Monthly Archives: December 2012

Teach to Do – Lessons from Louise Glück

Somewhere along the lines I remember learning the line “those who cannot do, teach.” I’m sure there are many instances where this is true, it’s just not what I remember when I think of the great teachers I have had, or my own experience.

Part of this crystallized for me a couple of weeks ago when I had the pleasure of being part of the Academy of Achievement Summit. Of the numerous, insanely gifted people who came and spoke, one was Louise Glück – a poet and former poet laureate of the United States.

After her brief presentation and reading she said something that really struck me in response to the question “What do you do when you can’t write?”  I tried to copy down her answer verbatim, so forgiving some possible minor errors, it went like this:

What do I do when I can’t write? After two years of not being able to write I started to teach. Rather than being jealous of students I found I wanted to help them and I applied my brain to them in the same way I apply it to my work. And I found over time things become unstuck and it renewed me.

There are all sorts of good reasons to teach – I’ve often heard professors talk about how students always ask them the hardest questions – sometimes without knowing it. But what I loved about Louise’s example was rather than having her students push her – she found energy from them in a different way, in a way that matters a great deal to those in creative spaces. My sense is her students forced her to really think through her process, to unpackage and test it, and by doing that she wrestled with what was blocking her.

I don’t necessarily teach in the traditional way. I occasionally have classrooms where I teach people – but it is pretty rare. But I do teach – mostly I teach people how I think about innovation, about strategy, about incentives and cooperation. We don’t call it teaching, sometimes, in my case, we call it consulting and sometimes it is public speaking, but there are important pieces of teaching embedded in it. And I find it enormously rewarding to unpack how I think – which students and clients (and blog post readers) often force me to.

So if you can, get a chance to teach. You’ll be richer for it. In many ways.

 

 

The South -> North Innovation Path in Government: An Example?

I’ve always felt that a lot of innovation happens where resources are scarcest. Scarcity forces us to think differently, to be efficient and to question traditional (more expensive) models.

This is why I’m always interested to see how local governments in developing economies are handling various problems. There is always an (enormous) risk that these governments will be lured into doing things they way they have been done in developing economies (hello SAP!). Sometimes this makes sense, but often, newer, disruptive and cheaper ways of accomplishing the goal have emerged in the interim.

What I think is really interesting is when a trend started in the global south migrates to the global north. I think I may have just spotted one example.

The other week the City of Boston announced its City Hall to Go trucks – mobile vans that, like food trucks, will drive around the city and be at various civic events available to deliver citizen services on the go! See the video and “menu” below.

 

city-hall-menu-225x300

This is really cool. In Vancouver we have a huge number of highly successful food carts. It is not hard to imagine an experiment like this as well – particularly in underserved neighborhoods or at the numerous public festivals and public food markets that take place across the city.

But, as the title of this post suggests, Boston is not the first city to do this. This United Nations report points out how the state government of Bahia started to do something similar in the mid 90s in the state capital of Salvador.

In 1994 the Government of Bahia hosted the first of several annual technology fairs in the state capital, Salvador. A few government services were offered there, using new ICT systems (e.g., issuing identification cards). The service was far more efficient and well-received by the public. The idea was then raised: Why not deliver services this way on a regular basis?

…A Mobile Documents SAC also was developed to reach the most remote and deprived communities in Bahia. This Mobile SAC is a large, 18-wheel truck equipped with air-conditioning, TV set, toilets, and a covered waiting area. Inside the truck, four basic citizenship services are provided: issuance of birth certificates, identification card, labor identification card, and criminal record verification.

I feel very much like I’ve read about smaller trucks delivering services in other cities in Brazil as well – I believe one community in Brazil had mobile carts with computers on them that toured neighborhoods so citizens could more effectively participate in online petitions and crowdsourcing projects being run by the local government.

I’m not sure if the success of these projects in developing economy cities influenced the thinking in Boston – if yes, that is interesting. If not, it is still interesting. It suggests that thinking and logic behind this type innovation is occurring in several cities simultaneously, even if when these cities have markedly different levels of GDP per capita and internet access (among many other things). My hope is that those in government will be more and more willing to see how their counterparts elsewhere in the world – no matter where – are doing things. Money is tight for governments everywhere, so good ideas may be more likely to go from those who feel the burden of costs the greatest.

International Open Data Hackathon Wiki now live – 14 cities added in 24 hours

Just a brief update for those interested in participating in or organizing an event for International Open Data Day on February 23rd, 2013.

The Wiki

The Open Data Day wiki (sans logo, so a little rough around the edges) is now live and ready for action.

The wiki is where organizers can list the city in which they’ll be putting together an event and where interested participants can find local events and let people know that they’ll be attending (to give organizers a sense of numbers) and what projects, workshops, discussions or other activities they are interested in participating in.

It has been awesome to see that in the first 24 hours of the wiki being up how 14 different people have stepped forward and listed their city as a place where they will be hosting an event. Better still, I’ve been contacted by numerous people saying they would like to host an event who have not yet added their city to list, so if you have not yet done it, please do so! The wiki is super easy to edit. If you are thinking of organizing event you can use my city, Vancouver, as a template for how to organize your city’s wiki page. But feel free to innovate and do you own thing!

Translations

A number of people have asked me about translating the opendata day website. We have not yet translated the version (except to portuguese which will be posted soon). So if you are interested in making a translation please do so. I’m happy to share that it is really easy!

The html for the site is on github. For those who know how (and it is VERY easy to learn) please feel free to fork the code and write a version in your language. I will approve it! Already THackday Portugal has done an updated portuguese version of the new site.

One warning, there is a good chance that I’ll edit (not heavily – but a little) the page once or twice before the event. I will let people know if I make changes.

Super excited about the response so far and hope the wiki helps people see what is going on and coordinate activities more effectively.

The Beneficial Impact of Newspaper Paywalls on Users

There continues to be fierce debate about the cost/benefits of newspaper paywalls, a debate Mathew Ingram has been helping drive with a great deal of depth and with excellent links.

It is interesting to watch Ingram take on, and have to rebut, the problematic thinking that seems to so frequently comes out of the Columbia Journalism Review which, sadly, as America’s most important journal on the industry and trainer of next generation journalist, is probably the most conservative voice in the debate. That said, while its contributions are defensive and disappointing, they are understandable. And well, it makes for fascinating reading of how people deal with an industry in decline/collapse/[insert whatever word you prefer here]. Someone should package these and make it mandatory stuff for MBA types.

Personally, I’m somewhat indifferent. If paywalls can save newspapers (every indication suggests that they cannot) then great! If they can’t… okay. The sky will not fall and the world will not end. We will have to figure out some new models for thinking about how we dispense news and discuss issues. Or, perhaps better still, might rethink what “news” and “media” is and means (psst… already happening).

I don’t want to join the holy war around paywalls, so I’m not trying to add to that debate directly – you should read Ingram and the others yourself.

What I do want to contribute is what I’m experiencing as a consumer. And what I can say is that I’ve found paywalls to be profoundly beneficial to me as an avid and significant news consumer, but in ways that I’m pretty sure the news industry is going to find disturbing and disappointing.

tweets-on-paper

So, what do I mean by that?

Well, in Canada several newspapers have thrown up paywalls – including the Globe and Mail (the main national newspaper) as well as the main “traditional” newspaper in my market – the Vancouver Sun. Each offers something like 20 free articles a month – akin to what the New York Times does. I also assume (but confess I don’t actually know) that if you arrive at an article via facebook or twitter, it does not count towards that total.

Now, every morning when I visit the home page of the Globe and the Sun and I see an article that might be interesting, I hover my mouse over it and ask myself the same question I suspect tens of thousands of others ask in that moment: “Is reading this article worth burning one my of my 20 free articles this month?” (or, framed another way: “is this article, sponge worthy?”)

And you know what? About 90% of the time, more actually, the answer is no.

And you know what else?

I’m grateful that this is the choice I’m being forced to make.

The internet is filled with news and articles that are wonderfully distracting and that I should probably not spend time reading. It turns out that by “internet” I also mean “pieces of news and articles in the pages of the Globe and the Sun.

What pay walls are reminding me of is that time is my most valuable (or scarce) resource, not access to content. By putting a price on their content the Globe, the Sun and everyone else with a paywall is simultaneously helping me put a “value” on my time. And that is a real service.

Interestingly, it makes getting a subscription is even less interesting to me. A subscription is basically a license for the Globe or Sun to eat up an even bigger chunk my time (which is scarce) with content (which is not scarce), much of which I really don’t need. This is not to say that there is not good content in either newspaper. There is. Sometimes some VERY good content. But about 99% of their content is either not relevant (or basically a form of entertainment) or worse, a kind of unhelpful distraction – what Clay Johnson would call “junk information” in his book, The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption (my review here). So why would I pay to get access behind a paywall when only 1% of the content is valuable to me and the other 99% is likely an unwanted time suck? Is the 1% worth it… so far… no. Indeed, if you are going to do paywalls, newspapers had better REALLY up their game.

And, well, if I just want to burn time and read fun things… well, the internet is the best thing in the world for that! There is almost unlimited quantities of high quality articles about things I don’t urgently need to know scattered all over it!

So I’m loving the paywall because it has made me more judicious about what I read. But that happens to mean less from these newspapers. In the end, if many people are like me (and, I’m a pretty avid news reader, so not really representational) I can’t see this boding well for the industry. Maybe some big papers, like the Guardian and the New York Times can survive on this model. I can’t see local newspapers, with their value chain and costs, surviving.

Indeed the other thing I’m paying for… the editorial piece, also becomes a starker choice to me. I may be an avid news reader, but the editor of these papers is not my editor – their audience is someone else (probably a boomer). Twitter continues to be my main news editor, particularly my “thought-leaders” list of people I respect (but don’t always agree with) give me a constant stream of interesting content.

I also want to make clear, I’m also not a “it must be free” kind of guy. I mean… I like free. But I don’t worship at its altar.

I pay for books all the time. I pay for my subscription to the Economist. There I feel about 60% of the content is really good. Of course – bigger caveat – I only get the digital edition, and I really care (e.g. pay a premium for) the fact that they read every edition to me. This means I can listen while exercising (running) or walking through airports. As a result the Economist doesn’t compete for my time in the same way the Globe or Sun is – but that is clever of them! They worked themselves into my less valuable “workout” and “commuting time”, not my more valuable “productivity” time. It means I also digest almost the entire thing every week.

So my sense is that pay walls can be a good thing for thoughtful users. I’m sure it will drive many to lower quality free content, but for many others it will help them think more judicious about how they spend their time. Frankly, not reading half the stuff I read and spending that time writing, reading something else, or spending time with my son would probably be a big boost to both my productivity and quality of life.

But that doesn’t solve any problems for newspapers.

Uber in Vancouver: Some Thoughts for the Passenger Transportation Board

So last week the B.C. Passenger Transportation Board (PTB) effectively shut down Uber in Vancouver by compelling the rides they arrange must charge a minimum $75 a trip, regardless of distance. Shortly after being announced, twitter lit up as Uber notified its customers of the decision and the hashtag #UberVanLove began directing angry (and deserved) tweets at government officials.

My thoughts on all this are evolving but I think the PTB has made a poor decision and hope that a compromise can be found.

Here’s a long piece explaining why.

Uber is different. Most people think that Uber is simply a new middleman, trying to cut out the current dispatchers (or work with them). This is not true, they are much more than that. As you can read in this Time magazine article, Uber is not just about connecting riders with drivers. For example:

Abyzov says the company has a “science team” working on dispatch algorithms to produce a predictive heat-map that helps local car companies and their drivers better anticipate rider demand. “We’re helping our partners build successful small businesses,”

So let’s be clear. This is about a learning company that is figuring out how to preposition cars in neighborhoods because it can anticipate demand. As far as I know (or have experienced) There is no taxi or town-car company in the lower-mainland that is even thinking that way. And this type of thinking has big implications. In San Francisco, it means the average wait time for an Uber car is 3 minutes.

Think about that for a second (I’m looking at you PTB).

This means that:

  • Efficiency: People are getting around the city much faster – increasing their productivity. For a city trying to compete globally, this matters.
  • Reliable: I’ve had taxi companies not commit to send me a car when I’m not at a fixed address because they assume I’ll hop in a roaming taxi before the one I ordered arrives. Because Uber let’s you rate the taxi, but also lets the taxi rate you, it increases the reliability of both taxis and passengers. This means fewer taxies chasing passengers who aren’t there, and fewer passengers left stranded by untrusting dispatchers.
  • Fewer cars: People are much more likely to get out of their car (or not own one at all) if they know they have reliable alternatives. Public transit and car sharing are important to this, and a highly effective car service, available at one’s finger tips would be a powerful addition to the mix. Speaking of reliable: a 3 minute average is pretty god damn reliable. Certainly more reliable than the taxi experience many receive in Vancouver.
  • Greener: Pre-positioning cars in neighborhoods where you can predict demand means fewer cars trolling for fares. In addition, because they are nearer to their fares, Uber cars are doubly more efficient. This means fewer carbon emissions. Also, more Uber rides means less pressure on downtown parking and, as I mentioned above, possibly fewer cars on the road.
  • Serve more neighborhoods: When you can predict demand it means you’ll better serve those pesky “under-served” suburban neighbourhoods Rather than having everybody chasing fares in the busiest part of town, you can be more strategic about how you deploy your cars.
  • Convient: Using the app is just easier. I can order a taxi in a crowded bar without having to talk to (and thus be misheard) by the dispatcher. As a user, the thing I’ve loved most about Uber is that when you book a car, you get to see where it is. So rather than relying on the dispatcher “assuring” you the car is only 5 minutes away, you can see on the make exactly where it is. (This is a bonus for those with awkward addresses, I’ve actually guided lost drivers to my location when I’ve been in a complicated cul-de-sac).

The other mistake is to assume that Uber is about town cars. Here in Vancouver the cosy oligarchy of taxis companies – and (from what I understand) the complete lack of independent taxis – means that they don’t want to work with Uber. And yet, while I’m an Uber user I’ve actually only used its town-car service once (to try it out), I mostly use Uber for taxis – while traveling on business in Toronto. Again, there are benefits.

  • Foreigner friendly: As someone less familiar with street addresses in Toronto, and totally unaware of taxi phone numbers, Uber locates me and brings a taxi to me. I don’t have to know much about my address. This makes it exceedingly tourist friendly. In addition, drivers are rated… so I can choose not to use poorly rated drivers – a major benefit. Last time I checked, tourism was big business in Vancouver. Wouldn’t it be nice if we made our city even easier to navigate for tourists?
  • Better for independent drivers: While some observers rail that Uber is a “foreign firm” it could be a valuable supplier for independent taxi drivers (were we to have any). As such, it might support a broader taxi driver community, one that was not beholden to one of the four players in our market. That, one would think, would be good for taxi drivers (but admittedly, potentially less good for big four companies who presently can take $522 taxi license the city issues and then resell it to drivers for $250,000-$500,000 per shift. That’s a pretty serious mark up. And while I’m sure it is great for the taxi companies… it is less clear to me how the city government, taxpayer, taxi user, or taxi drivers. Feels like a lot of lost tax revenue, or expensive barrier to entry. Heaven forbid we break up that arrangement. For more on the shady world of the taxi business in Vancouver, I suggest you read this excellent article by Luke Brocki.

The PTB should engage Uber and find a compromise because you know, I know, and everyone knows, that the types of innovations I describe above aren’t going to emerge organically out of the taxi industry in Vancouver (or, in any city for that matter). Kill Uber and you kill any incentive for the taxi industry to engage with the future. And frankly, that’s a pretty crappy outcome for everyone who takes taxis.

But, it gets worse. The PTB needs to know that failing to engage in Uber won’t make this problem go away. Uber is a downright straightforward problem/opportunity to manage. What is the PTB going to do when Hailo, Lyft, or SideCar elects to expand to Vancouver? Will we have to sit back and watch with envy as Torontonians, New Yorkers, San Franciscans, Londoners, Washingtonians (the list goes on and on) and others enjoy these services?

I’m not saying the PTB should accomodate Uber, I’m saying the PTB needs a strategy to accomodate a whole wave of innovators that are going to descend on the transportation business. Uber is just an opportunity to being figuring this out. Sticking your head in the sand isn’t going to make these issues go away. More disruptive alternatives are on the way. You’d better start engaging this stuff today, while we passengers only hate you a little bit.

Vancouverites deserve a world class taxi and town car service. One that innovates and offers world class service. Today we have a company that is trying to do that, and more that are likely on the way. It would be nice if we had a PTB that worked with them rather than against them.

Some Additional Thought and Caveats on this Piece and this Issue.

1. Minister’s Response.

To describe the response by the minister responsible, Mary Polak as disappointing would be an understatement. Given she appoints the PTB and likely has some influence, she washed her hands of the issue so fast it she has little interest understanding what is actually going on. (For those who are upset at the PTB decision, I’d focus your tweets at her – particularly as she has gotten off relatively lightly.). My hope is that her, or someone in her staff, will see this piece and see that this issue won’t be going away, it is going to get bigger.

2. Some Thoughts on Uber

For those who who don’t like Uber and those interested in a little history:

Firstly. Yes, I am aware that Uber founder Travis Kalanick is a both fan of Ayn Rand and a fairly uncompromising person. Personally, I’m not a fan Ayn Rand’s writings. I think her books are terrible and that her understanding of how markets and society work (to say nothing of human relationships) is deeply, deeply flawed and certainly lacks nuance. And while some people use this as a basis to write mean articles about Kalanick I think it is a pretty poor line of attack. While I may disagree with its founders ideology (if that is what it is), I’m much more interested in the company’s impact and business model.

In regards to Kalanick being hardheaded (or other, less flattering descriptors), I’m aware of that too. Of course, the people who judge him are usually those who have not tried to do a start up, much less one that tries to alter a sometimes more than 100 year old industry that does not always benefit consumers (or its drivers). Do I agree with Uber’s approach? Not always. I think they screwed up badly in New York. At the same time, in many cities, I think they have had little choice. The current operators – who, let me remind you, compose a market oligarchy – are not exactly interested in innovation or new entrants. If you are going to try to change the way taxi service is delivered… being hardheaded is probably a job requirement. The fact that some taxi companies go after them is not a sign of them being a bully, it could be a sign that they will make the market place more competitive. Nor do I think that they mobilize their users makes them a “bully.” I find it interesting to contrast Uber with the case of PickupPal, a Canadian company that was equally at odds with similar transportation rules and who also started a massive petition (and ultimately had the law changed – much to the chagrin of bus companies). It’s noteworthy that PickupPal is not portrayed as the bully and is indeed celebrated as the triumph of the consumer over the vested interests of the status quo players.

3. Other Reading

Finally, Karen Fung has a good piece about the complexity of transport policy that I don’t really think makes the case for not letting Uber into the market, but is worth the read.

Also, as I mentioned in the piece, Luke Brocki’s piece, Taxiland, is definitely worth reading.

4. Poorly Formed Tweets

Oh, and I was disappointed to see this tweet by a journalist who I normally find quite thoughtful. A desire for more buses and for services like Uber are hardly mutually exclusive. Indeed, trying to pit the two options against each strikes me as downright counter productive. I’m in favour of all solutions that make increase options and diminish the dependency on car ownership. I’m happy to pay more taxes for better bus service, and at the same time, Uber strikes me as another (low cost) way to spark innovation and increase options.