How often does a news site really save the day? In the wake of the volcanic ash cloud crisis, Norwegian travellers turn to VG’s Hitch Hiker’s Central to save theirs.
While governments are facing mounting criticism for being slow to act, and help its many citizens stranded in other parts of the world in the wake of the crisis, Norway’s biggest news site must have saved many a stranded traveller – it certainly saved me.
Or at least it helped me get the media trainer I had brought over from Scotland for The Norwegian Online News Association (NONA) back to the UK despite all planes being grounded.
It’s as simple as it is effective: at an early stage of the crisis, Schibsted-owned VG.no launched a two-column site called Hitchhiker’s Central where everyone who can offer transport and everyone who needs transport to various parts of the world can submit ad-like messages.
The messages submitted has ranged from people who just want to go to a neighbouring town, to people needing, or offering, lifts to far-away places such as Dubai or Barcelona. And my own experience suggests it works surprisingly well. When we first realised that the trainer in question might not be able to fly back to Scotland as planned on Saturday, we first joked that we would put together a private boat to take him to Aberdeen and auction off the free places to other stranded travellers on Twitter.
In the end, that proved unpractical, but when I found a friend who were willing to drive from Oslo to Dover and back to get him home, I was able to fill up the car in both directions, thereby covering the costs of the trip, by submitting a message to Hitchhiker’s Central. I did call around to a few other travellers advertising for lift to London before submitting an ad myself, and several of those I talked to had already found lift from Oslo to London which suggests my experience was not unique.
Within minutes of placing an "ad" (a free message) on Hitchhiker’s central, the receptionist at a Rica hotel in Oslo called me to hear if I had room for a British businessman staying at the hotel (that’s service for you, it made me like Rica even better than I already did). The last passenger on the trip to Dover (they arrived this morning) was a Norwegian student desperate to get back to the UK for his exams at Cardiff University. On the way back to Oslo, the car will bring a salesman, a singer and a conductor - all Norwegians who were stranded in London.
I do wonder about the conversations in all those cars now travelling across Europe with people who must be complete strangers to each others. I hope some people have the presence to record them, either by way of video or blog. At least all the people I talked to sounded like really nice people, and part of me wanted to go myself just for the adventure of it. I’m not so sure it felt all that wonderful when they arrived Dover after 20 hours on the road, but still…at least they’re in the right country now.
I'm thinking that all the wonderful ways I’ve seen people collaborate and help each other get home, via Twitter, blogs and on Hitchhiker’s Central, must be the one redeeming feature of this crisis. Social media has certainly played an important role too, and Twitter was of some help for me when planning the Oslo-Dover-Oslo trip.
What VG.no could offer in this situation was scale, with it’s close to 3m unique users a week it offered people a brilliant connection point that few other sites could. It’s a great service to its readers and, I’m sure, a great click winner too.
For the record: It must be said that the media trainer in question was in Norway to do in-house training for VG.no and give a talk at a NONA-event, and that VG.no’s editor is a board member of NONA, but his visit was organised by me, as the president of NONA, and, as this crisis happened over the weekend, so was the "rescue operation".