How can you innovate without research?

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Yesterday I went down to Google HQ to see Secretary Foxx hold a fireside chat with Erich Schmidt to discuss DOT’s new 30-year plan Beyond Traffic.  I’ve never been to an event like this before, and it seemed the audience was industry more than the usual transportation wonks (though we were there).  There was a very active back channel on #BeyondTraffic on Twitter, connecting people in the room to those watching it online.

Foxx discussed the funding issues, MAP-21 won’t lasts much longer and in the last 6 years Congress has passed 32 short-term measures to extend funding because they can’t actually pass long-term funding.  Yesterday Foxx announced the White House’s ambitious $94.7 billion transportation investment plan.  I’m not holding my breath.  I wouldn’t be surprised if we get back down to the wire in May when the Highway Trust Fund runs out of money. That’s politics. (This is also something I know the general public, like Eric Schmidt, doesn’t know a whole lot about but it’s vital.)

The whole Beyond Traffic blue paper is also politics: bold proclamations, neat infographics, but light on the details. Foxx hit most of the high points that appealed to the Silicon Valley crowd – UAVs and connected/autonomous vehicles, and regulations for them. I did appreciate that Foxx said that promoting multimodal transportation system is about providing choices for people. He also stressed the important of land-use on transportation, which is hugely important in sustainability. (Which also lead to Schmidt extolling the success of Google buses, ignoring their role in perpetuating terrible land-use patterns in the Bay Area.) Bike/ped stuff was largely absent from the discussion.

Also largely absent was talking about research.

Research is inherent to all of these innovations. How do you improve and develop new practices without it? The problem is that funding allocated to research keeps dwindling. Politicians want to fund highways, (and maybe) rail, self-driving cars, but not the research and required research infrastructure to get there. Which is why we have to constantly advocate for communicating the value of research when it should be self evident.

So I asked Foxx about this, about funding research and the required data and IT infrastructure to facilitate collaboration across modes. He replied like a true politician, that DOT is “bullish” about research despite funding cuts, and it’s still a priority. Not really an answer but as much as he could give. I mostly asked the question because I wanted to make sure it got on record that people do care about research funding (namely people working for research bodies) and to make sure there was at least some women represented in the question queue. (Two out of ten or so? That’s pretty shabby, but also another blog post.) Judging from the response of many of my colleagues on Twitter, they appreciated having the issue elevated.

Transportation has some unique funding issues, such as the failure and inability to raise the gas tax to sustainable funding levels, but this issue of funding research is happening across disciplines. Money talks and subject that can garner private sector investment, such as self-driving cars (hey Uber and CMU!), but what about topics that aren’t financially lucrative but no less important, such as rural transit? And what about paying for the infrastructure to conduct research, such as data centers and libraries? We have to constantly advocate and push for our cause even though the immediate ROI might not be evident. This new funding model and philosophy is very pragmatic, but also pretty short sighted. Which is why I’m worried about these long range 30-year plans. Research programs and libraries have helped have that long view and memory to make sure we progress effectively and don’t duplicate efforts, but nobody wants to pay for it. I don’t think Beyond Traffic alone is going to change that.

All slow pop songs sound the same? On Fair Use and some such.

Have you heard Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me”? You must have. It’s all over the place. Everybody loves it. (Even if you can’t really dance to it.) Some people pointed out the chorus sounds a lot like another ubiquitous pop song of yesteryear – Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down”. Not sure? check this out:

Now you might say, “Oh, there’s nothing new under the sun! Chords are chords! Any similarity is incidental!” And you might be right. Smith was born three years after Petty’s song was all over radio, so he has some plausible deniability, maybe.

But this week it emerged that the two settled out of court in October and that Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne would receive song writing credits and royalties. If the song wins a Grammy this year, does this mean Petty and Lynne are included? We’ll see.

These sorts of lawsuits are fairly common, though Robin Thicke’s pre-emptive lawsuit against the estate of Marvin Gaye was a new twist. The remix of the two songs is pretty good, and really with enough drugs is everything a remix? In a somewhat ironic twist of fate, one of the most well known lawsuits of this kind is Bright Tunes Music vs. Harrisongs because George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” sounds an awful lot like The Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine”. What do you think? Harrison (as seen in the video) sang and played guitar on Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down”.

Fair Use with music is interesting because of the laws on what can and cannot be covered by copyright and the artistic intent. A counter example I’ve been obsessing over is the song “Respect”. The original 1965 version by Otis Redding is a stomper, driven by Al Jackson’s drumming and peppered with the Memphis Horns. It’s so clearly a Stax song. Of course the 1967 cover by Aretha Franklin is iconic – an anthem for women all over. It’s also a very different song, so different I think it’s foolish to compare the two. (I tried for most of 2014.) The words and the basic melodies are the same, but the arrangements made them stand apart. Check out the Ike & Tina Turner cover which is a pretty perfect combination of the two.

Lots of covers differ much from the original that they could be considered completely different songs, but as long as the melody or the lyrics are used, then they need permission. The words are obvious – as evident from “Respect” even though the music doesn’t fully match up. In the Smith/Petty case, it’s a little bit more uncertain but there’s enough there. What’s this mean for librarians? Nothing new really, but it’s interesting when the lines are less blurred. (Pun intended.) Of course, there could be a whole follow up on sampling.

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.