in New York City, Technology and Society

The New MTA Email Alert System – Replacing a real flood with an email flood

About a year ago, we had a deluge of rain that flooded the New York City subway system and basically shut several lines down completely for a day or more. The already crumbling NYC Transit’s infrastructure was simply unable to handle this amount of sudden rainfall. Soon after, the authority promised to make significant improvements, to be able to better handle an event like this in the future. One of these improvements was to better inform travelers of any possible issues with the subway service, so that they could plan accordingly. A week or so ago, with great fanfare, the MTA announced a new alert system that people could subscribe to, which would provide up-to-the-minute alerts about issues with the subway service.

So far so good.

I signed up for the new alert system and quickly discovered that the solution, aside from being fairly archaic in terms of how people subscribe and make their selections, simply is not the right fit for the problem. The reason for this is the somewhat tragic reality of New York’s subway system: it is effectively in a continual state of emergency. In other words, there are *always* a number of ongoing problems, such as a signal problem, a sick passenger, and on and on. Here is a sampling of alerts I received recently:

Smoke condition at 42nd St, Euclid C trains running exp from 59th St to Canal St and WTC E trains running exp from 42nd St to Canal St.

Police investigation at 86th St; Crown Heights 4 and Brooklyn Bridge 6 trains running express from 125th St to 42nd St.

Sick customer at Roosevelt Avenue, Jamaica bound E and 179th St bound F running local Roosevelt to Continental.

Now, imagine getting alerts like this in your inbox on a continual basis. Even if it may just be once a day (though these alerts are popping into my inbox throughout the day), you will eventually start to just ignore them or get sick of them and unsubscribe from the alerts. The problem here is that I am receiving a continual stream of information that most of the time is irrelevant to me, and would only be relevant to me at the particular point in time when I plan to ride the subway. For that reason, I think a pull rather than the current push model would make more sense. In other words, whenever I plan to ride the subway, I’d have a bookmarked link or whatever that would take me a to a page summarizing what was happening at that moment. Or, if I wanted to get even fancier, I’d have something like an iPhone app (or a Crackberry app, though I don’t know if they have GPS), which would automatically customize the info displayed based on my current location.

I am hoping that the initial version of the system is only just that, an initial version, and that there are plans to provide information in a way that is more timely and relevant.

  1. Hi Sally – this blog post actually came about because I was literally getting notifications from the MTA every few hours for a while, none of which really were relevant to me. But somewhat ironically, after I posted this, I also have seen a radical reduction in the qty of notification messages. Wondering if maybe they got a lot of complaints and are limiting notifications only to major issues?

  2. You can customize what you want to get messages for. There is a check box for each line. You don’t have to get all the lines. Just check the ones you want. I signed up about a week ago for the 7 and the M. I got nothing so far for the 7 and only a couple for the M. I don’t see this flood you are talking about.

  3. Hey Juan – thanks so much for the tip – definitely going to check it out!

  4. The iPhone app for this is already out and its free! Its called CityTransit. It locates you and finds the nearest station. Two clicks away are the “Advisories” per train in a very clean interface. As a nice start page to the app, it opens to a full NYC train map with the same interaction technique as Google Maps. I think its a great app, enjoy it.

  5. What they could do is have the subscription be more personalized. Therefore if one uses certain lines say a Bay Ridge resident would be concerened about the linex or whatever. If that same resident made a daily commute to the bronx his/her other connecting lines would also be of interest.
    In the alert sign up process the alerts should be graded according to severity and the user given the choice of severity he/she signs up for.
    I would be solely interested (concerned) in delays of my lines and terrorist activity period. I am certainly not interested in sick passenger who is delaying the Flushing queens station train from getting out if i live in Brooklyn.

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