In Panama City, several potholes are using Twitter to say “fix me, please.”
El Hueco Twitero (or, The Tweeting Pothole), whose profile photo is an anthropomorphized pothole with a naughty expression, is the brainchild of Panama City ad agency P4 Ogilvy and Mather. The agency teamed up with a local news show to create motion-sensitive gadgets that send out signals when they’re run over by cars. They placed these gadgets in some of the city’s worst potholes. The signals from the gadgets go through P4’s office. There, they’re turned into tweets—some prewritten, some created on the fly by an ad agency employee—sent to the Twitter account of Panama’s Ministry of Public Works.
The tweets are always lighthearted, and show that the Tweeting Pothole has a keen interest in pop culture. “I was dreaming I became a highway like in Dubai,” the Tweeting Pothole said recently. “Then the first tire rim of the morning woke me up.” Another day, the pothole tweeted, “When @MOPdePanama [the Twitter handle of Panama’s Ministry of Public Works] fixes me, I’m going to get more attention than Caitlyn Jenner and the Kardashians. Kanye’s going to want to park on me.”
“The Minister of Public Works is tweeting back so now we have a live conversation,” says Pinky Mon, VP for creative services at P4.
Panama City is, in Mon’s words, a “small city with a lot of cars,” and many citizens feel the government is not responsive to road repair issues. “People are very vocal about their frustration,” Mon says.
Indeed, local citizens are now interacting with the Tweeting Pothole to ask for their own local potholes to be fixed. “The street leading from the San Miguelito bridge to the university looks like the MOON!! The concrete is cracked and sunken,” tweets @aldairantonio16. “At the hospital, there are two potholes in front of the pharmacy that look like the entrance to the world of Mario Brothers,” tweets @lamalvis.
P4 came up with the idea for the Twitter device, and teamed up with the news show, Telemetro Reporta, which is known for publicizing needed urban repairs and shaming politicians into action. There are currently nine tweeting potholes around Panama City, Mon says (some others have broken during the process), and they have had immediate effects.
“The first one that tweeted was in a very critical position by the new metro railway,” Mon says. “[The Ministry of Public Works] had machinery there the very same day.”
A number of other Tweeting Pothole locations have already been fixed, Mon says. The Minister of Public Works acknowledged the Tweeting Pothole in a speech last Monday, in which he gave good-humored credit to the device for raising awareness of road issues.
“Now that @MOPdePanama came to do the fix, I have to endure the screams of the potholes that are being plugged. It’s a massacre!” says the Tweeting Pothole.
With 4,600 followers to date, the Tweeting Pothole has generated publicity across Panama and the world. A number of other municipalities in Panama have been clamoring for their own devices, Mon says.
While the project may seem gimmicky, social media is driving urban infrastructure improvements in a number of ways across the world. Some politicians respond directly to complaints on social media as a way of showing their responsiveness to citizens’ needs. The mayor of Mexico City had lights installed in a local park in reaction to a Tweet by a local housewife, for example. Some cities use social media to survey citizens on issues like public transportation. A project in Nairobi is using social media to gather thoughts about how to improve pedestrian safety. Urban planners use geotagged social media data (such as FourSquare check ins) to analyze pedestrian flow and the use of public space.
Though America has yet to acquire its own Tweeting Pothole, Twitter users in the United States are asking for infrastructure changes. Inspired by a UK campaign, organizers in New Orleans announced a “National Pothole Day” on May 21, when residents were urged to tweet pictures of their potholes with the hashtag #NationalPotholeDay. The organizers hope the campaign will pressure city leaders into seeing that the potholes get fixed. If the Tweeting Pothole is any indication, a little good-humored public shaming goes a long way.