Social media does not just need to have an interactive, personal function. Rail engineers in North America have found another use for the global app Twitter to help improve event planning, route scheduling, crowd regulation and subway operations. Twitter is one of the largest social networks worldwide with 67 million users in the US alone. Now, we are all familiar with those situations when hordes of people compete to get on packed rail carriages - faces pressed against the glass, but Twitter has been studied by engineers at the University of Buffalo to improve transport planning. They discovered that as subway use swells during large events, the number of tweets in a region increase. This positive correlation could therefore predict and anticipate the size of an event close to local subways stations to notify passengers and update subway services accordingly.
“Social media offers a cost-effective way to obtain real-time data on monitoring subway passenger flow,” says Qing He, PhD, Stephen Still Assistant Professor in Transportation Engineering and Logistics at UB, and the study’s corresponding author. “Our results show that data from apps like Twitter can help public transportation officials prepare for and react to passenger surges during concerts, baseball games and other big events.”
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To conduct the study, researchers gathered subway ridership information from April to October in 2014 via turnstiles at Mets-Willets Point station in Queens, New York. They chose the station because it’s located next to Citi Field, the home of Major League Baseball’s New York Mets, and the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, where the U.S. Open tennis championships are held each year.
The researchers also collected nearly 30 million tweets geotagged to the New York City area during the same time. They then filtered the tweets by their geographic coordinates (a feature that Twitter users enable on their accounts), the context of the tweet (for example, #subwayseries or #USOPEN), the time and other pertinent elements.
Using six different computer models, the researchers then analysed the data and found what they describe as a moderate positive correlation between passenger flow and the rates of tweets during big events.
“The results are encouraging for two reasons. First, they indicate that increases in social media posts and subway ridership can be linked. Secondly, we have developed a method to track this correlation,” says Gao. “Now, the challenge is to refine this method so it can be used by public transit system operators to improve their systems.”
Why should more train operators be engaging in social media?
In any Twitter engagement with customers there are a number of positive outcomes that a railway will aim to deliver: deepen the relationship with the passenger and ensure they become a brand advocate, defuse any potential complaints by reassuring them with an update or directing towards further information and ensure the passenger feels positive about the conversation and will use the service again. Some railway Twitter accounts also aim to deliver a clear 'voice' for the railway with a more quirky or personal tone.
These outcomes manifest themselves in typical Twitter output for rail and metro companies' communications in two main areas; firstly travel updates including details of disruption and alterations of service and secondly of promotions and offers to drive revenue, engagement or to gather data. Some twitter accounts choose to engage with customers directly in one-to-one conversations, for example answering questions directly or thanking for feedback whilst others are purely for news and don't engage directly.
Finding the right tone for a railway or metros is one of the challenges for any company, particularly as passengers often turn to social media in times of transport delay or disruption. It is important that train operators are tuned into the way their passengers behave and tailor their service according to this.