CommonsTheGame.com

This is sort of a follow up to the FixMyStreet post.

Last week, I attended the 8th Annual Games For Change conference.  One of the more interesting examples was developed by students at NYU ITP, the program that Clay Shirky is part of.  It’s initial trial was in Lower Manhattan.

Using smart phones, it makes a social game of 311 and encourage people to solve problems on their own.  It’s a real world (or perhaps blended virtual/physical world) game, rather than the many games that are exclusively virtual.  

People (individually or in teams) submit “tasks”, which could a problem or a suggestion or a question. For example: what do you give tourists at South Street Seaport (battery chargers!)?  how could you make the waterfront more fun?  

People then vote on the ideas or on problems. There is constant feedback, so you’re notified when someone votes on your idea/task  

The key lessons they learned were that people prefer guided vs. open ended interactions, simplicity is key, and people found it all more fun when they work as teams.

You “win” based on points.  So the person with the most points is Mayor of downtown Manhattan for the day.  However, to maintain a more positive, civil atmosphere, there is an emphasis on and rewards (points) for suggestions, rather than merely submitting problems.

Their next step is to work with the city government to integrate the game into the real 311 system.  

It will be interesting to see where they take this or if others pick up on the idea.

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

Public Reviews Of Public Services

[Note: This was originally posted on a blog for government leaders, March 30, 2009.]

Measuring the performance of government agencies has been a hot topic among government managers over the last several years. Frequently, these performance measurement projects end up using lots of resources, with dozens of different measures and the computer systems necessary to manage all that data. But the odd result is that, with all these measures, what matters to the people who are served by your government is often overlooked.

The same thing was true in medical care, another service area of great personal importance to people. Then the Zagat folks entered the picture. Much like their website for reviews of restaurants and the like, in conjunction with the WellPoint health insurance company, they started a website where patients can rate their physicians.  [See, for example, http://www.bcbsil.com/company_info/newsroom/news/zagat_health_survey.html

Of course, Zagat isn’t the only such service. Amazon.com has been known for, among other things, reader reviews of books.

None of these Internet-based rating services – and there are many – is without criticism. The worry in the Amazon reviews is that they can be gamed for commercial purposes. With Zagat’s application of their review process to physicians, there have been criticisms about the lack of expertise of the reviewers. But both of these services can provide a perspective that the physicians or restaurants or authors or any other service provider couldn’t get in any other way.

Similarly, if the public gets a chance to rate public services, you will be able to learn things about those services that none of the internally generated performance measurement systems alone will give you. 

Where could you use this in government? Well, think about the services you offer, particular those that are used by enough people so that ratings might mean something.

How about ratings of:

  • each of your parks
  • each of the major roads in your area
  • each bus route or other transit service
  • each health clinic
  • each school
  • each library or library branch
  • special events that you run, whether holiday events or educational events

Just like restaurant reviews, which have many dimensions – quality of food, ambience, service, etc. – so too you could have many dimensions in any reviews of public services. Roads, for example, can be measured by the smoothness of the surface (the opposite of potholes), congestion, perceived safety, and clarity of signs.

You don’t even need to think all that hard about these dimensions because you can also let the public suggest the dimensions they want to rate services on.

And, based on the experience of the other reviewing services, there shouldn’t be too much concern about criticism boiling over. While there are the bad, sometimes really awful, reviews, in most cases people have good things to say. And their suggestions for improvements are well meaning. 

Of course, if there is some public service that you offer which garners extremely negative responses from a majority of reviewers, then you probably have a real problem – and it’s better to know about it early, before it becomes an election year issue.

Bottom line: unlike elaborate performance measurement systems, this is just a fairly simple website that can engage your residents and provide you with valuable information, inexpensively.

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

Fix My Street

[This was originally posted on a blog for government leaders on February 12, 2009.  I’m surprised more of them have not used either FixMyStreet or its American variation, SeeClickFix.]

With digital cameras and cameras within mobile phones, your citizens can be your eyes and ears. 

Don’t wait for a problem – or worse, a pattern of problems – to get out of hand. Encourage people to help you identify those problems fast. They can take a picture or even a video, identify the location and send it to you.

In tough financial times, this approach helps in a number of ways. It opens up the possibility of reducing staff who just go around looking for problems, since citizens would be volunteering to do work that you used to pay for. Some of these positions can be shifted to fixing the problems.  All in all, this should allow for a faster resolution of problems and more satisfied citizens.

It is, of course, conceivable that you might be overwhelmed by complaints. To handle this situation, you can explain on the site how you prioritize problems so people know what to expect. You might indicate that high risk problems or those in busy areas or those that are costly come first. 

You could even ask the person submitting the report to rate the problem against your criteria and then let other visitors to the site agree or disagree. That way, to some extent, you let public opinion help you determine the order in which problems are to be addressed. You could even copy some of the websites that encourage people to rank products, except in this case, they would be encouraged to rank problems. 

FixMyStreet – at http://www.fixmystreet.com – was developed by a British non-profit, mySociety.org, so that citizens can ”report, view, or discuss local problems (like graffiti, fly tipping, broken paving slabs, or street lighting).” 

In the UK, a citizen files a report and the non-profit group sends it in to the local government. But you don’t need a middle-man; you could set up such a website yourself. And the FixMyStreet software is free (open-source) software, so setting it up is not expensive. 

Finally, while FixMyStreet focuses on these simple physical problems on a street, you don’t have to limit yourself to those kinds of problems, of course. Any kind of problem or incident could be reported.

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

Broadband Networks & NYC Subways

Broadband Networks & NYC Subways

[Note: This was originally posted on a blog for government leaders, October 12, 2009.]

Many governments around the world are struggling to find the best method to get broadband networks created within their areas.  (Maybe it is the USA which is especially struggling.)

I thought about some historical precedents for major local infrastructure projects.  While the US Interstate Highway system is often cited as such a precedent, it falls short of representing the current debate because no one proposed in the 1950s that we should “let the private sector do it.”

But the huge New York City rail transit system is perhaps a better historical analogy.  It is important to note that the way the current system operates – as a single government owned and operated system – is not how it started or operated for many of its early years.

It seems that New York City government used every possible method including:

  • Let private companies own, build and run mass transit lines.  (Then take them over when they fail – due to underlying economic properties of such infrastructure which makes them more like public goods than private goods that can sustain a profit.)
  • Own the rights to the transit line yourself, but let a private company build and operate it.
  • Build the transit line yourself, but let a private company operate it.
  • Build the transit line and also run it.
  • Fake it – act as if a new transit line is going to be run and built by a private company, but do it yourself when no private company does so.

One other aspect of this history is of interest, which is the use of the “dual contracts.”  Those allowed more than one rail operator to use the same tracks and is analogous to the open network approach in today’s broadband world – whether the fiber backbone of broadband networks should be open to all users.

This opportunistic strategy perhaps made it easier and quicker for New York City to bring its great transit system to life.  Of course, eventually, this same lack of coherence created future problems and inefficiencies.  And by the time the great expansion of transit lines was finished, the government ended up owning and operating the whole system and sporadically filling some of the remaining unserved areas. 

Was the trade-off of a fast growth opportunistic strategy against longer term problems worth it?  Given the success and the role that the subways have played in New York City’s development, the answer is likely yes.

I’ve combined excerpts from a couple different sources (especially the now ubiquitous Wikipedia) to highlight some aspects of that system’s history. …

———————–

History of the New York City Subway

The beginnings of the Subway came from various excursion railroads to Coney Island and elevated railroads in Manhattan and Brooklyn. At that time, New York County (Manhattan Island and part of the Bronx), Kings County (including the Cities of Brooklyn and Williamsburg) and Queens County were separate political entities.

In New York, competing steam-powered elevated railroads were built over major avenues. The first elevated line was constructed in 1867-70 by Charles Harvey and his West Side and Yonkers Patent Railway company along Greenwich Street and Ninth Avenue (although cable cars were the initial mode of transportation on that railway). Later more lines were built on Second, Third and Sixth Avenues. None of these structures remain today, but these lines later shared trackage with subway trains as part of the IRT system.

In Kings County [Brooklyn], elevated railroads were also built by several companies. These also later shared trackage with subway trains, and even operated into the subway, as part of the BRT and BMT. These lines were linked to Manhattan by various ferries and later the tracks along the Brooklyn Bridge (which originally had their own line, and were later integrated into the BRT/BMT).  Also in Kings County, six steam excursion railroads were built to various beaches in the southern part of the county; all but one eventually fell under BMT control.

In 1898, New York, Kings and Richmond Counties, and parts of Queens and Westchester Counties and their constituent cities, towns, villages and hamlets were consolidated into the City of Greater New York. During this era the expanded City of New York resolved that it wanted the core of future rapid transit to be underground subways, but realized that no private company was willing to put up the enormous capital required to build beneath the streets.

The City decided to issue rapid transit bonds outside of its regular bonded debt limit and build the subways itself, and contracted with the IRT (which by that time ran the elevated lines in Manhattan) to equip and operate the subways, sharing the profits with the City and guaranteeing a fixed five-cent fare.

The Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) subway opened in 1904. The city contracted construction of the line to the IRT Company, ownership was always held by the city. The IRT built, equipped, and operated the line under a lease from the city. The IRT also leased the Manhattan Railway elevated lines in Manhattan and the Bronx for 999 years!

In Brooklyn, the various elevated railroads and many of the surface steam railroads, as well as most of the trolley lines, were consolidated under the BRT. Some improvements were made to these lines at company expense during this era.  Then the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit (BMT, formerly the Brooklyn Rapid Transit, BRT) was the rapid transit company which built, bought, or assumed control of the Brooklyn elevated lines.

The BRT, which just barely entered Manhattan via the Brooklyn Bridge, wanted the opportunity to compete with the IRT, and the IRT wanted to extend its Brooklyn line to compete with the BRT. This led to the City’s agreeing to contract for future subways with both the BRT and IRT.  The expansion of rapid transit was greatly facilitated by the signing of the Dual Contracts in 1913. Finished mostly by 1920, some of the new lines had trains operated by both companies.

The majority of the present-day subway system was either built or improved under [four sequential] contracts to the IRT and BRT

The City, bolstered by political claims that the private companies were reaping profits at taxpayer expense, determined that it would build, equip and operate a new system itself, with private investment and without sharing the profits with private entities. This led to the building of the Independent City-Owned Subway (ICOS), sometimes called the Independent Subway System — that was not connected to the IRT or BMT lines. This system consisted of entirely subway construction with only one elevated portion.

As the first line neared completion, New York City offered it for private operation as a formality, knowing that no operator would meet its terms. Thus the city declared that it would operate it itself, formalizing a foregone conclusion. The first line opened without a formal ceremony..

Only two new lines were opened [later], the IRT Dyre Avenue Line (1941) and the IND Rockaway Line (1956). Both of these lines were rehabilitations of existing railroad rights-of-way rather than new construction.

In June 1940, the transportation assets of the former BMT and IRT systems were taken over by the City of New York for operation by the City’s Board of Transportation, which already operated the IND system.  After city takeover of the bankrupt BMT and IRT companies, many of the elevated lines were closed, and a slow “unification” took place, marked notably by establishment of several free transfer points between divisions in 1948 and a few points of through running between IND and BMT lines beginning in 1954.

A combination of factors had this takeover coincide with the end of the major rapid transit building eras in New York City. The City immediately began to eliminate what it considered redundancy in the system, closing several elevated lines.

[But] Because the early subway systems competed with each other, they tended to cover the same areas of the city, leading to much overlapping service. The amount of service has actually decreased since the 1940s as many elevated railways were torn down, and finding funding for underground replacements has proven difficult.

Despite the unification, a distinction between the three systems survives in the service labels: IRT lines (now referred to as A Division) have numbers and BMT/IND (now collectively B Division) lines use letters. There is also a more physical but less obvious difference: Division A cars are narrower than those of Division B by 18 inches (~45cm) and shorter by 9 to 24 feet (~2.7 to 7.3m).  An BMT/IND style train cannot fit into an IRT tunnel (the numbered lines and the 42nd Street Shuttle). An IRT train CAN fit into a BMT/IND tunnel but since it is narrower the distance from car to platform is unsafe. Cars from the IRT division are moved using BMT/IND tracks to Coney Island Overhaul Shops for major maintenance on a regular basis.  Division B equipment could operate on much of Division A if station platforms were trimmed and trackside furniture moved. Being able to do so would increase the capacity of Division A. However, there is virtually no chance of this happening because the portions of Division A that could not accommodate Division B equipment without major physical reconstruction are situated in such a way that it would be impossible to put together coherent through services.

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

Broadband Networks & NYC Subways

[This was originally published on June 20, 2011 and it was posted on a blog for government leaders, October 12, 2009.]

Many governments around the world are struggling to find the best method to get broadband networks created within their areas.  (Maybe it is the USA which is especially struggling.)

I thought about some historical precedents for major local infrastructure projects.  While the US Interstate Highway system is often cited as such a precedent, it falls short of representing the current debate because no one proposed in the 1950s that we should “let the private sector do it.”

But the huge New York City rail transit system is perhaps a better historical analogy.  It is important to note that the way the current system operates – as a single government owned and operated system – is not how it started or operated for many of its early years.

It seems that New York City government used every possible method including:

  • Let private companies own, build and run mass transit lines.  (Then take them over when they fail – due to underlying economic properties of such infrastructure which makes them more like public goods than private goods that can sustain a profit.)
  • Own the rights to the transit line yourself, but let a private company build and operate it.
  • Build the transit line yourself, but let a private company operate it.
  • Build the transit line and also run it.
  • Fake it – act as if a new transit line is going to be run and built by a private company, but do it yourself when no private company does so.

One other aspect of this history is of interest, which is the use of the “dual contracts.”  Those allowed more than one rail operator to use the same tracks and is analogous to the open network approach in today’s broadband world – whether the fiber backbone of broadband networks should be open to all users.

This opportunistic strategy perhaps made it easier and quicker for New York City to bring its great transit system to life.  Of course, eventually, this same lack of coherence created future problems and inefficiencies.  And by the time the great expansion of transit lines was finished, the government ended up owning and operating the whole system and sporadically filling some of the remaining unserved areas.

Was the trade-off of a fast growth opportunistic strategy against longer term problems worth it?  Given the success and the role that the subways have played in New York City’s development, the answer is likely yes.

I’ve combined excerpts from a couple different sources (especially the now ubiquitous Wikipedia) to highlight some aspects of that system’s history. …

———————–

History of the New York City Subway

The beginnings of the Subway came from various excursion railroads to Coney Island and elevated railroads in Manhattan and Brooklyn. At that time, New York County (Manhattan Island and part of the Bronx), Kings County (including the Cities of Brooklyn and Williamsburg) and Queens County were separate political entities.

In New York, competing steam-powered elevated railroads were built over major avenues. The first elevated line was constructed in 1867-70 by Charles Harvey and his West Side and Yonkers Patent Railway company along Greenwich Street and Ninth Avenue (although cable cars were the initial mode of transportation on that railway). Later more lines were built on Second, Third and Sixth Avenues. None of these structures remain today, but these lines later shared trackage with subway trains as part of the IRT system.

In Kings County [Brooklyn], elevated railroads were also built by several companies. These also later shared trackage with subway trains, and even operated into the subway, as part of the BRT and BMT. These lines were linked to Manhattan by various ferries and later the tracks along the Brooklyn Bridge (which originally had their own line, and were later integrated into the BRT/BMT).  Also in Kings County, six steam excursion railroads were built to various beaches in the southern part of the county; all but one eventually fell under BMT control.

In 1898, New York, Kings and Richmond Counties, and parts of Queens and Westchester Counties and their constituent cities, towns, villages and hamlets were consolidated into the City of Greater New York. During this era the expanded City of New York resolved that it wanted the core of future rapid transit to be underground subways, but realized that no private company was willing to put up the enormous capital required to build beneath the streets.

The City decided to issue rapid transit bonds outside of its regular bonded debt limit and build the subways itself, and contracted with the IRT (which by that time ran the elevated lines in Manhattan) to equip and operate the subways, sharing the profits with the City and guaranteeing a fixed five-cent fare.

The Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) subway opened in 1904. The city contracted construction of the line to the IRT Company, ownership was always held by the city. The IRT built, equipped, and operated the line under a lease from the city. The IRT also leased the Manhattan Railway elevated lines in Manhattan and the Bronx for 999 years!

In Brooklyn, the various elevated railroads and many of the surface steam railroads, as well as most of the trolley lines, were consolidated under the BRT. Some improvements were made to these lines at company expense during this era.  Then the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit (BMT, formerly the Brooklyn Rapid Transit, BRT) was the rapid transit company which built, bought, or assumed control of the Brooklyn elevated lines.

The BRT, which just barely entered Manhattan via the Brooklyn Bridge, wanted the opportunity to compete with the IRT, and the IRT wanted to extend its Brooklyn line to compete with the BRT. This led to the City’s agreeing to contract for future subways with both the BRT and IRT.  The expansion of rapid transit was greatly facilitated by the signing of the Dual Contracts in 1913. Finished mostly by 1920, some of the new lines had trains operated by both companies.

The majority of the present-day subway system was either built or improved under [four sequential] contracts to the IRT and BRT

The City, bolstered by political claims that the private companies were reaping profits at taxpayer expense, determined that it would build, equip and operate a new system itself, with private investment and without sharing the profits with private entities. This led to the building of the Independent City-Owned Subway (ICOS), sometimes called the Independent Subway System — that was not connected to the IRT or BMT lines. This system consisted of entirely subway construction with only one elevated portion.

As the first line neared completion, New York City offered it for private operation as a formality, knowing that no operator would meet its terms. Thus the city declared that it would operate it itself, formalizing a foregone conclusion. The first line opened without a formal ceremony..

Only two new lines were opened [later], the IRT Dyre Avenue Line (1941) and the IND Rockaway Line (1956). Both of these lines were rehabilitations of existing railroad rights-of-way rather than new construction.

In June 1940, the transportation assets of the former BMT and IRT systems were taken over by the City of New York for operation by the City’s Board of Transportation, which already operated the IND system.  After city takeover of the bankrupt BMT and IRT companies, many of the elevated lines were closed, and a slow “unification” took place, marked notably by establishment of several free transfer points between divisions in 1948 and a few points of through running between IND and BMT lines beginning in 1954.

A combination of factors had this takeover coincide with the end of the major rapid transit building eras in New York City. The City immediately began to eliminate what it considered redundancy in the system, closing several elevated lines.

[But] Because the early subway systems competed with each other, they tended to cover the same areas of the city, leading to much overlapping service. The amount of service has actually decreased since the 1940s as many elevated railways were torn down, and finding funding for underground replacements has proven difficult.

Despite the unification, a distinction between the three systems survives in the service labels: IRT lines (now referred to as A Division) have numbers and BMT/IND (now collectively B Division) lines use letters. There is also a more physical but less obvious difference: Division A cars are narrower than those of Division B by 18 inches (~45cm) and shorter by 9 to 24 feet (~2.7 to 7.3m).  An BMT/IND style train cannot fit into an IRT tunnel (the numbered lines and the 42nd Street Shuttle). An IRT train CAN fit into a BMT/IND tunnel but since it is narrower the distance from car to platform is unsafe. Cars from the IRT division are moved using BMT/IND tracks to Coney Island Overhaul Shops for major maintenance on a regular basis.  Division B equipment could operate on much of Division A if station platforms were trimmed and trackside furniture moved. Being able to do so would increase the capacity of Division A. However, there is virtually no chance of this happening because the portions of Division A that could not accommodate Division B equipment without major physical reconstruction are situated in such a way that it would be impossible to put together coherent through services.

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

Gold Mining

[Published 6/18/2011 and originally posted for government leaders, July 6, 2009]

My last posting was about the “goldmine” that exists in the information your government collects every day. It’s a goldmine because this data can be analyzed to determine how to save money by learning what policies and programs work best. Some governments have the internal skills to do this kind of sophisticated analysis or they can contract for those skills. But no government – not even the US Federal government – has the resources to analyze all the data they have.

What can you do about that? Maybe there’s an answer in a story about real gold mining from the authors of the book “Wikinomics”[1]:

A few years back, Toronto-based gold mining company Goldcorp was in trouble. Besieged by strikes, lingering debts, and an exceedingly high cost of production, the company had terminated mining operations…. [M]ost analysts assumed that the company’s fifty-year old mine in Red Lake, Ontario, was dying. Without evidence of substantial new gold deposits, Goldcorp was likely to fold. Chief Executive Officer Rob McEwen needed a miracle.

Frustrated that his in-house geologists couldn’t reliably estimate the value and location of the gold on his property … [he] published his geological data on the Web for all to see and challenged the world to do the prospecting. The “Goldcorp Challenge” made a total of $575,000 in prize money available to participants who submitted the best methods and estimates. Every scrap of information (some 400 megabytes worth) about the 55,000 acre property was revealed on Goldcorp’s Web site.

News of the contest spread quickly around the Internet and more than 1,000 virtual prospectors from 50 countries got busy crunching the data. Within weeks, submissions from around the world were flooding into Goldcorp headquarters. There were entries from graduate students, management consultants, mathematicians, military officers, and a virtual army of geologists. “We had applied math, advanced physics, intelligent systems, computer graphics, and organic solutions to inorganic problems. There were capabilities I had never seen before in the industry,” says McEwen. “When I saw the computer graphics, I almost fell out of my chair.”

The contestants identified 110 targets on the Red Lake property, more than 80% of which yielded substantial quantities of gold. In fact, since the challenge was initiated, an astounding 8 million ounces of gold have been found – worth well over $3 billion. Not a bad return on a half million dollar investment.

You probably won’t be able to offer a prize to analysts, although you might offer to share some of the savings that result from doing things better. But, since the public has an interest in seeing its government work better, unlike a private corporation, maybe you don’t have to offer a prize.And there are many examples on the Internet where people are willing to help out without any obvious monetary reward.

Certainly not everyone, but enough people might be interested in the data to take a shot of making sense of it – students or even college professors looking for research projects, retired statisticians, the kinds of folks who live to analyze baseball statistics, and anyone who might find this a challenge.

The Obama administration and its new IT leaders have made a big deal about putting its data on the Web. There are dozens of data sets on the Federal site data.gov[2], obviously taking care to deal with issues of individual privacy and national security. Although their primary interest is in transparency of government, now that the data is there, we’ll start to see what people out there learn from all that information. Alabama[3] and the District of Columbia, among others, have started to do the same thing.

You can benefit a lot more, if you too make your government’s data available on the web for analysis. Then your data, perhaps combined with the Federal data and other sources on the web, can provide you with an even better picture of how to improve your government – better than just using your own data alone.

  1. “Innovation in the Age of Mass Collaboration”, Business Week, Feb. 1, 2007 http://www.businessweek.com/innovate/content/feb2007/id20070201_774736.htm
  2. “Data.gov open for business”, Government Computer News, May 21, 2009, http://gcn.com/articles/2009/05/21/federal-data-website-goes-live.aspx
  3. “Alabama at your fingertips”, Government Computer News, April 20, 2009, http://gcn.com/articles/2009/04/20/arms-provides-data-maps-to-agencies.aspx

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

Gold Mining

[Note: This was originally posted on a blog for government leaders, July 6, 2009]

My last posting was about the “goldmine” that exists in the information your government collects every day. It’s a goldmine because this data can be analyzed to determine how to save money by learning what policies and programs work best. Some governments have the internal skills to do this kind of sophisticated analysis or they can contract for those skills. But no government – not even the US Federal government – has the resources to analyze all the data they have. 

What can you do about that? Maybe there’s an answer in a story about real gold mining from the authors of the book “Wikinomics”[1]:

A few years back, Toronto-based gold mining company Goldcorp was in trouble. Besieged by strikes, lingering debts, and an exceedingly high cost of production, the company had terminated mining operations…. [M]ost analysts assumed that the company’s fifty-year old mine in Red Lake, Ontario, was dying. Without evidence of substantial new gold deposits, Goldcorp was likely to fold. Chief Executive Officer Rob McEwen needed a miracle. 

Frustrated that his in-house geologists couldn’t reliably estimate the value and location of the gold on his property … [he] published his geological data on the Web for all to see and challenged the world to do the prospecting. The “Goldcorp Challenge” made a total of $575,000 in prize money available to participants who submitted the best methods and estimates. Every scrap of information (some 400 megabytes worth) about the 55,000 acre property was revealed on Goldcorp’s Web site. 

News of the contest spread quickly around the Internet and more than 1,000 virtual prospectors from 50 countries got busy crunching the data. Within weeks, submissions from around the world were flooding into Goldcorp headquarters. There were entries from graduate students, management consultants, mathematicians, military officers, and a virtual army of geologists. “We had applied math, advanced physics, intelligent systems, computer graphics, and organic solutions to inorganic problems. There were capabilities I had never seen before in the industry,” says McEwen. “When I saw the computer graphics, I almost fell out of my chair.” 

The contestants identified 110 targets on the Red Lake property, more than 80% of which yielded substantial quantities of gold. In fact, since the challenge was initiated, an astounding 8 million ounces of gold have been found – worth well over $3 billion. Not a bad return on a half million dollar investment. 

You probably won’t be able to offer a prize to analysts, although you might offer to share some of the savings that result from doing things better. But, since the public has an interest in seeing its government work better, unlike a private corporation, maybe you don’t have to offer a prize.And there are many examples on the Internet where people are willing to help out without any obvious monetary reward. 

Certainly not everyone, but enough people might be interested in the data to take a shot of making sense of it – students or even college professors looking for research projects, retired statisticians, the kinds of folks who live to analyze baseball statistics, and anyone who might find this a challenge.

The Obama administration and its new IT leaders have made a big deal about putting its data on the Web. There are dozens of data sets on the Federal site data.gov[2], obviously taking care to deal with issues of individual privacy and national security. Although their primary interest is in transparency of government, now that the data is there, we’ll start to see what people out there learn from all that information.  Alabama[3] and the District of Columbia, among others, have started to do the same thing.

You can benefit a lot more, if you too make your government’s data available on the web for analysis. Then your data, perhaps combined with the Federal data and other sources on the web, can provide you with an even better picture of how to improve your government – better than just using your own data alone. 

  1.  “Innovation in the Age of Mass Collaboration”, Business Week, Feb. 1, 2007 http://www.businessweek.com/innovate/content/feb2007/id20070201_774736.htm
  2. “Data.gov open for business”, Government Computer News, May 21, 2009, http://gcn.com/articles/2009/05/21/federal-data-website-goes-live.aspx
  3. “Alabama at your fingertips”, Government Computer News, April 20, 2009, http://gcn.com/articles/2009/04/20/arms-provides-data-maps-to-agencies.aspx

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

SmarterCape Summit Presentation

On May 10, I was the plenary keynote speaker at the SmarterCape Summit – the kickoff meeting for the $50 million + Open Cape project to bring broadband and its applications to Cape Cod and southeastern Massachusetts.  The other major speakers of the day were Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and the co-founder of the global Intelligent Community Forum, Lou Zacharilla.

The presentation was an extension of my work with the US Conference of Mayors on future-oriented (network-based) economic growth.
There is a link the video (with the first couple of minutes unfortunately deleted) at http://www.myaccesstv.com/component/hwdvideoshare/viewvideo/823/business-and-economics/cisco-dr-norman-jacknis.html
The presentation is at http://www.smartercapesummit.com/Images/Event/Event%20Presentations/JACKNIS.Plenary.pdf

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

SmarterCape Summit Presentation

Originally published 5/20/2011

On May 10, I was the plenary keynote speaker at the SmarterCape Summit – the kickoff meeting for the $50 million + Open Cape project to bring broadband and its applications to Cape Cod and southeastern Massachusetts.  The other major speakers of the day were Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and the co-founder of the global Intelligent Community Forum, Lou Zacharilla.

The presentation was an extension of my work with the US Conference of Mayors on future-oriented (network-based) economic growth.

Here’s a PDF of the presentation SmarterCape Summit

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

Beyond The Inbox And Outbox

[This was originally posted on the web on June 15, 2009 for elected executives of governments.]

Every day, the employees of your government follow the same routine.

They have a stack of problems, applications, forms and the like in their inbox.  It may be a real, old-fashioned inbox with lots of paper or the computer-based equivalent. Doing the best they can, they then work through the pile and, we hope, with wisdom and efficiency, they process the incoming tasks and then move them to the outbox. As far as many employees are concerned, their work is done when the thing is put in the outbox.

However, for the people who run the government, this represents more than a ledger of what came in and what went out.  It is a gold mine of information.  Especially because of all the automation that has been put in place in government agencies, it is also an easily accessible gold mine.

Unfortunately, this gold mine is often ignored.  But if that data is analyzed, you will discover the patterns that can help you improve government programs and policies. Consider two examples, from very different areas, of what statistical analysis of that data can tell you:

What kinds of programs have worked best for which kinds of prisoners?  (This knowledge can be used to come up with better treatment and assignment of prisoners at intake.)

Who has used the public golf courses at what times of the week and day?  (This can identify where you might want to offer new programs targeted at particular groups of residents to even out usage during the day and get more golf fees.)

In 2007, Professor Ian Ayres wrote a book, “SuperCrunchers: Why Thinking-By-Numbers Is The New Way To Be Smart”, in which he described how various organizations are using statistical analysis to dramatically improve their performance. 

One of its chapters, “Government By Chance”, provides public sector examples and offers an interesting idea.

Imagine a world where people looked to the IRS as a source for useful information. The IRS could tell a small business that it might be spending too much on advertising or tell an individual that the aver age taxpayer in her income bracket gave mote to charity or made a larger IRA contribution. Heck, the IRS could probably produce fairly accurate estimates about the probability that small businesses (or even marriages) would fail. In fact, I’m told that Visa already does predict the probability of divorce based on credit card purchases (so that it can make better predictions of default risk). Of course, this is all a bit Orwellian. I might not particularly want to get a note from the IRS saying my marriage is at risk. But I might at least want the option of having the government make predictions about various aspects of my life. Instead of thinking of the IRS as solely a taker, we might also think of it as an information provider. We could even change its name to the “Information & Revenue Service".

This is yet another example, though, of moving the public sector from a transactional view of citizens to something more helpful.  While even the author admits the IRS example is a scary, there are other possibilities that are not scary and that your residents would like. 

The use of the data the government collects for better policy and better service to citizens is what I call “learning how to drive the government” because it is different from the usual fad and fashion approach to policy.

Too often policy debates are like a driver in a car who cannot see outside the windows.  So the driver keeps going until the car hits a wall, at which point the usual reaction is to go in the opposite direction until the same thing happens again.  This accounts for the feeling of a pendulum swinging in public policy debates, rather than real learning occurring.  

When everyday data is analyzed, it is like being able to look out the windows and figure out what direction to drive.

© 2011 Norman Jacknis

Beyond The Inbox And Outbox

[Re-published 5/18/2011.  This was originally posted on the web on June 15, 2009 for elected executives of governments.]

Every day, the employees of your government follow the same routine.

They have a stack of problems, applications, forms and the like in their inbox.  It may be a real, old-fashioned inbox with lots of paper or the computer-based equivalent. Doing the best they can, they then work through the pile and, we hope, with wisdom and efficiency, they process the incoming tasks and then move them to the outbox. As far as many employees are concerned, their work is done when the thing is put in the outbox.

However, for the people who run the government, this represents more than a ledger of what came in and what went out.  It is a gold mine of information.  Especially because of all the automation that has been put in place in government agencies, it is also an easily accessible gold mine.

Unfortunately, this gold mine is often ignored.  But if that data is analyzed, you will discover the patterns that can help you improve government programs and policies. Consider two examples, from very different areas, of what statistical analysis of that data can tell you:

What kinds of programs have worked best for which kinds of prisoners?  (This knowledge can be used to come up with better treatment and assignment of prisoners at intake.)

Who has used the public golf courses at what times of the week and day?  (This can identify where you might want to offer new programs targeted at particular groups of residents to even out usage during the day and get more golf fees.)

In 2007, Professor Ian Ayres wrote a book, “SuperCrunchers: Why Thinking-By-Numbers Is The New Way To Be Smart”, in which he described how various organizations are using statistical analysis to dramatically improve their performance.

One of its chapters, “Government By Chance”, provides public sector examples and offers an interesting idea.

“Imagine a world where people looked to the IRS as a source for useful information. The IRS could tell a small business that it might be spending too much on advertising or tell an individual that the aver age taxpayer in her income bracket gave mote to charity or made a larger IRA contribution. Heck, the IRS could probably produce fairly accurate estimates about the probability that small businesses (or even marriages) would fail. In fact, I’m told that Visa already does predict the probability of divorce based on credit card purchases (so that it can make better predictions of default risk). Of course, this is all a bit Orwellian. I might not particularly want to get a note from the IRS saying my marriage is at risk. But I might at least want the option of having the government make predictions about various aspects of my life. Instead of thinking of the IRS as solely a taker, we might also think of it as an information provider. We could even change its name to the Information & Revenue Service”.

This is yet another example, though, of moving the public sector from a transactional view of citizens to something more helpful.  While even the author admits the IRS example is a scary, there are other possibilities that are not scary and that your residents would like.

The use of the data the government collects for better policy and better service to citizens is what I call “learning how to drive the government” because it is different from the usual fad and fashion approach to policy.

Too often policy debates are like a driver in a car who cannot see outside the windows.  So the driver keeps going until the car hits a wall, at which point the usual reaction is to go in the opposite direction until the same thing happens again.  This accounts for the feeling of a pendulum swinging in public policy debates, rather than real learning occurring.

When everyday data is analyzed, it is like being able to look out the windows and figure out what direction to drive.

© 2011 Norman Jacknis