Broadening Access

I spent the morning today at MTA headquarters, judging the "Accessibility" category of the NYC Transit Tech Lab competition, organized by the Partnership for NYC. Here is the view from the 20th floor of MTA HQ at Bowling Green:

Ostensibly, the theme of the day was accessibility in the sense of things that could improve the transit experience for people with disabilities and impairments of various kinds. This is, of course, a critical goal for every piece of public infrastructure, and is particularly important when it comes to transportation.

But what I quickly realized is that nearly every company that presented was not just increasing accessibility in that sense, but rather in a much broader sense -- making the system more sensible, legible and usable for everyone.

Specifically, there was a single theme that came through from nearly every team: taking an invisible or analog signal, and making it digital. As simple as that.

I can't link to the actual companies yet, as they haven't been announced, but the kinds of signals that were being turned digital included: electrical signals emanating from infrastructure like elevators and escalators to monitor conditions & outages; voice announcements sent over the PA system; and contextual and wayfinding information from signs and other physical objects, such as buses and trains.

In each case, there is a valuable signal -- valuable for people with disabilities yes, but really everyone -- that is not at all captured digitally. And in each case, a system that manages to capture that signal and provide it in digital form. Once it's digital, it can be used for anything: apps, alerts & notifications, analytics, compliance, etc. Once it's digital, it's accessible.

A major part of USV's Thesis 3.0 is "Broadening Access" and this can come in many forms. What I realized today is that the simple act of capturing an analog or real-world signal and making it digital is a powerful act of broadening access in and of itself.


Internet meets world: rules go boom

Since 2006, I've been writing here about cities, the internet, and the ongoing collision between the two. Along the way, I've also loved using Tumblr to clip quotes off the web, building on the idea of "the slow hunch" (the title of this blog) and the "open commonplace book" as a tool for tracking the slow hunch over time. Today, I'm launching the next iteration of both: Internet Meets World. On IMW, I'll be tracking the big questions, like:

I'll still continue to blog here, but will syndicate certain posts -- those specifically digging into the macro / legal / policy / societal issues created by the collision of the internet and the world, on IMW.   In addition to collecting my own posts, I'll also be collecting other articles from across the web, and will move my quote clipping from tumblr into Medium. I'm also looking for one or more co-editors for IMW.  If you're interested, shoot me an email at nick [at] usv [dot] com, including a handful of links / quotes that you think really capture the essence of this conflict / opportunity. Onward!


Uber and Safer Cities

For some reason I have always liked talking to taxi drivers about their business.  Maybe it’s because my dad was a NYC taxi driver back in the 70s, or maybe it’s because driving a taxi is such a classic immigrant path to building a life here.  And it’s certainly because of the amount of tech and business model innovation in the transportation space.  

Last night I took an Uber home from the airport, and was talking to the driver about his experience with it.  He loves Uber — in the past 2 years, he switched from being a Boston city cab driver to being an Uber driver — and in the process traded $4000 / month in cab lease fees (what you pay a garage as a base rate to drive the cab — regardless of how much you earn) for a $700 / month car payment and $400 / month in insurance.  And he gets to have a vastly improved quality of work (managing his own business & time, driving in a nicer car, etc).

Of course there are tradeoffs — if the Uber business slows down, he’s still on the hook for that car payment.  And it’s possible that the number of Uber drivers will continue to increase (unconstrained by medallion restrictions, which in NYC cap taxis at 13,000), increasing competition and bringing down his margins.

But overall, he said that Uber changed his life (for the better).  Not everyone feels this way, but it’s one story.

Anyway, the most interesting thing he said was not about the business, but the impact on neighborhoods.  He said that Uber has radically increased the taxi / car service business in the city’s tough neighborhoods.  This comes across as sounding counter-intuitive since most tech-driven transportation platforms (like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar — but especially Uber) are derided as “For Yuppies By Yuppies”.  But the reason makes perfect sense: with Uber, you know your passenger.

So whereas a traditional taxi would hesitate to pick up fares in tough parts of town, because you never know who’s going to get in, Uber drivers can do this with much more confidence, since there is personal identity (and therefore accountability) built into the system.

This makes perfect sense in theory, and I’d be really interested to explore data that could test this out.  Especially as NYC gears up to offer mobile payments in traditional taxis.

This is a perfect example of Regulation 2.0 — using real-time / mobile accessible data to build trust and safety into a networked system.  And it points out the limitations of “1.0” regulation schemes (in this case taxi licensing), that don’t have access to such data and can hence only solve for part of the problem (in this case, protecting passengers from bad drivers).  And it’s a really great example of some of the unexpected benefits of allowing new, networked models to emerge.


Why Casual & Natural Is So Awesome

Last week I was playing ping pong with Zander and the topic of conversation (naturally) turned to canal skating in Ottawa. You see, in Ottawa during the wintertime, the city’s canals freeze over and they turn into  temporary frozen streets.  As you can see above, Ottawans turn to using them for their daily activities, like taking their kids to school.  Imagine taking your kids to school on ice skates! I was saying that I thought this was so cool, and Zander accused me of “being a hipster who just likes things that are different”. While I do like things that are different and interesting, this is not an ironic interest in canadian urban ice skating.  What I love so much about this is that it’s doing a fun activity in a totally natural and non-contrived context.  For example:

  • Hockey in a skating rink: contrived.  Hockey on a pond: awesome.  Skating to work: unbelievable.

  • “Going for a bike ride”: lame.  Riding your bike to run errands and get around town: awesome.

  • Taking a boat ride: ok.  Riding a boat to get somewhere (like the Fire Island water taxi, or the “buses” in Venice): amazing.  Driving your own boat to get to work: rockstar (and that doesn’t at all require a fancy boat).

  • I am sure there are lots of others that I’m not thinking of right now.  If I were a gun owner, I’d probably feel the same way about shooting on a gun range vs. hunting in the wild (or packing heat).

There is something about doing an activity in the normal course of your day, and in its natural environment, that makes it so much better.  And there is something about completely fabricated environments that can feel so lame or even sad (and also high pressure because of the dedicated focus).  I suppose I can tie this back to my preference for mixed-use urban environments, vs. more separated, dedicated-use contrived ones. It’s possible to say that finding and doing such things has been a lifelong interest for me — though I’ve never really articulated it directly.  Maybe it’s some kind of yearning for authenticity, maybe it’s about freedom vs. constraints & control. Anyway, I think I am onto something here and will be on the lookout for other examples. // photo from


NYC Taxis and Regulation 2.0

This week, the NYC’s black car association (limos and car services) filed suit to block the e-hail pilot that was set to begin today.  The argument is that there has traditionally been a formal divide in NYC between taxis you hail on the street (yellow cabs) and cars you reserve in advance (black cars / limos / car services); that that divide serves an important public interest goal; and that e-hail crosses that divide. This raises two questions: 1) why do we distinguish between street hails prearranged pickups?  and 2) does e-hail actually cross that line? I’d like to start with the first one because I think it’s more interesting.   What we have is a rule — a bright line between heavily regulated, street hail-only yellow taxis and more lightly regulated pre-arranged rides in livery cars.  Why do we have that? My suspicion is that there are good reasons why that rule was originally created — but that we now have a Regulation 2.0 opportunity — to satisfy those public interests using tools and techniques not available when the original rules were written. So, why do we have this divide? I can think of:

  • Passenger safety - since you are hailing on the street, you need to know that you can trust the driver and car. Therefore yellow cabs are subject to greater regulation — when you call a car service you are vetting the company in advance. 

  • Discrimination — yellow taxis must accept all passengers and must take passengers to any destination within the five boros.

  • Driver safety - it might be unsafe for drivers to be interacting with dispatch equipment (on a smart phone, on a radio, on some other kind of console).

  • Street safety - this is maybe a lesser concern, but roaming cabs make the city safer to walk around. They are another form of “eyes on the street”

Maybe there are others, but that’s a first pass.  To take them in order:

  • Passenger safety: This seems like an argument for why black cars can’t take street hails, not vice versa.

  • Discrimination: clearly an important topic.  So: does discrimination happen now?  Anyone who takes a taxi in NYC would say yes — either on the will-this-taxi-pick-me-up angle, or the will-this-taxi-take-me-where-i-want-to-go angle.  It’s true that taxi drivers can choose not to accept e-hails, and they could conceivably discriminate based on the first-name of the hailer (which is also happening already, just by appearance, not name).  I’d argue that destination discrimination will decrease with e-hail as drivers will have to commit to the ride before they know the destination (and NYC could enforce this limitation).

  • Driver safety: taxi drivers interact with in-car tech in nearly every city already.  In this case, accepting or rejecting a hail would be limited to a single button press if the car is in motion.  Non-issue.

  • Street safety: I think this one is interesting, and it relates to the second question which is whether an e-hail is more like a street hail or more like a prearranged pickup.

If anything, the distinction that black cars shouldn’t be able to accept street hails seems to be more relevant, primarily for #1 above.  But I also suspect that that could be solved with a regulation 2.0 approach as well. So, on the second question: is an e-hail more like a street hail or more like a prearranged pickup?  This is less of a “public interest” question, and more of a “does this break the law as currently written” question. You could kind of argue it both ways, because clearly e-hail is a form of pre-arrangement.  But so is street-hailing.  Between the time the driver sees me and I get in, we are arranging the ride.  With e-hail the driver doesn’t see me with his eyes, but with his phone. Since e-hails in NYC would only work within a half-mile radius of the caller, and they only work in real-time, it is actually quite a limited form of pre-arrangement and may actually be more similar to a street hail.  i.e., I can’t reserve a car for a future time at a distant location. If anything, I might argue that the e-hail revolution (including Uber which primarily focuses on black cars, not taxis) should help the livery industry as much as the taxi industry, as it vastly increases the surface area through which they can connect with customers.  Web 2.0 and regulation 2.0 techniques for building trust generally work in favor of groups that traditionally haven’t been as trusted (and consequently may have been regulated out of business). I’ll end with a money quote from TLC commissioner David Yassky:  “This suit seeks to keep the taxi industry and New Yorkers in the dark ages,” he said. “Next thing, they’ll be suing restaurants to go back to wood-burning stoves. Our rules allow for e-hail now, and the only question is, do we embrace these new services and ensure that consumer protections are in place, or listen to obstructionists and watch e-hail apps proliferate without any regulatory input.” My hope in thinking about Regulation 2.0 is that we can use the tools we now have available (primarily: tons of real-time data) to allow for more innovation and room to experiment, since we now have ways of understanding the impacts of these changes much more quickly and in much more detail. (disclosure: Hailo, one of the e-hail companies in question, is an investment of USV, where I work)


Making NYC Awesome

I am so inspired by Kid President.  If you haven’t seen the video, go watch it now, and get your pep talk on. So… with kid on our shoulder, let’s think about how to make NYC more awesome.  From a tech policy perspective :) A few weeks ago the (already awesome) NY Tech Meetup launched a call for conversation about how to make NYC a better place — for the tech community specifically, and for the broader community more generally.  The set of goals they kicked off the conversation with were:

  1. Make New York City the most wired city on earth by providing every New Yorker and every New York business, regardless of location, access to the fastest broadband networks at the lowest cost.

  2. Reinvent the education system to allow every child, young adult, and all New Yorkers to develop the skills necessary to thrive in a 21st century economy and world.

  3. Make New York City the clear choice for entrepreneurs, software engineers, and other technically skilled professionals to start a business and build a career by making it easy to find partners, financing, office space and housing, employees, and access to markets.

  4. Support the appointment of a Deputy Mayor for Technology Innovation with an appropriate budget charged with the responsibility of reinventing New York City government with a 21st century framework.

  5. Make New York City’s system for civic participation the most open, transparent, accountable, participatory, and innovative in the world.

  6. Make New York City the most citizen-connected community on earth, where its people connect with each other to unleash a powerful new 21st century economy: selling to each other, renting to each other, funding each other, sharing with each other, coworking with each other, meeting up with each other, and hiring each other.

  7. Support public policies that would ensure that technology and the opportunities available to the tech community can reach all New York’s citizens, and help solve issues related to healthcare, human rights and justice, gender equality, transportation, the environment, and other issues of fundamental importance to all New Yorkers.

(note: I had a hard time bolding the last one :-) These ideas are a starting point, and it’s been interesting to see how people have reacted to it so far — re-prioritizing (through voting) the list above and adding new ideas. What I like about the NYTM’s list is that it’s not just about making NYC a place that’s inviting for companies to locate to (through things like tax breaks, etc), but about making NYC a leader as an open, connected, wired city.  It’s about using tech policy as a starting point to bring opportunities afforded by the internet and networks of people to the city as a whole.

"What if there really were two paths… I want be in the one that leads to awesome." -#kidpresident — Brandon Hatmaker (@brandonhatmaker) February 3, 2013

So, in the words of Kid, let’s get on the path to Awesome.  In NYC and everywhere.


Community, and Why Halloween is the Best Holiday

I love halloween. I think it's my favorite holiday.

The thing that I like about it the most is that it's one of the only days of the year where you have a reason to go out and meet all of your neighbors.  I spent a while last night walking around the neighborhood with Theo and Brieza, having conversations with my nearest neighbors, most of whom I hadn't spoken to before (we've lived in our current place for just over a year).  It was really nice.

If you think about it, it's kind of astonishing the extent to which we typically don't know our neighbors.  I can't speak for everyone, everywhere, but it seems like a reasonably safe bet that most of us don't know the vast majority of people who live within a one-block radius of us.

Why is that?

To some extent, it's probably a deeply rooted sense of fear and privacy.

But I suspect it's also a practical matter -- there just aren't convenient, socially fluid (i.e., non-awkward) ways to connect with your neighbors.  That's part of why Halloween is so great.  It's a fun, easy, light-touch excuse to walk around and say hi to everyone.  No big commitment, no awkward over-staying the moment.  In the best case, just enough connection to reasonably say hi to someone next time you see them on the street.  For sure this is not a whole lot, but it's a whole lot more than normal.

Another factor here -- and another reason why this is hard -- is that you actually need to be really careful making these connections.  By and large, these are people you are stuck with for some period of time, so you want to tread carefully and make sure you don't create a situation that's weird, or too intense, etc.

So it's not surprising that no one has cracked the "social network for neighborhoods" problem.  It's hard on a number of levels - the sensitivities mentioned above, the widely varying levels of comfortability with technology, etc.  But if you look at the success of platforms like Facebook (networking for colleges) and Yammer (networking for businesses), there is a proven path of starting with an existing community and building a platform from there.  So I still think there's an opportunity here (that folks like CommonPlace, LifeAt, Front Porch Forum and to some extent SeeClickFix and Neighborland are looking at).

Maybe the way to think about this is bringing Halloween to every day? That's clearly wrong, but maybe there's something right in it.


Missed Connections

In her bathroom, a friend of mine has some really beautiful illustrations of posts from the Craigslist Missed Connections section.  If you've never looked at missed connections, you should -- there are some really wonderful notes in there (also some sketchy ones).  Here's a beautiful one from today:

7 train glances on monday - w4m - 20 (7 train Queensbound)

We were sitting opposite each other on the train. We caught eyes early in the ride, but you nodded off through most of it, but looked up as I was getting off. As the train moved you kept looking at me walking to the stairs. All I want to tell you is that you have the most beautiful clear blue grey eyes.

What's striking is how many of the missed connections take place in the subway.  I've said before that transit is a uniter not a divider; these posts confirm that, and are a really nice view into that slice of NYC life. The "ad hoc groupings" that take place on the subway also really resonate with the ideas in Dave Weinberger's Small Pieces Loosely Joined, which I'm reading right now.  Dave talks about how on the web, groups take on a new meaning -- they form and unform quickly, and can be formed by very loose connections (such as commenters on a blog post).  The city is the same way -- the people I'm standing with on the subway are an ad-hoc group that unforms just as fast as it forms.  But there's definitely a connection. Typically, it takes an event of some kind, like a man talking into a banana phone or two people having a loud argument, to draw more outward communications among riders.  But underneath it all, there's a hidden set of communications going on, and it's really beautiful to see it unearthed through Missed Connections. It turns out the posters are by a Brooklyn-based artist named Sophie Blackall, who has a whole poster series + a blog on Missed Connections.  Really nice.


Talking transit tech @ the MTAdev conf

Next Wednesday, I'll be on a panel at the MTA Developers Unconference.  I'm very much looking forward to the event, because among other things, one of my fellow panelists will be the new MTA Chief, Jay Walder.  Here, I'll give an overview of what I'm hoping to discuss on the panel; any feedback would  be greatly appreciated. Before I get to that, though, I should note that it's been an interesting journey working with MTA on its open data and developer relations policies over the past year.  In a nutshell, it's gone from a highly contentious situation, to an atmosphere of open collaboration. Almost exactly one year ago, here at OpenPlans we were beginning to experiment with the problem of tracking buses through the city.  That led us to dip our toes in the world of transit data -- since you need to know the routes and schedules to do tracking and predicting -- and introduced us to some of the challenges in getting accurate and up-to-date NYC bus schedule data.  Over the next 9 months, we engaged with the NYC transit developer community and the MTA to help work through the issues standing in the way of open MTA data.  We were very pleased when they announced in January that they'd be launching a developer outreach and open data program. We believe that most of the credit for making this dramatic change happen goes to Chairman Walder and his conviction that open data would lead to innovation and ultimately better service for riders.  In his words at the time of the MTA dev center launch: "We need to get out of our own way and instead get out in front of the data sharing revolution" (via Second Avenue Sagas). But I'd also like to personally thank Nick Bergson-Shilcock, David Turner, and the rest of the transit team here at OpenPlans for their hard and important work in helping to organize the NYC transit developer community, and in helping to identify and work through the sticking points regarding open data policy with the MTA.  Back in August 2009, I got an email from Nick to the effect of "This is going to be really big, and we need to step up and get involved."  That prompted us to start the NY Transit Data Meetup, and develop a more serious and structured conversation about open data with the MTA and the developer community.  Thanks Nick; you were right (as usual), and I'm really happy that I listened to you (as usual). Fast forward to today.  MTA has open data, a growing developer community, and is iterating.  From our perspective, they seem to be heading in the right direction.  So, that begs the question, what should they focus on next?  Here are a few things that I'll be interested in hearing about & talking about on Wednesday:

  • Within MTA, which datasets would be the next easiest to expose? Of those, which would be the most interesting to developers?

  • What can we do to increase data sharing among other regional transit agencies? Last I checked, NJ Transit was the largest agency without open data according to City-Go-Round.

  • Let's think beyond just transit data to transportation data. When it comes to planning trips, modes should be abstracted out of search.  What other datasets (outside of the ones in the MTA's control) would be required to make some really interesting things possible?  (I'm thinking DOT for traffic, TLC for taxi data, paratransit, etc.)

  • Real-time. MTA has been piloting real-time bus location data on 34th street.  Would love to see the L train and 6 train in future pilots.

  • (Imaginary readers out there...) If you could ask Chairman Walder one question, what would it be?

That's it.  Have a great weekend, and here's to smart transportation and open, interoperable cities... // Heart shaped subway map by ZEROPERZERO