Northumberland residents are being urged to get social as the prospect of a third Arctic winter in a row looms.
It is hoped they will turn to the internet in increasing numbers to access vital information and beat the effects of the cold.
Northumberland County Council’s social media winter alerts have proved a success over the past two years, particularly during periods of heavy snowfall.
More than 13,500 residents are now actively using the service which helps keep people up to date with issues such as school closures or problems on the roads by logging onto sites like Facebook and Twitter.
Northumberland is England’s most northerly county, with a large population spread out across a predominantly rural landscape that regularly throws up challenging weather conditions.
So in December 2009 the council launched the information alerts to help locals and visitors to the county get the latest news on how the weather was affecting services. Since then it has gone from strength to strength.
The system provides instant, real-time facts on everything from local weather warnings to school and road closures, flood alerts, delays to bin collections and any major emergencies.
The alerts are updated by council staff or teachers and appear instantly in a dedicated area at the top of the council homepage and on Facebook and Twitter.
People with smart phones are also able to access instantaneous information on the move.
More than 1,000 alerts were issued during the last cold snap with thousands of residents accessing them via social networking sites, but also through the council’s own website which saw an extra 350,000 visitors.
Northumberland also has its own iPhone app which lets people access the alerts and a host of other information about the county as well as providing a system where people can report things like potholes or fly tipping. So far more than 2,000 people have downloaded the app from iTunes.
Councillor Jeff Reid, leader of Northumberland County Council, said: “The alerts system has proved a real hit with the public and has enabled us to get vital service information to people as soon as possible, in the way they find most convenient.
“We now keep the alerts open all year round so people can access information whatever the time of year. When we get bad weather it can really have an impact so this lets people get the information they need in a faster, clearer way. We have almost 3,000 miles (5,000kms) of roads and more than 180 schools so our new alerts have been really useful.”
Communications manager Ross Wigham added: “According to our research more than 52% of internet users in Northumberland now use social media sites in their everyday lives, making it a powerful tool for keeping our residents informed.
“Sites like Facebook and twitter are growing all the time and are now delivering information to our residents in an accessible and convenient way. Keeping in touch with 300,000 residents is a real challenge because of the huge geographical area we cover and this is another way that people can access important local information.
“By harnessing new media and technology through things like our online magazine and our iPhone app we’ve been able to connect with residents in a much better way and enable them to access information in new ways.
“All questions and comments are treated in exactly the same way as a media enquiry so people get timely, accurate answers on issues that matter to them. Vast numbers of people signed up during a period of bad weather when they needed vital information quickly and often on the move.”
Northumberland is continuing to pioneer new ideas. It is currently experimenting with ‘groupon’ style vouchers that reward residents who sign up to ‘like’ the community on Facebook with discount deals at local leisure centres and other council facilities.