Red Funnel’s Twittering Ferries

Red Funnel has been operating passenger and vehicle ferry services between Southampton, on the UK mainland, and Cowes on the Isle of Wight (IOW), for nearly 150 years. The ferries provide a vital link with the mainland for IOW residents and businesses. Any delay or cancellation can have significant impact, so Red Funnel is always looking for ways to make its passengers’ journeys more efficient. As luck may have it, one IOW resident who regularly used the Red Funnel ferries to commute to work on the mainland was IBM Master Inventor and Distinguished Engineer, Andy Stanford-Clark.

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Red Funnel - enhancing customer service with twittering ferries

How the ferries tweet

For Andy’s own benefit, he capitalised on his knowledge of smart solutions and wrote an application that took advantage of the positioning data already transmitted by the ferries every few seconds, using it to determine the predicted arrival and departure times of each vessel. This application ran on his home computer posting updates to Twitter. When he noticed that Red Funnel was using a feed from his Twitter page to post live ferry positions on its web page he decided to contact the company to explore how the solution might be improved with IBM’s help and fully adopted by Red Funnel. A successful business relationship developed from there.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency requires all commercial shipping operators to use an onboard Automated Identification System (AIS) – an enhanced radar system – to track vessel locations and speeds. It is data transmitted by this system that the Red Funnel solution uses when calculating timings for its ferries. The IBM WebSphere messaging system MQTT is designed to bring together GPS signals from the onboard AIS with analytics applications which use geofencing (a static, virtual perimeter around the GPS position of each ferry port) to provide information about each ferry’s exact location and when it is entering or leaving port.

The way that vessels manoeuvre when arriving or departing caused the main challenge when developing the solution. A ferry may leave a port backwards, for example, turn around in a U shape and stop before finally departing. This complex series of movements makes it difficult for an application to know if a vessel is entering or leaving port. The algorithms within the analytics applications have been refined several times to increase accuracy. IBM Lotus Expediter micro broker manages the communications between the radio-based data feed from the ferries, the applications, and the gateway to Twitter. Twitter then provides the RSS feed used to display the live ferry positions on the Red Funnel web site.

Jonathan Green, Sales and Marketing Director at Red Funnel said: “What is remarkable is that by applying intelligence to information we already generated, IBM is helping us provide a smart service for a minimal investment.” He went on saying “With nearly 14,000 vehicle ferry sailings and 23,000 Red Jet passenger sailings each year, improving the information flow to help our customers better plan their journeys and avoid unnecessary delays is of tremendous value.”

Red Funnel already had an active community following on both Twitter and Facebook. This latest innovation extends its social media presence and helps bring a new level of predictability to ferry movements, improving customer service.

Follow on Twitter to hear the latest updates from their twittering ferries.