Community supported Caltrain notices, one tweet at a time

About

This service is an attempt to address two issues many Caltrain commuters have by empowering them to send alerts themselves.

Problems

#1 No adequate method of providing travel alerts, delays, and advisories.

Caltrain does not currently provide unplanned travel alerts and advisories on their web site and 511.org, which provides information on mass transit in the San Francisco Bay Area, posts notices too infrequently to be considered useful. Even if either site were to provide up-to-date notices there is currently no way to have them sent to you either by email or SMS.

#2 Communicating the number of bicycle cars on a particular train.

An unfortunate problem commuters who bring their bikes on the train face is either being bumped from a train because the bicycle car is full or delaying the train with the boarding process.

Solution

By leveraging Twitter‘s broadcast SMS feature commuters are able to send email to a designated account where the subject of the email message will be used as the Twitter update or ‘tweet’.

How it works

Twitter is a free social networking and micro-blogging service that allows users to send Tweets (text-based posts, up to 140 characters long) to the Twitter website via multiple sources — short message service (SMS), instant messaging, email, or an application such as Twitterrific.1 Twitter, however, restricts each unique source to one account.

By using a combination of tools email messages sent to the designated account are parsed and redirected to the Twitter API. Anyone is now able to send tweets via email and be redistributed via SMS to anyone who has chosen to receive them.

Limitations

This type of system relies heavily on user participation and honesty. Updates are only as good as the timeliness, accuracy, and relevance.  Because the potential for abuse is high all email is logged and a key is required to have updates sent to Twitter.

This system also relies heavily on two things — the mobile providers and Twitter. That said this service can only be as reliable as those two. It has been decided that updates that are not accepted by Twitter will not be resent. This is because the message may not be news worthy by the time the message is ready to be received. It should not take much more than a minute from the receipt of the email by this service to receiving the SMS message. If you feel the system errored out try re-sending it.

How can I help?

Sending updates is easy and anyone can do it. All you need is an email key which can be obtained by sending a request to caltrain @ cow . org.

Messages to be sent to Twitter should be emailed to the appropriate address.  Please consult the Getting Started and  Updating Guide before you begin to send updates.

caltrain+{KEY} @ cow . org
Travel alerts, delays, and advisories. For example: NB285 going local from Millbrae to SF. No ETA to SF.
bikecar+{KEY} @ cow . org
Number of bike cars on a particular train. For example: SB230 2 old, both at north end

Contact

All questions, inquiries, and requests for email key should be directed to caltrain @ cow . org.

There are Twitter accounts for the service, @caltrain and @bikecar, and my personal account, @ravipina, which I use to reply to people who @reply to the service accounts.  There is also a blog (which you are likely reading this from) that is a more open forum for talking about the service.

Links

New Jersey Transit has the best notification system of all the transit providers I’ve used for daily commuting. It boggles my mind that not one provider in the Bay Area can manage something similar.

Legal

This site or service is not affiliated in any way with Caltrain, Twitter or a representative of the management of either.

Information contained within this website or updates redirected to the Twitter service is intended solely for general informational and educational purposes. Neither cow.org owners or management (hereafter “cow.org”) nor its agents or representatives make any representations as to the accuracy, completeness or correctness, timeliness or usefulness of any information contained herein. ALL INFORMATION CONTAINED HEREIN IS PROVIDED “AS IS” AND COW.ORG EXPRESSLY DISCLAIMS MAKING ANY EXPRESS OR IMPLIED WARRANTIES WITH RESPECT TO THE FITNESS OF THE INFORMATION CONTAINED HEREIN FOR ANY PARTICULAR USAGE, ITS MERCHANTABILITY, ITS APPLICATION OR PURPOSE OR ITS NON-INFRINGEMENT.