E-government and the volcano

April 25, 2010

Where was/is e-government during the current/recent travel crisis? Having been stranded in Tarragona, south of Barcelona, amongst a group of foreign nationals wanting to get home or elsewhere after a conference, I thought I should asked the question, what, if anything could or should e-government have done?

From my view, the first target on the hotel or university Internet connections were the airlines, then the home language newspapers, then the alternative transport modes, such as buses and trains. I don’t recall anyone looking at a government page or being directed to one. In Spain the confusion was compounded by lack of information on the French rail strike.

Whilst the  newspapers made claims about warships being sent and consular assistance at every airport, we saw none of this. First, one was advised to stay away from the airports and secondly, how was the true message supposed to dissipate through the bands of people divided between the practicalities of needing additional accommodation and finding alternative transport?

If Martha Lane Fox, founder of lastminute.com, is such a leading light for the UK government, couldn’t someone have scraped together the intrinsic information from IATA, ABTA and the rest and presented something? The newflashes were full of people developing applications for car-sharing across Europe, but part of the issue for travellers to and from the UK became getting across the Channel.

Much of the information available online or through the BBC World Service appeared inconsistent and focused upon travellers sleeping at airports, whilst what the travellers themselves need to know were alternative routes and whether they should take them. After failing to get a satisfactory solution from EasyJet we resorted to booking the earliest combination of trains and buses we could get onto, all done from an Asus EEE over very slow hotel wi-fi at midnight.

If incidents of this type are to become more frequent, as a result of natural occurences, terrorist action or civil disturbances, shouldn’t we prepare? The Internet was created for military purposes, the WWW for unifying scientific research, can we now use Gov 2.0 for joining up information sources? Perhaps it might be the making of e-government? Was it any better for other nationals? This, of course, is a UK opinion, although I did initially relate to my conference colleagues from across the globe!

I’m not forgetting those without access and one of the noticeable factors in the episode was how well verbal messages got around at bus and train stations and even the airports we weren’t supposed to gather at. I also noticed the prolific use made of the only available very dodgy-looking Internet cafes.