Research facts – story spoilers

Primary research I have carried out suggests that journalistic staples in the Christmas build up differ from reality. Recently on Storify I published two posts, the first outlining how journalists predicted Christmas rail misery, and the second describing how shopper behaviour impacts on retailers.  In the background, I also posted two research questionnaires  surrounding those same topics.  The feedback from those is now available and suggests that citizens are in fact street-savvy, and old preconceptions require modification.  The old quote, often attributed to Mark Twain, “never let the truth get in the way of a good story”, is, in this instance, perhaps being proven correct.

Rail engineering – predicted travel chaos
Research shows track maintenance accepted - photo of equipment.
Track maintenance equipment Image: John New

As identified in my earlier Storify post, chaos has in the past occurred when works have overrun, therefore some elements of the journalists predictions have validity.  This post, however, challenge to the regularly promoted expectation that travellers resent the large scale rail closures over holiday periods.  Primary research in fact suggests that travellers think holiday closures are, perhaps, the least troublesome option.

[infogram id=”rail_closure_survey”]

Those responding to the question “No they were not aware there were likely to be closures” were asked to select from five options as to the reason for their lack of awareness. However, the no response was so low that the individual answers to that question are statistically of little value. The major surprise from the survey, given that there had been considerable mainstream news coverage (in particular regarding temporary replacement of the services to Heathrow and Gatwick airports), was that there were still 10% who responded that they were unaware of such closures.

A deserted London Waterloo. Image: John New
A deserted London Waterloo. Image: John New
What shoppers think of Christmas retailing

As an independent blogger, a survey will never match the accuracy of nationwide sampling by specialists such as  IPSOS-MORI, but that does not negate its use.  My own survey was to ascertain consumer attitudes to the early arrival of Christmas in retail outlets, and whether that conflicts with the standard journalistic coverage of retailers’ announcements regarding Christmas.

What the survey showed is that, whilst shoppers feel it is OK to be able to buy Christmas goods in store at an early date, there is resentment at the modern trend for getting the rest of the Christmas trappings into stores at such early dates.

[infogram id=”christmasnew_year_retail_survery_20156″]

The fact that consumers are buying early to spread the Christmas spend over a longer period also makes a mockery of articles published quoting from retailers’ press releases regarding their poor Christmas build up.  If customers previously spent £x in December, but now spread that £x budget over September to December, the spend is the same, merely to a new pattern.  The reality may well be that by spreading the purchase time the actual spend by consumers is now £x+n. There is perhaps a situation where not only have retailers had their cake and eaten most of it, they are also anticipating delivery of a second cake!

What also emerges from the survey is that the New Year sales are perhaps no longer the big draw for consumers that retailers previously expected, as only 24.4% of respondents had deliberately withheld making a purchase until the post-Christmas sales period.  Perhaps therefore the mainstream media outlets are missing the deeper story.  When retailers release their New Year comments on the sales, journalists should perhaps be asking why are you bothering with a sale?  The January sales were, after all, originally primarily to shift winter stock to make room for the new spring ranges, not as the profit centres retailers now expect them to be.

The survey, however, does confirm that where consumers have access to the internet they are highly likely to purchase gifts on-line, including vouchers, so that the recipient will also spend on-line.

About the research

Both surveys  remain live via Google Forms, although it is unlikely that either will receive significant additional input.  The rail survey received a reasonable response rate at the original survey date, the retailing questionnaire required a further request for completion.  The retailing question regarding on-line shopping is skewed in favour of a yes answer as it was conducted on-line.  For this reason therefore, perhaps the most significant aspect is that around 9% of the respondents did not buy a gift on-line despite being IT users with internet access.

What this small research element identified is that when the 2016-17 Christmas build up occurs, the real news stories should be around changing shopping habits, not the retailers spin on short-term sales figures.

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Flooding – Yorkshire

Flooding in Airedale 26th Dec 2015. Photo: Stella New

Horrendous flooding

I witnessed the flooding in West and North Yorkshire first hand yesterday during a visit to my sister-in-law.  I also needed to consume the news on the flooding as it happened in order to plan a return journey. The flooding news varied from excellent, live coverage by BBC Radio Leeds & BBC Radio York, to misleading (BBC travel website version), to surprisingly useless (the Environment Agency website).  This blog post therefore asks some questions of the quality, and usefulness, of the information available.

Flooding in Airedale 26th Dec 2015. Photo: Stella New
Flooding in Airedale 26th Dec 2015. Photo: Stella New

Sadly the flooding is escalating, getting into new areas today as the water flows downstream.  The scale of it is awesome in the genuine sense of the word.  One can see how such monster floods in the past led to legends and fables such as Noah’s flood being passed down the generations until being later written down and preserved.

Excellence of local radio

I am a retired Emergency Planning Officer with experience of major flood events, including the Ouse in York. From that experience I appreciate (a) the difficulty of getting accurate information from an ever-changing live situation but also (b) that it is vital to make accurate information available to both responders and the general public.

The scale of this flooding caught people out.  As a family we had a Boxing Day meet up planned with two car loads driving over into Airedale.  The advance weather forecast was for rain and my daughter and I discussed our driving plans so as to avoid a few bits of road that we anticipated might have some surface water flooding.  The significance of that discussion will be seen later.  On the day it was much wetter than expected but at departure time it did not seem bad enough to abort or delay for 24-hours.

As we drove over, local radio were reporting the unfolding scale of the issue, and that became visually apparent the nearer we got to our destination, although Airedale, at that stage, was not as badly affected as Calderdale. We also began to hear that the roads we had anticipated in advance to avoid due to possible surface water were now flooded and shut!  Although Calderdale was getting the worst of it, the Aire and tributaries were also rapidly rising, the normally placid River Worth was like a white water rapids course and some low lying sports fields passed were inundated to almost the 8ft soccer crossbar height, around 6-7ft of water!

Flood warnings which didn’t appear

Local knowledge of the possible routes back to York suggested that either the A658 or A58 might become flooded where they crossed and ran near the River Wharfe, therefore prudently the Environment Agency website was checked.  This is bearing in mind the Wharfe was already flooding roads and properties upstream of both points. At 12 noon there was no flood warning in place for either Pool in Wharfedale or Collingham, either as a current or expected later scenario. This was extremely worrying.  By the time we came to leave at 2pm the A658 at Pool in Wharfedale was, predictably, flooding and only passable with care but still no warning for Collingham was being given by the EA on-line.  The equally predictable closure of the A58 was announced by live traffic news as we headed eastwards.

What is worrying with this scenario is that if someone with a bit of local knowledge can predict these potential flood spots 36 hours beforehand based on weather forecasts, why was there no on-line EA warning of even the lowest risk level?  We did not predict a biblical deluge, but equally neither did the Met Office issue a red-warning until it was almost on top of the area on Friday morning.  Collingham flooded around 2-45 to 3pm, the Wharfe by this time had already flooded upstream at Ilkley, Burley in Wharfedale and Otley, I knew it was highly likely to flood, it was after all why I had checked the EA website. If I knew that, why didn’t they?  If I had chosen that way to get home the potential was there to be stranded.

The broadcast media constantly advise citizens to check the EA website for the latest information, obviously in anticipation of reliable data.  Based on yesterday’s random sampling of quality – the question has to be asked, what is the point of the EA website flood warning system in the current configuration if expected, and obviously predictable, floods are not being added/displayed?  It was not possible to check whether there is an issue with full content only available via desk-top browsers, with slimmed down data content versions automatically adjusting for viewing on smaller mobile phone screens.  That is an issue for future checking, but if it  is occurring it adds to the problems.

All this is worrying as my main residence is in flood-prone rural West Dorset; when you are out and about you only have a mobile to access the system, and even that assumes access to a signal.  Data coverage, and the lack of it in rural areas, is of course another issue.

Travel news that isn’t accurate

Information should be accurate, however, and update information correctly applied; sadly that was not the case yesterday.  Not only was some travel news misleading, out of date and inaccurate, the BBC were giving opposing messages dependant on which of their media channels you were accessing. I have already mentioned local knowledge, again this appeared to suggest issues with quality of the data accessible for route planning, and where strangers to the area would potentially opt for routes taking them into, rather than away from, potential danger.

I give two examples from yesterday afternoon.  On the morning run part of the A6120 Leeds ring-road near Meanwood had begun to flood as we headed west around 10:30am.  As by the afternoon the expectation was it would have flooded, the BBC local travel service on the internet was checked, with nothing showing as a closure.  As we drove towards it no closure was being mentioned in the local radio’s on-going broadcast.  Arriving at the location, however, we found it was shut, forcing a diversion.  The diversion was unsigned, that is understandable, given how many blockages were in place, but the lack of radio and travel website notification that one of the major routes within the area was shut, and probably had been so for sometime,  was perhaps not!

Equally problematically, the A64 near Tadcaster was being shown on-line by BBC Travel as only passable with care and long delays to traffic; as that was not being broadcast as a current issue, we gambled on that info’ being obsolete.  The A58 has been mentioned already but would have been one of the alternatives.  We drove the A64, there were no problems.  On arriving home the BBC Travel website was re-checked, the false information that had been there most of the day was still present and shown as recently updated!

BBC budget cut backs are wrong

The lessons of 2007 have still not been learnt with regard to this need for quality information so as not to divert travellers into areas that are liable to be the next place to flood, trapping them.  Forcing the BBC into cut backs  will only exacerbate the scenario; weather forecasting needs to be good quality and accurate, not simply based on the cheapest available via competitive tendering.  Local radio is vital, a community asset to be expanded not slashed.

Conclusion

As a citizen sampling a largely unprecedented weather event yesterday the local radio coverage via BBC Radio Leeds was superb, informative and, as it was live with on the spot reporting, current.  Unfortunately the same could not be said of the same organisation’s on-line travel news.  It was proven by practical sampling to be inaccurate and incomplete even with regard to main A roads.  That may not be the BBC’s fault directly, but in a world where the internet is increasingly touted as the source to be turned to for breaking news and information, it is clear that as yet, the back office systems are not serving up the material. The Environment Agency was also found wanting in exactly the same way, back office systems not getting information out fast enough.

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