I, like many others, have been quite frustrated with the Steamship Authority over the past few months. I know most of the actual problems fall far outside the scope of your realm, but I know you’ve dealt with mass texting systems and communication, and I wanted to know what your recommendations would be for improving communication between the SSA and the public.
The Island (Delayed) Home
Wow, you have found a way to intersect my article with the hot-button issue of the year for all of us here on the Island. I too have been caught in the ferry’s issues, between my daughter’s hockey and son’s music schedule off-Island. I have friends who were on the “three-hour tour” floating off West Chop that night when the power failed on the ferry (and the crew was amazing from what I’ve heard from many — and kudos to them in a tough situation). Though things have improved from their low point, I feel many of us are still holding our breath, and better communication can go a long way in giving us more of a sense of trust.
I have heard many stories of people arriving at boats, being told they were canceled, no standby traffic would be allowed, then these same people hearing that cars in standby were in fact loaded onto ferries. Mixed messages in a time of confusion and frustration make matters worse. Getting an accurate, timely message out to people is vital. If a boat is canceled, knowing before trying to drive to it, park, and arrive saves an indescribable amount of exasperation. People have an assortment of reasons to go off-Island (or come home), and knowing all of the ferry’s up-to-date schedule/status, even if travel plans are altered, allows them to make proper arrangements to shuffle the components of their busy schedules.
How can the Steamship Authority do a better job of letting us know, specifically? They do text and email us, but what can be improved? Too often I have received long texts with extra info not vital to the message. I feel that a short text with the time of the ferry having an issue, status, and a brief description of the issue with a link to more information clearly posted on their website is most effective. Something like “8:15 AM VH-WH ferry canceled — mechanical issues. Click here for more info” would be enough. TIming of sending that message should be the instant it is canceled. Nobody wants to get a text like that. Nobody wants to have to send a text like that. Trust me. I’ve texted messages to close to 2,000 people that Norton Point was closed to vehicles many times in July. It’s not anyone’s favorite message. It’s life, though and things happen. If we know enough to plan around them, it makes issues more palatable.
For standby status, I have heard people calling for a webcam showing the line. It’s a great idea. On the tech side of things, a high number of people accessing a specific camera at the same time isn’t ideal, but pictures posted to the SSA website of the standby line, updated every 5 minutes, would be a simple solution to display current standby statuses. How about an option in the app and/or a link off the website to see the most current images of each standby location? That would be easy enough to do, and make a tremendous difference. When we see the number of cars listed on the SSA website’s standby status, at this point we are a bit skeptical of that information. At the very least, a “last updated at X time” would make me personally feel more assured that the information was accurate. Simple solution to provide information. With information, people can make better-informed decisions. We might not love a long standby line, but we’re far better knowing it exists so we can decide whether or not to chance it.
We survived the winter/spring of discontent by communicating and updating statuses on Facebook, and that is where most of us got our information as to current steamship schedules. Those were updates from travelers for the most part. Social media has proven to be a very effective tool. The Steamship Authority should utilize it to communicate information as well.
A multipronged approach to communication for the Steamship Authority is my recommended path, and the suggestions I’ve made are mentioned as a result of speaking with many people, hearing their frustrations, attending the Board of Governors meeting, and based on my own personal experiences. I’m not saying or assuming that running the SSA is an easy task, and I’m hoping this was a once-in-a-lifetime confluence of mishaps, but learning from the mistakes, communicating better, and fixing some of the easy things would be a great step in the right direction.
Though frustrated, I feel for the employees and Board of Governors of the SSA. Their employees have been amazing in what must have been extremely frustrating circumstances, and the Board of Governors did come over here and sat for a couple hours listening to our venting, some more productive than others. They did vote for the independent review, which is terrific. These communication changes don’t need an independent review, they can just be instituted, and if we feel like we are “in the know,” in some way we will all feel like we are more on the same team.
Thanks for writing in, Island (Delayed) Home,
Adam Darack is the IT administrator for the town of Edgartown. He writes regularly about the technological issues facing Island business owners. Got a question? Send it to email@example.com with the subject line “Dear Geek.”