I was asked to give a five-minute three-slide talk at NFPtweetup in May 2012 about a charity site that I thought had great content. This is the written (and less rambling!) version of what I said:
This presentation is going to talk about something many social meeja experts say is bad: the auto-posting of updates. In most cases, that sets klaxons off in people’s heads. But I’m going to show you an auto-posting system that works really really well.
Most of us here are from charities. And most of those have volunteers. But very few us send them out at a moment’s notice into what might be dangerous and life-threatening situations in the middle of the night in the middle of our otherwise-safe and secure communities. Which is why for my site with great content, I’m looking at RNLI launch alerts.
The RNLI was probably the first organisation that I knew was a charity. I understood that when I was spending summers at my granddad’s house on the Lincolnshire coast, if I heard two massive bangs, that would be the flares that would be sent up to tell the volunteer lifeboat crew to leave their homes and jobs and drive as quickly and safely as possible to the lifeboat station and get the boat out on to the North Sea. And I knew they were volunteers. I knew that by me spending my pocket money on a badge at the RNLI gift shop, I was helping to pay for people going out to save lives.
Photo: Mablethorpe lifeboat station (2011). Copyright Richard Croft and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
And it was the flares that told all-but-the-most-deaf of the town’s 10,000 inhabitants that there was an emergency off the coast. In the time it took the crew to get to the station, get the boat on to the slipway, onto the beach and into the sea, crowds of holidaymakers would be ready to watch the launch.
Then mobile pagers came along and made the flares obsolete. And so unless you were working next to the butcher-cum-volunteer lifeboat crew member who would have to drop his large knife and run, you’d not really have any idea there’s an emergency occurring.
The fact that the pagers made the process of summoning the lifeboat crew electronic meant that once the internet came along, a website could be updated automatically when a lifeboat had been launched. Then soon the RNLI developed a desktop widget that you alerted you when a boat had been launched. And then they could text you to tell you that too.
And then came Twitter. And open data. And a volunteer called Dave.
Open data these days means organisations providing the public with spreadsheets and databases that people can read and geeks can do fancy things with. Before that came along, screen-scraping was big. Where the best way to get access to a organisation’s data was to write a piece of software to read what was on a web page and then do something with it.
And that what one of the RNLI’s supporters, Dave, did. He wrote something that regularly checks the pages on the RNLI website that listed when a crew were launched and set up @outonashout, which sends a tweet about each launch.
I’ve been looking through the tweets that mention @outonashout over the last few weeks, and there are some really interesting happening with these tweets.
Lots of people use Twitter searches to monitor what’s happening locally. I found radio stations who were doing this, finding an @outonashout tweet about their local crew, and using that as a news story.
I saw a tweet from someone who appeared to be a friend of a lifeboat crew member, wishing them a safe and successful mission.
I saw a tweet from somebody who’d been recently rescued by a lifeboat crew, thanking @rnli and alerting their followers to @outonashout.
And weirdly, it’s the auto-posting that I found quite moving in one way. On Christmas morning, waiting for everybody else to get up so we could open our presents, I checked Twitter. And there, about 3.30am, was an auto-tweet about an lifeboat being launched in Teignmouth in Devon. And it got me thinking about how many families Christmasses were being disrupted because of someone in trouble off the Devon coast in the middle of the night.
And all of these tweets came from something unofficial. Auto-tweeting, screen-scraping and the RNLI letting a volunteer do something really powerful with their data.