Posted: May 27th, 2009 | Author: Rob Goodspeed | Filed under: Blogosphere, ePlanning, History, Justice, Technology, University of Michigan, Urban Development | 2 Comments »
The story of I-Neighbors.org is important to anyone hoping to use technology to complement traditional forms of urban community. The website was created by Keith Hampton, a scholar interested in “the relationship between new information and communication technologies, social networks, and the urban environment.”
A trained sociologist, as a newly minted PhD Hampton taught at the MIT Urban Studies and Planning program from 2001 to 2005. Here he developed and launched I-Neighbors, a “social networking service that connects residents of geographic neighborhoods.” The website allows registered users to look up and join “neighborhoods.” Each neighborhood has a variety of default functions: email list, polls, business reviews, photos, documents, events, and a directory of other members. Originally it had a “GovLink” service allowing users to connect to local elected officials, but this has been shut down due to cost.
Although the website could use some design tweaks (fonts are too small, for one), the website is reasonably straightforward to use and clearly carefully thought out. I think I remember reading the site was accompanied with some offline training sessions in the Boston area.
Unfortunately, it’s taken off in relatively few neighborhoods. According to a 2006 paper, as of then 23.6% of website users hadn’t joined any neighborhood, and only 9 neighborhoods have over 50 users. These facts suggest it’s either not what they’re looking for, too complicated, or have another usability issue. When users look up a zip code, if another user has not created a neighborhood the systems says there “are currently no i-Neighborhoods in your area” asking, in smaller letters, if they want to create one. Creating new neighborhoods is simple enough, but I bet pre-creating any searched for neighborhood would get more users engaged in the system.
Individually, the tools are useful, and in fact sites have thrived performing almost all individually:
- Business reviews – Yelp
- Geocoded Photos – Flickr
- Neighborhood listservs – Yahoo, Google, private lists
- Neighborhood news – Variety of local news, blogs, neighborhood (offline) newsletters.
Why isn’t there greater use of these functions on the website? In marketing parlance, the ‘unique value proposition’ of social networking websites, is the content and the people, not the functionality. Thus in the fickle world of social networking, some have thrived while others have withered according to their relative popularity among users, not necessarily the sophistication of the functionality. I-Neighbors has struggled to take off in many communities.
Additionally, the content is carefully organized into neighborhood-specific stovepipes. This reduces the potential users able to see, say, the review of a local business. Additionally, urban residents have famously fluid conceptions of neighborhoods, suggesting perhaps the content should be organized in a less rigid way. Although functioning in some ways like a social networking websites, users don’t select which friends they will allow to see their profiles, instead all members of the neighborhood are thrown in together. Additionally, there’s no search functionality for users and users can only see other people in their networks, not across the system. These barriers to finding other people thwart one potential source of interest in the system.
A related conundrum for academic innovators is although they may be able to imagine possible new tools, they can rarely keep pace with the private sector in terms of usability, design, and functionality. However, the market may not produce the websites with precisely the sort of arrangement or functionality we’d like to see. I give Prof. Hampton credit for developing such a sophisticated tool, but it will have trouble to keep pace with private sector websites with dedicated staff making continual improvement.s
One approach to the success of a myriad of highly specialized sites for specific geographically specific information is the one taken by EveryBlock, which aggregates private and government data for every block (or zip code), including Yelp! reviews, geotagged Flickr photos, restaurant inspections, blog posts and crime reports.
A Success Story
One neighborhood, profiled in this academic paper, was particularly successful, resulting in a very vibrant email list. What can we learn from this case? This neighborhood was already well organized offline, is a physically distinct community with an association that adopted I-Neighbors as a platform for online collaboration. The group requires members to use their real names (something the e-democracy.org folks believe in). As an aside, the use of the site also shows the direct connection between neighborhood media to planning and policy, a early hot topics was a redevelopment plans, how the neighborhood corporation was investing revenue in the neighborhood.
This successful neighborhood benefited from several very active members. Although hyperactive participants can be a liability, overwhelming visitors or dominating conversations, a core of enthusiastic participants can benefit a forum because they create a public good – information and opinion – that others can read or react to. This relates to Noor Ali-Hasan’s blog study that argued active conversation starting blogs play an important role in a larger ecosystem of online communication.
Considering the lessons this website provides, two questions arise. First, what is new? What new information was communicated, new relationships developed, or most importantly new outcomes resulted in the real world? It’s not clear how you could prove something like this, but it is the question of central importance evaluating the significance of a new community-building tool. The second but related question, how did the online intervention change existing relationships and arrangements? Did it reinforce them, alter them in another way? Answering these questions rigorously — about I-Neighbors or any other community building website — will help us understand the true potential for the Internet to affect local communities.
Posted: August 20th, 2008 | Author: Rob Goodspeed | Filed under: Congestion Pricing, Freeways, Infrastructure, Justice, Public Policy, Transportation | 5 Comments »
You’ve heard the buzz about “Lexus Lanes,” a new trend where tolls are adjusted in order to keep some freeway lanes flowing smoothly. They’re related to the idea of charging higher prices for parking, or even a congestion charge such as the one considered for New York City. It’s widely thought the lanes are unfair, since they allow wealthy drivers to zip past congestion. There’s only one problem with that view: a new study disproved it, arguing instead toll lanes are more just than the usual method for funding highways, sales taxes.
Two California professors considered the issue in a new article titled, “Just Pricing: The Distributional Effects of Congestion Pricing and Sales Taxes.” The study found that the lanes were disproportionately used by middle and upper-middle income people, and that the tolls were regressive. So what’s the rub? It turns out the usual means for paying for transportation infrastructure, such as sales and gas taxes, are even more regressive than tolls. In fact, the study concludes that:
… if [sales tax] funds had been used to finance the express lanes, the study found, the poor and wealthy would have paid more. Middle- and upper-middle-income taxpayers would have paid $26 million less each year than they paid under the current cost-distribution system, and the very poorest residents would have paid over $3 million more than they actually did under the current toll system.
They conclude that “Using sales taxes to fund roadways creates substantial savings to drivers by shifting some of the costs of driving from drivers to consumers at large, and in the process disproportionately favors the more affluent at the expense of the impoverished.” The authors propose two policies to overcome the remaining regressive character of tolls: giving out free travel credits to low income commuters, or using the funds to invest in public transit. The comparison is between tolls and general sales taxes, not gas taxes, but I suspect gas taxes would have been only slightly less regressive than sales taxes. (Because the poor own fewer cars and drive less)
Previously I also suggested we should consider other benefits of congestion pricing in the equation – greater transportation choice for all (including low-income commuters), less pollution, and perhaps a shift in behavior towards transit, carpooling, or other more efficient modes. I also discussed before some of the implications for another form of congestion pricing — raising parking meter rates.
What most frustrates me with congestion pricing critics is not their concern — not enough research has been done on equity, and it is a valid point to discuss — but how misplaced it seems given our skewed policies. Our society is riddled with deeply regressive policies. Sales taxes, gas taxes, and lotteries are all known to be regressive. We spend more than twice as much money subsidizing housing for the rich than we do for the poor. The poor disproportionately live near sources of pollution, and consequently have higher rates of asthma, heart disease, and other diseases caused by environmental factors. Meanwhile, our public transit systems, critical lifelines to opportunity for the very poor, are crumbling. In that light, adopting less-regressive congestion pricing and spending some of the revenue on transit service seems like a good decision.
> UCLA: “Joint UCLA–USC study shows that toll roads are more fair than taxes”
> LATimes Blog: “Study finds congestion pricing doesn’t hurt the poor”
Posted: May 31st, 2007 | Author: Rob Goodspeed | Filed under: Justice | Comments Off
This from a friend:
FREE KIAN TAJBAKHSH
On May 11th 2007, Dr. Kian Tajbakhsh, 45, an urban planning expert and senior research fellow at the New School in New York, was arrested at his home in Tehran by the Iranian security services. He has since been detained in the notorious Evin prison and has not seen a lawyer or been permitted visitors. This comes on the heels of the sudden imprisonment May 8th of Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Columbia University President Lee Bollinger released this statement:
Columbia University is urgently concerned about the safety, well-being and human rights of two Iranian-American scholars who are under arrest in Iran. Dr. Kian Tajbakhsh is an expert on urban planning who has worked for multilateral, international, and Iranian public organizations. Dr. Tajbakhsh earned his Ph.D. and Master of Philosophy from Columbia University, where he studied urban planning and sociology. Dr. Haleh Esfandiari is director of the Middle East Program at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. Both were reportedly detained and charged with ‘endangering national security through propaganda against the system and espionage for foreigners.’ These reports are deeply troubling to our university community, and we urge that these scholars be released on humanitarian grounds.
More from Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars … The New School University… and Reuters: “3 Iranian-Americans Charged by Tehran With Espionage“
Posted: April 19th, 2007 | Author: Rob Goodspeed | Filed under: District of Columbia, Housing, Justice, Urban Development | 2 Comments »
After years of wrangling between affordable housing advocates, policy wonks, and real estate interests, D.C. has finally adopted a commonly-used approach to creating affordable housing.
Known as “inclusionary zoning,” the policy requires developers include units reserved for low and moderate-income families when developing large residential projects. In exchange, developers are allowed to increase the density of the project to offset the cost of these affordable units. One of the most well-known programs in the country is run by Montgomery County, Maryland, which has a Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit Program that has created over 13,000 moderately priced units of housing since 1974. Inclusionary zoning policies create affordable units integrated into larger projects, without getting the government involved in owning property. For years, real estate interests have resisted such a policy in D.C., complaining as recently as last October such a policy constitutes a “development tax” and would depress development in the District.
The D.C. Office of Planning put together a very detailed presentation last fall to explain how the program would work. The following slides are from the presentation, however I suggest viewing the entire document via the link below. In D.C., the policy has been adopted in a way where it applies to roughly 37% of the city.
Unlike Montgomery County, in D.C. the units must be reserved for qualifying individuals in perpetuity. Of the area where the policy applies, 19% falls within historic districts. Some have raised concerns suggesting the inclusionary zoning policy and the historic districts might conflict, however the Office of Planning points out that the historic districts contain few parcels large enough to trigger the inclusionary zoning law. They also point out that if they law was triggered, it would simply require narrower rowhomes, similar in size to many historic rowhomes in the city.
Here are a couple examples of how the law might work for projects in different zones:
The D.C. Office of Planning estimated the program could create over 100 units of housing a year reserved for people below the area’s median income, currently around $90,000 for a family of four. However, because the enabling legislation only recently took effect, many of the specifics about how the program will be carried out (my understanding is that it will be the D.C. Housing Authority) remain unclear.
> DC Office of Planning Inclusionary Zoning Presentation (PDF) (10/07)
> W. Post: “Inclusionary Zoning Program Is Approved”
> Washington Business Journal: “Mapping a disaster area: You are here” (7/14/06), “Affordable housing debate moves back, forward” (10/13/06)
> DC Council: Inclusionary Zoning Implementation Act of 2006
> DC Campaign for Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning
> Washington Regional Network: D.C. Campaign for Inclusionary Zoning
> Fall 2005 Student Report on Montomery County MPDU Law
Although I have done my best to be accurate in this post, it is based on my analysis of technical documentation of a complex, evolving policy. Anyone aware of inaccuracies should post a comment.
Posted: April 9th, 2007 | Author: Rob Goodspeed | Filed under: Ann Arbor, History, Justice, Michigamua, Michigan, University of Michigan | 2 Comments »
For those accustom to my usual topics about urbanism and D.C., permit me a brief digression about a University of Michigan “leadership” society with a controversial history, that recently re-named themselves from Michigamua to The Order of Angell.
The Ann Arbor blog Left Behind in the Fishbowl has posted what appears to be a copy of lyrics of a song written to be used during initiation rituals by Michigamua/Order of the Angell, titled “YMCA (Pride 2008)”. Whether or not the document is authentic of a sophisticated parody, it makes for hilarious reading.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about Michigamua/Order of the Angell because they just inducted new members. Readers of this blog will know I think the group should be abolished since it is a shameful blemish on the history of the University of Michigan, but I won’t belabor the point. I think my views are a quite reasonable conclusion based on my research. It seems some basic history is a good starting point.
1. At its founding, the group created an elaborate invented mythology using their views of Native American culture, which they proceeded to use for nearly 100 years.
2. For 90 years of their history most internal communication (including all newsletters) was in a stylized speech (see below for examples)
3. The group first admitted women in 2000
4. The organized had privileged space in the Michigan Union from the 30s until 2000, had close relationships with administrators for many years, and even at one point had a special university account for their finances. For years, they used university property outside downtown Ann Arbor for special events.
5. They agreed to abolish all references to native American culture in 1989, however the tower occupation revealed numerous objects and a wigwam retained by the organization
Whether it is even possible — or even desirable — to whitewash this history with a quick name change I think is an open question. This is not to mention the appropriateness of having such a group with such an elitist past (and present) claiming to act “for Michigan.”
Here are the new members, from the Daily:
“Pride of 2008″
-Sarah Banco – Women’s soccer
-Lindsey Cottrell – Women’s soccer
-Steve Crompton – Dance Marathon
-Lindsay Davis – Women’s golf
-Alessandra Giampaolo – Softball
-Sam Harper – College Democrats chair
-Michael Hart – Football
-Jen Hsu – Co-chair of the Michigan Student Assembly’s LGBT commission
-Nellie Kippley – Women’s gymnastics
-Matko Maravic – Men’s tennis
-Doug Pickens – Baseball
-Randal Seriguchi – VP of the National Pan-Hellenic council, MSA
-Sejal Tailor – Multicultural Greek Council president
-Alex Tisdall – ROTC
-Tyrel Todd – Men’s wrestling
-Alex Vanderkaay – Swimmer
-Zack Yost – MSA president
-Michael Cromwell – A capella
-Nicole Wojcik – Marching Band
-Anup Shah – IASA
-Rohan Patel – Dance Marathon
-Kelly Sanderson – Women Engineers
-Gervis Menzies – Residence Hall Association
Here’s some images I pulled from my collection:
Newsletters from the 1940s
Class of 1966
Induction ritual photo and account from 1960s
This letterhead was used well into the 1970s. Ironically, this copy contains notes from a meeting where negotiations with Native American students was discussed.
Note, donations from this 1980s fundraising letter are payable to a “University of Michigan — Michigamua Account”
Objects discovered in the “wigwam” during 2000 Student of Color Coalition occupation.
> Michigan Daily: “After seven years, group recognized by ‘U’ once again”
> Michigan Daily: “The secret society that lived: New name alone can’t cover blemishes of a shady past”
> Michigan Daily: “Jim Toy Viewpoint: To build a bridge” (Community member describes why he is working with group)
> Native American Student Association — Michigamua “Guide to Understanding”
> The Order of Angell Maize pages entry
> The Order of Angell website
> Michigamua Members: 1999-2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 (For previous years just drop me a line, I have a printed directory going all the way back to 1902)
> Previous Michigamua Posts
Posted: November 8th, 2006 | Author: Rob Goodspeed | Filed under: District of Columbia, Elections, Justice, Politics, University of Michigan, Urban Development | 10 Comments »
With so many candidates and initiatives on the ballots across the country yesterday I thought it would be worthwhile to point out a few items I was watching.
Although it was exciting to watch the Democrats take back the House for the first time since 1994, the evening wasn’t without its disappointments. At the top of that list must be the success of the affirmative action ban in Michigan. Although the full impact will become clear in the next months and years, the ban threatens not only affirmative action policies for university admissions but also scholarships, retention programs, and other policies that assist not only racial and ethnic minorities but also women. A similar policy in California has led to sharp and stark declines in the number of black students at the top campuses in the UC system – as a particularly egregious example out of nearly 5,000 incoming students this fall at UCLA just 96 are black – around 2%. In Michigan this could mean we see the percentage of black students at the University of Michigan drop below 10% in a metropolitan region that is over 21% black. (Although University of Michigan president pledged today in a rousing speech they would use ‘every legal option available.’) My friend Dumi who is a graduate student at the University of Michigan has posted his thoughts about the initiative. (Which he points out was endorsed by the KKK) Also in Michigan, Carl Levin’s son Andy Levin lost his race for State Senate by a tiny margin in a hotly contested race for a Republican-majority district. Democratic challenger Jim Marcinkowski also failed in his attempt to knock off Republican Mike Rogers in Michigan’s 8th. Overall the picture in Michigan isn’t all doom and gloom — Governor Jennifer Granholm and Senator Stabenow won re-election, and Democrats took over the Michigan House. Another Michigan friend Chris Wilcox was helping out Michael Arcuri, who successfully won the contested race for New York House District 24.
Another largely-overlooked outcome of the election was the continuing popular backlash against the Kelo vs. New London case: eight states voted to prohibit or restrict the use of eminent domain for economic development purposes. I have mixed feelings about this. Although eminent domain has had a shameful history, I am mostly worried constitutional amendments and ballot initiatives is an inappropriate way of handling the issue and could lead to unintended consequences down the road.
Lastly, as I have already posted it appears my neighborhood ANC in D.C. will have a new chair – Kevin Chappele. Perhaps now that body will publish a regular agenda, post their meeting location on the web, and do a better job serving the needs of the neighborhood.
Posted: April 18th, 2006 | Author: Rob Goodspeed | Filed under: Justice, Politics | 2 Comments »
I found this Malcolm Gladwell article in the New Yorker on a book about reasons quite interesting. Is your reason a story, a convention, or a code? This part reminded me of some of the talk about Michigamua:
When we say that two parties in a conflict are “talking past each other,” this is what we mean: that both sides have a legitimate attachment to mutually exclusive reasons. [...] If you believe that stories are the most appropriate form of reason-giving, then those who use conventions and technical accounts will seem morally indifferent—regardless of whether you agree with them. And, if you believe that a problem is best adjudicated through conventions or technical accounts, it is hard not to look upon storytellers as sensationalistic and intellectually unserious.