On Friday 20th July 2007 it rained in Cheltenham. It was expected, we’d all seen the forecasts and listened to the warnings, but this day was to be different. Our streets became rivers, our roads closed and our public buildings became refuges for the trapped.
We started this blog on the following Monday and your response was wonderful. Thank you for all the supportive comments during the emergency.
We will no longer be posting to this blog and will be leaving it as an archive of those few days in the Summer of 2007 when Gloucestershire become the focus of the world’s attention.
Over the weekend after the first flooding there was more rain and the River Severn spread to claim a vast area of land. The RAF mounted their biggest ever peacetime rescue, the flood waters overwhelmed the Mythe water treatment plant which supplied mains water to 350,000 people and, on the edge of Gloucester, a battle to save our electricity supply was being fought around the clock. We amended our corporate homepage (www.cheltenham.gov.uk), adding links to the Severn Trent website as everyone waited for news of water supplies.
On Monday morning, the mains water supplies across the town were running dry as the network drained and some of us had lost power at home as supplies were cut as a precaution. Our emergency planning team was in full swing, occupying a suite of meeting rooms down the corridor. There was a strange, very focussed atmosphere about the place.
It was obvious to us that the events unfolding were going to outpace the ability of our aging corporate website to adapt; the web team decided to create a blog. There was a constant stream of information and we needed to make it public as fast as we could. We also needed to be able to do this from any location, independent of our office power supply if need be. Of course, no power would mean no internet, making our efforts fall silent, but the power cuts might not be total. In any case we had a story to tell to whoever was listening. The blog would have to be hosted externally, be easy to use and almost immediate to setup. Cost then didn’t matter, but our choice was free, which felt good. We chose WordPress. For several months it has formed the backbone of our corporate intranet, our chief executive’s blog and even our staff directory. WordPress.com provides the same experience in hosted form. We chose a username and got started.
The flood blog was linked from our corporate homepage and we started adding content. By 3pm we had created the back story and by 5pm the blog had attracted the interest of BBC Radio Five Live.
From the start we adopted an informal style. Perhaps it was the freedom from a corporate template, or maybe our personal contact with the emergency, but the blog had a voice that was far removed from our corporate press releases. We wanted to show who we were rather than be an anonymous narrator. This communication style may prove to be one of the single most important changes that grew out of the flood blog.
We appealed internally for photographs and had a great response. Most of our images on the blog are hosted at flickr.com the photo sharing website. Uploaded images were tagged and descriptions added that linked back to the blog. The blog received a great many referrals via flickr as the interest in what was happening spread around the world.
We opened up an account on YouTube.com to host video footage of the distribution of bottled water. The purpose was twofold, principally we wanted to instil public confidence in our work, but we also wanted to acknowledge the extraordinary hours put in by volunteers staffing these distribution points. After that we were given more video clips to publish as staff around the town rose to the occasion and became reporters for us.
Both flickr and YouTube helped us present our content quickly and improve the transparency of how we were coordinating efforts. They told our story in a different way to a slightly different audience. The content on both sites was linked back to our blog. Within flickr we set up a group and invited members to add images, we started collecting pictures of Cheltenham taken by the people who live here. It was obvious that there were many Cheltenham folk pointing cameras around and documenting their lives from their own perspective; we simply tapped into the network.
There were six main bloggers feeding the site. It was very addictive and we would easily find ourselves monitoring it from the early hours to late in the evening. Early on we made the decision to enable comments on our posts. We wanted a conversation, and although we didn’t quite know what to expect any doubts were stripped away as our public warmed to the opportunity. Our flood devastated leisure centre became the single most talked about event. We learnt direct from our customers how the leisure centre had become a big part of their lives; its loss was way more than simply financial. All comments were moderated, but aside from insurance promotions, everything was published. We even let through Ernest Eagle, the sandbag salesman from Pennsylvania. In the seriousness of it all there was still time for humour.
WordPress is an amazing application. It represents everything that is good about the internet: collaboration, freedom, creativity and personal expression. One great advantage of the hosted version is web statistics, we knew exactly how many page views we had and where our referrals were coming from. In the first four days we had over 20,000 page views, which I think took us a little by surprise. WordPress hosts over 1.2 million blogs and on several occasions our blog was highlighted on their homepage. Interest in our innovation grew. A live interview on BBC Radio Gloucestershire, where we featured as website of the week was followed by enquiries from the emergency planning college. Our application of web 2.0 tools in crisis situation was being talked about in the blogosphere . There were some great quotes, this one appeared in a comment against an article on buzzmachine.com and it sticks in our minds:
“For once a lumbering, unwieldy organisation reacts in an agile, inclusive way”
Thank you to Pete Riley who created the blog and to everyone that helped to make it a such a success.