Technology

Pursuing the Next Big Thing

Many towns and agencies are on Facebook and Twitter. BART jumped ahead by integrating a growing social game to promote transit.
by | February 2, 2010

Your city administration may not know it yet, but there may soon be more than one mayor in town. These new mayors could encourage others to ride transit or visit unfamiliar businesses in the community.

A new social game called Foursquare allows players to compete with friends for points by "checking-in" at places like restaurants, parks, gyms or cafes via phone or Web. If a person visits a place often enough (say, you visit a local coffee shop for a twice-daily hit of java), that person can earn bragging rights by unlocking badges or gaining recognition as the "mayor" of that local coffee shop. Among tech-savvy types, Foursquare is predicted to grow as big as Facebook or Twitter.

Bay Area Rapid Transit is the first transit agency to partner with Foursquare, in hopes of encouraging more ridership. Melissa Jordan and Timothy Moore, BART's Web team, were responsible for introducing this new platform into their operations. They spoke to me about how they gathered support for new initiatives in the edited transcript below.

Who came up with the idea to partner with Foursquare and how did that develop?

Melissa Jordan: I think Foursquare launched in March. Fairly soon after that, messages were popping up on Twitter from people riding BART saying, "I just checked in at the Powell St. BART station on Foursquare." I didn't know what that was, but it seemed like a lot of BART riders were using it. It looked like a logical place to just call up and say "Hey ... Could we ... maybe ... work something out with you guys to tie-in ... Maybe encourage more people to ride BART." So I dropped an e-mail to them and they called back the same day. It developed pretty quickly from there.

What was that development process like?

MJ: Just a series of phone calls, really. Tim and I had one brainstorm with Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley and Tristan Walker, the business development vice-president. They were already down with the idea and just asked us to fill in the blanks. They made a little badge, a BART badge that you could earn.

I saw Tristan a couple more times in person to get some of the logistics worked out. In November, we gave away the first three prizes -- three $25 tickets to people who were drawn from the list of check-ins. It went really smoothly.

How do you get support from colleagues to integrate such a new platform or program into your everyday operations?

Timothy Moore: I think the key is to make the integration as contactless as possible. This project didn't really require a lot of coordination internally. We already have established processes for promotional ticket giveaways. It's just a matter of assembling tools that you already have in place and trying to put them together.

Do you ever have any naysayers who say they want someone else to try it out first?

TM: Yeah, we try not to talk to those people. We've had a tremendous amount of support from our managers -- all the way up to our general manager -- on a lot of the initiatives that we've done. BART was one of the first transit agencies in the country to give away transit data -- and at that time it was unheard of. It also doesn't hurt that Melissa is giving seminars and winning awards all over the country. I think it makes people here understand that BART's in good hands, and that we're not going to lead the place astray.

MJ: We have a good trust level because we have a good track record. We repeat this a lot to our bosses and everyone around: You got to be prepared to have some failures and walk away if it doesn't work. All of these new things that you try -- they're not set in stone and you're not committed to them forever. Part of innovating is having a quick cycle: See what works; drop what doesn't.

TM: Also, no public agency wants to be the first out the door, and that's just part of the culture, unfortunately. But one of the ways around that -- if you want to be an innovator in that space -- is to essentially set everything up as if it were a demonstration project: something that has a definitive beginning, a definitive end and a limit to exposure and investment. If it works, you know you can grow it accordingly. It is also one of the techniques we've used to limit liability and get people comfortable with initiatives.

What sort of challenges did you two face when implementing something new like Foursquare?

TM: We're basically just coddling together programs that we already have in place: the ability to expose and promote the initiative, and the ability to give away tickets in a promotional setting.

MJ: We also play devil's advocate to throw off whatever arguments, problems or nay-saying could get in the way, and then see what the reaction, proper response or counterargument would be. Some really natural, obvious ones are "Not everyone's on Foursquare. Why would you do something only a small group of people do?" Most everything starts small. You know, people said that about Twitter two years ago. People probably said that about Facebook five years ago. But things grow, companies get on board and it's better to be a leader than a follower. So, you start when it's small, you don't invest a lot of time or resources in it, and you see if you're on the ground floor.

What advice do you have for other agencies that see something new and they're unsure how to get support or resources to pursue it?

MJ: Well, network a lot. You can basically Google "government social media" these days, and there's wikis, user forums, blogs and a million places to get advice. You got to read a lot, make search terms for your RSS feeds and stay up on it. Be smart, work hard and learn the field.

TM: I think also part of that is: Talk to a lot of folks who dread working with public agencies because they see a bureaucracy and difficulty getting things through. That is a real challenge to overcome. But when you start putting yourself out there and taking some of these chances in a controlled and smart way, you'll get a few wins under your belt, and people will start understanding that you are an agency that can get things done. People will start coming to you.

MJ: You have to take small steps and see how it works. We get dozens of calls from other agencies asking: How much time is it going to take? Is it complicated? We're not sure... Our bosses are scared of it... The advice is to start small, and do something. The sky won't fall. You might get some feedback, and then you grow from there.

Tina Trenkner
Tina Trenkner  |  Deputy Editor, GOVERNING.com
ttrenkner@governing.com  |  @tinatrenkner

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