technology

Ending poverty through innovation: translating ideas into actions and challenges into opportunities

There are numerous initiatives and programs that target underprivileged communities. A wide variety of academic studies, economic analyses and policy briefs that list out recommendations to break the cycle of poverty have been written. And many governments around the world, such as those in Latin American countries, have federal agencies specifically dedicated to design and implement social policy for poverty reduction. Efforts come from the developed and the developing world, from different levels of government, from large international organizations to local NGOs and grass-roots associations.

And yet, despite the amount of effort and resources, the process to achieve the main goal – ending poverty - seems to be moving slowly, and there is an urgent need to accelerate it. We often hear about cooperation but it hardly materializes into concrete actions. We need to land those initiatives and translate ideas and good will into action. This requires changing the paradigm through which we have envisioned the end of poverty and making the shift away from the traditional models.

In recent years, we have witnessed the expansion of a phenomenon called “urbanization of poverty”. As cities continue to grow, the number of pressing needs increases in all fields, from health to public infrastructure and utilities, transport, education and employment. At the same time, citizens have changed from being passive service recipients, to key actors that get actively involved and demand transparency and results to their governments. How can cities improve the services they deliver to their communities in a faster way? In the era of knowledge and information, we have the very powerful tool of technology to deliver change.

As Sascha Haselmayer, CEO and co-founder of Citymart.com, acknowledges “there is great technology out there and it is in everyone’s hands; these technologies are scalable and can transform societies”. These words were pronounced at the 8th Forum of the World Alliance of Cities Against Poverty (WACAP) that took place in Dublin earlier this year, to introduce the Program “Cities Pilot >>> End Poverty”.

Cities Pilot to End Poverty

This two-year Program is designed by Citymart.com and Dublin City Council to find the most innovative technologies to end poverty and implement them in real life. The World Alliance of Cities Against Poverty (WACAP) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) endorse the Program.

The process starts by finding the 30 most committed WACAP member cities that share the values of innovation, collaboration, openness and transparency. Selected cities will join forces to call for the most innovative solutions to empower our communities.

Citymart.com gives cities the tools they need to get inspired by worldwide social and urban innovators to find solutions to their most pressing challenges. In order to achieve this, our team’s expertise provides cities guidance to identify a specific problem and frame it as an opportunity. Together we define the city challenge in a way that attracts global response from social and urban innovators, and which is published as a global call for solutions on our virtual platform.

Once the call is open for submissions, our dedicated research team starts a proactive outreach campaign to discover worldwide solutions that have the potential to address the city challenge. Each submission to the call is a commitment by a provider to co-invest in a community to implement a high-impact pilot, if selected as the most promising solution. Research findings are documented and shared with cities in real-time, so that their officials, representatives, stakeholders, and citizens can participate. Cities are also encouraged to communicate this opportunity to their local community of social and urban innovators.

In order to select the solution that best meets the city’s needs, we help cities to coordinate a Jury composed of a minimum of five members and at least one international representative. All submissions will be evaluated, five of them will get nominated, and the most promising one will get selected. Citymart.com sets up the technological tools to assure an accessible, transparent and straightforward evaluation process.

The campaign results are announced at the Dublin Summit in February 2014, where cities and providers get together to express their commitment to implementing the selected solution on the ground, while they share how innovation turned a local challenge into a global opportunity. This is a unique experience for both, cities and providers, to network and kick-start new collaborations in their communities.

Most importantly, the ideas get translated into actions, as the selected providers actually demonstrate their innovative solutions in participating cities. A pilot is a cost-effective way to test the chosen solution, which allows cities to make better-informed decisions and smarter investments. In two years from now, cities will meet again at the WACAP Forum in 2015 to collaborate and exchange results.

In this win-win scheme, cities accelerate problem solving through innovation and technology, and social and urban innovators have the chance to implement their solutions to an unresolved need. All participants exchange results as part of a global collaborative community, and facilitate the sharing of high-impact solutions across cities. Together we deliver real change and the outcome is community empowerment and a better quality of life for our citizens.

Urban Systems & Services - A debate at LLGA | Cities Summit

The Urban Systems & Services Parallel Session was moderated by Barbara Hale, the Assistant General Manager of SFPUC. Barbara focused the session on how cities are becoming massive interconnected systems and how to use technology as a tool to improve the quality of life of citizens. Parallel Session C

Speaker 1: Modupe Ajibola, CEO, OTG Playa

First up to speak was Modupe Ajibola of OTG Playa whose presentation centered on the role of technology in Africa and how it is slowly moving from a luxury to necessity. For example, there are already over 140 million cell phones in Nigeria making it one of the world’s largest mobile telecom markets. These devices had a multiplier effect creating many new jobs and services that were not available before. The problem is that many in the educated workforce are content in taking these newly created middle class jobs when they should be working in the white collar sector. For example, many of the electrical engineers end up working in call centers because it creates a life much better than they had growing up. While the progress is noble, it should be taken a bit further. These engineers should be working in R&D creating products for Africans by Africans. People in Africa want iPhones and iPads, but they don't want to pay a premium price. They end up buying Chinese knockoffs that break a few months later. Perhaps Africa could copy the U.S. and move to the subsidy model for mobile phones? By encouraging these engineers to start developing products and services for Africa and the rest of the world, the needs and wants of the people can be addressed while keeping the money inside the continent.

Speaker 2: Gianni Minetti, President & CEO, Paradox Engineering

Gianni Minetti followed by focusing on the open standards needed to network all the infrastructure for our cities. The shift from rural to urban is only accelerating, and he presented several facts to back this up. For one, 1.3 million people are moving to cities every week. This means that there are now 21 cities with over 10 million people. Paradox Engineering wants to put lighting, pollution monitoring, and power all together in one open system. While this may seem like something obvious to do, the problem is that many cities have separate systems for each infrastructure component. Not only is it expensive to build redundant infrastructure, it creates a spectrum crunch. By building an urban multi-utility network, we can make technology a tool, not a hurdle. By using open standards we can future proof the networks ensuring ROI protection for cities.

Speaker 3: Bill Oates, Chief Information Officer, Boston

Bill Oates spoke about how the city of Boston was using technology to solve its problems. The smartphone application, Citizen's Connect, has proven immensely popular, which isn't all that surprising considering 35% of the city's population is between 20 and 34. With the application, citizens can report potholes, streetlight outages, graffiti, and other problems. After seeing how much citizens loved using the app, city workers got their own version allowing the city to more efficiently dispatch workers and catalog repairs. Version 4.0 of the app, slated to be released by the end of the year, will allow citizens to be notified when the problem they reported is fixed. Embracing the recent trend of gamification, the new version of the app will allow citizens to thank the workers who fixed their problem. The app has allowed citizens of Boston to interact with government in ways previously not possible. Taking the application a step further, the city of Boston unveiled Street Bump, which uses a smartphone's accelerometer to passively detect potholes. Interestingly enough only 10% of the bumps reported were potholes; the other 90% were the 307,000 utility castings in the city. Using technology is essential for cities that wish to thrive in the 21st century. Bill Oats highlighted the point that if you stay at the status quo, you're falling behind. Historically, government has been very risk averse, but technology doesn't have to be risky. Those that avoid it completely will be left in the dust.

Speaker 4: Philip Playfair, CEO, Lowfoot

Last to present, Philip Playfair explained how his company pays people to use less energy when consumption (and thus prices) is peaking. The main purpose is to encourage consumers to shift power consumption from peak to off peak. His company has contracted with 6 companies with over 5,000 smart meters. In a way, the software can act as a virtual peaker plant. When demand exceeds supply, energy usage can automatically be reduced. The consumers are compensated for this inconvenience via monthly payments. Additionally, the software measures carbon savings to show consumers how shifting their energy usage benefits the environment. In order to increase engagement Lowfoot has added gamification aspects to the product. For example, users get badges for saving energy and can brag to their friends over Twitter or Facebook. While solutions like Lowfoot can marginally reduce power consumption, the main problem is that energy is too cheap to motivate people’s decision making. In order for huge shifts in consumer behavior, energy prices need to go up.

Conclusion

Whether it’s using mobile applications to encourage engagement or unifying infrastructure communication systems, technology is changing how cities operate. While governments have been traditionally viewed as slow and cumbersome, in order to keep up with the ever evolving world, cities need to speed up deployments of innovative solutions. The problem is that government procurement has been very slow and risk averse. In order to help solve this problem, cities need to adapt new processes to accept technology with open (but vigilant) arms.

Reported by Chris Mojaher

Civic Engagement, Community Development, Inclusion and Sharing - A debate at LLGA | Cities Summit

By Fedor Ovchinnikov and Ruth Doyle

20+ delegates interested in civic engagement, community development, inclusion and sharing took the opportunity to enjoy five inspiring presentations from speakers representing the UK, India, Argentina, the US, and Brazil. The presenters talked about resilience building at the city level, engaging the residents of a city yet to be built, co-creation as the ultimate goal of decentralization and participation, democratization of city space using the concept of pop-ups, and development of social intelligence through online civic engagement platforms.

Session moderator Allison Arieff (Editor + Content strategist, SPUR) opened the session by introducing the topic. According to Allison, civic engagement with city authorities is too much focused on complaints, so cities spend massive amounts of time and resources reacting to these complaints. In order to save time and resources, and to solve problems more successfully, cities need to move from adversarial to cooperative engagements based on action, innovation and citizen empowerment. Engaging the public in solution development cannot just be left up to high-technology or smart phone based solutions: simple low-tech measures are often capable of improving city services. Allison finished by calling for a “declaration of interdependence” to form the paradigm for reinvention of public participation in the 21st century and to make citizens feel that they have agency and are inspired to contribute to city development.

LLGA2013 15.5.13 Parallel Session A

James Togut (Founder, The Good Life for All) talked about resilience in Brighton & Hove, the first city worldwide to formally embed the “One Planet Living Framework” and concept of “resilience” within its city action plan (“One Brighton”). The core of resilience is the ability to transform and adapt to one planet living whilst providing good lives for all. Resilience implies fostering resourcefulness in material terms - meaning waste (“just a resource that is in the wrong place”) and in human terms – implying the cultivation of imagination, inventiveness, and enterprise. Cat Fletcher (Materials Coordinator for Brighton Waste House) introduced Brighton Freegle Group – an “online dating for stuff” which helps people to become personally resilient in their own lives by developing a peer to peer, and cross-sectoral sharing market place. This platform has 1.4 million users and contributes annual economic value of 120k. Drawing upon the concept of City Makers, Cat & James talked about the need to nurture passionate individuals (change makers and visionaries) within each sector – public, private and voluntary – who are not afraid of disrupting the norm. Cat suggested that City Councils should make dedicated efforts to identify, support and empower these people who are well connected on the ground and have catalytic qualities.

Scott Wrighton (City Manager, City of Lavasa) discussed his experience of building a new city from nothing. The City of Lavasa is the foremost lifestyle development project in India and represents part of the rural-urban migratory shift taking place where it is estimated that 350 million people will move to urban areas in the next 30 years. Lavasa is a private city that creates profit, sells real estate and invests in joint ventures with the private sector to enable the provision of city services. Interestingly, the biggest challenge that confronts this epic endeavor is not infrastructure or money, but acquiring land and dealing with poor governance systems that are not conducive to new ways of city management and public engagement and reduce autonomy for public private partnerships.

The assumption that most people want to engage with their government does not ring true worldwide. Scott suggested that dealing with government can be very off-putting in India where local governments are micro-managed by state government. In this case he stated that there is a desperate need for a change in paradigm to make new inhabitants of Lavasa eager to engage with the city to build organizations that they hope will evolve sustainably and extend citizen engagement. So how do you engage the residents of a city yet to be built? Who should decide and design the mechanisms? Scott noted that after starting with a paternalistic approach where the provision of infrastructure prevailed, the next challenge is to look at the invisible social fabric so that civic engagement mechanisms are in place.

Daniella Rosario (Technical Coordinator, Ministry of Public Utilities and the Environment, Municipality of Rosario) introduced the efforts of the Municipality of Rosario, Argentina to shift to embed sustainability within its city governance and shift to a more decentralized and participatory governance model. Introducing two successful projects – Rosario Mas Limpia (Cleaner Rosario Campaign) and the Green Homes Network Program – Daniella emphasized the need to move beyond government as service provider to paradigms of co-creation with citizens.

Mariella and Pete Watman (Co-Founders of Pop-Up Brands) talked about how pop-ups create a multitude of economic and personal opportunities.. Pop-Up Brands addresses the problem of underutilized and poor listing of available city spaces by providing a marketplace for short term commercial space of all kinds. This approach gives entrepreneurs and artists an opportunity to prototype their ideas in spaces they could not previously afford. Pop-ups can create vibrancy in vacant neighborhoods and regenerate the area. Some pop-ups become permanent while others recycle and evolve thus contributing to the resilience of the area. The growth of the Pop-Up Movement is linked with the trend for the democratization of space – championed by the “Noisebridge Group” – the makers space in San Francisco, focused on citizen empowerment and action over deliberation, through their paradigm of “Do-ocracy”.

The session concluded with a presentation from Brazilian entrepreneur, Daniel Bittencourt (Co-Founder, Lung) who introduced an engagement system called Wikicity. Wikicity is a collaborative platform where, through use of mapping systems, residents highlight city problems as well as projects that may be developed by communities themselves. Each point on the map turns into a lively discussion on the Internet, through the debates promoted on Facebook. The ideas are then sent to local governments who help to create and implement these concepts. In Brazil, the initiative mobilized over 15,000 citizens in PortoAlegre.cc, and a growing number of cities around the globe are starting to use this innovative solution to become better places to live!

Why should cities share their solutions?

Cape Town's Louis C H Fourie presents GeniUS York with their LLGA2012 award

With participation, open source and shared practice the buzz words of city governance as we kick off 2013,LLGA offers cities the perfect opportunity to share what they’ve been doing with their global peers. Whilst municipalities have a duty to explain how they’ve been spending public funds and what the results are, this opportunity goes much further. By showcasing their newly developed technology or innovative approaches on Citymart, cities are capitalising on their hard work. The result can not only be international recognition and shared continued development but even a new revenue model.

Problem solving crosses cultures and national boundaries comfortably. The City of York in the UK submitted their GeniUs community innovation platform for LLGA2012 and were selected as winners by Cape Town, with whom they are currently formulating a pilot. Similarly when Sant Cugat presented their Local Innovation Plan for LLGA2010 they were selected as the winner by the jury for the City of Eindhoven in the Netherlands. Since then, Sant Cugat have provided training and helped Eindhoven to adopt the formula of citizen and business leader engagement in defining its own local innovation plan.

Further successful projects that cities are showcasing on Citymart include:

Transport for London

London: Work, Play and the Games

City of Chicago

Chicago’s Green Alley Program

City of Austin

City Supported Community Bicycle Shop

City of Hamburg

Little Bicycle-Sheds – Fahrradhaeuschen

City of San Francisco

SFpark – a new way of managing parking

City of Vienna

Smart City Wien

Traditionally there are various reasons why cities develop their own technology. While at times they cannot find what they are looking for on the market, at others they simply feel they can do it better or seek the independence of proprietary solutions. In recent years, however, cities have begun developing with the express intention of sharing their technology with other cities. In the US in particular this has led to numerous forums for sharing reusable technology and methods of working, such as the many solutions like SF Park presented by cities on our own Citymart.com or Code for America’s platform for sharing software on Civic Commons.

By sharing their creative thinking, cities benefit from a wider user base so that the technology is improved and developed quicker than if they were working on their own. The City of Stockholm and Astando have taken this approach with E-adept, an enabling-technology for visually impaired citizens that is actively marketed to other cities with the objective of sharing further development resources. Other cities that use the technology then advance it and provide feedback to Stockholm in a mutually beneficial relationship. Similarly, Boston has offered several apps including Street Bump for other cities to help build on and make development more efficient.

More recently cities have started developing technology with the express intention of licensing or selling it to create revenue and help offset the significant sums invested in development. With their document management platform SmartPDF, San Francisco have done just this with the objective of licensing the technology to other cities and organizations.

Whether looking for international exposure, wishing to publically recognise the work of their employees, aiming to share practice and further develop their technology or planning to raise revenue for the city, sharing approaches and technology will be an increasingly popular way for cash-strapped cities to improve services and lower costs in 2013.

Do let us know your favourtie resources or forums where cities are sharing their technologies and any additional cases of sharing.

LLGA2013 | Cities Pilot the Future. A global call for solutions to improve the lives of millions. Submit by 31.1.13.

Crowdsourcing Crime and Crime-sourcing

Perhaps it was Jane Jacobs’ “eyes on the street” concept lurking in my subconscious, or maybe it was Living Labs Globals’ mantra of avoiding re-inventing the wheel. For whatever reason, when I read this article sent over by a friend, I immediately thought, “how could this technology (that is designed around crowdsourcing live concerts) be used for cities?” What about crowdsourcing information about criminal activity? A quick Google search revealed that actually a lot has already been done on this topic in the US and abroad. Daily Crowdsource, a blog, points to 5 different solutions. Seattle’s uses Twitter to help people recover stolen cars. Ushahidi, “a non-profit tech company that develops free and open source software for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping,” produced Hatari, a solution for the residents of Nairobi, Kenya to report not only incidents of crime but also corruption.

SEE VIDEO HERE

The usual caveats also apply here: anonymity leaves individuals unaccountable. The American business magazine Forbes Magazine has written on the topic. The article describes how crime doers have applied the fundamental principles of crowdsourcing to carry out large criminal operations. Sometimes they use print newspaper ads, sometimes they use the internet – eventually, they cobble together large groups of (sometimes unsuspecting) individuals who carry out small bits of larger crime tasks or cooperate in one large task (see “flash rob”).

So here we have it: good vs. evil once again. Developed as a legitimate method for capturing the value of the wisdom of the crowd, crowdsourcing has proven effective for both crime-fighters and crime-doers. As astutely noted by Marc Goodman writing for Forbes, the “victory will belong to whichever group proves itself capable of mobilizing the larger crowd.”

-          Terra Curtis

Technology is Not the Answer

smart citiesThere’s been a theme running throughout the last few posts on this blog: technology is not the answer to urban problems, not even in cities designed completely around it. At Living Labs Global’s Summit on Service Innovation in Cities, world leaders agreed that “smart cities” are more than just technological robots. Rather, a well-planned and designed city in which policies, public-private partnerships, and technologies work together in concert is the smartest city. The magazine Scientific American ran an issue entitled “Better, Greener, Smarter Cities” in September 2011. I hadn’t gotten around to reading it until recently. I noticed some similar themes in their pages. The “In Brief” notes to the article The Social Nexus focus ironically on inhabitants’ acquisition and use of electronic devices to better connect citizens with government. But the meat of the article itself promotes the idea that it was not the technology itself, but rather smart, organized citizens who leveraged technology as a tool to bring about change in places like Egypt and Tunisia. Overall, the author suggests that technology will enable a new perspective on cities, which is from the bottom up, which resonates strongly in the current Occupy Movement political frame.

In another article, Edward Glaeser writes that cities are growing and the increasing proximity of the world’s people fuels economic prosperity and health. He also uses the recent example of how Facebook was used in Egypt. But again, the technology is highlighted as a mere tool; nothing would have happened had citizens not also taken their message offline to the streets of Tahrir Square to demand change.

I write this article to remind my colleagues and readers, but especially to remind myself, that in most cases technology is not the answer. Communications technologies in particular are tools to be leveraged; it is not technologies themselves but human minds, policies, and partnerships that will create the world’s smartest cities.

-          Terra Curtis

Iterative Planning

For good reason, planners are forced to consider decision for long periods of time.  Access to capital takes time, and because it is scarce, funders need to be sure investments are well-vetted and that many benefits will result. While I not only understand this necessity, but also appreciate such a forward-looking and long-term field, still I look to the tech world in envy for its rapid prototyping, iteration, and satisfaction with back-of-the-envelope calculations to justify experimentation.  Look at the speed of innovation in that field.  With the UK internet industry alone worth £100 billion, one could argue that more is at stake in their field than in ours (in the US, the last federal transportation bill set aside just $470 million annually). A balance is being sought between the two philosophies – slow, methodical decision-making vs. quick but data-backed experimentation – on San Francisco’s streets.  The city has found flexibility in pilot programs such as forcing private vehicles off Market Street, the pavement-to-parks program and newly-implemented mobile parklets.

However, what is still lacking in planning is data.  That’s one reason why technologists are so able to implement, test, change, and move on productively and efficiently.  There are clear performance measures and clear evidence when targets are not met.

This post is as much a statement of frustration as it is a plea for more focus on data in planning.  A recent post shared a video of mayoral candidates’ views of Gov 2.0 and open data, and highlighted the spectrum of perspectives on and understanding of the subject.  With the right person in office, the movement could become institutionalized, and planners should be verbal and enthusiastic about that prospect.  Planners need to be data-savvy and data-hungry.  We need to build programs like these into our plans today, where data is not only open to the public but open and accessible interdepartmentally, so planning can become more nimble.  Only then will we approach efficiency, more efficiently.

- Terra Curtis

 

Iterative Planning

For good reason, planners are forced to consider decision for long periods of time.  Access to capital takes time, and because it is scarce, funders need to be sure investments are well-vetted and that many benefits will result. While I not only understand this necessity, but also appreciate such a forward-looking and long-term field, still I look to the tech world in envy for its rapid prototyping, iteration, and satisfaction with back-of-the-envelope calculations to justify experimentation.  Look at the speed of innovation in that field.  With the UK internet industry alone worth £100 billion, one could argue that more is at stake in their field than in ours (in the US, the last federal transportation bill set aside just $470 million annually). A balance is being sought between the two philosophies – slow, methodical decision-making vs. quick but data-backed experimentation – on San Francisco’s streets.  The city has found flexibility in pilot programs such as forcing private vehicles off Market Street, the pavement-to-parks program and newly-implemented mobile parklets.

However, what is still lacking in planning is data.  That’s one reason why technologists are so able to implement, test, change, and move on productively and efficiently.  There are clear performance measures and clear evidence when targets are not met.

This post is as much a statement of frustration as it is a plea for more focus on data in planning.  A recent post shared a video of mayoral candidates’ views of Gov 2.0 and open data, and highlighted the spectrum of perspectives on and understanding of the subject.  With the right person in office, the movement could become institutionalized, and planners should be verbal and enthusiastic about that prospect.  Planners need to be data-savvy and data-hungry.  We need to build programs like these into our plans today, where data is not only open to the public but open and accessible interdepartmentally, so planning can become more nimble.  Only then will we approach efficiency, more efficiently.

- Terra Curtis

 

Alpha Bike

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/22966263 w=400&h=225]

Alpha: Possibly the Most High-Tech Bike Ever from Core77 on Vimeo.

While I’m not quite sure what problem University of Pennsylvania engineers were attempting to solve with their rapid-prototyped Alpha bike, I have to admit it caught my eye.  The student-designed and built bicycle, which pushes “the boundaries of integrated systems,” fully encases the drive train, a clutch for switching between fixed and freewheels, and a computer for tracking bike stats (e.g. speed, gear status).

As a cyclist, I don’t see a need for all the features of this bike.  However, parts of it seem like useful progressions.  Specifically, the onboard computer reminds me of the Copenhagen Wheel project that we showcased – a bicycle wheel with self-contained tracking capability that communicates with your mobile device and can store your cycling data.  This information, as I’ve noted before, would be extremely useful in aggregate if/when enough adopters are found.  The ability of cities to track cyclists’ use of the transportation network facilitates better identification of danger hotspots and better planning.

It seems we are a long way from this tracking because of individuals’ reluctance to open their data, however having the technological advances in place that allow for this tracking is a necessary first step, especially if manufacturers are already embracing the concept.

-Terra Curtis

 

Alpha Bike

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/22966263 w=400&h=225]

Alpha: Possibly the Most High-Tech Bike Ever from Core77 on Vimeo.

While I’m not quite sure what problem University of Pennsylvania engineers were attempting to solve with their rapid-prototyped Alpha bike, I have to admit it caught my eye.  The student-designed and built bicycle, which pushes “the boundaries of integrated systems,” fully encases the drive train, a clutch for switching between fixed and freewheels, and a computer for tracking bike stats (e.g. speed, gear status).

As a cyclist, I don’t see a need for all the features of this bike.  However, parts of it seem like useful progressions.  Specifically, the onboard computer reminds me of the Copenhagen Wheel project that we showcased – a bicycle wheel with self-contained tracking capability that communicates with your mobile device and can store your cycling data.  This information, as I’ve noted before, would be extremely useful in aggregate if/when enough adopters are found.  The ability of cities to track cyclists’ use of the transportation network facilitates better identification of danger hotspots and better planning.

It seems we are a long way from this tracking because of individuals’ reluctance to open their data, however having the technological advances in place that allow for this tracking is a necessary first step, especially if manufacturers are already embracing the concept.

-Terra Curtis

 

Tech + Transit

By now, this article has made the rounds among transit advocates and techies, at least in the US.  I’m hoping to spread it to Europe now, but especially to readers of this blog who I think will be particularly enthused.mbta app A recent study conducted by Latitude Research and Next American City reveals that new technologies and improved access to information can encourage transit use.  They sampled 18 individuals aged 24 - 51 from Boston and San Francisco who are regular car drivers and asked them to go car-free for a week.  They were tracked by GPS, surveyed about their perceptions of mobility before and after the study, and engaged in group discussions using the web throughout the study.  Boston and San Francisco were chosen due to their recent commitment to open data solutions and technological initiatives.

The study is summarized by three main insights:

  • Information can equalize transit choices
    • Participants rated convenience, control, and flexibility as their highest values for mobility.
    • Location-aware mobile apps provide real-time information about the trade-offs between different routes and modes of travel, extending a feeling of convenience, control, and flexibility to transit.
  • Lose a car, gain a community
    • The majority of participants felt reconnected to their neighbors and their community by riding transit or adopting other non-automobile oriented transportation.
    • Mobile apps can enhance the off-line, real-world experience by connecting individuals to others while traveling.
  • Alternative transit is good for me and we
    • Participants gained insight into the environmental, health, and economic/financial benefits of car-free lifestyle.
    • Readily accessible information, largely available through the use of mobile apps, allows for empathy formation and an increased understanding of their own and others’ preferences and values.

This study serves to legitimize what many of us has believed for a long time.  It goes further to say there’s great value in deprivation, where individuals learn by doing and experiencing, rather than by being preached at by an advocacy crowd.  I hope this study gets expanded to a larger group, comparing the behaviors and experiences of those in tech-enabled cities (e.g. Boston and San Francisco) to areas who have not yet adapted these innovations.  I’d also like to hear thoughts about how this type of experiential learning can be extended beyond the world of research and into policies of programs of municipalities.  Bike to work and school week seem like promising opportunities.

-Terra Curtis

Tech + Transit

By now, this article has made the rounds among transit advocates and techies, at least in the US.  I’m hoping to spread it to Europe now, but especially to readers of this blog who I think will be particularly enthused.mbta app A recent study conducted by Latitude Research and Next American City reveals that new technologies and improved access to information can encourage transit use.  They sampled 18 individuals aged 24 - 51 from Boston and San Francisco who are regular car drivers and asked them to go car-free for a week.  They were tracked by GPS, surveyed about their perceptions of mobility before and after the study, and engaged in group discussions using the web throughout the study.  Boston and San Francisco were chosen due to their recent commitment to open data solutions and technological initiatives.

The study is summarized by three main insights:

  • Information can equalize transit choices
    • Participants rated convenience, control, and flexibility as their highest values for mobility.
    • Location-aware mobile apps provide real-time information about the trade-offs between different routes and modes of travel, extending a feeling of convenience, control, and flexibility to transit.
  • Lose a car, gain a community
    • The majority of participants felt reconnected to their neighbors and their community by riding transit or adopting other non-automobile oriented transportation.
    • Mobile apps can enhance the off-line, real-world experience by connecting individuals to others while traveling.
  • Alternative transit is good for me and we
    • Participants gained insight into the environmental, health, and economic/financial benefits of car-free lifestyle.
    • Readily accessible information, largely available through the use of mobile apps, allows for empathy formation and an increased understanding of their own and others’ preferences and values.

This study serves to legitimize what many of us has believed for a long time.  It goes further to say there’s great value in deprivation, where individuals learn by doing and experiencing, rather than by being preached at by an advocacy crowd.  I hope this study gets expanded to a larger group, comparing the behaviors and experiences of those in tech-enabled cities (e.g. Boston and San Francisco) to areas who have not yet adapted these innovations.  I’d also like to hear thoughts about how this type of experiential learning can be extended beyond the world of research and into policies of programs of municipalities.  Bike to work and school week seem like promising opportunities.

-Terra Curtis

Modeling Bicycle Travel

I’ve been growing increasingly interested in the technology that underlies our transportation systems.  Traditionally, technology in a transportation setting refers mainly to engineering processes, products, materials, and analysis.  Increasingly, however, technology’s ubiquity in our personal lives is enabling cities to improve encouragement and promotion, crowd-sourced auditing of system quality, way-finding, and passive data collection related to our transportation networks. Transportation planning (in the US) largely takes place at the regional scale.  As a simplification, federal money is filtered through “metropolitan planning organizations” (MPOs) who are responsible for projecting trends on a regional scale, setting goals for the local situation, and planning infrastructure projects to meet local demand and goals.  This process largely is facilitated by the occasional MPO-administered travel demand survey, whereby several households are selected at random and asked to report household characteristics and travel behavior. There are several issues with this, not the least of which is the sheer expense of administering such a survey.  But, here I would like to focus on one specific weakness: bicycle data.  These surveys are designed to capture a representative sample of a local population and describe their current travel behaviors.  According to the 2005 American Community Survey, only 0.4% (yes, half of one percent) of Americans use a bicycle to commute to work.  So, when MPOs survey their residents on travel behavior, they often receive only a handful, if any, responses indicating the use of the bicycle for transportation.

The reason that this becomes a weakness in our established regional transportation planning methodology is that with such few responses, there is no statistically robust technique for modeling this population’s behavior – not even enough to guess current travel behavior, let alone how they might travel in 15, 20, or 25 years.

Modeling bicyclist travel behavior is a topic that I am only starting to delve into personally, so forgive any naïveté on my part.  But, I think it is important that people who are interested in mobility and access, in technology, and in “smartening” government processes should know the current limitations and the opportunities that improvements in technology can bring.

The article that inspired me to write today is this one, from the San Francisco Chronicle.  It highlights $33 million of federal transportation funds identified for “experimental projects” in the Bay Area.  One such project includes the installation in San Jose of “eight systems to detect and count bicycles and then install the best technology on two corridors frequented by bike riders.”  This data will help to inform travel models, which will help to inform transportation investments, which hopefully will help to facilitate increased bicycle travel.

In my brief research, I also stumbled across this in-progress project from Portland State University.  It seeks to gather finer-grained data on this topic of bicyclist travel behavior, which in turn could be fed into the models.

Lastly, when you have the time (I’ve still only watched parts of it), see this webinar by Fehr and Peers and the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments titled “GIS-based Bicycle and Pedestrian Demand Forecasting and Traffic Count Programs.”  One striking fact is that, currently, the margin of error in models’ mode choice step (when it decides the transportation mode on which a given trip will be made) is greater than the percentage of commute trips made by biking or walking – making predictions for these modes completely unreliable.  Moreover, unlike for automobiles, bicyclists’ and pedestrians’ trips are almost never assigned to the network, meaning planners have no knowledge of which streets these travelers use now or may use in the future.

The main point to be made is that the bottleneck here is in data collection.  Technological solutions such as mobile phone apps, GPS units, and even cell-phone tracking data can help to jump the hurdle, but a more focused effort in coordinating this data collection needs to be made and standardized in order for it to become truly useful to MPOs and other transportation planners.

-Terra Curtis

Cycling and Community Development in Africa

Check out these great initiatives in Africa: Ride 4 A Woman, One Street’s Social Bike Business Program, and Global Cycle Solutions. The mission of Ride 4 A Woman is “to economically and socially empower local women in the closest communities surrounding Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park.”  The project raises money by renting bicycles to tourists as well as giving tours in the national park.  As a bicycle-focused company, they also promote the independence of Ugandan women by providing them with a bicycle and teaching them bicycle-related skills, saving them valuable travel time. Global Cycle Solutions (GCS) would pair well with the Ride 4 A Woman program, though it is focused in Tanzania.  GCS has developed a series of tool adapters that enhance the capability of bicycles, making them increasingly relevant to developing country settings.  Current tools include a corn sheller and a mobile phone charger.

Lastly, One Street – an Arizona-based non-profit attempting to serve organizations who seek to increase bicycling, walking, transit and social equity.  Through their Social Bike Business program, they’ve partnered with Ride 4 A Woman to “break through barriers to women riding bicycles and learning mechanical skills.”

While these programs are not as tech-focused as some of the other initiatives we highlight, they are providing simple technologies to developing countries where bicycling can significantly increase marginal productivity.  And, with the ubiquity of mobile technology in these regions, perhaps some solutions developed for these areas will be translatable to the developed world as well.

-Terra Curtis