How to get on with the neighbours

Companies with contentious plants or facilities are learning to use the web as a place where they can keep local communities informed about the impact of their operations, says David Bowen.

Featured sites

The opening of London Heathrow Terminal 5 will be met with mixed feelings by one group – the people who live around the airport. Some will be happy about more jobs, others worried about more flights. At least both groups have a handy place to turn to find out how they will be affected: Heathrow’s website. BAA, the airport’s owner, is one of a small group of companies to realise the web is really a very good way of keeping in touch with people round the corner. It may be worldwide, but it can be at its most effective when it is being local.
A button on the website is marked ‘Our business and community’. Click Community Matters within it and you find yourself an area which, it becomes clear, is extensive indeed. Sub-section leads to sub-section, even to the fifth level. By the time you have reached detail on the Community Noise Insulation Board you are deep within the site and the left-hand menu has stretched to the length of a runway. It doesn’t make the site particularly usable, but it does show how big it is.
You can find out about grants to insulate your house or, if the noise gets too bad, to help you move; about jobs at the airport; and About the Heathrow Academy (grand title – it used to be the Visitor Centre). And you will probably find yourself clicking to get to the noise site, which is easily the most intriguing element.

Plane to see


The core of this site (tricky to find and it does not have its own easy web address) is Webtrak, a system that allows you to see which aircraft are flying over your house, at what speed and when. It doesn’t let you do this in real time “for security reasons”, but you can identify that plane that was off track or too low, and make a complaint. You can also use Webtrak to see how badly you will be affected if you move to a particular area (a shame it only covers Heathrow – planes flying to other airports make a noise, too).
It is a terrific piece of web functionality. First you download the software, then select your ‘community’ (the area where you live), pick a date, click replay, and see flights come over at anything from one to five times actual speed. I can hear a plane flying a mile in front of me across south-east London and, looking at my computer, I can find out it is flying at 150 knots at about 4,500 feet – here, too, is the flight ID and aircraft type of the plane that passed this way 24 hours ago.
More interesting than annoying for me, but if I lived in Hounslow, right by Heathrow, I would see planes skimming above me at 1,000 feet, dropping fast. I could see the roads they are passing over and if they are off track here is evidence.
I was told in ‘Where do you live?’ that “You can use the Webtrak connection to plot your postcode location and replay a period of Heathrow flights”. I could not find a way of putting in my postcode, only my ‘community’. Not a big problem practically, but why not get the detail right?

Open mine of information


On the other side of the world BHP Billiton is talking to its neighbours in Australia. From its home page, find your way to the energy coal section where, in the right column, you will find a link to Mt Arthur Coal. This good looking site belongs to an open cast mine in New South Wales that “shares the area with rural properties and other industries such as horse studs, vineyards, olive groves and residential suburbs”.
The site is designed to keep in touch with the community, and in general it does that well.
In addition to plenty of background material, the site has an employment section which links through to the group site, educational material that includes a worksheet for children, a 20-page newsletter and, getting down to the nitty-gritty, latest blast times and the vibration effect of recent explosions.
The site is not quite as well managed as it should be. ‘This week’s proposed blast schedule’ was out of date when I looked and the employment link meant you have to start again with the BHP Billiton job search engine. But in theory, and I hope in practice, this is a thoroughly useful resource for local residents and an effective piece of reputation management for the company.

Coming clean up


Elsewhere, General Electric is going to dredge the Hudson River in New York state to get rid of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), which it used in making insulators from the 1940s. They were discharged into the river which, the Environmental Protection Agency has since determined, was a bad idea. So GE is starting to dredge next year and has set up a site to keep the local community informed.
The site is nothing like as slick as the main GE site (ge.com) and is not, as far as I can tell, linked from it. Neither matters much as long as the web address is well publicised locally. It divides ‘Latest info’ into For Neighbors & Community, For Local Businesses and For News Media. At this early stage there is little but background for residents and the news resources are limited. But everything is place to bombard them with information, while businesses can also link to an online market place (hudsonworks.net) where they can register their profile and see the types of things the project will need.
Whatever criticisms GE may get, no one can claim that it is not preparing itself well, at least when it comes to talking with the neighbours.
First published on ft.com 17 March 2008

First published 19 March, 2008
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