Mind the gap: Inside London’s digital-first transportation agency

London Underground

Transport for London is the government body that runs the British capital’s sprawling travel network, including its trains, buses and roads.

Last month, the organization launched a partnership with Twitter to send real-time messages to Londoners about severe travel disruption on the TfL services they follow on the platform. The pilot is just one initiative that TfL is rolling out in its quest to become a digital-first business.

“In the past, public-sector digital services weren’t as up to the minute. But our service is as good as the best retail brands,” said Phil Young, TfL’s head of online.

The organization is an old hand on social media. Since joining Twitter in 2009, it has changed its tack from offering one-way service information to creating a fully fledged customer support platform. Now, TfL handles the majority of customer queries here, with trained support staff available 24/7. With over 4.5 million followers across its 25 feeds, it fields around 3,000 queries a day. Its Twitter support team has an average response time of one minute.

While its new real-time pilot with Twitter is too early for results, Young says feedback has been good so far. He added that it had a “fairly obvious” use case for the capital’s buses and roads.

“They are way ahead given that they are a public body. In my work with clients, I use TfL as an example of early digital change,” Suptasree Roy, associate partner at digital agency Th_nk, told Digiday.

Indeed, its overseas equivalents are still clunky. There’s only one Twitter feed for the New York subway, while Oslo’s #Ruter service only pumps out automated messages.

Aside from Twitter, TfL is looking to third-party companies to help extend its services. It’s not just the big brands, either. There are now over 8,000 registered developers than can access TfL’s data after it opened its unified API: So far, they’ve made 500 smartphone apps, which are used by around 42 percent of Londoners. Companies like popular route-planning app Citymapper’s have built entire businesses around this data.

“A lot of companies get caught up in adding layers and complexity. What TfL has done very well is focus on a number of very obvious use cases that feel uncomplicated,” Ben Hart, partner at digital consultancy Atmosphere, told Digiday.



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