How to gracefully fix a mistake.

People make mistakes. I think it’s in the definition of being human. The important thing is how you respond to it. Do you deny everything? Do you fix it? Do you ignore the problem? There are lots of different ways a person or organization could approach the situation. Often with vendors, it seems they go for the route of vague corporate speak that gives one a feeling of “sorry, not sorry.” This week a company messed up, apologized, and corrected the mistake quickly. I want to recognize them for it.

Air Sage is a company that provides data for market research, tourism, and transportation. They’ve been making lots of noise in the industry the past couple of years, and overall they seem like an engaged company with a good product. They recently conducted a survey of the transportation industry and published the results. There is a lot of valuable information in there, but there was also a page that reinforced some awful stereotypes of women, which was pointed out in a Tweet:


I commend Sarah Fine for catching it and Tweeting about it. You can see from the subsequent discussion, a lot of people thought it was out of line. Hours later Air Sage responded:


And then today they re-released the report with a simple bar chart instead overly sexualized super-heroes. (No word if they donated to WTS, though it would be a great gesture.)

Who ever edited the document should have had more sense than to use those shapes to convey the information about the lack of women in leadership roles in transportation. I get that they wanted to make it fun and show women as super heroes of the industry, but those poses were straight out of some Rob Liefeld nightmare. Yes, they used imagery and stereotypes of women that hold women back to illustrate how women are being held back. Kind of clever in a terrible, straight out of the Onion way. If they wanted to have the report be more engaging and eye catching, they should have done something like the Lisa Frank inspired High Dessert Corridor EIR from Caltrans. (Never forget Brad!)

They made a pretty big mistake, owned it quickly and corrected it. I want to give special mention to their marketing guru Andrea who has been responding to many of the critical Tweets. Nobody wants to engage like that, but it does demonstrate how Air Sage approaches working with the public.

The Future of Handbooks: More about electronic and print resources

Traffic Engineering

 

This post started off where I get most of my inspiration: Twitter. After helping a grad student find resources about trip generation in urban areas which included referencing ITE’s Trip Generation Manual, I tweeted:

This started a brief discussion with @ITEhq, where they recommended a software platform to generate trip generation. They also understood that that solution doesn’t work in my case and appreciated the feedback. @ITEhq, thank you for engaging on Twitter! I really appreciated the conversation and respect your organization more for it.

While I am happy to point out a professional association doing things well, this post isn’t about that. This post is about another wrinkle in the shift from buying and providing library resources from print to electronic.

In traffic engineering there are some core handbooks that every engineer should keep on hand: the Highway Capacity Manual, the AASHTO Green Book, the Trip Generation Manual, the AASHTO Roadside Design Guide, and the MUTCD.  The MUTCD is an FHWA document so freely available online as a PDF. The Highway Capacity Manual (HCM) and the two AASTHO books are available through the Knovel platform. Only the the Trip Generation Manual is not available electronically, so if our researchers and grad students want to refer to it they need to physically come to the library. That’s not the end of the world, but it is a bit of a barrier. It also doesn’t fit with how many of them use hand books now. The student I was working with yesterday lamented they could use ctrl-F to find the section they were most interested in right away. Oh technology the great enabler!

But as seen in my conversation with ITE on Twitter, there is another option: OTISS, an online program used to run traffic impact assessments (trip generation, for those of you not in the know). For many practitioners who do these kinds of calculations on a weekly basis, OTISS is a very handy tool that is used instead of the Trip Generation Manual. The pricing is also reasonable for single users. Unfortunately, it’s not really feasible for a library. The multi-user account is limited to just 3 users, which then also makes the pricing unrealistic given our current budget. If we were to subscribe to it, it would have to be used in the library, which would automatically limit usage making it harder to justify the cost. There’s also the obvious that if we did pay for the service, we would probably violate the TOS by not restricting its use to the first 3 users.

OTISS is not the first time I’ve encountered this problem and it certainly won’t be the last. As more resources are moving from print to electronic, there are the common questions about DRM and ownership versus licensing. There are also increasingly more cases where the new platforms for delivering the content and information were designed in a way that libraries can’t easily (or even legally) participate. This is why I’m happy that AASHTO licenses their handbooks through Knovel, because to buy them electronically would restrict us to usage on a single machine. That was the common delivery and restriction method before cloud-based solutions became common, only now it’s tied to a user. I don’t know what the solution is aside from having this discussion and raising awareness of the issue. Just something to think about.

Playing tourist – A visit to my local public library.

Ohio County Public Library - 1950s

 

Yesterday was the first time I’d step foot in a public library as a patron (not for a meeting or class) in over a decade. I went to check out the newly renovated branch near my house and to get a library card. Yeah, it had been so long I either lost my library card or it had expired. It had been several addresses ago anyhow. So I went in to be a good neighbor and citizen. I left feeling out of place but also thinking about how weird MPOW must seem to people.

While I stumbled about the place, trying to get my bearings on what one does in a public library, I had the line, “Cause everybody hates tourist, especially one who thinks it’s all such a laugh,” from Pulp’s “Common People” going through my mind. The exercise (and it really did seem like an exercise) was like going to another world and seeing how they do things. It reminded me somewhat of when I first used the library at Göttingen – I knew how libraries worked, just not how German libraries worked. A decade later it was more of the same – I knew how libraries worked, but having spent most of my time recently in the niche of special and academic libraries, I didn’t know how public libraries actually worked. I just wandered around observing the people using the library and the people working in the library, and while it didn’t seem all that different than MPOW, it clearly wasn’t the same.

The first thing I had to wrap my head around was Dewey. I haven’t thought about it much since the requisite assignment in a cataloging course. Then there was the issue of the size of the physical collection. It was perfectly adequate for a small branch, but I had to first adjust my notion what stacks should be like. Once I got my bearings it became clear that I hadn’t actually used a library for anything other than work in a long time. I was determined to check something out to use my new card, but what would that be? I joke how much I don’t read books, but it’s true. I have recently read some books, but they were mostly about football, and the branch didn’t have any books on the topic. I browsed fiction and settled on a short book by Victor Hugo that looked depressing. When I went to the desk to check out, the librarians politely escorted me to the self checkout machines and showed me how to use them. They were eminently nice but as I approached them for help, I had the feeling as if I were grossly out of time. I was out of time, decades out of time. I wanted to joke with them about it all, a librarian being unable to use a library, but I  didn’t think they’d care and it wasn’t really relevant.

The reason I decided to share this very mundane story, other than to make fun of myself, is that it reminded me to think outside my situation. Libraries are very diverse entities and while I rant that we’re more than just books, there are some who are still very much books. There’s not one size fits all model. It also reminded me of what services people expect. Universal paging is becoming a standard service that people expect, will self checkout be the next such thing? I sort of hope so.

I do plan on going back when the books I paged come in. Hopefully this won’t be a once in a decade thing.

 

 

Thoughts from #IDCC14 – Learning new tricks after grad school.

Librarian searching on the computer by UWMadArchives
Librarian searching on the computer, a photo by UWMadArchives on Flickr.

One thing that stuck with me from IDCC14 was the issue of training and continuing education for digital curation for people out of school. Mid career, early career, established career professionals could benefit from continuing education in the field.

There was a session at the conference that focused on improving SLIS curricula to prepare new grads to be equipped for the future. Some bullet points I took away from the panel:

  • Comparing CS and LIS grads – CS degress are more in demand (read: jobs) than LIS. LIS programs continue to produce more degrees than jobs.
  • LIS grads want more programming, change management, and engagement with scientific communities.
  • There is work to be done wrt keeping skills up-to-date, and drawing distinctions and roles within jobs.
  • Who should we be attracting to data curation? Most STEM grads want to be researchers, not curators.

My main takeaway from the session was the implicit mindset that for most people already out of grad school the ship had sailed and we’re a lost cause. Well, not all of us. Some already had the background (STEM, programming, tech) or were curious and self-motivated enough to develop the skills. Everybody else, they were out of luck.

Then today I saw this tweet from @LibSkrat:

 

It addresses the same problem from a different angle. We need change and new skills? Let’s just hire out of that problem. In some situations, such as natural attrition through retirements, this is happening. But what about the rest of us? Do we have to go back to school?

That’s one option, especially with certificate programs popping up at several SLIS programs. For those with the money and time, this could be a good investment. For people who can’t fully commit yet, there are MOOCs, which is also good. I think ultimately there will need to be many approaches to fit the different needs of the group.

Ultimately though, it’s the attitude that these skills must be formally taught and developed in school is disappointing. It lets people off the hook for their own professional development by implying they can’t do it informally. It’s a cop out in a way. I can easily see a colleague shrugging their shoulders, “I can’t do digital curation because I didn’t learn about that in school.” And while there is some work being done to educate current professionals on how to translate their skills to this new area, as long as there is the attitude of “we can hire for innovation, ” we’re going to hold ourselves back. Is this what happened when library automation stormed on the scene? I really hope not.

While we do need to revamp SLIS curricula to meet the changing needs of the workforce, we also need to encourage, support (with time and money), and promote learning within our profession. Of course, there are some people who push back, and I think it’s appropriate to call them out on their abdication of professional development. This means we need opportunities to grow, so let’s get on it.

(This isn’t even touching the false assumption that all new SLIS grads are tech geniuses who want to hack everything.)

Need a reality check? On peer-review and domain knowledge

Entering the Subway by rosemarie_mckeon
Entering the Subway, a photo by rosemarie_mckeon on Flickr.

Last week I attended IDCC14 in San Francisco, where I was immersed in digital curation. Naturally, things like peer-review and domain knowledge/expertise were on my mind, as things to consider with research (data) publishing. Then I saw this story about a Twitter data scientist “hacking” BART. I immediately retweeted it with a remark about not understanding how BART works (which is true). Right now, particularly in the Bay Area, there are a lot of “hacks” to solve problems that aren’t actually problems. It’s just that the people who perceive the problems don’t have the full picture and “hack” the solution for them, which in the case of public transit is only a small segment of the users. Joe Eskenazi wrote a good column about this in SF Weekly that looks at both sides. (Disclosure: We play futsal together, or did until I broke my finger in a game. Miss you Kamikaze!)

Reading Haque’s paper on arXiv, it’s clear to me he’s got the math and science stuff down – it’s the transportation that he’s lacking. A common issue with data scientists is that they often have the analytic and technological skills, but lack the domain expertise. So they have to work with experts or learn enough to become an expert (which takes time). Even if he just ran some of these ideas past a transportation engineering or planning masters student, they could have helped him refine the “problem”. Haque seemingly wrote this in a vacuum, so when it saw the light of the internet the transportation folk just picked it apart based on the faulty assumptions of how commuter rail fares work. (Note: Everybody thinks they’re an expert on transportation because they use it. Sorry, you’re most likely not.)

This is where peer-review could have been a good thing. I looked at the paper on arXiv to see if it was published elsewhere, such as a journal or conference. arXiv is often used as an open access repository for pre-publication manuscripts. Haque’s paper was not (as of yet) published or submitted elsewhere, which means there’s been no obvious peer-review which explains a lot.

Peer-review would have pointed out the flaws in Haque’s methodology (assuming the reviewers had the expertise). Instead, he got the open peer-review of Twitter and lots of transportation professionals and advocates, many of whom are tired of tech workers “hacking” transportation in a way that doesn’t really help. (Seriously, fare evasion with the help of an app and surge pricing on transit? BART isn’t Uber!)

There is a lot broken with peer review, but this is one case where it could have helped. I really hope Haque can hook into the very passionate and knowledgeable transportation community here in the Bay Area and start “hacking” some real problems. Let’s do it!