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Traffic

The Human Latency of Smart Cities and Data Driven Reward Systems


Last week the number of participants registered with the US healthcare website were released and the results were unimpressive. This could be for many reasons, although personally, I have not enrolled simply because the website, like all technologies, is an iterative process.  Whenever a new operating system rolls out for my laptop or ipad, I'm always excited, but I'm never an immediate adopter.  I typically wait until an update is launched, which is typically about 2 weeks later.  I'm rather excited by the healthcare initiative, but it would be foolish to rush into enrollment.  The website, like all technologies is a work in progress.

The constant media coverage about the dismal enrollment numbers has been paralleled only by NSA scandals which has done much to raise the social dialogue on issues of connectivity, surveillance, and our data driven lives.  In a few previous blog posts I've reflected on the persistence of data beyond communal memory.  This week I've had some time to read some of Anthony Townsend's new book Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia.  Concurrently I've also been reading Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas by Natasha Dow Schüll.  While both of these texts appear to handle different subjects, I'd argue that their is actually a strong link between these works and the current issues of technology in society.

Within Smart Cities, Townsend begins with a historical overview of urban technology development and describes the evolution of major corporations presently working with these issues such as Siemens, Cisco, and IBM.  He identifies established and emerging systems to contend with urban planning issues of climate change, traffic, and economic growth.  But Townsend isn't advocating for these mega-companies to dominate data-driven urban development.  Rather, he advocates for a more widely distributed net of stakeholders, consisting of empowered everyday citizens who use technology to interface with their governments and businesses to create a bottom-up model of a well designed urban landscape.  

I've met Anthony a couple times and have followed his work for many years.  Last June I sat in the audience at Poptech The City Resilient and listened to his talk on designing a wireless network in New Jersey that will continue to function under threat of natural disaster.  His faith in smart systems is optimistic, yet carefully hesitant, and I believe his argument for the creation of smart cities to be a more democratic process to be on target.   

Yet my own concern about smart cities is less about the actors involved in the creation of the technology and the control of the data, but is more interested in the actual "recipes" used to streamline the city.  When I lived in Cincinnati, I recall it had demographic and economic qualities nearly identical to the city of St. Louis.  Consequently, it was common for these two city governments to simply share or sell each other studies on their own cities (such as research on industrial clusters) rather than conduct the work internally.  If somethings works in St. Louis, then it should work in Cincinnati!  On a different scale, I've also sat in several meetings with members of the United Nations advocating a similar boiler-plate approach to urban development - even if the project failed in the first instance, it would be replicated and applied to the second.  

Consequently I believe that an extensive level of qualitative research must be done before any quantitive system can be constructed and applied to a given city.  Of course this is expensive and methodical mess, so probably not in the interest of companies like IBM.  This is where Anthony and I overlap.  If the work is done by the local communities, then the outputs will likely best conform to the local demands.  

Anthony advocates and hopes for the widespread participation of urban citizens in the creation of smarter cities.  He does well to identify many small organizations working to teach programming and give momentum to local-scale smart city development.  But here we differ again... my outlook is gloomier.

For much of internet history, we have mostly lived under the 90-9-1 rule - wherein 1% of internet users create content, 9% curate, and 90% consume.  In the 20 years we have had the internet, this has improved as online content creation has risen with the advent of social media.   In 2004, The Pew Research center found that 44% of internet users had actually created content on the internet.  Now, Pew has found that number has drifted upward to 54% in 2013. I should add that the Pew Research Center released another study identifying that 15% of Americans are not even online.    I realize this is a a very small snapshot, but does this rate imply that it will take 99 years for 100% of internet users to also become content creators?  But what is a more reasonable number? 50 years? 20?  

If 20 years of global internet access has resulted in only 50% of all internet users to become content creators, how will this translate to more technical processes such as coding?  Yes - there are many high quality online tools today for people to learn computer programming skills for free.  I am personally a frequent user of such tools.  But this stuff is not easy, requires discipline, and is not a skill set available in a readily consumable manner.  More importantly - there is an issue of incentive.

Participation in any enterprise requires an incentive, but the situation darkens when the enterprise has a steep learning curve.  Apparently health care and national security are not a sufficient incentive for most Americans to use a website or forsake personal data.  But in contrast, millions of Facebook users supply very personal details of their lives to the Facebook company for the satisfaction of gossip, shared photos, and adorable cat videos.  What incentives exist for a democratized process of urban systems design?

This is where I feel Schüll's research on human addiction to casino machine gambling might provide light.  Casino machines are highly refined to maximize the amount of time an individual spends on the machine.  Casinos also employ various design techniques to drive customers toward machines and increase time of play.  But many casino's now feature data driven analytics to refine the experience further, to create new machines, and to ultimately derive far higher profits.  An excellent example is the use of rewards cards.

Subscribed loyalty rewards programs encourage repeat visits but they also give customers a reason to share data.  By providing customers with free rooms, meals and tickets to special events - or even paid weekend resort getaways for high rollers - casinos provide a series of convenience and in exchange, capitalize on the windfall of collected data.  Many casinos maintain 90 different demographic categories on each customer, can predict future calendars and budgets, and generate behavior reports to assemble the best package of rewards to offer each individual.  If a customer strays from pattern... for example, a habitual gambler stops making visits, that person will be emailed, snail mailed, and telephone called with enticing offers to return.  

This creepy surveillant system has been of great value to the casino industry.  It works.  But it also appears to be popular with patrons.  According to Schüll, in Las Vegas casinos, "70% of gamblers use loyalty club cards" and the number continues to rise.  Apparently the provision of personal information to a corporation is okay in exchange for a hotel room and a prime-rib dinner.  But website enrollment for affordable healthcare?  Snooze.

A distinct difference between the task/reward systems of the casinos and the healthcare enterprise is that in the healthcare website, an individual must still express a level of work and payment in exchange for the reward.  Whereas in the casino system, it appears to consist entirely of rewards for the user.  The array of losses are behind the scenes.

So returning to the issue of "who" leads the charge in the creation of smart cities, I honestly don't see a great degree of grass-roots design unless the amount of effort is reduced and a direct system of ongoing incentives is increased.   The success of the Citi Bike initiative in New York City is a good example. Users enjoy the convenience of an affordable system, brought about through public-private partnership, and the primary sponsor CitiBank maintains a constant influx on user data with which to capitalize. Perhaps in the end the only real winner will be the bank, but right now it appears as a worthwhile exchange for over 100,000 enrolled bike users. 

Perhaps this rewards model can be applied somewhere as we continue down the road of data driven city optimization.  Maybe a clear system of direct incentives can be provided in exchange for citizens to contribute to the creation of better neighborhoods and the sharing of personal data.  Maybe one day, however, the simple rewards of a safer, cleaner neighborhood will be enough?  

A Simple Solution to Kabul's Massive Traffic Problem

Working Traffic Light in Karte-Seh, Kabul Afghanistan. Photo: Sutika Sipus 2012.
The thing about complex social systems is that they cannot be controlled.  They may organically self organize or self destruct, but the moment someone attempts to manage the system, everything will freeze up and fail. Traffic is a perfect example.  Admittedly, I've spent far less time on the issue of automobile traffic than most urban planners, but during the last two years that I've daily wrestled with car sickness from the stop-and-go struggle of driving across the city, I've thought a great deal about simple solutions to the Kabul traffic problem.  For those interested, I've also found a great research dissertation on this particular subject.  My analysis and proposal here is far simpler, as I have no fancy data or maps on hand, but lets just say it is based on 2 years of ethnography while living in three different parts of the city.

Kabul, Afghanistan 1960s. Source Unknown.
Kabul then, now, and gridlock
Everyone in Kabul agrees that the traffic problem could have been easily prevented.  In the 1960s and 70s the city didn't have any traffic problems, and in 2001 the city population was at less than half capacity and the city was leveled from decades of war.  Had reconstruction efforts actually began in 2002, the city infrastructure could have been quickly constructed for a population around 9 million people at little cost or inconvenience.  But this did not happen, and so today the city wrestles with around 6 million inhabitants and an infrastructure designed to handle only half of the that.  It is laden with power plays and corruption.  Cheap Chinese imports are jammed into every market and luxury products are more available than ever, although there is not a proportionate distribution of jobs or income to garner wide access to these goods.  

Various USAID and World Bank initiatives have done much in the last couple years to improve the quality of streets by paving dirt roads, repaving much of the downtown, and creating drainage systems. Of course this creates other problems as the construction causes extensive delays and the local population, with limited or nonexistent access to sufficient waste collection, use use the drainage for rubbish and sewage - causing massive backups and new public health risks. 

Small modular T-Walls around Kabul. Source Unknown.
Unlike first world cities, other special variables exist.  The city streets are also dominated by defensive infrastructure in the form of T-Walls, mobile partitians used to fortify security installations.  Major intersections are also blocked by police checkpoints.  Kabul is additionally bisected by a massive mountain, providing only two primary routes to relay traffic around the mountain, and a single-lane road that partially goes over the top.  Lastly the city has one working traffic light (sometimes) which seems to be acknowledged when reinforced by police presence.  

Previous Solutions
I've read several proposed solutions.  Some planners have proposed bans on car imports, the creation of new roads, the repair of street signs, and increased activity by police to enforce traffic codes.   Other solutions involve the development of expensive traffic management systems and facilities.  All of these ideas sound nice, but are more or less quite terrible.  These ideas all cost a lot of money, require a lot of time, will cause more delays, and require a higher level of discipline amont local authorities than available.  I've seen local police enforce traffic violations, and I've also twice witnessed extreme police brutality on citizens who ignored a simple law. We shouldn't really give these guys additional work to do.

So with all these problems, what can be done?


A Systems Approach
My proposal is very simple.  We create an incentive for alternative methods of transit and a disincentive for the current method of transportation.  We also use a very low-tech monitoring system so that police do not require any special training and corruption is offset.  

To succeed we must acknowledge that the chaos of Kabul's traffic is a self organized system determined by many variables.  We cannot control all those variables, nor can we expect that their management would prompt positive outcomes.  We can however provide simple incentives to nudge this system, but these simple incentives can only work if we can manage one or two of the variables that are the most interconnected to all the problems.  To do this, we can start with a trial approach in two particular locations.

First there are really only two ways to bypass the mountain.  One has a police checkpoint nearby, the other has checkpoints on either side.  Everyday between 3 and 6:30 pm, these roads are barely at a crawl, with nauseous drivers and passengers city in a fog of carbon monoxide.  It is not pleasant.


Two major corridors for traffic around the central TV Mountain of Kabul circled in blue. Google Earth 2012.

My 4-Step Solution to Fix Kabul Traffic:

1. Shift the police check points to the center of the corridors connecting the two sides of Kabul.

2. Make each side one-way, so that traffic is circulated around the mountain (though uncertain if this is necessary, needs to be tested).

3. Charge those driving a car 20 Afghani to pass through and provide a simple dated and numbered receipt (like something used at a raffle would may possibly suffice) specific to the car license plate (as we do have those).  Drivers will be charged a maximum of 100 Afghani per day.

4. Those using bicycles will be paid 20 Afghani as they pass through, and will receive up to 100 Afghani per day.

The cost/benefit of 100 Afghani is not excessive, about the cost of 2 USD, but it is significant enough to deter drivers and encourage bicycling.  A variation of this approach was used in Stockholm, wherein the city charged 2 Euro for automobiles to cross bridges into the city.  Notably it created immediate results, and while drivers initially complained, the same population described the project in positive terms after a matter of months.  In this Tedtalk, Jonas Elisson describes the success of this project.

Benefits
My proposal does not require any special funding.   It does not alter the existing infrastructure.  It is environmentally sustainable and can be easily expanded into other major congestion nodes in the city.  Furthermore, the increased use of bicycles over automobiles will increase safety as traffic accidents are the number one cause of accidents in Afghanistan.  It will improve security because car bombs are far more destructive and harder to catch than body-born explosives.  An insurgent on a bicycle will pose far less threat.  Additionally this activity will spur the development of locally produced bicycle manufacturing, sales, and repair - an existing market in Kabul but nowhere near a state of maturity while car sales are otherwise fairly saturated.

Risks
This proposal is not flawless. What is to be done if more people ride bikes than drive cars?  I'm not sure it would ever get to that point, and if it did, would phasing out the program invert the trend?  I cannot know for certain, but one thing is definite - the only way we can succeed is if we try.