Democratizing Big Data and Innovative Public Engagement

Posted: March 14th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Smart Growth, Technology | Tags: , | Comments Off

I thought I should note here two blog posts I recently published elsewhere.

I discussed some of the challenges involved in making “big data” accessible to low income communities in a post on Planetizen: “The Democratization of Big Data“.

I posted a guest post on PlaceMatter‘s blog about an innovative planning process for transit-oriented development in Metro Boston that used CommunityViz for indicators and 3D visualizations: “Planning for Transit-Oriented Development with 3D Visualizations.”


Should The T Keep a Commuter Subsidy?

Posted: January 9th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Transit | Tags: , , | 2 Comments »

In order to close next year’s budget gap, Boston’s MBTA transit system is planning to raise fares and cut service. This will be the first time since 2007 fares have been changed.

A detailed analysis released by the Central Transportation Planning Staff (CTPS) last week considered two scenarios with sharp increases. (The report, along with other materials and a listing of planned public meetings is available at http://mbta.com/jointhediscussion) This analysis includes the specific bus routes considered for elimination, a topic I won’t discuss here but one which deserves close scrutiny.

Under Scenario 1, which contains fewer service cuts, the regular Charliecard fare would increase from $1.70 to $2.40 (paying by cash would be slightly more expensive, as now). Under Scenario 2, with more service cuts, the fare would increase only to $2.25. Although large increases in percentage terms, these fares are reasonable when compared with other major U.S. subway systems. The combination of fare increases and service cuts will help the agency keep pace with the agency’s skyrocketing costs of employee health insurance, energy, and system maintenance. Of course, additional revenues from the state government is always a possibility.

However a large number of riders don’t pay the cash fare. Instead, they purchase the unlimited local bus and subway “LinkPass” that was introduced in 2007. The price of this pass will increase also, from $59 per monthly currently to $80 for Scenario 1 and $78 in Scenario 2. The overall logic of the fare structure was only subtly modified, and CTPS notes in their study that “the cash-fare equivalent would decrease or remain virtually the same in both scenarios” for all types of passes — including the LinkPass.

The cost of the current pass is worth about 34.7 single trips on local buses or subway lines. Since the typical month has about 20 work days (40 trips), taking into account a few weeks of vacation, holidays, and personal days, averaging about 34.7 trips per month seems like a reasonable point to incentivize buying a pass for most riders. Put it other terms, current pass holders pay about 87% of the full cash fare for a month of commuting (40 trips). This would stay the same for Scenario 2, but drop to 83% for Scenario 1.

There’s only one problem with this analysis — LinkPass riders use their passes much more than that. With the introduction of the new fares in 2007 the MBTA introduced an “Automated Fare Collection” system, which means raw data about ridership patterns are available. In an analysis I completed last spring with CTSP-provided data, I found that in that year each LinkPass sold resulted in 52.13 subway trips and 12.79 bus trips per month that year. This means the effective price per trip is significantly lower than the “regular” cash fares. The average rider is getting a $26.62 discount per month on the subway alone, paying roughly $1.13 per trip. Of course, many are paying much less — or much more.

Having such a low-cost unlimited pass is unusual. Washington, D.C.’s system charges time- and distance-based fares for each trip, only offering limited passes. New York City’s pass is $104, and Atlanta’s is $95.

Of course, such an inexpensive monthly pass can be justified on several grounds. It could be interpreted as a liberal concession to the city’s large transit-dependent population. However if it is, it is an inefficient one indeed, since LinkPasses are also owned by a large number of well paid professionals. Political logic may also suggest avoiding a detailed analysis of the complete fare structure. Perhaps an across-the-board increase is conceptually simpler to discuss in the 20 public meetings that are planned. However, since increases happen so infrequently and the trouble of 20 public meetings are planned, shouldn’t all aspects of the system’s fares and operations be up for negotiation?

This issue is only one that will be discussed in the coming months. Others include which routes should be changed or eliminated, what additional reforms are possible to reduce the MBTA’s expenses, and what other sources of revenue are possible including a plan for more regular fare increases. Hopefully the process will result in a plan to put the MBTA on a more sustainable financial footing, with sensible trade-offs among the multiple public objectives involved.

More resources:
> See my previous post “Raising Fares on Boston’s Subway for Safety and Reliability
> See supplementary information at www.mbta.com/jointhediscussion


Ten Books of 2010-2011

Posted: December 21st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Books | 1 Comment »

A few years back, I was asked to name the books that had made the biggest impact on me. Three came immediately to mind: Jane Jacob’s Death and Life of Great American Cities, Tom Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis, and Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Beyond those, I struggled to think of more -– it was a short and idiosyncratic list.

One of the benefits of being a PhD student is that you get to do a lot of reading, guided in various formal and informal ways. As a result, over the last two years I’ve read a number of books that will likely go on the “life list.” Given the tradition of writing year-end lists, I thought I would post the titles here. Some of these are books I “should” have already read at some point, and others are relatively obscure. A classmate pointed out recently that the “tolerance for theory increases with time spent in academia,” and I must admit some of these are quite theoretical. However, in the words of Malcolm Gladwell we are often “experience rich and theory poor.” Despite the word’s negative associations, theories are crucial for understanding, research, and practical action.

So here they are: ten books worth reading. They are organized roughly thematically. A treatise could be written about each book, but for the sake of brevity I tried to limit myself to a few sentences.

1. Nicomachean Ethics and Politics (c. 330 BC)
By Aristotle
I was assigned the works of Socrates and Plato many times in my education, but never Aristotle. Unlike Plato’s Republic, which sought to deduce the form of a perfect society from first principles, Aristotle’s Politics is refreshingly empirical. The book is a a thoughtful synthesis of how various constitutions worked out in practice, and Aristotle’s analysis of the relationship between democracy and inequality is relevant today. The Nicomachean Ethics is an introduction to the notion of classical virtues, but in my view the most important part is only a few pages long. Book 6 proposes a tripartite division of knowledge that has sparked debates in epistemology still underway: science (episteme), art (techne), and practical wisdom (phronesis).

2. The Public and its Problems (1927)
By John Dewey
This classic work in pragmatic political thought contains Dewey’s theory of democracy and the democratic state. Acutely aware of the radical and damaging impact of technology (for him, mass media, but could also be the Internet) and the vast scale of modern life on traditional democracy, the book ends with a call for greater attention to the creation and dissemination of knowledge and also the “method and conditions of debate, discussion and persuasion,” starting at the local level.

3. Deliberative Democracy and Beyond: Liberals, Critics, Contestations (2000)
By John Dryzek
Much more than a book merely about ‘deliberative democracy,’ this is a lucid and masterful synthesis of social theory. In it, Dryzek explains and critiques Foucault, rational choice theory, democratic theory. It closes with a thoughtful speculation for how democracy can be reconciled with environmental values.

4. Collaborative Planning: Shaping Places in Fragmented Societies (2006)
By Patsy Healey
In urban planning, “communicative rationality” has been a popular theory since the 1990s. Drawing on the work of Habermas, various writers have sought to use this theory to explain how planners actually work and how deliberative forums can be used to resolve problems. In my view, the best theoretical treatment comes not from the generally better-known US academics, but a British planner. Her book combines a “communicative” perspective with theories of institutions and social, environmental, and economic development.

5. Frame Reflection: Toward the Resolution of Intractable Policy Controversies (1994)
By Donald Schon and Martin Rein
This book is a nuanced discussion of the nature of power and knowledge, and how the way we think influences the resolution of policy controversies. The book argues public policy should adopt a design perspective, and that thoughtful professionals can and should change the “frames” they use to understand problems.

6. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity (1998)
By Etienne Wenger
Although often watered down by consultants, in this book Wenger presents a rich and wide-ranging theory of professional learning encompassing identity, communities, and the need for participation and codified systems of knowledge.

7. Sciences of the Artificial, 3rd Ed. (1996)
By Herbert Simon
A polymath and Nobel Laureate in economics, Simon’s work spanned many fields. One of his later works, this book is a classic in artificial intelligence, and also where he sets forth an argument for more rigorous methods in the design professions such as engineering and urban planning.

8. Rescuing Prometheus: Four Monumental Projects that Changed the Modern World (1998)
By Thomas Hughes
A case study of four sociotechnical systems, Hughes argues each sparked important innovations. They are, with their unintended results, The SAGE air defense system (digital computing), the Atlas missile project (systems engineering), Boston Central Artery-Tunnel (new multi-stakeholder approaches to public works), and the Internet (new management ideas). The book is a readable description of not only specific projects, but also broader social and intellectual trends in U.S. history.

9. We Have Never Been Modern (1993)
By Bruno Latour
A wonderfully heterodox critique of modernity and modern social science, in this book the always-controversial Latour argues the rise of complex science and technology requires us to re-consider how we understand society.

10. Method in Social Science, 2nd Ed. (2010)
By Andrew Sayer
A book about the nature of social research, Sayer is a a “critical realist” who exposes a more nuanced view than simple positivism.

> See the complete list on WorldCat

Why I link to WorldCat: 1) It links to local library catalogs (however be sure to check all editions), 2) You can export citations for books or entire lists, 3) There are convenient links to major booksellers, 4) its database includes journal articles and other works.


Raising Fares on Boston’s Subway for Safety and Reliability

Posted: December 19th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Boston, Transit | Tags: | 1 Comment »

Boston’s subway plays a critical role for the city. Despite a fare increase in 2007 and receiving a dedicated portion of the state’s sales tax, in recent years the agency’s tight budget (driven partly by labor, health care, and energy costs) has prevented needed maintenance and upgrades. With many of the system’s cars nearing the end of their operating lives, it is only a matter of time before service reliability and safety are impacted even more. For these reasons, the MBTA is expected to begin the process of raising fares in January.

In my view, political unwillingness to raise fares has resulted in a situation where the safety, comfort, and convenience of riders are threatened. Fares should be raised, and the additional revenue used for maintenance and upgrades to tracks and train cars. Many of the T’s riders are middle and upper class — and can afford fares that are closer to the true cost of the service. However, I also support creating discounted fares and passes for low-income residents.

To be clear, this is a second-best solution to creating new broad-based taxes that are less sensitive to economic cycles than the sales tax (such as those used in Paris). However the political resistance to raising or increasing any taxes, as well as a widespread “user pay” principle in U.S. transportation means fares will remain a significant source of revenue. As described below, my analysis suggests increasing fares in Boston may reduce ridership slightly, but not result in a “death spiral” of declining ridership and revenue sometimes seen in other cities.

A common objection to raising fares is that it will encourage more people to drive to work. According to an analysis I completed for a class project last spring, the system’s relatively low price elasticity means this effect will be muted for most of the core subway system. This low elasticity is probably due to the high cost of parking in most of Boston and the low existing fares (compared to the price of other transportation options).

In a class paper, I investigated what the effect of increasing the MBTA fare to a new flat rate of either $2.00 or $2.25, or implementing the distance-based or peak fare structure used by Washington, D.C.’s WMATA Metrorail. Below are links to a presentation summary and the original paper.

To do the study, I applied elasticities estimated by the state’s Central Transportation Planning Staff (CTPS) after a 2007 fare restructuring. Using the Automated Fare Collection system data, I made assumptions about where passengers traveled to using the pattern of morning and evening boardings. I found current riders pay different prices based on the fare type:

  • CharlieCard fare: $1.70
  • Monthly LinkPass average: $1.13
  • Systemwide average: $1.26

An important finding is the very low average price being paid by owners of the LinkPass for each trip. Because of the relatively low elasticity for subway trips and popularity of passes resulting in low effective fares, increasing fares would generate substantial additional revenue but also possibly decrease ridership. Note I assume all riders would pay the new fare, if there remains a subsidy for pass holders the magnitudes would be smaller.

New Fare Revenue Change Ridership Change
Peak-of-peak only ($0.20 surcharge) 3% -1.5%
$2.00 44% -10%
$2.25 58% -12%
WMATA Distance-Based Fares 52% -10%

I did consider equity considerations in the paper, however it is difficult to analyze without rider-level data. Distance-based fares would result in dramatic increases in total fares for outlying stations.

For comparison, I completed a quick survey of the cash fare for large, center-city subway and light rail systems (as of August 2011). The results are uniformly higher than the average price paid by MBTA riders, and all except Los Angeles are higher than the $1.70 paid by most per-trip riders in Boston.

  • New York City – $2.25
  • Chicago – $2.25
  • Salt Lake City (LR) – $2.25
  • Denver (LR) – $2.25 – $5
  • Miami – $2
  • Philadelphia – $2.00
  • Washington, D.C. – $1.95 – $5
  • Dallas (LR) – $1.75 – $5
  • Los Angeles – $1.50

Interestingly I may have been too conservative in my analysis, as some of the flat fares discussed here are even higher than those I tested. I hope the results of the analysis mentioned in this article are made public, and compromise options such as low-income subsidies are put on the table for consideration.

Resources:


How Open are Massachusetts Municipal Data?

Posted: December 16th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Technology | Tags: , , | 3 Comments »

My first peer-reviewed journal article was published this month by the Journal of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA), an open access journal published by a leading geographic information systems (GIS) professional organization. Titled “From Public Records to Open Government: Access to Massachusetts Municipal Geographic Data,” it reports the result of a public records request for GIS data I submitted to all 351 Massachusetts municipalities. Here is the abstract:

Increasingly, citizens are demanding access to raw data from governments to hold public officials accountable, look up facts, conduct analysis, or create innovative applications and services. Cities and towns create data using geographic information systems such as layers describing parcels, zoning, and infrastructure that are useful for a wide range of purposes. Through a public records request to all 351 Massachusetts municipalities, this paper investigates whether these data are accessible to citizens in practice. Some response was received by 78.6 percent of the municipalities. Two municipalities refused access to all electronic records. Many others charged fees ranging up to $453 or placed legal restrictions on the data through licensing that could chill or prohibit creative reuses of the information through emerging technologies. Other practical barriers limited public access to data, such as limited resources, government officials’ limited technical knowledge, and outsourcing to private vendors. A followup survey among municipalities that did not respond to the request was conducted to determine if they had GIS systems or data policies, and this information was collected for 80.3 percent of the municipalities. Finally, the paper discusses the legal, policy, and technical steps that can be taken by governments to move from a “public records” to an “open government” paradigm for transparency of government data. The policy recommendations for municipalities include publishing GIS data for free online and with minimal legal restrictions.

The paper started as a class project for the MIT class “Ethics and Law on the Electronic Frontier” I took in Fall 2010. This research is related to the work I did at the City of Boston, where in 2010 I developed an open government strategy proposing how the city could use technology to achieve transparency, participation, and collaboration goals.

Goodspeed, Robert. 2011. “From Public Records to Open Government: Access to Massachusetts Municipal Geographic Data” (PDF) Journal of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association 23 : 1, p. 21-32.

See also:
> What Government Data Should be Transparent?
> Public Sector Innovation: Learning from History (on local GIS technology adoption)


The Art (and Science?) of Designing Urban Planning Processes

Posted: September 30th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Detroit, Public Participation, Urban Development | Comments Off

In June I published an op-ed in the Detroit News describing my research on urban renewal in Detroit in the 1940s. I concluded with the observation:

The voices of citizens affected by renewal must be heard. Dramatic, large-scale projects can have harmful and unexpected consequences. The history of urban planning has shown success occurs through a careful process of building consensus, detailed analysis and cooperative action.

In response Marja Winters, the city’s deputy director of planning and development, wrote an editorial arguing the process has been highly participatory, involving 28 city-wide meetings and 10,000 citizens, and large numbers of participants said they agreed they had had the opportunity to share ideas and opinions.

(As an aside: She objected to a line which read “The plan calls for closing neighborhoods, cutting services and cultivating new industries.” I agree with her criticism: the words aren’t mine, but those of a Detroit News editor. The manuscript I submitted read: “The Detroit Works Project — Mayor Bing’s roadmap for the city’s future — has proposed dramatic solutions: closing neighborhoods, cutting services, and cultivating new industries.”)

I have not attended the Detroit Works public meetings or examined the process, so I cannot critique it in detail. The first major policy initiative coming out of the process was announced in July, but amounted to the selection of some priority areas for city services. The proposal left some puzzled. Where was the grand vision, or bold proposals? Perhaps there is no need for “planning” at all, just better urban management? (See “Questions dog Detroit Works plan: Advocates want to see long-term strategy“)

This situation and Winters’ article raises interesting questions: is all participation alike? Can the design of the process affect the outcome? What models exist for planning for “shrinking cities”?

It is common for major urban plans or policies to be developed through quite elaborate processes. For example, I collected this diagram that was circulated in the early stages of the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan:

Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan

In general, their design is left up to professionals who draw upon professional experience. Most process designs characterize several aspects: problem definition, deliberation and participation, analysis, policy design, and decision-making. Under each of these, details include:
- The number, type, mission, membership and missions of committees
- What expertise and analysis is required, and how they are involved
- The timing, nature, and purpose of broader participation such as meetings, surveys, and online engagement
- How decisions will be made.

One of the cleares descriptions of how processes are designed for local contexts comes from Barbara Faga’s book Designing Public Consensus. After several case studies, the book presents the following public process plan as a starting point:

Design Process + Public Process

This way of thinking is not unique to urban planning. As the field of risk assessment has become embroiled in value-laden controversies, experts have had to re-assess their approached. In 1996, leaders in the field proposed an analytic-deliberative model that seeks to tightly link the needed analysis with involvement from affected parties.

Analytic-Deliberative Process

Perhaps the most common process theory for large-scale planning is scenario planning (PDF), adopted from methodologies invented by the private sector for corporate planning. Although providing guidance for how thoughtful “scenarios” can be used to consider options for the future, scenario planning’s participatory logic is underdeveloped.

The crowning achievement of process thinking in public policy may be the consensus building approach (CBA), a method for resolving dilemmas often associated with Larry Susskind, a MIT professor of urban studies and planning. This negotiation methodology has strict requirements for the nature of the problems where it can be applied, how stakeholders are identified and included, and how negotiation should move forward. However it’s not clear how this approach — designed to intervene in acrimonious public debates about clear problems or decisions — applies to the problem of urban planning.

If there is an art to process design, can there be a science? It is rarely studied for a variety of reasons. First is the argument that process doesn’t matter. It could be that the outcome is the same regardless of what is done, or the real decisions that matter are being made elsewhere — by powerful elected officials or market actors. Second, from a social science perspective, studying them is maddeningly difficult. There are too many confounding variables and no clear to measure. What would you measure, and how? For this reason there are many descriptive case studies that steer clear of specific details. Lastly, analyzing processes requires a different form of knowledge than found in most research. Instead of theory that describes reality, we need a theory of what would happen given a certain sequence of events or actions.

Theory aside, how do you plan for Detroit? A good process would focus first on the goal. What is the “problem” in Detroit, anyway? It could be too much land, too few jobs, high crime, or a lack of revenue for government services. Although they are related, tackling any one means clarifying what the priorities are.

The most direct case for Detroit is the Youngstown 2010 project in Youngstown, Ohio. This process involved large-scale participation and a vision and plan adopted by the city council which anticipates significant changes to accommodate a permanently reduced population. Here is the process diagram from Faga’s book:

Youngstown 2010

Where Detroit Works — or any other large-scale planning in Detroit — should go depends on what the local stakeholders seek to accomplish. Although any process must be locally tailored, the process designers aren’t starting from scratch. The models described above can be used to design a process that reflects both values and practical needs to involve the public, detailed analysis, and come to agreement on a solution to public problems.


‘Cybernetics in City Hall’ and the Challenge of Real-Time Urban Management

Posted: September 9th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Government, Technology, Urban Development | Tags: , | 1 Comment »

Periodically I come across an old article that seems very relevant to the present, such as the article about public sector innovation I posted in January.

IBM Rio Operations Center 1The ongoing expanded use — and declining cost — of sensors and computing technologies has sparked a renewed interest in using them to solve persistent urban problems. A similar wave of interest occurred during the early history of digital computing. In his influential 1950 book, Norbert Wiener popularized the term “cybernetics” to refer to the emerging science of communication and control of organized systems. If the city is an organized system, then cybernetics in city hall would involve creating information feedback loops to be used by the manager (or “actuator”) to minimize the effects of disturbances and maximize achievement of urban goals. Sound familiar? It should: IBM inked a multimillion dollar deal to open a real-time “public information management center” in Rio de Janeiro (right) as part of their smarter cities initiative, and Wired magazine is keeping up a drumbeat about the power of feedback loops.

In an astute article published in Science in 1970, E.S. Savas considered the challenges this approach might face in the real world of New York City government. I don’t doubt the importance of real-time control for management tasks like transportation system management and emergency response, but the article describes some important challenges such a system would face if applied more broadly. Savas described how the five elements of the cybernetic loop would play out in the city: (1) dynamics of urban government, (2) information system, (3) administration, (4) goal setting, and (5) disturbances.

1. Dynamics of city government: The election cycle faced by big city mayors would limit the range of solutions considered, resulting in smaller goals and visible acts, which “may be more symbolic than effective.” Government itself is very slow-moving and one solution — delegating power — may have unintended consequences.

2. Information system: Arguably today much more information is available than was in 1970 about what’s happening in the city. But another crucial input is as tricky as ever — gauging the will of the people.

3. Administration: Making a decision is one thing, but implementing it requires an administration with appropriate personnel and structure, a well-known weakness of big-city bureaucracies.

4. Structure of government: Not only are city governments organized in anachronistic ways, the article omits another key fact: the fragmentation of powers. In Boston, for example, in addition to municipal fragmentation itself, separate entities manage many utilities, the transit system, parks, etc.

4. Goal setting: Identifying a common set of goals may be impossible. The chief executive can use judgement, but it is for good reason that power is delegated to elaborate systems of commissions, boards, and advisers on many topics.

5. Disturbances: These are unpredictable, often external to the city, and often not visible to the public (who sets the goals) until it is too late to prevent their impact. (e.g., climate change)

There are, in general, two responses to most of these concerns. Savas himself took one approach: give up on city government and advocate for privatization of service delivery. Presumably the cold logic of the profit motive would sweep away administrative, regulatory, and decision-making quirks of city governments. The other approach is to attempt to reform the government. In fact, IBM staff have admitted the “challenges” that will face a contemporary agenda for cybernetics. I think the need for contemporary urban government reorganization and reform is acute in many cities, but interest in it seems limited.

Notably, neither of these approaches truly addresses the challenges posed by the short time-horizon of elected officials, difficulty setting goals or forming consensus, and unpredictable disturbances. These three point to the need for planning to solve urban problems: a multi-stakeholder process involving analysis, deliberation, and solution design that both forges a consensus about the definition of a public problem and crafts a desired solution. It seems to me that in the face of the enormity of the challenges we face we need both smart planning and an efficiency-driven smart cities movement willing to push for reform but respectful of democratic systems.

> E.S. Savas in Science magazine, 1970: “Cybernetics in City Hall

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