Freight data makes me feel like a failure

Freight, originally uploaded by Thomas Hawk.

Yesterday I got one of my least favourite types of reference questions: somebody wanted freight data. Not just that, but freight data about how much it costs to ship dry goods in different types of container ships.

Why do I hate freight data? It’s opaque. It’s inaccessible. It’s expensive. There’s no sign of it changing and I feel impotent to do anything about it.

Every so often I get these questions. “How much does it cost to ship goods from there to here?” Well… there are some places you could look at the Baltic Dry Index or maybe the Coal Transportation Rates and Trends, but those tend to be too broad or general for what most users want.

The frustrating thing is that you know the data does exist. Freight companies collect all sorts of data about everything they do. It helps them stay efficient and profitable, but they also know they can resell this data for a lot of money, and that’s sort of where the problem comes in. Pricing. I asked somebody about this at TRB last year and they summed it up like this: The more they charge for the data, the more valuable it is because less people will use it… they think. It’s not rocket science, it’s speculation, but that’s sort of what these private companies have to do. It would be interesting to see how things would change if they made this sort of data more accessible to researchers without the embargoes and prices that very few researchers from universities or public agencies can afford. The optimist in me thinks every one would benefit, but alas… the rest of the freight world (or most of the transportation engineering/economics world) is there yet.

In some ways these questions are a good, though perhaps harsh, lesson to the realities of commoditized data. Unfortunately sometimes you have to work with what you can get, not what you want. It’s sort of a buzz kill.

As long as there are people who can shell out thousands of dollars for a single data set, and that market and model continue to thrive, we either need to cough of the money or shrug and do something else. Sort of depressing, really.

Building a tiny taxonomy: Getting back to my IA roots.

This morning I decided to buckle down and dig into my website redesign project. The main hurdle this week has been getting the taxonomy designed so that content can be filtered and organized by it. I discussed my taxonomy tales a bit before, but now let me tell you where I am. That picture up top is the white board of my first iteration. I went through and marked out the priority subject areas we’re cataloguing. That is a pretty good indicator of the focus of our collection and thus our services. I had sort of hoped that I could use the TRB taxonomy, but when I tried to it was just unwieldy and not really appropriate to our needs. We really only deal with a slice of transportation, and I felt like we needed to also stay relatively superficial. I’m roughly organizing website, books, and journals. I’m not indexing things for TRIS with the TRT.

Our subject areas are:

  • Aviation operations/Airports
  • Bicycles/Pedestrians
  • Energy/Alternative fuels/Fuel cells
  • Finance and economics/Policy
  • Infrastructure
  • Intelligent transportation systems
  • Logistics
  • Pavements
  • Public transportation
  • Sustainability/TOD
  • Traffic engineering
  • Traffic safety/Public health

So then I tried to break out subtopics and see if maybe the heading topics could be refined. Taking it out to this illustrates how several of the subject areas are closely linked related to one another. It gets a little messy, but that makes sense when you have things like “Sustainability” which is still loosely defined. Safety is a huge issue for all the modes, and it’s something we see interest in from just about everybody.

So now that my whiteboard is full, I decided to try and make a diagram of the subjects on the computer.

This shows the sort of network relationship with the ideas. The next step is to plunk this into Drupal and see how it works. Hopefully it won’t be too messy, but who knows. I also need to make sure the terminology is sound, which of course it will depend on who I talk to and will vary from desk to desk. Oh well…

When this is done I’ll start worrying about formats.

Becoming your subject: Thoughts I had on my bike ride to the doctors.

minor repairs, originally uploaded by neal..patel.

I am a transportation librarian, which isn’t really news to anybody anymore. (Or it shouldn’t be…) It’s a very narrow view of the world. Everything can be tied back to transportation. Economics? Engineering? Planning? The environment? Politics? History? Art? Seriously, my brain has a knack to make it all about transportation. I guess that’s dedication to my subject? Is it something that all subject specialist librarians do? Sometimes I wonder if it’s a matter of degree, and I’ve gone pretty far…

Let me tie this back to my bike ride today, other than that bikes are transportation. I have to ride 4 miles from work to the doctors, which isn’t so bad, except the pavement on the streets is really rough and hard to ride on. The quality of the pavement surface gets worse as you cross from Berkeley into Oakland, but it’s a rough ride regardless. I used to get flats every time I’d cross into Oakland on the way to my doctors, which was frustrating as you’d expect. Thankfully, my bike shop (Manifesto Bikes) is a few blocks from the doctors.

I’ve also taken to using the bike routes, but all I could think about on my ride was how the cities of Oakland and Berkeley could improve them, with smoother pavement, better signage, more protection from cars, to encourage more people ride. See… that’s the other thing I think I’ve picked up from work – trying to always figure out how the research to promote bike/ped issues can be implemented. So of course, as I bike around doing errands, all I can think about it work.

This is a little boring, but also good. I have a better perspective of bike/ped issues since I am both a bicyclist and pedestrian more often than not. This has helped me in assisting researchers looking for information in these topics. It also helps me server the transportation librarian community because I bring this perspective to my work with them, such as the TRT

So yeah, that’s what I thought about on my trip to the doctor’s. Then I went record shopping.

Stuck in the middle, or how I try to play both sides

This is related to my previous post, where somebody threw a fellow librarian under the bus, to use a transportation metaphor. I was horrified. How dare they complain about one of my colleagues like that in a meeting! But I don’t work with them directly and I don’t know their situation. That aside, it’s endemic of another issue I face all the time when I try to champion the cause of transportation libraries (though it’s not unique to transportation): How can I save you when you don’t want to save yourself?

I really hate that feeling and the language, but it’s something that I keep coming back to. Like last week. I was at the meeting, trying to show how dynamic and valuable libraries can be for state DOTs, but I’m just one voice and one perspective. I know when we both go home, back to our offices, things won’t totally change. I might talk a big game about the big picture, but that doesn’t mean their librarian is on the same page as me.

That was one thing that really stuck with me during SLA, was that I am not on the same page as many of my colleagues. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but just something to be mindful of. I’m interested in big picture stuff. How to really integrate libraries into the organization, not as some sort of annex where information goes to die, but really an integral, living piece of the organization. Now, getting there is tough. I get that. I also get that I’m in a very special position, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t keep championing that vision. The thing that worries me, and I know happens, is that I go to a meeting like this, paint the picture of the library as the nexus of all great things, the research managers go back to their organization and don’t see that happening. There’s lots of reasons for that – lack of resources being the root of it all. It’s also a matter of philosophy. I have mine, several of my colleagues do not share my vision, which is OK but can lead to mixed signals.

Here’s an anecdote: I was promoting the values of Transportation Knowledge Networks and how libraries can be more than just reports/books. A research manager for a state DOT was very interested to hear about this and get involved even though they don’t have a library as such. Then when I was about to seal the deal, another librarian told them they couldn’t participate without a library. This mixed message is bad, but I don’t think it’s going away any time soon. I know every time I think we’re on the same page, something like this story happens and it feels like we’ve taken steps backward.

Tying this all back to the incident last week, I often feel like I have to play both sides. I have to convince the organizations to let the libraries do more (as a means of survival), but then I also have to convince the librarians to try for more (as a means of survival). I need to work on it, I know. Advocacy is a tough game to play.

Organize anything with a controlled vocabulary – or why I’m obsessed with taxonomies.

As I alluded to in another post, I’m working on a taxonomy for transportation websites. Why? I’m trying to redesign my library’s website, we’re moving to Drupal, and all my ideas and fantasies hinge on content being aggregated by thematic types. It’s magical, really. OK, not really, but lots of website do it and it eases browsing. It’s definitely one thing I love about the web. Not sure what I’m talking about? Check out Amazon, or Zappos, or even Craigslist. They’re all browsable by some sort of hierarchal structure – the taxonomy.

Anyhow… so I want to use a taxonomy to organize the content of our new site so that we don’t have to worry about that during content creation. If I blog about transit oriented development resources, by golly, you will find it in planning and transit (and maybe TOD?), all because I tagged it with the terms in the taxonomy.

Of course, life would be easy if we could just plug in the Transportation Research Thesaurus and use that. I tried. The TRT broke Drupal. It’s massive with something around 10,000, which for the purpose of organizing a website is excessive. As much as I love the TRT, and I really do (seriously, just ask me about it and I will start frothing at the mouth, going on and on for hours about it), it’s really been designed and maintained as a tool for indexing transportation research for databases like TRIS. (I also love TRIS, if you didn’t know.) Indexing articles for a database is very different than indexing content for a website. TRIS, due to its volume and scope, needs something fairly precise. If you want to find articles about “transit oriented development,” you can! But for a website, I don’t see people looking for that level of specificity, I mean, TRIS can handle that. Think about it like looking for stuff in a record store. I may really only be interested in a handful of punk bands, but I know they won’t have a section for be to browse that “Lookout Records” or “DIY Punk related to Plan-It X”. I’ll look under “punk” and it will suffice.

So since the TRT is too big, I thought I would just pare it down. Cut out the über specific stuff and focus on terms that I would actually need for our site. Well, looking at the broad facets, it was clear that’d be nearly impossible. I would probably end up spending more time figuring out what to keep and what to hack than if I started from scratch, so I am. I will be using the same terms when possible, but with a different hierarchy. (Really, I think the hierarchy gets in the way of the TRT, but that’s a whole other story.) I’m still sketching stuff out, but that’s the plan.

Well, actually the plan is once it’s done, use it to build our new site and then also release the XML file for the world to use. I bet other transportation organizations could benefit from this sort of thing, and wouldn’t be be nice if we didn’t keep reinventing the wheel. (TRT, why can’t you just work? Why?)

If anybody already has an existing taxonomy like this, please let me know! I want to use it! Otherwise, stay tuned.