Posts about Twitter
Online critics of WMATA like Unsuck DC Metro and FixWMATA have shone valuable light on Metro failings and built pressure for change. But online shaming can only do so much to change an agency. I hope they will take the next step and get involved in actually trying to push for reform.
Throwing barbs at WMATA from behind a keyboard is a lot easier than getting to know the good people at WMATA and trying to understand the root causes of problems, like underfunding, management failures, or union work rules. But that's the only way to really advocate for fixes.
Today's City Paper cover story profiles the WMATA's new social media team, Dan Stessel and Brian Anderson, and their quest to reform the agency's reputation for being cranky toward customers and obstructionist with reporters and bloggers.
A large section of the article discusses WMATA's prominent online critics:
Broken rail-car air conditioners have been thrust into the spotlight thanks to the rabid persistence of an IT whiz known on Twitter as @fixwmata. The 32-year-old Atlanta native, who asked not to be named because he insists the story shouldn't be about him, began riding Metro last April.At first FixWMATA got no response from Metro. Then, Dan Stessel showed up, and started communicating back, which FixWMATA loved at first. But then, Stessel couldn't give him details of which air conditioners were being repaired.
Over the summer, he noticed complaints about hot subway cars on Twitter and decided to put his analytical skills to good use. He created what's known as the #hotcar list, a crowdsourced database tracking rail cars with broken AC.
FixWMATA, who has about 1,300 followers on Twitter, isn't buying it. And now he believes that the rosy media coverage of Metro's latest PR effort is harmful. He called the Post "an advertising arm of WMATA" when the paper covered Stessel's social media frenzy last month.What does FixWMATA mean by "our side"? Is it the side of fixing things? Because there are a lot of people at Metro who also want to fix things, though there are also folks who stand in the way. Or is "our side" those who just want to throw barbs at WMATA, no matter what?
"Not having a response from Metro last year actually worked out a little bit better," he says. "Because Metro last year also wasn't really talking to the media. So we had the media on our side last year, and we had a lot of reports
— both on TV and on the Web — from journalists interested in what's going on."
He's not the only one who thinks the local media have fallen for Metro's tricks. The journalist behind the Unsuck DC Metro blog
— complaint central for disgruntled riders since 2009 — calls Stessel's effort "Band-Aids on the public image" for a reactive agency that lacks accountability. He thinks Metro's campaign is better than nothing but doesn't address the malaise he says afflicts the agency's middle management.
"People do seem to respond to Dan saying, if somebody tweets, 'Oh, this car's hot,' Dan tweets back, 'We're on it' or 'We're checking it out. We'll check it out tonight,'" says Unsuck, who also asked to remain anonymous, because he says he's received threats from Metro employees. "That seems to convince some people that they really are. You decide for yourself if they really are. I know they're not."
For a long time after the 2009 crash and even to this day, there are those on Twitter who periodically call for just "blowing up" the whole Metro system, whatever that means.
I disagree with FixWMATA's view of the change in the press. To me, the press went through a period of overly sensationalistic "gotcha" reporting. Ann Scott Tyson's coverage at the Post, in particular, made a large headline out of any piece of data that put Metro in a negative light, regardless of whether there was a larger context.
That had the disappointing effect of making some WMATA employees even more reluctant to talk to anyone about anything, a trend that has thankfully started to reverse with Stessel and his bosses, Lynn Bowersox and Barbara Richardson. Yet when anyone praises these tentative steps toward openness, some claim that it's "advertising."
One of the biggest pieces of context is that Metro has been drastically underfunded for years and treated as a political football. It still is, like when House Republicans tried to cut its repair funding and Bob McDonnell stonewalled for months about asking his party colleagues not to destroy Metro.
Unsuck wrote, "As many long-time readers may know, Unsuck lived in Japan a while back. My experience with Japanese mass transit is a major reason I am so critical of Metro." One thing they do in Japan is they actually have money to maintain their mass transit and build more lines.
Underfunding doesn't excuse bad practices, but we need to understand the root of a problem in order to fix it, and not just heap the blame on those most visible.
John Hendel sums it up on TBD:
The contrarian view is that Metro is a perpetual screw-upWhat we need to do to fix WMATA for real is to tease apart those problems which just stem from insufficient funding, and those which come from actual bad management practices, bad employee behavior, problematic union work rules, or other non-funding problems.
— that the trains are always late, that the communication efforts are hardly ever enough and are often off-base or obtuse, that the system deteriorates, that the reform efforts are maddening, that the idea of "strategy" at Jackson Graham is the equivalent of a fairy-tale myth. The attacks are often biting, caustic, and frustrated, and the intense bitterness that characterizes some of the jibes lacks as much realistic perspective as constant Metro cheerleading.
Take the hotcars. What is really going on? How often do these units break? How quickly do they get fixed? Does management really know when they're out? For that matter, how much should Metro prioritize fixing them over fixing escalators or replacing "track modules," the signal components that allowed the 2009 Red Line crash?
Looking through the capital priorities list and discussing tradeoffs is a lot less sexy and doesn't fit in 140 characters, but it's far more vital to the task of actually fixing WMATA.
In other words, if you were Richard Sarles, what would you do? Lining everyone up against a wall and shooting them, which some people on Twitter suggest, does not fix the problem, by the way.
Nor is WMATA management a monolith. From far enough away, it looks that way. But get closer, and you discover a wide range of quality among the executives. Same for the individual employees.
Public pressure is good, but also can be bad. If an agency feels little pressure, there's not enough impetus for change. But too much criticism, and it just demoralizes the good people. I found it frustrating enough to work inside a large, sometimes-bureaucratic organization (Google) where the press constantly showered praise, much deserved, some not. I have to have enormous respect for those change agents who stick it out inside the organization and fight hard to make things better despite working for an organization that garners such vitriol.
Get to know those change agents, and they'll tell you they're frustrated too. They have coworkers who play politics instead of focusing on what to do. They have employees who aren't productive, take up budget, but can't be removed. They have an organizational culture that resists change. They don't have enough money to do much. They get shot down by their own board. Local jurisdictions fight their ideas. Local elected officials criticize any move they make. Bloggers and tweeters have endless nitpicks.
When I started criticizing WMATA, I went to a board meeting, and Jim Graham said, hey, why don't you be on the Riders' Advisory Council. The RAC has a certain ability to ask staff to make presentations on detailed topics that a random person can't necessarily get, and to ask questions of staff.
Being on the RAC hasn't magically fixed everything, but it helped me push for open data, and more importantly, get to know the good people at WMATA so that I could help them bring about even more change. It's slow, and maddeningly frustrating, but that's how change usually happens.
It would be great to have FixWMATA and Unsuck on the RAC. There's a vacancy in DC right now, and likely one coming up in Maryland; plus, every year 1/3 of the members come up for renomination. I don't really buy that FixWMATA needs to be anonymous to make the conversation not about him, or Unsuck because of threats (Unsuck also was anonymous from the start as well, and also said it was to keep the conversation from being about him).
If they want to really fix WMATA, it's time to come out from behind the keyboard and start engaging directly with the agency. Join the RAC; I'll lobby hard for either to get appointed and would welcome having their energy to delve into problems. Try to figure out what's really wrong, deep down, instead of just what outcome is problematic. Then we can all lobby for whatever changes are necessary, whether it's funding, management fixes, labor work rule changes, or a combination of all of those.
Twitter can be a powerful tool for politicians and government agencies to connect with constituents. Many of DC's elected leaders are on Twitter, but they use their accounts to widely varying degrees.
Their tweets also vary in frequency and quality, and some officials tweet personally while staff send out tweets for others. Which are the best and the worst?
Tommy Wells (@TommyWells) is the most active councilmember on Twitter and sends all his tweets himself. He often tweets about riding the bus, council hearing proceedings, and constituent issues in Ward 6. Washington City Paper recently named him "Best Tweeting DC Politician."
Councilmembers Muriel Bowser (@MurielBowser) and Yvette Alexander (@CMYMA) are active on Twitter and tweet fairly regularly. They use their accounts to respond to questions, retweet others and often take conversational approaches with their tweets. Wells, Bowser and Alexander are good about replying to questions, too.
Michael Brown (@CMMichaelABrown) and Jack Evans (@Jack Evans_Ward2) send moderate numbers of tweets, though it appears their staff do the work for them. They retweet fairly regularly and promote their schedules and news. You can often get an reply from them too, or at least links to find out more about an issue.
Mary Cheh (@MaryCheh) is less active than Evans or Brown and primarily promotes her news and updates, though occasionally she will send replies. Her account will be fairly active for a couple days, and then be silent for a stretch. It seems that staff tweet for her.
David Catania has two accounts, though neither is him personally. One is @CataniaPress, which promotes news and information about him. The other is @Catania_COS, his chief of staff, who engages more directly with followers and constituents.
Chairman Kwame Brown has an account, @KwameBrownDC which primarily mentions where the chairman has been and what visits he makes to groups and organizations in the city.
It seems that staff tweet for him as well Brown does manage his own account. He often sends replies but rarely retweets. The account was also silent from February 17th to April 2nd, when the SUV scandal was in top gear.
Jim Graham, Harry Thomas and Vincent Orange all have accounts, though they rarely use them. Graham's account, @JimGraham_Ward1 last tweeted June 14 and is only following 27 people. When the account is active, it primarily promotes news and updates from his office.
Harry Thomas's account, @HLTJrWard5, hasn't been active since March 14th. Vincent Orange used Twitter during the April 26th special election campaign, but his account, @VincentOrangeDC last tweeted on May 12th and is only following 55 people.
Councilmembers Marion Barry and Phil Mendelson do not have accounts.
Mayor Vincent Gray has a Twitter account, @MayorVinceGray, run by his communications staff. At first, the account primarily promoted the mayor's schedule, but recently has started engaging more with followers and residents.
For those councilmembers who don't use Twitter regularly, does it matter? Barry doesn't have an account, but that doesn't mean he is less popular in Ward 8. It also doesn't necessarily mean he is not engaging with his constituents.
Twitter certainly isn't the only way to engage with constituents. Not everyone is savvy with the technology or has regular internet access. Others may find it overwhelming to use. But Twitter can be an effective way for councilmembers to address constituent concerns and provide a sense of connection with residents.
Some of the more active councilmembers, like Wells, Bowser, and Alexander, can help make government somewhat more responsive and approachable. Other accounts, like Cheh and Kwame Brown, occasionally engage with residents and at least provide a medium for getting information.
Should councilmembers be managing their own accounts or is it better to have a staff member do it? Wells, Bowser and Alexander seem tweet themselves and are able to engage more than others. During the protest over Congressional budget riders, Wells' account stopped sending tweets the moment his staff (@CharlesAllenDC and @AnnePhelps) tweeted pictures of his arrest. Michael Brown's account, on the other hand, tweeted pictures of Brown himself wearing handcuffs.
Which officials' tweets do you find most useful? How would you like to see others improve?
Early on the morning of May 17, the New York subway experienced a derailment which snarled service in Brooklyn. Instead of trying to cover up the incident, the MTA tweeted about it, including photos of the re-railing:
Hopefully Dan Stessel, WMATA's new Chief Spokesperson and Director of Communications, can bring some of these best practices here. Social media engagement isn't simply about one's successes; it's about one's failures, too.
The more transparent a transit agency is, the more riders will trust it when it communicates online. Derailments happen. There will inevitably be more on the Metrorail system. How WMATA reacts to them and other incidents matters.
Creating a "climate of openness and transparency" means tweeting about the good and the bad, acknowledging when things go wrong, and being open about the recovery process. Many transit agencies already use Twitter very successfully; @PATHTweet and @NYCTSubwayScoop are two excellent examples.
WMATA would do well to model its social media initiatives after those of the Port Authority and MTA, and could start with simple steps. Many frustrated riders already report problems on Metrorail, Metrobus, and MetroAccess using the #WMATA hashtag.
Knowing that WMATA is listening, and even getting a response back from @MetroOpensDoors would help to improve communication and the public's perception of their customer service. In doing so, they'll join @DDOTDC, @DCCirculator, @bikeshare, @DCRA, @mydcwater and other DC-area agencies in providing useful customer service via Twitter.
DDOT's recent Potholepalooza was a great example of meaningful engagement, as DC residents reported potholes via Twitter (no complicated forms to fill out!) and potholes were filled within a day or two. For WMATA, the complaints might be of hot Metro cars, dirty buses, or bad driving, but the concept is the same.
The next step is to be there to provide information when riders need it most. For example, @MetroNorthTweet signs off every afternoon, just before the evening rush hour starts:
For service status and other info between now and tomorrow morning please call 212-532-4900 or visit http://www.mta.info/mnr
Tweeting for a transit agency isn't a 9-to-5 job. Whenever the system is open, riders should be able to seek help on Twitter and get a response. Twitter is all about immediacy, and if you're trying to find out why your bus is late, or report a problem on your train, getting a response the next morning may not help. WMATA may not be able to provide round-the-clock coverage on Twitter, but signing off before the evening rush hour isn't a recommended practice, either.
In short, Metro riders have been using Twitter for a while now; it's time for WMATA to come to the party with something more than just automated tweets.
Riders deserve a meaningful follow-up when they report service problems, and when things go wrong, nothing less than the unvarnished truth will do on Twitter. When weekend riders have to endure disruption and delays for upgrade work, show them the work that is being done, and explain how they benefit.
Today, WMATA has neither a reputation for transparency nor for effective communication with riders, but that's something they can change, starting with simple, effective steps.
Public bodies from the DC Council to boards like the Zoning Commission are configured to value most highly input from people who show up in person. But this excludes many people with day jobs or family responsibilities. We need to fundamentally reexamine some basic assumptions about public input.
At last week's redistricting hearing, Marion Barry criticized me for bringing the results of the Redistricting Game to the Council. Despite having over 100 Ward 8 residents participate, he felt that it wasn't representative of the views of Ward 8:
Did you ask the economic status of each person? Did you ask the educational level of each person? This whole thing is flawed. ... I was trained as a research scientist. I know good research techniques and tactics. ... Your study is a good one, but it's not scientific enough. ... As far as Ward 8 is concerned, the information is flawed. Seriously flawed.
Mike DeBonis explained the primary motivations at work here. In short, Barry probably wants Near Southeast redistricted into Ward 8 to give him a role in the booming development in that area.
But Barry is right about one thing: The Redistricting Game was not scientific. It's not an opinion poll which tries to accurately estimate the views of all residents. But since when does the Council ever use opinion polls to make decisions?
They don't. Instead, they listen to people who testify, people who schedule meetings with them, and to a lesser extent people who email, call, or write letters.
Barry did listen to those present. He brought in a number of people to testify about extending Ward 8 west of the river; some, as it turned out, didn't even live in DC. Far fewer than 100 people from Ward 8 testified at this hearing, but Barry didn't claim their testimony was "flawed" because it's not scientifically representative.
Later, he noted that nobody from Near Southeast had yet testified at the hearing, and therefore there must be no opposition. Is that scientific?
About 30 people testified at the hearing, and their views should be listened to. But they're not necessarily representative either. The people who filled out the Redistricting Game are also a set of residents who expressed their preferences, and the Council should consider them as it would any other set of suggestions from any other not-necessarily-representative group of 4,000 residents.
It's easy to take potshots at Barry, and regardless he's unlikely to get his redistricting wish. But there's a larger point. Why do we accept our current model of civic engagement as the right one?
It gives a much louder voice to people who want to take the time to attend hearings, which are often in the middle of the day. It gives priority to those who can afford to spend 4 hours or more on a single development project, a single bill, or a single zoning change.
That favors people who are retired, or people paid to lobby for issues, or people who feel particularly strongly about a single narrow subject.
The Zoning Commission has been holding many, many hearings on the zoning rewrite, with few participants at some of the hearings. Geoff Hatchard, Ken Archer, CSG's Cheryl Cort, DC Sierra Club's Bradley Green, and I testified recently for accelerating the parking location zoning change, and Zoning Commission member Peter May complimented everyone on attending. I'm glad we could, but this also points out how such a turnout is somewhat unusual.
Few people can go to all of the zoning hearings, or even more than a few. It's tough to get people to go to a zoning hearing on, say, changing waterfront zoning when they have no objection to the changes, when the changes won't have much of a visible effect on development, and they are likely to sail through.
The people who testified at last week's HPRB hearing on the Hine school represented those who felt so strongly they wanted to take an entire afternoon off to talk about the project. HPRB hearings happen in the middle of the day, and typically take all day. Items have start times on the schedule, but those are very approximate. I've spoken at the HPRB and had an item come up hours after it was scheduled.
I've gone to testify at the Board of Zoning Adjustment, another board with daytime hearings, and seen the mid-morning item I was there for moved to the afternoon (or moved to another day entirely). DC Council hearings have started hours late. Sometimes the chair of a council committee has moved the government witness to the beginning, instead of at the end as is usual, and talked to that witness for 2 hours or more while the public witnesses waited patiently.
Many residents of Capitol Hill think the Hine project doesn't need to get shorter, or should even be taller, but they didn't go to the hearing. Some had jobs which prevented it. Does that mean their views don't matter?
There are some advantages to a process which favors those who care about an issue. If you just poll people, a lot of folks don't know much about an issue at all and are making snap judgments on little information. Decisionmakers shouldn't necessarily hold every resident's opinion exactly equal.
But the current system goes much too far. There's little value in giving a voice only to people who can spend 4 hours in the middle of the day waiting to speak for 3 minutes.
What to do? One step is for decisionmakers to listen to other channels as well. Montgomery County at-large councilmember Hans Riemer does by listening to people on Facebook, and found drastically different views there versus in person at a hearing on the Silver Spring skybridge. DC councilmember Tommy Wells uses Twitter, sending his own tweets and reading his own Twitter feed.
That's a step, but not the end of the story either. These channels privilege people who spend a lot of time sitting around on Twitter and Facebook. That's not representative either, though when combined with people testifying in person, it adds breadth.
It'd be great to develop a good channel for leaders to hear more views from poor and minority communities, and add that to their cognitive understanding of what residents want. Wells took a meaningful step by conducting a "listening tour" about bus service in wards 4, 5, 7, and 8, but there's much more that can be done.
Elected officials try harder to hear more views because they want the votes. Unfortunately, not only do our formal boards and commissions not generally use these channels, but many can't. You can tweet @TommyWells during a hearing to suggest questions, but there's no @CatherineBuell account for the HPRB chair.
Even if there were an @AnthonyHoodZC account, the Zoning Commission chair would be breaking rules against "ex parte" communication. Just like judges, Zoning Commission and BZA members are not allowed to hear comments on cases except through the official hearing or formally submitted letters of testimony.
Sure, there are reasons for this. A body making a legal determination is required to do so based on a public record, and so the comments have to go into that record. But these rules also mean that the commission is limiting its input in ways that result in an incomplete view of residents' opinions.
Could the Zoning Commission legally set up a @DCZoningCmsn Twitter account, where messages appear on commissioners' smartphones or on screens behind the dais during the hearing, and which also go into the official public record, for example? To get people on the other side of the digital divide, are there ways to make it easier to submit comments on cases beyond sending formal and time-consuming letters or faxes?
The boards should be seeking more ways to get input while still keeping their responsibility to have a public record, and elected officials should look for opportunities to hear from a broader range of people. As a first step, both elected officials and appointed board members should acknowledge that while holding hearings is a valuable part of getting input, relying on it alone is very much "flawed."
Metro's station names seem to be continuously growing longer, but your tweets don't need to.
With this handy new map, you can treat Metro stations like airports and use these convenient station codes to make your commute descriptions brief.
In the unlikely event that Metro did adopt codes like these, they wouldn't be the first. Hong Kong's MTR uses 3-letter codes to help with station naming. In Atlanta, MARTA station signs are emblazoned with a code indicating line and distance from Five Points, the center of the system. There are likely other systems that use codes like these, either publicly or behind-the-scenes.
For the most part, the abbreviations are straight-forward.
In some cases, the code is merely the first three letters of the station name. That's the case with Gallery Place (GAL) and Archives (ARC). In other cases, initials suffice. East Falls Church and West Falls Church are in this category.
But sometimes those methods didn't work. I excluded codes that could be overly ambiguous. College Park and Columbia Heights, for instance, both begin with COL, so I didn't use that code for either station.
I also avoided using codes for major airports or train stations in the United States. For that reason, I didn't use BAL to abbreviate Ballston. BAL refers to Amtrak's Penn Station in Baltimore. Instead, I shortened Ballston to BSN.
A few times, codes presented themselves almost ready-made. DCA works perfectly for the station at National Airport. New Carrollton NCR and Rockville RKV inherit the Amtrak station codes from the adjacent stops. But King Street (KGS) doesn't take on the Amtrak code for it's neighboring train station, ALX.
There were other easy codes, too. I shortened Eisenhower Avenue to IKE and Stadium-Armory to RFK.
So, now when you tweet about Metro, keep it short.
Unfortunately, the DC Fire and EMS Twitter feed has stopped reporting ped and cyclist struck incidents. Therefore, the statistics Struck in DC has been gathering on a weekly basis are no longer consistent or accurate and we won't be mapping this week's incidents.
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