is a valuable outcome. One from which other conclusions and lessons may be drawn ;-)

If we reach other conclusions: that a lack of management capability, or authority, or will, or franchise terms, or technical capacity, or time, or resource (or anything else) are given as reasons not to proceed, then we get to see that publicly too. Let’s see how tenable such reasons continue to be, as public interest in them mounts.

One thing I want to get straight at the start is to acknowledge that train operators already think very hard about these issues. They are not stupid; they run competitive businesses and many have already made some steps towards presenting live running information. There’s an example here. But it’s not reusable, and it’s only in one place. It can’t be shaped, made relevant to an individual, localised, or offered on different platforms.

I’m not suggesting that current efforts are without merit, just that train operators should approach this in a different way.

This could be a very exciting exercise: one that actually leads directly to useful applications that help all of us. On our mobiles, in our homes, at our desks, on our platforms.

Provided that we don’t forget all about it once this snow melts and we get back to our usual sort-of-normality.

Provided that we continue to care, and to believe that we can actually release the Power of Information and change something.

On this one, I truly believe we can.

Who’s in?

Why can’t we make the trains run on time?

If you were expecting a lengthy rant about how other countries manage to keep the trains going in 40 feet of snow, but we roll over after two inches, move on.

Planning for unpredictable events remains a dark art. And, yes, immobilising snowfalls in this country are still somewhat unpredictable. And they don’t happen very often. And it’s this last point that’s most notable. Resilience is expensive.

Think it through. A reserve of drivers, on standby to cut through impassable roads in their 4x4s (that we’ve all paid for) to guarantee crew availability – many problems start because a driver can’t get out of a driveway, not because the trains don’t work. Ker-Ching. Additional electrical engineers, ditto. Back-up power systems in all trains? Well, let’s just add that on to the budget of all locomotive stock up front. Deathtrap country platforms? A new staff of scrapers to fund. Ker-Ching-Ching-Ching. You don’t just phone up Manpower and get a bunch of temps on the day, you know. Really. It’s the armchair business managers (well, platform, in this case) who get my goat. Pontificating about Sweden and Japan and why-can’t-we? without the faintest clue of what might actually be involved.

So, we don’t build it into the budget. Instead, we run a service which has something in the region of 355 days a year expected uptime, to put it in technology terms. But there’s a collective pretence that it’s really 365, and everything that actually happens is just terribly unfortunate. And a bit of a surprise. Making us all look stupid.

I can think of a few rational reasons why we irrationally mask what might well be rational decision-making. Firstly, the business case of £XXXm days lost to industry due to a day of travel outage has always mystified me. Who actually owns this business case? Where can I find it? Does it take into account subtleties of the modern age, for example that many information workers are actually more productive with a day at home than having lost 2 hours of it to their normal commute?

But we’re tinkering here with some fundamental tenets of the British Working Way of Life, so clearly care is needed. This story is about rather more than a bit of ice and snow, once one scrapes away at it a little.

No, what I’m focusing on here is the other word in the title of this post. Time.

Look at this picture.


At the same time, the online information said that trains were running normally, albeit with 10 minute delays. Oh, and to a different London terminus from the one they were actually going to. The station manager (connected by telephone to Southern control) had yet another picture; which also turned out to be misinformed.

So; that’s four information domains: the printed timetable; the station manager’s briefing; the platform signs; and the online feed. Hey, let’s add a fifth – peer-to-peer communication. It’s pretty easy to find on the ground reports from other travellers. Especially when incidents get very big, like Eurostar did.

So. Five interpretations of some true position of train operation. Good enough? No. I don’t think so.

I’m prepared to excuse the infrastructure and engineering constraints that result from this murky business case about how much our railways really should cost to run economically.

But I can’t excuse such divergence in the information available. Not when the actual, operational information on train running is so definitely known. Albeit locked up inside train operator internal systems.

Now, your bright ideas are required on how to convey to the train operators that the distribution of a single, accurate information feed – by whatever channels, applications or intermediaries it might take to do it well – should be their single biggest priority at times like this.

I’ll be drawing these comments to the attention of ATOC – what can you do to tell your train operator how you feel?

The benefits for the operators are surely massive. And remember that poor woman behind the ticket counter? Make her life easier. If they can’t sort out decent information flows, just give her a power switch at least to turn off the damn platform sign. Why should she, or we, suffer because they can’t be open about information?

#tweetbike – the last word (for now)

or what this social experiment was actually about…

What was #tweetbike?

The scene-setting post is here – but briefly, it was a last-minute experiment in real-time, self-organising social travel during a time of disruption. I monitored, and updated, the #tweetbike [you need to sign in to see the tweet stream, sorry] hashtag to see how well an impromptu, free biketaxi service would work during the Tube strike.

Why did I do it?

Twitter feels like it’s itching to be used for practical applications. There are a lot of ‘novelty’ information utilities there, along with quite a few bits of ‘usefulness’ (but they mostly tend to be using Twitter’s promotional ability to virally communicate). But you can’t get much more practical than a dirty great motorbike turning up at your door when you ask for it ;-).

Why did I really do it?

To have a laugh for a couple of days and indulge my love of randomness. A mash-up of a traffic-busting vehicle and a social network is pretty random… And no one had tried it before.

OK, really, really?

To understand more about, and share, what makes a real-world, real-time social utility viable, trustable, and sustainable.

The experience in words (I’ve put some pictures here)

A slow start on Wednesday, trawling up the A23, stopping every few minutes from Croydon onwards to tweet my location (discovering at Clapham that the GPS needed a manual nudge to update it – leading to some comments that I’d travelled five miles in what seemed like five minutes. *cough cough*…). One early taker from Tooting decided at the last minute to work from home, and I’d just missed intercepting the gallant @guyker in Fulham by a few minutes as he headed for his bus, even though he was very much up for it.

Headed west to follow the route of the Northern Line; ignorant – until @racarter told me – that it was still running. Doh! But then so were many of its usual passengers, judging by the queues at the bus stops. Still no takers. All the way to Clerkenwell to get the pre-booked, urbane and very chilled @heathtully who clung on as we navigated a horrendously blocked-up Commercial Rd to get to Tower Hill. Then another lull; even what must have been thousands of people at Liverpool St weren’t biting. But things slowly picked up, with a series of bookings already coming in for a little later in the day.

With a bit of juggling, and not too many disappointments, I managed to draw up a continuous schedule; Victoria to Charing Cross; Marylebone to Farringdon; Shepherd’s Bush to Clerkenwell; Charing Cross to Paddington; LJOTD, as @cabbiescapital might say, Kennington to Clapham; (if you know of a way that I could have tracked this ‘trail’ on the map, do let me know!) Needed to be back at home to take over childcare at 18.30, so inevitably disappointed a few hopefuls for the run home. Including the mission to pick up a wedding ring – now that was a worthy cause! But in the late afternoon things were definitely swinging.

The tweet profile throughout the day was interesting, and worth a look (via the #tweetbike stream). Early burst of retweets announcing the service got things moving, and whenever I gave a very real-time operational update, e.g. “at Holborn Circus, heading west in 5 minutes if I don’t get any takers”, this would also prompt a bit of ‘operational’ retweeting. But gradually, as the story became better known, the ‘story’ tweets and retweets began to dominate. When the audioboo went up, and later that night, the BBC Online story (erm, thanks, Daren), the channel became all about the story, not the operation.

The next day – although I’d deliberately not announced it in advance, I threw open the virtual doors again to any takers after lunch. I’d tried a couple of things in the morning; firstly, swapping to the noisier and more glamorous #tweetbikeextreme for a bit more fun (and recognising that with Twitter’s lightning-fast product cycles, 24 hours without some brand and product diversification really wasn’t on…) but more seriously, trying to warm up the message that #tweetbike wasn’t actually me, or my bike, but a concept.

You can create hashtags, but you don’t own them – and with my tweets I was pushing the idea a little more that any public-spirited biker might also want to join in and have a bit of fun giving a lift here and there. The channel was open for anyone to use, consumer or supplier. But no takers, which was interesting, but perhaps not that surprising ;-)

So, there I was in town, fuelled by a delightful lunch with @tiffanystjames, wanting to see just how spontaneously such a service could spring up again, as another test. By this time, most of the tweets were retweets of the various online news stories and blogs that had sprung up. General agreement that it was a great idea, but very little in the way of actual takers. One brave chap, @handlewithcare, had asked for a lift earlier in the day. So he got one. That was one of the points I was testing – if a service, even as sketchy and notional as this one was, existed, what would it take to get people to actually seek it out?

End of Thursday, home, knackered, dirty, with a grin a mile wide.

Analysis (I over-analyse by habit, so this is abbreviated…I will discuss more on any point if you comment!)

Twitter likes a ‘story’ so much that perhaps operational services could always get overshadowed.

– The lifecycle of interest makes a mayfly look like Methuselah.

– Not commercially viable (at the moment). Even with a strike on and no charge, the big interest was beginning and end of day, not round town during it.

Logistics: although a ‘handler’ for the messages would have been nice, it wasn’t actually as hard as I’d thought to coordinate a schedule. I arrived at every pick-up to the minute, if not a few minutes early. I’d love to know how this would have changed if other #tweetbikes were operating, but didn’t get the chance to find out.

Trust: amazing. I remember a conversation in 2003 where I swore blind that anybody who used eBay was insane (I hadn’t quite cottoned-on to the concept of community reputation: let’s just say I’ve been on something of a journey since then…). Whatever reputational capital I have through my Twitter profile was clearly enough to reassure my passengers that I wasn’t going to eat them. Or that if I did, I’d soon be found out…

Sustainable? Probably not. Twitter channels that appear suddenly seem to be promoted initially, enjoyed for a while, then tolerated, perhaps then suspected, and eventually can become an irritant. Sometimes this progression can take as long as, oh, 12 hours… Yes, I think I did get a comment at some stage using the phrase ‘show-off’, and though that’s probably fair :-), it’s always a balance that’s needing to be struck in a medium as fertile and volatile as this one.

What did I find that I didn’t know before?

It’s really hard to tweet while riding a motorbike [joke].

It is actually possible to update a GPS position safely at the traffic lights.

Predicting travel time on a motorbike in London is easier than you think.

Very real-time, spontaneous decisions didn’t happen. People needed time to plan and adapt their travel plans.

I thought I might need to go into detail on some of the etiquette involved in asking people to use the # channel sensibly; to look at existing bookings and manage their own requests accordingly; to respect the order of requests put in, even though I was still riding and hadn’t managed to respond, and so on, but I didn’t. Self-organisation does, I think, work extremely well. Would love to test this with more riders and passengers…

You’ll always need more power than you think. Thanks to @coigovuk for the quick top-up at 4pm.

Sitting on a motorbike all day in leathers gives you a really sore arse.

Invitations on the street to non-twitterers. Not a hope. Really very likely to get you arrested. Don’t go there. Sorry, lady-at-Paddington, who stopped to ask me directions. You can certainly run fast, can’t you?

I can’t disagree with a word of this very well-put analysis


The #tweetbike – a 2004 Yamaha Supermoto XT660-X. 45 horsepower, single cylinder, grunty dirt/track hybrid. Aftermarket Carbon Cans exhaust to let ’em know you’re coming…

The #tweetbikeextreme – 2009 version of the same. Spec as above, but with Carbon Cans stubby carbon fibre kit to let neighbouring planets know you’re on your way.

Pillion kit. Hein Gericke overjacket and lovely supermoto gloves rammed inside an Arai helmet enclosed by a helmet bag (which virtually garroted me as I carried it – another learning point there!).

Legality. I’m insured to carry non-paying pillion passengers. (Though nobody actually asked or checked…) This was all completely legal, and as it wasn’t for commercial gain, didn’t fall foul of the taxi licensing authorities either. Quite how the Twitter stream would have played in court is a matter of debate…

Camera – EOS 40D dSLR. Complete waste of time as I only took about 5 pics with it and still managed to drop it, busting a rather pricey lens. :-(

GPS/phone/mobile internet. Battered and somewhat ancient O2 XDA Orbit. The experience finished off the phone, which died completely on Saturday.

GPS/cell tracking. Inspired by @Whateleya, driven by Google Latitude and using a piece of bodged-together code hosted on a free website.

Inspiration: community-minded people like @lloyddavis, @ivoivo and @robertloch who are slowly teaching me that the strangest things are possible if you give them a go… and @treefroggirl for a chance comment the day before that helped me crystallise a few existing thoughts.

Self-appointed PR and marketing busybody: @darenBBC :-) with added contributions from @helenjbeckett

Lovely, intelligent and accurate write-up: @jemimah_knight from @bbc_HaveYourSay

Tea: @alex_butler and @tiffanystjames at @digigov.

Amazingly trusting passengers: @heathtully, @katiemoffat, @lisadevaney, @lexij (twice!), @pocketsons, @tiffanystjames, @handlewithcare and Sharon Cooper.

Video by Flip, operated by @neecouk. Background laughter by @brianhoadley.

Audioblogging via Audioboo.

My hair by Phil Spector.

Thank you all and goodnight.