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The Launch of CTA Tweet

Guest post by Dan O'Neil.

Today is the launch of a new Web site, CTA Tweet, an unofficial Twitter tracker for the Chicago Transit Authority. We also started a series of Twitter accounts for each train line and the bus system as a whole. There are two things you can do with CTA Tweet:

1. Monitor postings to the CTA Alerts wireless notification utility without signing up for a UPOC account.
All posts to the CTA Alerts system at http://www.upoc.com/group.jsp?group=ctaalerts automatically appear on Twitter here: http://twitter.com/ctatweet (thanks to Harper Reed and his chicago.transitapi.com). If you're only interested in true alerts, this is for you. If you have a Twitter account, just follow CTA Tweet and you're done. If you want to publish to this feed, sign up here, just as before. CTA Alerts remains an effective source for transmitting "rider-to-rider communication in the event of service disruption or emergency on the Chicago Transit Authority", just like it has been since July of 2005. This is just a new way to get alerts from an existing system that opens it up to a lot more people. Go here to find out how to subscribe to this system.

2. Monitor what people are saying about the CTA in general, each train line, and/or the bus system as a whole at ctatweet.com via Twitter @replies. 
If you have a Twitter account (what is Twitter?), you can use an @reply to post less urgent, but still useful and interesting things about the current state of Chicago public transit as you’re experiencing it. We pull those replies together and publish them in one place. Keep in mind that these are not alerts as we've come to know them over the years. This is the random chatter and tweets of the Internet; people who use the @reply feature in Twitter to publish about the CTA. If people buy into this, we think it has a lot of potential for organizing real-time information about the second largest transit sytem in United States. Here's a complete list of the Twitter accounts and @reply feeds we have.

Here's some background and further discussion.

This isn't rocket surgery.
Here's how the system works:

  • We take emails that are sent from a free, somewhat cheesy wireless group Web site, format it in a nice little JSON string, and publish it to http://twitter.com/ctatweet. This was created and maintained by Harper Reed -- go ahead and do whatever you want with it.
  • We set up ctatweet.com with a WordPress installation to hold posts.
  • Then I do a search for the @reply phrases in Twitter, burn a Feedburner feed for the result, and use Feedburner BuzzBoost to republish those feeds on the proper pages over at ctatweet.com

That's about it -- UPOC, some custom Django, WordPress, Twitter, RSS, Feedburner, done.

That's where you come in
The most important thing we need to make this worthwhile is for you to contribute. Here are some ideas for what you might say and how you might say it:

  • If you wanted to report a problem on train car number 3008 on the Blue Line -- too dirty, no air conditioning, etc. -- you might tweet "@ctablue 3008 no air conditioning". This would show up here on the ctablue @reply feed page with a direct link, time stamp, etc.
  • The people over at WhereTheEl have a suggested syntax so they can plot the locations of trains (note to self-- write to them about a shared syntax).
  • How about Missed Connections -- "@ctared at Grand at 8am thanks for paying my fare"
  • Better "After the alert" reporting.
  • Here's documentation of the actual bus involved in an accident the other day: "ctabus 63 6230 was involved in an accident with two cars."

There are lots of other applications for a system like Twitter that allows you to publish, archive, and syndicate data from an infinite number of people who know things. Let us know what you think in the comments.

Known issues/this might actually be lame
It's entirely possible that this whole thing (the @reply feeds, not the CTA Alerts feed) isn't worthwhile, for a number of reasons.

Maybe no one will really care to interrupt their commute or their online surfing to update their Twitter accounts about the CTA. If that's what happens, it wouldn't be that big of a deal, since it didn't take that long to make. But, given the shit-ton of people doing @replies and hash tags (#) on Twitter, I'm thinking that enough people will be into it. See this Twitter syntax page for more.

It might also be too confusing to deal with. If anything (everything?) in this post doesn't make sense, make a comment and we'll try to make the explanations better.

Another issue is the fact that we haven't automated publication to the individual train line and bus Twitter accounts. Currently, it's all about the @replies. Stay tuned -- we may need some help on this. Picture taking on the persona of your favorite bus and posting to the Internet. Here's an example of a guy in Philadelphia who became Rittenhouse Square.

Lastly, as we note on the @ctabus feed page, that is currently not optimal, in that there is not a Twitter account for every bus. If you’re up for starting up a Twitter account for your bus, go for it. Just to keep the same format we’ve been using, it would be a good idea to get a Twitter username of “cta49X” or “cta36″, “cta22″, etc. Let me know at daniel at gmail dot com that you started it up (or just tweet me at @juggernautco) and we’ll add it to the mix.

Thanks for reading. Let us know what you think.


i'm excited. thank you for setting this up!

Any more info from Coffee with Ron?

This morning the CTA did a pretty good job explaining the Blue line shutdown at Red line stations. The operator of my train told us about the closure also and depending on your final destination suggested to get off the Red line at Chicago and take the Chicago Ave bus. Also mentioned that shuttles are in place and to see an agent when you get off the train at Jackson and transfer over to the blue line. I didn't get to personally see if assistants were deployed at Jackson or not, but I think it makes a lot of sense to announce on ALL lines when there is a complete shutdown of a portion of a train line...as long as the annoucements CLEARLY state which line it is for.

It will be interesting to see just how chaotic it was for Blue line riders this morning.

Very chaotic. I got to the Belmont Blue line at around 8:30. The 77 bus taking us to the station didn't mention any problems. We pulled to the station to the sight of fire trucks and CTA vehicles. I obviously wasn't getting to work on time.

Once I got near the turnstiles, I was able to see the station completely packed, confirming that this was going to be a long morning. CTA staff were scrambling around figuring out what to do. After about 10 minutes (from when I got there) they started alerting riders to head back upstairs and take the #77 back to the Red/Brown in order to get downtown. There was also a shuttle being organized to take riders down to the logan square blue line stop, but a couple of the employees kept telling people to take the Kimball bus north, which obviously will not take you to Logan Square. Others answered rider questions on where to go with simple "I don't know, we're working on it!"

It would help if CTA employees were required to have a strong knowledge of the entire CTA system in the event of situations like this.

If you were one of the lucky individuals, like myself, who needed to go to O'Hare, it took them way too long to figure out a plan to get riders on their way. Almost none of the employees had any advice to riders heading to O'hare.

Finally, once I was outside the station, a CTA employee in a suit informed riders a shuttle was being prepared to get riders to a Nbound still operating.

But at that point I found a coworker who could just pick me up.

Anytime these things happen, there's going to be a bit of chaos by its very nature, especially at rush hour. But I'd say the CTA still has a long way to go in making sure their employees are trained well enough that they can accurately inform customers of their other options, in the event of outages.

Most of the employees at each station pass the day by reading magazines and doing crossword puzzles, while getting compensated more than fairly. There's plenty of downtime for any employee to bone up on a CTA map, and thus, no excuse for situations like I saw today.

"But I'd say the CTA still has a long way to go in making sure their employees are trained well enough that they can accurately inform customers of their other options, in the event of outages."

Amen. This was my complaint earlier. The utter lack of any important information in the event of a disruption of service. From the occasional delayed train that has to run express to the major fires in the subway, communication has almost ALWAYS been the problems. It is to hard to have a team of workers whose job it is to deploy to a trouble site with PERTINENT information for passengers so they can make an informed decision as to whether to wait for the next train or look for alternate means to travel. That "We are experiencing delays. We should be moving shortly" crap Just. Doesn't. Cut. It. In many cases it's a lie and in nearly all cases it tells the customer NOTHING that is helpful. Like I said before, you don't have to get into the nuts and bolts or the gory details ("We are experiencing delays because a guy jumped on the track and got cut in half and it as SOOOO freaky. Man, you shoulda seen it..."), but at the very least they have a pretty good idea of how long it's going to be down. What's wrong with telling the customer that it will be at least 30 minutes before trains are running again? To hell with that "shortly" crap.

Congrats on the launch. It's been posted over on The Windy Citizen.


I agree with the Dude. Sunday they were stopping both NB and SB trains at Belmont and telling people service was down and there would be shuttle buses downstairs. No explanation of why everyone had to get off the trains, and of course no shuttle buses. The people working at the station had no information, they were as surprised as the customers about the service interruption. And of course they weren't stopping people from paying and going up to the platforms either.

do besides CTAtweet (i'm there), do i have to individually sign up for all the other bus/train lines individually?

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