October 12, 2010
Another Friday, another threat of a rush-hour snowfall to delay the start of your weekend.
I’m sure the afternoon snowstorm drill at Fast Horse is repeated at workplaces all over the Twin Cities. Before anyone hits the road, we scour the latest traffic information, trying to pinpoint the exact last second we can leave the office and not hit major traffic on the way home due to the snowstorm.
Last Friday, when a solid snowfall started not long after lunch, the majority of us failed to hit the sweet spot. One staffer left at 3 p.m., trying to beat the rush home to Lakeville. No chance. Even though she used a MnPASS express lane, she still spent two hours on the road.
The one good thing that I was able to take away from the snowstorm was an introduction to the amazingly well-groomed MnDOT traffic Twitter account. Labeled as the ‘official Mn/DOT Twitter feed for Minneapolis/St. Paul traffic accidents,’ accidents are posted to the account in virtually real-time, and even more impressive, tweets are actually removed when the accident is cleared.
I was so impressed that I contacted MnDOT and asked to speak to the omniscient genie that was the brains behind the account. They forwarded me to Bob Filipczak, social media coordinator and web genie for MnDOT communications. He was able to take his eyes off the roads, but only for a minute, to answer my questions about the challenges MnDOT faces using social media, what gets his team excited and what’s next for MnDOT.
Q: What does a social media coordinator for MnDOT do?
I was initially hired for my writing and web skills, and was basically here to manage content. Over time my role evolved and it became clear we needed a Facebook page and a Twitter account. I manage the MnDOT news Twitter feed. I also started working in the video area by accident, and started a YouTube channel. Ultimately, we use whatever tools we need to get our message out. Sometimes that’s web, sometimes that’s Facebook, sometimes it’s Twitter.
Q: You have several Facebook pages and several Twitter feeds. What purpose do they all serve?
We have one main Facebook page and several dedicated to projects like the I-35 Duluth Project and MnPASS. For example, we use the Duluth page to keep people updated during the summer in anticipation of big events, like Grandma’s Marathon, letting people know Duluth is open for business, everything is flowing well, these are the kinds of things that you can expect to see– ultimately that there are no major delays.
We have three Twitter accounts. The first one is @Mndottraffic and that’s the most popular. We have two people who post information to the 511 system, which is where we post breaking news about conditions, blockages and construction, and they also do the Twitter feeds. They get all their information from the guys who watch the cameras, so it’s posted at an amazing speed. So, really, what you’re getting on Twitter is as fast as we know it.
Then there’s @Mndotnews, which is basically a repeat of our news releases and, every once in a while, because the MnDOT traffic Twitter account is only what’s going on in the metro area, say there’s a road closed in Rochester, I’ll post that on the MnDOTnews feed. Finally, there’s @Mndotresearch, which is for people who are interested in transportation research. There’s a big center for transportation research at the U, and the professors and students will follow it – there’s a great conversation between MnDOT Research and the University of Minnesota.
Q: How long has MnDOT been active in social media?
Just about a year and a half. We started our Facebook and YouTube in September 2009 and that’s really when we got serious about social media.
Q: Now that MnDOT is getting into mobile and social technologies, when/where/how are you imagining consumers will be using your services?
We’re really hoping no one is checking it when they’re on the road. We want people to check it when they’re on the way out the door in the morning and before they get on the road on their way home. We actually considered using social media to create a system where consumers could report potholes, but because MnDOT is only in charge of highways, we couldn’t do it because we didn’t want people stopping on the highways to check-in to Foursquare!
Q: What was the main reason MnDOT decided to get involved in social media?
The director of our communication department, Kevin Gutknecht. He understands on a fundamental level that, as technology advances, people are going to get their information in a number of ways, and if we just expect them to go to our website, we’re going to miss a lot of them.
Q: What’s next for MnDOT’s online communications?
We haven’t really figured out Foursquare, or what to do with location based social media. In a lot of ways, MnDOT is all about location. We have sophisticated GPS abilities and where people are is very important to us, but it’s still a question mark. In fact, we’re open to suggestions!
My conversation with Bob also yielded some fun traffic facts:
The snow is supposed to start in the Twin Cities this evening (what is it with the weekends?!). Be sure to follow @mndottraffic twitter account for the latest and not so greatest news in traffic conditions.