Different Power Companies Communicate Outages In Different Ways

SAMPLE OF WEB SCREENS ANALYZED

Beginning January 27, 2011, a major winter storm dumped snow and ice over Virginia, Maryland and the Washington D.C. metro area. Gusty winds and downed trees left thousands of homes without power, some for several days.

WE REVIEWED GRAPHICS, CHARTS AND TEXT.
Analyses were conducted of the amount of explanatory information provided by the Web sites of the five power utilities serving the region. We reviewed information posted by: NOVEC (Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative), Allegheny Power, PEPCO (Potomac Electric Power Company), Dominion Power and BGE (Baltimore Gas & Electric).

SCREEN OF WTOP.com (radio news)

WE ANALYZED CONTENT FOR A 24 HOUR PERIOD.
Analyses were conducted on screen shots taken approximately 24 hours after the precipitation began (between 11:02 and 11:13 AM on January 28, 2011). This period was selected to give all utilities the opportunity to assess damage, organize repair operations and depict their information online.  During the period, the Web site of one of Washington’s news stations (WTOP.com) reported more than 125,000 homes and businesses without power. The following bar graph summarizes the total scores for each Web site.

INFORMATION BY POWER COMPANY

SOME COMPANIES SCORED HIGHER THAN OTHERS.
The scoring of explanatory information totaled 30 possible points. This was determined by up to 10 points for each of the following information categories: (1) graphical, (2) numerical, and (3) textual. Results from all three categories suggest that NOVEC provided the most explanatory information about its outages to the public during the period with 21 of the 30  points possible. Allegheny was second with 18 of 30, followed by PEPCO with 17 of the 30 points. Dominion Power trailed with 12 points and BGE scored 11 points. Scoring for each of the three information categories will now be reviewed for all five utilities.

Ten Graphic Points Possible

SOME COMPANIES USED MORE GRAPHICS AND MAPS.
This includes how graphics are used on the site with zoom capability and a key or legend. Most of the points, however, were devoted to specificity of content including: the communities affected, number of homes without power, duration or estimated restoration time and number of crews on the job (either on the map or accompanying graphic). Accessibility to sites were also included in the review since most companies stressed the difficulty in reaching some areas.

 

Ten Numerical Points Possible

NOVEC PROVIDED THE MOST NUMBERS AND TABLES.
Summaries of different numerical categories can make it easier for customers to compare their location with other areas. Our coding included the listings of the affected communities (counties, municipalities, neighborhoods, etc.), duration of outages, location of crews and other details that describe the cause of the outage and/or expected length of time for repair. NOVEC’s scored seven of the 10 points and Allegheny Power placed second with six points for a Web site that provided customers with multiple tables. PEPCO, Dominion and BGE all tied with four of the 10 possible points.

Ten Numerical Points Possible

NOVEC PRODUCED THE MOS TEXTUAL EXPLANATIONS.
Similar to the information in the graphical and numerical categories, we also looked for textual descriptions of damage and explanations. One additional item in this category was whether the site offered a mobile app or mobile Web site. NOVEC provided a mobile Web site. PEPCO offered an iPhone app but attempts to use it during the evaluation period (6 to 10 AM on Friday, January 28) were unsuccessful. NOVEC scored seven of the 10 possible text points. Allegheny tied with PEPCO for second place with 6 of the ten possible points coded followed by Dominion and BGE.

SUMMARY


The criteria employed to analyze graphical, numerical and textual information were based on past research of explaining complex information to non expert audiences. Organization and visualization of information, personalization and contiguity (or coherence of text and graphics on a Web page) were some of the concepts applied in the review of the information. Although the collection of items used in the analyses may be incomplete, all were applied consistently to the evaluation of the five sites by independent researchers. Follow-up discussion by the coders (Ph.D. students) resulted in 100% agreement in the coding for all sites.

CONCLUSION
Clearly, there are differences in the amount of information provided to the public by utilities during critical periods. Ideally, information needs to be detailed yet understandable so Web users can quickly extract specific information and plan accordingly. This planning requires current and accurate information and reasonable predictions, especially during prolonged power outages.

NOTES
PEPCO’s crew map was available but it should be noted that a pop-up window read, “Based on the extensive damage and volume of restoration work we have contractor and other utility crews assisting with the effort. The location of these crews is not displayed on the map.” View the sample coding sheet. This study represents only one “snapshot” of communication during one major winter storm. For disclosure, the lead researcher and one Ph.D. coder are PEPCO customers. The utility company of the third researcher is unknown since monthly payments for electrical service are not required. This initial summary of the study was released at 8:30 AM on Tuesday, February 8, 2011. Additional screen shots and data collected will be added to this page during the next 24 hours.

PDF OF SAMPLE SCREENS

Click the image to the left to download a ten page PDF of sample screens for all five Web sites.

REFERENCES
Yaros, R. A. (2008). Communicating Complex News Online. How Users Process Information about Science, Health and Technology. Saarbrucken, Germany: VDM Publishing.

Yaros, R. A. (2006). Is it the medium or the message? Structuring complex news to enhance engagement and situational understanding by non-experts. Communication Research, 33(4), 285-309.

Rowan, K. E. (1999). Effective Explanation of Uncertain and Complex Science. In S. D. Sharon M. Friedman, and Carol L. Rogers (Ed.), Communicating uncertainty: media coverage of new and controversial science. Mahwah: Erlbaum Associates.

 

About Ron Yaros

Ronald A. Yaros researches audience engagement with multimedia and mobile journalism. His publications, including two book chapters, explore how audiences seek, select and share news. As a Blended Learning Fellow for interactive classes with social networks and a custom mobile app, he tests new ways to communicate digital information. Dr. Yaros was one of two student-nominated 2012 Excellence in Teaching Awards on campus. Prior to completing a Ph.D. in 2005 at the University of Wiiscosin-Madison, his professional experience included twenty-five years as an Emmy-award winning broadcaster and president of a software company.
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