Essentially, TfL wanted to show us their new online Travel Tools, which have just launched on their site, but will be part of a major promotion over the coming weeks. They also wanted to explain how the Tube's 10 year upgrade programme was going, how the engineering works actually had some planning to them and how communicating all of this was as important as getting the works completed.
Richard Parry, Strategy and Service Director for London Underground, kicked off the briefing explaining that over the next ten years every part of the Tube system would be renewed. Although a lot of the weekend engineering & closure works may look disordered there was planning behind this (TfL apparently do take major sporting events, concerts, and other live events into account) with contingency plans for when works inevitably over run.
I won't go into the lengthy introduction, as I'm sure much of this can be found on the Tube's website. I picked up on his emphasis on the importance of communication and said that I didn't feel their communication was actually that great. Considering the amount of information they had on our journeys through Oyster card data, I wondered why emails weren't targeted purely to lines that people were interested in or spent a lot of time travelling on. Also I have a feeling my emails from TfL aren't weekly - even though I have an annual registered Oyster card.
Parry explained that the standard weekly email is the same for everyone, but the text travel alerts that you can sign up to by line, can also be received by email. They were very much aware that people want more personalised communication and that posters & leaflets are often ignored or just become part of the general scenery and background noise of the Tube.
John Bull from London ReConnections agreed and said it's quite frustrating to just see posters saying "We're working on this station". It's obvious, we can see that, but we'd like to know how you're getting on with the works. What actually is going on and how long will it take? Steve who works in TfL's publicity department, said it was a balance between simplicity & getting a message across. But they agreed simplicity can leave people starved of information, and there was probably room for adding more details when there was more "dwell time".
Smiling at the techie guy, Tim, who looks after their website (in a way that meant, 'this means work for you'), he said "We can update the website reasonably easily on a daily basis, so we should say, if you want more on this station's works, visit the site".
Whenever they sit down with people and explain why the works have to be done, exactly what they're doing and the difficulties of doing this with as little disruption to the system as possible, people understand. "But we need 10 minutes of people's attention to get this across, especially as we have to get past the first five minutes of moan", which I think is a very fair point. In an ideal world it's easier if the majority of their communication is proactive rather than reactive, but realistically we all know that isn't the case.
They are going to run more "Meet the Manager" evenings and were surprised that so many people were interested in coming along to look at the new air conditioned Tube trains at Euston Square. We spent quite a bit of time discussing the more human element of their communication and I asked why they didn't do more of this "community outreach" like the London Transport Museum who have Flickr groups and have even been experimenting with Facebook groups as a way of talking to people.
The Transport Commissioner actually had a blog at one time and TfL worked with him trying to get the right tone of voice. In the end, quite rightly, he said he wanted to write it his own way. I lost track of what actually happened to it and although we're unlikely to see a Facebook or Myspace page from the real commissioner, they're aware that making more localised areas of the website could work for them.
"How things are said and where things are said are important", Steve remarked. Although the new range of Travel Tools aren't completely widgetised, they can be added to netvibes and Google readers & embedded into blogs. This is encouraging as it means travel updates can be seen in more sites than just the Tube's.
TfL have no plans to have an open API for their travel updates though. Which although I can see the authenticity reasons for this, I think is a shame. People are already "mashing up" the Tube map & alerts with various things like Google maps and Twitter. Wouldn't it be easier if they gave people an API key, so they'd have a lot more control over what went on. However, they were open to talking to widget makers, so it's worth getting in touch with them if you've created something inventive.
I got the impression they were really proud of their free mobile text alerts. Around 2 million people sign up to receive the text alerts. Their techie guy, Tim, said they were looking at mobile versions of the departure boards for all lines as well. So if you were in the pub or the office quite near to your station, you could pull out your mobile phone and see when your train was due.
My question around this, was mobile stuff is all well and good, but we can't actually use our mobile phones on half of the London Underground and when would we ever be able to do this? This led to much shrugging of shoulders and general mutterings of "Who knows?". Well at least they were honest!
Thanks for getting to the end of this post, but I was pleased to be invited to the speak to the guys at TfL. It's great that they realise London bloggers do a lot of work communicating what's happening to the Tube (good & bad). Even though I'm not exactly "on message" for them, they didn't put any poison in the sarnies & actually pay more attention to my blog that I thought. It was brave of them to invite us in and I really appreciated their honesty, relative openness and hope this will be the start of more dialogue with people who aren't the press or traditional media.