I don’t know about you, but I still find myself in a post-Sandy hangover. I realize that makes this a prolonged condition, but today’s reason is the little Nor ‘easter, which, while David to Sandy’s Goliath, still dumped enough snow around here last night to delay the start of school until 10:30 a.m. As if having no school all of last week wasn’t enough! Side query: Does playing endless games of Monopoly count as math drills?
The second reason this seems so prolonged is because more than a handful of my neighbors are still without power. For those keeping score, this is day 10. At that point, it gets a little harder for one’s pioneer spirit to dominate; it’s replaced by an insatiable urge to call our utility company, Con Edison, at all hours of the day and night.
But, that tactic, it seems, is of little avail. The reason so many here remain in the dark, is, because, well, it looks like Con Ed went dark on them. The utility trucks were back in town this morning, after pressure from a variety of governmental officials; but a few days ago, when several hundred customers were still without power, they just disappeared without explanation. Rumors flew: The trucks had been called off to the city; Con Ed had run out of transformers and/or utility poles; the Con Ed workers had scared off non-union employees from other utilities. No one really knows.
And, therein lies the genesis of today’s column:
Con Edison is a big utility distributing electricity that, at the end of the day, is truly hyper-local, particularly when it comes to power outages. My neighbors three blocks down lost power at the same time we did; but our power has been back for a week while theirs is still missing in action. Those of us on the ground know exactly where the power is out, where the transformer is lying in the pile of leaves and how many utility poles have snapped like twigs. We know the exact location of every downed wire – not to mention every utility truck.
And at times like this, Con Ed is also in the middle of inbound and outbound communication on a grand, but not necessarily effective, scale. Its outbound communications aren’t necessarily targeted, while the communication from customers dribbles into the customer service lines, one-by-one.
In a crisis, accurate communication can be hard to come by, admittedly. And so, the, official communication from Con Ed has been at worst, lies, and at best, honest, but just plain wrong “information,” or information so vague as to be worthless. When someone tweeted yesterday about Pelham to the one-size-fits-all @conedison account, here was the reply: “Thanks. We're aware of the outages in Pelham, crews were there today and will cont to work this week to restore.”
But here’s the thing. This is a small town with a community, that, as I’ve referenced before, has a very active social presence, particularly on Facebook. We know stuff, and we share it. Trust us, there were no trucks here in Pelham yesterday.
This morning a power-less friend posted on Facebook that our state senator had been told by Con Ed that 75 homes had been restored as of yesterday, which is a pretty neat trick when there are no trucks around to do the work. “Fact or fiction?” she asked. Since people from every affected street weighed in, and no one said they’d gotten their power back, I think we can all assume the report was fiction.
But to call Con Ed out on providing bad information is almost beside the point. What both sides need is better information, and they could actually help each other in that regard. Citizens should be able to crowdsource power outage information to Con Ed, in a strategy that would mirror something like CNN’s iReport.
Meanwhile, Con Ed should conduct a more hyper-targeted social strategy that might help it avoid the constant customer service calls that seem to be an inefficient use of resources and the spread of rumors like the ones I detailed above.
Part of the rub here is that Con Ed would need to be prepared to use the information it gathers from the community, something that a big lumbering utility may not be set up to do. But it might be worth the investment. Yesterday, a friend went around the community, taking pictures of damage to the electricity infrastructure that, of course, included no utility trucks, since they weren’t there. Her objective? To send the pictures along to our state representatives, so they could get on Con Ed’s case.
The pressure apparently worked, because as I was typing this paragraph, I found out that my friend now has power!!! But should she really have had to appeal to state government? Wouldn’t it have been better all around if she could have sent those same photos to Con Ed, informing them of the situation, and ConEd had gotten on the case by themselves? Or at least offered up an honest explanation? A more sophisticated, socially centered, approach to disseminating and collecting information might have helped Con Ed avoid all that, and helped out its customers more quickly in the process.