Who answers queries from the Press on a Friday afternoon?

The call

At about 4:30pm on Friday afternoon, I got a call from Lois Stanley, a commuter saying she had been waiting for a bus for over 40minutes at the Corporation street in the city centre.

The tweet

(In fact, a few minutes before this was a tweet from Paul Bradshaw, also waiting at a bus stop, and I thought it was another case of our #phantombuses)

 

 

Back to the first call:

Lois travels to city centre from Perry Barr every day for work. She has been participating in #phantombuses – a crowd sourced data gathering experiment on buses that we started two weeks back.

So Lois told me there was an air ambulance landing on Steelhouse Lane near the Birmingham Children’s hospital. This led to her standing and staring at the Real Time Information Screen at a bus stop on the Priory queensway. She later walked two bus stops away and reached Corporation Street and saw the ambulance.

To tweet or not to tweet (without more details)?

I was very tempted to tweet her comments and photos ASAP. But about six years of journalism training told me to cross check it first and find out if it was one angry commuter or were there many like her at the city centre and elsewhere to understand the scale of the traffic disruption.

What would be my sources of verifying the story?

1. My first instinct was to call the Birmingham City Council traffic control room.

So I called the Press office and reached the answering machine as it was already past     5pm by then. Here I was given an emergency Press contacts number.

However there was no response at the number. I did get a call later and was                   dismissed as a student/blogger and was asked to:

appreciate the fact that it’s a Friday afternoon”

2. Then I called the West Midlands Police Press office.

    The response:

We don’t have traffic updates

 

So I went back to the non-emergency number, where they looked into their traffic              logs. The officer, while looking for it the details, apologised and said,

We have hundreds of traffic logs in a day, it may take me a while to locate the one you’re asking for

 

3. Finally I called the West Midlands Ambulance Service Press office. The phone                    lines here were not working.

WMAS Press office  So I ended up calling the West Midlands Ambulance Service  (WMAS) regular number,       very conscious and guilty of the fact that I’m eating into their time when they need to           attend to patients’ calls.

As expected, they did not have any information about this air ambulance landing in the       middle of the city, at the Birmingham Children’s Hospital. The WMAS website said       they’re located at Millennium Point.

All this left me wondering who’s in charge of talking to the Press on a Friday afternoon, if anything major happens on the city roads? Was calling the wrong people? What numbers do other journalists call to get such information?

Having worked as a transport correspondent and being on the night shift as a crime reporter, for over two years, the traffic control room, the highway control room and the expressway control room would be the first port of call. But  yesterday I had no clue where I went wrong!

I was finally put out of my misery when I saw a tweet from National Express.

After this, I started tweeting the pictures sent by Lois Stanley, being assured that I was not blowing things out of proportion.

Waiting for answers…

In a journalism lecture, one of my teachers once said:

“A lot of a journalist’s time is spent waiting outside the offices of bureaucrats.”

Time and again I find this to be the most important lesson: patiently pestering people and not going away when they really want you to go away.

Chasing a story on the maintenance of bus stops takes me back to this lesson. Its been over three weeks now since I started asking questions to Centro – the Company that runs bus stops and the Real Time Information (RTI) screens in Birmingham.

The Big question that remains unanswered – who is really responsible for these screens?

The other questions that I’ve been asking are:

  • How much money is spent on these information screens?
  • What method is used to decide which bus stops in the city need the screens? Is it decided on the basis of the number of commuters using a bus stop or are they placed after certain distances or in high traffic routes etc? Is any survey or study carried out for it?

  • Have any complaints been received about this issue from commuters? How are complaints dealt with?


The first set of questions that I asked and their answers from the Press Office were these:


1. How many bus stops in the city have electronic display boards?

There are currently 54 bus stop totems* in the city centre which were installed as part of a transport information overhaul in Birmingham city centre in autumn last year. Currently 10 totems display full real time information with the others set to follow later this year after further electrical work is carried out.

*To clarify, the difference between a totem and an RTI screen, here are pictures of the two:

2012-10-29 17.27.43

A totem installed at the City Centre last year

IMG_0272

An RTI screen at a bus stop on Birchfield road, Perry Barr

2. How often are the bus timings updated? 

Buses which are installed with tracking devices will allow the displays to be updated immediately. For buses without these devices, timetable information is displayed to show the time of the next scheduled service. All National Express buses now have tracking devices installed and once the technology has been tested more than 80 per cent of the region’s buses will be capable of showing this real time information.

3. How is data collected for them? For instance are any surveys etc carried out? 

Data is provided from each of the bus operators and is processed through Centro’s systems to ensure we are able to update the displays with the latest information we have.

4. In cases where the display boards develop faults/ stop working, who carries out the maintenance and how long does it take to get them working again?

There are designated maintenance workers who are tasked with repairing any faults to real time information displays. They aim to visit the site within three days. The length of repair can vary depending on the nature of the fault.

5. Have any complaints been received about this issue from commuters? How are complaints dealt with?

Any complaints relating to Centro’s services go through our Customer Relations department who aim to respond within 10 working days. We have recently received our first round of Market Research feedback since installing the new information systems. A sample of 200 passengers was taken and 81 per cent of those asked said they were happy with the accuracy of the electronic information. A further 91 per cent reacted positively to the location of the totems and said they found the information useful.

What I thought would be ‘not so difficult to obtain’ information and what began as polite exchange of emails and phone calls with the press office has now turned into a Freedom of Information (FOI) request and waiting for the 21 day period to be over so that I can take it further. I started working on this story on February 13 and I’m still waiting for answers.

Many more such queries revealed that the RTI screens are not directly maintained by Centro, but by private contractors for which tenders are invited. On asking about the annual budget for this work, at first unofficial sources revealed that it goes up to £150,000 per year. But no confirmation was available from Centro on this. The Press office said such information is commercially sensitive and cannot be disclosed to the media.

However, experts are of the view that most of the details I have asked so far are well within the ‘public interest’ domain. If a company or organisation seeks exemption, they need to justify the exemption of such commercially sensitive data against the public interest test, as per Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) guidelines.

An updated version of this information, (revealed by the FOI response from Centro on March 15, 2013) is available in my next blogpost.