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Travel and tech

Rory Cellan-Jones | 11:52 UK time, Tuesday, 7 September 2010

"Why do I do this every day?" For years, these words were painted in big white letters on a fence alongside the M40 motorway on the approach to London.

It always sounded to me like the anguished cry of a commuter and it will strike a chord with anyone trying to get to work in the capital today.

A tube strike has brought travel chaos - of little concern to those of you outside south east England but a subject dominating conversation around the water-coolers, both real and virtual. What's this got to do with technology, I hear you ask.

Well two things - commuters and media organisations are using the latest social media tools to document the travel situation and to obtain information, while beginning to ask whether spending hours on the move is really necessary in this connected age.

One innovation is a crowdsourcing experiment run by my colleagues at BBC London. They have set up a London Tube Strike Map to plot commuters' experiences as they head across town.

It is the brainchild of Claire Wardle, who has been working on the intersection between social media and newsgathering. She explains here here how she decided to use the Ushahidi platform, which was invented to plot civil unrest in Kenya, to gather pictures, reports, anecdotes from London travellers.

So here are a few snippets: "Willesden Junction Station - long queues", "Dollis Station closed - contrary to TFL website", "Paddington Station - Hammersmith and City Line not stopping."

Now this is all information that should be available either from the Transport for London website or from the BBC's own travel news service, on radio, TV or the web.

But official sources still struggle to keep up to date - sometimes the crowd is faster with the news, as long as you accept that these are anecdotal rather than official reports.

There were about 90 reports on the map by mid-morning, which seems a little sparse to me. But Claire Wardle was satisfied as the project had only been publicised on Twitter, rather than on air, and the whole exercise had been something of an experiment.

A few lessons have been learned - each report really needs a time stamp to be useful in a fast changing situation, and more people may need to be accustomed to using smartphones if the traffic to maps like this is really going to take off.

But surely there is a simpler technical answer to coping with traffic chaos - just work from home. Many of us now have all the technology you need - a computer and a decent broadband connection to do as much of our work from the front room as we could in the office.

But I sense there is still reluctance by many employers to allow staff out of their sight. I asked a few people on a popular social network about their employer's policy.

Quite a few were allowed to stay home, but others said the practice was discouraged: "we were told to make it in if we could - ie come in", "we are being robust: no extra home working, take holiday if you can't get in" and "no but if we work through lunch we can go home early."

Of course, the BBC would be perfectly happy for me to work from my high-tech home studio, broadcasting down an ISDN line, or sending video clips over my fast broadband line.

But I struggled in for a meeting at my office with people from a technology firm who had come all the way from Cardiff to see me. We could have just talked on the phone but I think we achieved more gathered around the same table, especially as I dragged in a couple of colleagues to take part.

Even in the connected age, face to face contact still matters. But that message "Why do I do this every day?" has now disappeared from the fence alongside the M40. Perhaps the graffiti artist is now working from home.


  • Comment number 1.

    Rory wrote:

    "But I sense there is still reluctance by many employers to allow staff out of their sight. I asked a few people on a popular social network about their employer's policy."

    Let me relate a true story: A while back when working from home was just starting in the Telecoms industry I recall the trial by BT of operators working from home. It was thought necessary by the management that each operator would have to make a video call to log in before they commenced work. This was to prevent someone-else from logging in as the worker and doing their job (as if!). Apparently this was a real fear by BT's management.

    SO the poor old home workers had to dress just as if they were at work and as these were all women it meant that all the usual war paint had to be painstakingly applied etc. Apparently BT felt that even though the operators were never seen by customers that had to be presentable. The trial failed as you would expect as the operators felt too intimidated to work (or some such problem.) The trial was I think in Scotland.

    So long as employers are as ridiculous as this working from home will never work!

  • Comment number 2.

    To pick up a couple of points:

    If you need to do face to face remotely, then immersive video is a reality. And trust me - if you haven't tried it (something like Cisco Telepresence) aside from being able to pass the biscuits from one side of the table to another, it's as good as being there. This kind of HD immerisive video is coming to the desktop too - look at what Vidyo are doing.

    Second - I used to work for BT - indeed was a "case study" homeworker (been on Japanese TV for my troubles :) ) - and let me tell you, BT gets homeworking. At the last count it had about 80,000 flexible workers and over 12000 permanent homeworkers. They make a great success of it IMHO and save a shed load of money in the process.

  • Comment number 3.

    Glad to see you acknowledge the fact that there is a world outside of London that couldn't care less about the tube strikes. What really interests me is that people will happily post things on Twitter about the strikes, but in real life all people do is try and avoid eye contact. Outside of London people are much friendlier.

    On the topic of working from home, there is a lot of stuff that simply requires face to face contact to discuss. However, for 1 day it should be ok to work from home provided you have access to the stuff you need. In all honesty, managers could simply ask on the status of work that people are working on the next day to confirm that work was actually done and the day wasn't a total waste.

  • Comment number 4.

    I think businesses are opening up to Teleconferenceing. 10 way Skype (v5 beta) video conferenceing is free. Compare that to a Train journey Cardiff to London (2 hours at £20ph wages plus £30 fare) costing £100 return per person, per day.

    I'm surprised you didn't suggest this to your bosses Rory. What will you do when they all move to Salford?

  • Comment number 5.

    I think employers are still reluctant to let people work from home because there is a feeling that they won't be as productive. As politically correct as it sounds to say otherwise I think they are largely right.

    Technology can support us in working from home, but unless you are used to doing it taking the odd day to work from home isn't productive. There is a mindset involved people need to get used to when people try to work in a space that they are conditioned to relax in.

    My advice would be either to let people work from home at least 2 days a week or not to bother.

  • Comment number 6.

    Firstly, I'd like to say the experiment on the Ushahidi platform was quite impressive. I do recall Dr Alex Krototski's (sp) rubbishing the platform in her BBC series not too long ago, saying it was not fit for the western world! She didn't say it exactly in those words, but that's what I got.

    Secondly, I think home working all depends on what the individual does and how efficiently they can do it away from the office. There are ways and means to supervise remote working, which is what those firms offering that flexibility should look into before venturing into it. I work in telecoms where it is very common to work from home. My employer uses all manner of tech to allow workers to keep in touch with colleagues constantly. By and large, it works very well, especially that for most people it's not an everyday thing, although we do have a few individuals who work from home and in the field permanently.

  • Comment number 7.

    Conferencing and collaboration technology is not about replacing face to face meetings altogether.
    It's much more about being able to hold meetings when it is not possible, for whatever reason, to meet face to face.
    To be able to quickly and easily bring together all the right people at the right time without anyone having to leave their desks, regardless of where that desk might be.
    How often do you actually need to 'see' the person you are meeting with?
    Many of our business meetings can be conducted using an integrated audio and web conferencing solution.
    All you need is access to the plain old telephone (fixed or mobile)for the audio piece and access to a PC/laptop with a broadband connection so you can share any content to be discussed.
    What could be simpler.
    Work from home, just as if you were in the office!

  • Comment number 8.

    in real life all people do is try and avoid eye contact. Outside of London people are much friendlier

    I hear things like this from northern friends quite a lot, but I think it's just a matter of what you consider to be friendly, and IMO (and I think that of most tube users) random strangers making direct eye contact with you when you're shut in a small metal box with them isn't it - it's intrusive and creepy.

    In my experience, when something goes obviously wrong on he tube people will jump in to help out, so the friendliness is there, it's just the rest of the time the culture is to respect your personal space and privacy. That's still them being friendly though, it's just a difference of expectation.

  • Comment number 9.

    6. At 4:17pm on 07 Sep 2010, EMC wrote:
    ...I think home working all depends on what the individual does and how efficiently they can do it away from the office.
    This means that pay will have to be based on piecework style contracts rather than an hourly rate. Simple.
    The problem is that traditionally piecework is not remunerated in an equitable manner.

  • Comment number 10.

    Sorry to say that the tube strike map didn't work for me - it meant nothing.

    All that was needed was for TFL (or someone) to have a tube map on their HOME PAGE which highlighted which parts of the network WERE running.

    I would have gone to work on the Central Line from Ealing Broadway to White City if i'd have know that that part of the iine was running - but amongst the mass of information that was out there, it wasn't clear. A nice clean, simple map - updated on a regular basis would have worked much better.

    I have the day off work the next date of the proposed tube strike. So I might just have a crack of doing this myself, just by manually trawling all the tweets reporting on what stations/lines are open. It would have been very easy (and very nice) of someone at TFL to do this.

  • Comment number 11.

    Working from home is fine as long as some accountability and tracking is possible. With clear results-based work, it's obvious whether you've put in the time.

    Otherwise, employers are probably correct in being a little apprehensive about the idea, as most people will find it very difficult to resist the temptation to indulge just a little in the novel situation of working from home, at least to begin with.

  • Comment number 12.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?


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