Justin Kozuch talks TTC, technology, social media, and community

Justin Kozuch is Toronto.  As the organizer of Refresh Events, Justin has positioned himself as a thought leader when it comes to community initiatives.  I recently had the chance to interview Justin on his thoughts regarding the TTC and it’s foray into social media, new technology and community initiatives.  I hope you enjoy.

Thanks for the opportunity to talk Justin.  Last week both Adam Giambrone (TTC Chair) and Brad Ross (@bradtcc) tweeted that they wanted to include a private citizen on the TTC customer service panel.  I’m sure many people never knew there was one.  Do you think it’s important that this panel include someone who actually uses the TTC without working for them?

Absolutely. I believe that whoever is chosen, should at the very least familiar with the TTC and use it on a regular basis. An understanding of how transit systems work is important. Whoever is chosen shouldn’t be a TTC employee. There’s needs to be arms length on this, in order to ensure impartiality and fairness.

Why do you think now is a good time for a private citizen to become involved?

If you look at what the TTC has been through in the past few months, namely riders posting photos of TTC employees sleeping on the job, arguments between riders and employees and the like, there has never been a better time for the TTC to start engaging their customer base. In fact, one could argue quite successfully that the TTC should have started doing this years ago. The great thing about Twitter and social networks is that it becomes easier for organizations like the TTC to use those tools as a touchpoint to communicate and engage with customers on a regular basis for very little cost.

Similarly, I feel the time to get a private citizen involved is overdue. The TTC has made a smart move (one of many I hope) in engaging their customer base using Twitter, as they did last week. I believe that while using the digital tools are important, it is just as important to use traditional tools of engagement; offline, face-to-face conversations with community leaders, avid transit users and those who’ve exhibited a passion for improving the TTC from a variety of perspectives.

Do you think that a difference can be made?  In other words, how much “clout” does this panel have?  Does the TTC or the City of Toronto take it serious?

Improving the TTC from a customer perspective won’t be an easy job, and it won’t happen overnight. Transit is all about the experience, and it takes time to get it right, likely years, not months. How much clout the panel has depends on the nature of the elected members. I say members because I’d like to echo the sentiments of Tamera Kremer who quite succinctly said it would take “more than one member of the public to get meaningful change” (http://twitter.com/tamera/status/9296936158). I couldn’t agree more. To have only one private citizen on this panel representing the 1.4 million daily TTC riders is not feasible or sustainable. This is a team effort, and as such, a team of 4-5 private citizens with different interests, skills and abilities is necessary before any real change can be created.

I certainly hope that the TTC and the City of Toronto take this panel seriously. Their appointment of Steve O’Brien (GM of 1 King West) shows their commitment to this initiative and their understanding of the importance of customer service. Ultimately, their reception of the panel’s recommendations later this year will demonstrate their commitment to improving the TTC’s customer service.

You mentioned that the TTC has recently started using social media tools like Twitter.  What role do you think social media plays in all of this?

Great question. Social media plays a very big role. We simply can’t escape the fact that we are more connected than ever before. To quote Clay Shirky, more people are talking to more people about more things than ever before in history. That’s HUGE. We use these social media tools to conduct business, share ideas and innovate, as well as create digestible pieces of content. We’re living and working in the 21st century; a time in history when using these tools is the rule, and not the exception.

Social media is going to play a big part in helping the TTC not just send out service advisories, but also to help them LISTEN to what their customers are saying about them (good and bad), engage them in conversations and help them solve their transit issues and complaints. I think that social media could revolutionize the TTC, but in order for that to happen, the TTC needs to understand the strengths and weaknesses of social media, how to leverage the strengths and work around the weaknesses, how to measure success and most importantly, encourage the use of social media within the organization. They’ve already started on this path, primarily through the efforts of Brad Ross, who has been tweeting from @bradTTC and most recently @TTCNotices.

Although Twitter is used by many people (if not everybody) in the social media and tech scene, do you think there are voices that will not be heard if we focus too much on the “tools”?

Absolutely. Social media is not the end-all, be-all solution to their problems. It is merely a mechanism for delivery, a tool in a larger toolbox. If we focus too much on the tools, then we become blind to all else that moves. We need to be aware of the offline world, those that don’t use social media, and engage them into the same conversations that we are having online.

What tech and social media initiatives has the TTC undertaken this year?  Do you have any favourites?  What tools/initiatives would you like the TTC to use?

The TTC has implemented email alerts, which is a good first step, but only works when you are above ground, or have service. SMS alerts have been planned for July 2010, but again, those only work when you’re above ground. What I would like to see is more updates while I’m IN the system. Is there a streetcar delay or rerouting at Spadina station? Let me know while I’m on the Bloor subway line, so that I can change my route accordingly. This would be my number one request, and I suspect I’m not alone in this.

Although it’s a bit early for favourites, I do like the Next Vehicle Information system that’s been implemented at Spadina subway system, along with the real-time streetcar map (http://www.flickr.com/photos/wyliepoon/3111156399/) at same station. I’d love to see this implemented at all subway stations that double as streetcar hubs or streetcar stops (King Subway Station for example).

I’d like to see the TTC introduce a refillable Oyster card that I can reload either online or while I’m at the station from a kiosk. We already have kiosks that sell Metropasses, so let’s go one step further and give riders the convenience of purchasing refillable Oyster cards. Transport for London (https://oyster.tfl.gov.uk/oyster/entry.do) allows customers to do this and it’s been a successful program (over 5 million cards in use).