Twitter Gritter

The weather is getting colder, and, even though it’s still October, there have already been some #uksnow tweets on Twitter.

Sandwell Council Gritter in Birmingham in mid-summer

When I was in the Big Society Vanguard area of Eden Valley, recently, we were talking about the real difficulties which heavy snow causes in that area, which is in England’s most sparsely populated constituency. Last winter, people were snowed in for days, cut off from services and shops, and no one was able to get through to them. And people experienced real difficulties getting information about which roads were clear, which had been gritted, and when. This caused further difficulties in that people sometimes set off on journeys and then came to a section of road that wasn’t gritted and got stuck.

During this conversation, I mentioned the “Twitter Gritter” initiative, started by the wonderful Dan Slee at Walsall Council. Last winter Dan was giving real-time information on Twitter as gritters went out about which routes were being cleared. So, I made a mental note to speak to Dan about how he does this, what technology is involved, and how it might be replicated elsewhere.

So, yesterday, on arriving at the Beyond 2010 conference in Birmingham, I spied Dan across the room, and resolved to quiz him about just how he does it. And this produced a pretty amazing revelation. Dan told me that there is no expensive technology involved. The gritter driver simply texts or emails him as they are about to set out on a route and he puts the information out on Twitter.

This is one of those examples where really simple ideas don’t get spread, when the solution is so straightforward and effective. I had assumed that more people weren’t doing it because it involved some kind of expensive solution, linking GPS devices on gritting lorries with a control centre and online mapping. But, no, some of the best ideas are the most simple ones. And this is yet another example of the ability of the internet and social media to take offline information and amplify it.

This could be another classic Big Society initiative. Dan is employed by Walsall Council, but, it seems to me that there is no reason why local volunteer co-ordinators couldn’t be appointed to receive texts or emails from gritter drivers and output the information to Twitter, Facebook, hyeprlocal websites, and text messaging networks.

We can do this, can’t we?

Why are we not making more use of the Internet to cope with Snow disruptions?

St. George's Square, Huddersfield, Christmas Eve 2009

As I write this we are well into the “Big Freeze” of the UK winter of 2009/10. With a brief respite of about 2 days, there has been snow on the ground where I live for just about 3 weeks now, and we are forecast more. We are told, by those who know about these things that this is the most snow we have had in the UK since 1981.

As my kids have now been off school for 4 consecutive days due to the weather, and I am hearing countless tales of people not being able to work, my thoughts have turned to the question of why, in 2010, we are not making more use of the Internet to cope with these conditions. As in many areas of British life, you will probably tell me that the UK has such extreme weather conditions so infrequently that it is not worth the cost of preparing for them, but, as this is now the second consecutive winter where we have had significant snow fall, and it appears likely that climate change may well make this a regular event, surely we should seriously think about how we prepare for such occasions. And, in this context, as we are supposed to be moving increasingly towards both delivering more education online, and adopting more flexible working practices, surely these should come into their own at these times, shouldn’t they?

Huddersfield, 20th December 2009

I have been quite annoyed by some of the accounts of “heroic” struggles to get to work through the snow, because, it seemed to me, that some of them just weren’t necessary. Driving in snow is a dangerous thing to do, especially if you don’t know how to modify your driving style to take account of the conditions, as many of the drivers I have witnessed obviously don’t. And, because so many people don’t know how to do it, additional congestion, jams, and accidents are caused at such times, potentially holding up people whose journeys ARE essential. How many times have I heard that gritting lorries can’t do their job because they are blocked by congested traffic?

OK, so, I say to all employers whose work could as easily be done by people working from home with a computer, an internet connection, and a phone, now is definitely the time to get over your hang up about having to see all your employees sat at their desks under your watchful gaze. Ultimately, you’ll probably get a lot more done if you encourage people to stay at home and do something productive, rather than spend much of their time in snowbound traffic jams worrying about whether they’ll ever get home again.

And, I have been astounded at how my kids’ school has no plans in place at all to ensure they are able to do any work when kept away by the snow.

So, I have a number of proposals to put forward on how we should be using the internet and technology to deal with the chaos caused by the snow.

  • firstly, I think all schools, working with their local education authority, should be required to put in place plans to set and supervise work remotely when school in closed, and that these plans should be operational by December 2010, in advance of next winter;
  • secondly, local authorities and other public agencies should work with initiatives such as Project NOMAD to ensure they have flexible working policies in place;
  • thirdly, plans should be drawn up for local resources such as community centres, libraries, uk online centres, etc. to operate as local flexible working and learning centres on “snow days”.
  • This last plan would see local centres being open on such days for those who do not have the facility to work from home to drop in and use computers, the internet and other resources to continue their work or education.

    On the work front, it would be interesting to see what people who come together to work in such centres might produce while interacting with a different set of “colleagues” to those they are usually with. And many people might prefer to the sociability of such an environment rather than working at home in isolation, even if they might have the facilities in the house.

    Huddersfield University in the snow

    And, there are lots of teachers who can’t get to their schools in bad weather, but might be able to get to their local flexible working / learning centre to supervise local young people while they work. I know there are child protection and other issues to be overcome here, but I reckon a policy like this can be made to work if there is a will, can’t it? And, if this DOES work, it would help to overcome another problem at times like these, that of people who COULD get to work, having to stay at home to look after their kids who can’t get to school.

    I think these are potential practices which could not only help us to cope with travel disruption in bad weather, but might have applications at other times as well. I would welcome views.