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Science

In London, a virtual taxi stand via Twitter

While only an extreme minority of London cabbies are using the online service, its use is growing, organizers say. They are organizing a 'cab camp' to further the technology next month.

black cab

Only about 100 of London's 25,000 black cab drivers are using @tweetalondoncab

London's black cab drivers are famous for having to learn "the knowledge," which is essentially memorizing and being able to navigate all of the city's streets.

However, over the last several months, a small subset of this closely-knit tribe has started to add another tool - Twitter - as a way to make it easier for drivers and customers to find each other.

For now, organizers say, @tweetalondoncab is the only tweetable cab service in the United Kingdom, and possibly even the world.

"We got quite a few requests asking us if we'd take 'tweet' bookings," said Lee Cox, one of the organizers. "Two of the guys decided to give it a go and that's how @tweetalondoncab was born."

Setting the wheels in motion

It all began in early 2010 as just another online social network community: a Twitter group for London taxi drivers to chat and share information about work opportunities and hotspots, traffic and road-works, bargain car part stores and coffee-break meet-ups. But the account soon attracted followers who were cab users rather than cab drivers.

There are now 115 members of the collective, which is managed entirely by the drivers. So far, they have over 8,000 followers and 100 regular clients - that's still an extreme minority of the 25,000 licensed black cabs in the English capital. At the moment, Cox says that only about five percent of his business comes in through Twitter, but he adds, it's growing at a rapid pace.

For the hundreds of people who use the service, the booking system works by prospective customers following @tweetalondoncab's Twitter account, which then follows them back. After that, they can send a direct message with details of their request.

@tweetalondoncab

Customers follow @tweetalondoncab and then can communicate with the drivers privately via "direct message"

"We use direct message because it's more secure and ensures privacy," Lee Cox told Deutsche Welle. "Nothing is passed on the open Twitter streams that people can see so no-one knows where you're going to and from."

The drivers aren't sending the tweets directly from the cabs. The cabbies in this group take turns doing online shifts at home, reading incoming messages and then passing on the relevant ones to the drivers.

Lee Cox himself does five two-hour stints a week at home in front of his computer but says the investment of personal time is well worthwhile for the customer feedback they have been getting.

Personalized service

One of their regular customers that they've gotten through Twitter, is Tina Mammoser, an American artist who lives in London.

"I blogged about them because I love them!" she said.

She added that she doesn't drive and has always had problems finding transport services willing and able to take large canvases to art galleries

"The first time I used them, I was tweeting back and forth, asking them to measure the inside of the cab because I needed to get a 1.2-meter by 1.5-meter painting inside," she said. "And then I got a Twitter message later from one of the drivers who had gone out and measured the distance between the sides of the cab."

Cox noted that this kind of personal service can build relationships in a way that a traditional, anonymous taxi stand or automated phone line can't.

"[Customers] like to know that they're having a conversation with a group of people rather than a machine, it's not just an automated response."

@tweetalondoncab

@tweetalondoncab organizers have invited programmers and social media experts to a "cab camp" on October 1

An upcoming "cab camp"

As the number of tweet requests grows, the cab drivers are looking for more efficient technological ways of streamlining the booking system.

That's why they have organized a "cab camp" in London on October 1, to which they've invited a number of social media and IT professionals.

Lee Cox and his colleagues hope to learn more about existing potential technological solutions to simplify their work and improve the service.

"There's such a lot of information revolving around the geo-location that you get from your phone now," he said. "So we physically know where the cab driver and the customer [are], so just the ability to link those two together would itself make it much more productive."

Author: Dany Mitzman
Editor: Cyrus Farivar

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