Information Ideal

Did you hear about the lorry fire that severely disrupted Eurostar services for days? That’s an unusual event. I am given to understand it was the first time that they had to use the tunnel’s emergency sprinkler system. But incidents, accidents and events causing disruption are common this time of year. Long hours of darkness, rain, wind, ice, decomposing leaves, fog, snow. Low temperatures that result in someone paying attention to their heating controls rather than the road or busily putting their gloves on rather than walking in a straight line. All these contribute to less reliable travel in the late Autumn and Winter months.

Despite our human pretentions that we have conquered the natural world and it can no longer have dominion over us, we really don’t have much control over the weather. I’m not thinking climate here. That’s another debate. I’m thinking weather. That day to day stuff some of us religiously check wondering what we are going to wear tomorrow, how we will have to dress the kids, whether we will be able to walk to the shops without the groceries getting wet on the way home. So unless you are a qualified witch or wizard, weather control is not an option to improve your travel time reliability or journey safety.

On the other hand, there are ever-increasing options that improve the personalised information for journey planning both before and during said journey. Ongoing alerts and updates enable people to change routes or modes or destinations part-way through a journey. The interconnected series of information can also influence the what, how, when and where of future journeys, creating a sum of changing travel patterns.

Let me give you some examples:

Somebody sends a facebook message to the local BBC radio station that they’re stuck in traffic caused by a broken-down vehicle. The radio station announces the incident in its hourly bulletin. Someone hears this and texts a friend who regularly commutes along that routes recommending that they find an alternative way to travel.

A bus operator monitors delays on a particular service. It tweets to its followers, who include network managers at the relevant Highways Authority. They check their traffic cameras and post a message announcing the congestion on the Variable Message Signs and suggesting an alternative route. People see the message at home on their computers via the Open Data systems. They may also get an alert on their smart-phone if this is their regular route.

Diverse information chains are well and good, but raise some concerns. First, there is a danger of Chinese whispers with second and third hand information, especially if there are no checks possible (e.g. traffic cameras). Second, there is the potential for information overload, particularly where it is poorly targeted; for example, if you follow a rail operator’s feeds on Twitter, you learn a lot about delays on other lines they manage. Third, technology can fail or become out of date quickly, resulting in misinformation on signs and displays. And finally, there is reputational damage from a focus on the negative. People might get the impression that an operator’s train services are always delayed, or a motorway is particularly subject to accidents, or bus stop displays are always wrong.

So the real question we should be asking about live travel information is, what do I want to know? Wouldn’t it be nice to occasionally receive a message confirming that your train has been punctual 95% of the time? Or that despite the snow, your bus will be operating on a Saturday schedule and you can check the timetable, rather than watching a screen which says ‘Due’ though the bus never appeared? Or to be given the alternative directions when you’re driving and cannot review a map? Or to get positive encouragement whilst walking and cycling that you are burning those calories?

Of course we want to know when the weather may disrupt our journeys. But give us a few more positive messages too. That would be an information ideal.

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