City-Citizen Communication: Good Thing it Wasn’t an Emergency

June 19, 2007

This morning a small truck drove past my window with a megaphone:

blah blah blah water blah don’t blah laundry blah blah blah

Hmmm. Sounded interesting. I went to the City of Cambridge Web site. Nothing. I called the Department of Public Works, and learned from a very nice lady that the Fire Department is flushing the fire hydrants and my water will be rusty. So I shouldn’t do laundry and I should run all my water when they’re done. She didn’t know exactly when, though.

She sounded surprised that I didn’t know, since the announcement was on “cable” (public access, perhaps?), and on the Water Department Web site (nope).

I don’t watch much TV, I certainly don’t watch public access (sorry guys), and I am not a regular visitor to the Water Department Web site. I do, however, go online a lot. A while back, I requested an RSS feed of city events and announcements, which they don’t currently have. I could set that feed to appear prominently on my Netvibes console.

That would be a start. But this just shows how poorly municipalities communicate with their citizens. What if there were an emergency? I remember one afternoon when the area went dark due to an underground electrical fire – I learned this from the ladies sitting outside across the street, who got their spotty info from a cop walking by. My hand-cranked radio was nice, but WBUR was reporting on Michael Jackson’s trial.

I’m not saying this communication problem is entirely the city’s fault. And I do appreciate that they send a man with a megaphone up and down the streets – that’s pretty frickin’ cool, even if you can’t understand what he’s saying.

It’s hard to think of an ideal pathway to communicate urgent information to a media-saturated, medium-divergent populace. Text messages could work as long as people’s numbers were well-guarded. But for now, at least update the Web site, for crying out loud!

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