Mining Twitter for ratings of mass transit and what the agencies can do in response

A new study examined Twitter comments about mass transit in the United States and Canada and came up with a ranking of those invoking the most positive and negative sentiments:

The results of her study, published this month in the Journal of the American Planning Association, ranked 10 of the largest public transit agencies in the US and Canada by how well regarded they are on Twitter. Based on Schweitzer’s “mean sentiment score” and more than 60,000 tweets collected between 2010 and 2014, Twitter was nicest to Vancouver’s Translink, which was followed by Portland, Oregon’s TriMet and Toronto’s TTC. The harshest tweets concerned systems in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. For comparison, Schweitzer calculated scores for public figures (the sentiment score ranged from William Shatner to Osama Bin Laden), airlines, police departments, and welfare programs (the full chart is at the bottom of this post).

Schweitzer used text mining to pick out positive and negative words from the tweets (and manually added terms including brokedown, wtf, scam, epicfail, pervy, and unsuck). Machine learning helped spot things like parody accounts and unusually frequent tweeters. Schweitzer and her graduate students also analyzed some 5,000 tweets by hand, to ensure they lined up with the computer system’s interpretations. Reasons for complaint included delays, facilities, staff conduct, public mismanagement, and the class, race, and gender of other riders.

Here’s the funny thing: The transit system’s scores don’t line up with service quality (judged by on-time performance). But the unsurprising fact that public griping doesn’t necessarily match reality doesn’t make the data useless. Because Schweitzer did find one factor that predicts “mean sentiment”—the way the transit agencies themselves behave on Twitter…

So what’s the takeaway? If you’re looking for a low investment way to improve your public image on Twitter, use Twitter as a tool for conversation, not one-way communication. It may seem that someone complaining to 18 followers that their train is late doesn’t matter, but Schweitzer makes the point that social media does influence broader public perceptions.

Engaging in public relations on social media is not new. However, the idea that government agencies or infrastructure organizations need to may be more recent. On one hand, Americans expect government to be responsive. On the other hand, mass transit is one of those areas that seems monolithic: leaders in those organizations are not elected and infrastructure faces its own kind of difficulties (aging, weather issues, particular funding sources, a sort of permanence that is difficult to change quickly). But, at least the disgruntled might feel heard if there is social media interaction even if their complaints are not fixed immediately.

Possible next steps: would major mass transit groups make policy decisions based on Twitter? Remember, a small percentage of Americans use Twitter regularly but those users can be pretty vocal and/or well positioned in society.

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