Virtual Visitors

Evanston water utility hosts “Tweet Along” to extend its reach beyond the traditional plant tour.
Virtual Visitors
Evanston residents could follow the Tweet Along tour at home or on mobile devices through the city’s Twitter page.

Adelita Hernandez has a job title and job description rolled into one. Working out of the city manager’s office in the Chicago suburb of Evanston as citizen engagement coordinator, she finds ways to keep residents aware of their community’s operations and opportunities.

Bright and early on a Saturday morning last September, Hernandez turned to social media to extend her public outreach: She hosted a Tweet Along tour at the Evanston Utilities Water Treatment Plant.

Using traditional and online venues, Hernandez invited Evanston water customers with Twitter accounts to follow her 140-word tweets and photos as she tagged along on a plant tour for several dozen residents. Traditionally, the water plant has done two to four tours per year.

Popular events

“They are popular, these tours,” says Hernandez. “We don’t have a lot of them, but people really turn out when we do.” The water department will continue to offer traditional tours, but Hernandez believes the Tweet Along will reach many people who might not have the time or opportunity to be there in person.

Hernandez had done Tweet Along events at the fire department and the city’s 911 dispatch center, so the idea wasn’t new to the community. Several months before the water department Tweet Along, she took part in a social media committee meeting involving people from city departments discussing their projects and their ideas for communicating with the public.

“We were meeting with the staff and we were talking about the water plant,” Hernandez says. “The opportunity just kind of presented itself and we said, ‘Why not?’ It’s not a department that’s often in the public eye, so that’s one reason we chose it.” Hernandez decided to share information from a tour-goer’s perspective. She started by using her smartphone to type her tweets and take photos to share as utility employees guided the tour.

Glad to help out

The employees included Director of Utilities Dave Stoneback, Water Production Superintendent Kevin Lookis, City Chemist Elanore Meade, Superintendent of Construction Lara Biggs, Engineering Associate Alec Schueneman, and Division Chief of Distribution and Sewer Jim Nelson.

All came in on their day off to help with the tour.

“They actually really liked it,” Hernandez says. “Since it was a new thing, they weren’t sure what it would look like, but they were really helpful. They really love their jobs and they were real happy to share.”

Lookis says the fact Hernandez did the Tweet Along without having toured the water plant was an asset. “She did it cold and I think that helped,” he says. “She was seeing it from the eyes of someone unfamiliar with the operation, and she shared what was interesting to people who are also unfamiliar with water treatment. I thought she captured it really well. I thought the content was well-presented and understandable.”

Lookis also believes that doing the Tweet Along for a tour with both youngsters and adults was a good decision. Some stops on the tour — such as a demonstration of flash mix, coagulation and flocculation — are usually included only for school groups and other youth groups, but Lookis says using them for the Tweet Along tour made good sense.

“One of the problems we have with showing people how we treat water is that it can be as interesting as watching paint dry,” he says. Much of the process is invisible to people touring the plant, so the opportunity to demonstrate several important steps — and illustrate them in photo tweets — helped make the tour more interesting, he says.

Start to finish

The tour followed the flow of the water destined for 360,000 customers in Evanston and five neighboring cities. It began at the low-lift pumps in the city’s historic head plant that draw water in through three pipes (36 to 48 inches) that stretch about a mile into Lake Michigan. Then the tour visited the filtration system, which has expanded over the years as the demand for water has grown. Hernandez posted photos showing both a filter in operation and a cutaway display of the filtration process.

There was a stop in a lab to demonstrate how chemicals are used to kill pathogens and eliminate impurities — this is where the flocculation process was demonstrated. Along the way, there was even a stop to view a sample of the wooden pipes used when the first water mains were installed nearly 100 years ago. The tour wound up with a bird’s eye view of the pump room, where eight high-lift pumps send the treated water into the distribution system.

Lookis, chairman of the AWWA Illinois Section, plans to spread the word about Hernandez’s project. “We have a newsletter and I write for it each time,” he says. “I plan to write about the Tweet Along and recommend it to everybody.”

The social media tour remains available for Lookis’ colleagues and the general public to see in at Online viewers do not need a Twitter account.

More to come

In the near future, Hernandez plans to use Twitter to spotlight other city departments and projects. “We’re not really sure yet where the next one will be — maybe something with the library, maybe something with streets,” she says. “Not every Tweet Along with be the same. We’ll tailor it to the department and its operation.”

Hernandez does foresee a return visit to the water department: “The 100th anniversary of the water plant is coming up in 2014, so we will probably do something with that.”


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