Practical Technology Activism

Sunday, April 30th, 2006

AudioActivism’s Brian Russell has taken the best practical step to advancing work on the “digital divide” I’ve seen in awhile.

What has one of our great local technology activists done?

Created Chapel Hill Wireless, a site whose goals are:

…to help you find good wireless access points (aka WiFi) in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, North Carolina.

…to promote the creation of more public wireless hotspots in Chapel Hill and Carrboro. (Carrboro seems to have a head start. :) )

By the way, Jason Baker, another 2005 Council candidate and technology advocate, took a practical step in community outreach by creating several months ago.

OrangePedia, a wiki collecting and collating information on Orange County, is still growing and the idea is catching on.

Tapping into our community’s aggregate wisdom

Thursday, April 27th, 2006

My April 26th Daily Tar Heel guest column:

During the November campaign, I spoke of tapping into Chapel Hill’s “talent, innovation and creativity,” a reflection of my belief that good governance flows from maximizing citizen involvement.

How best to tap Chapel Hill’s wisdom?


Catch the NextBus VI – 24 Hours Later

Thursday, April 27th, 2006

If I wasn’t focused on bridging our community’s digital divide, I might be tempted to ignore the ridiculously high price Chapel Hill is paying for NextBus’ proprietary system, avoid the recalcitrance of some of our staff and forgo the hassle of trying to undo a “done deal”.

Yet, while alternatives exist, I can’t stand by as we waste a million dollar opportunity to advance the social, economic and operational goals of our town.

What alternatives? Portsmouth UK’s system, with bus stop Wifi hotspots, offers an attractive model for Chapel Hill.

What waste?

Imagine ubiquitous Wifi-MESH Internet connectivity spreading several hundred feet beyond each transit corridor – covering each Park-n-Ride.

For the same $949,025 we could blanket huge swaths of Town with a citizen-owned network.

Catch the NextBus V – Fairly Balanced

Wednesday, April 26th, 2006

Near the end of my day of NextBus posting, here’s a quick overview of my and others impressions of the NextBus system.NextBus provides near realtime tracking of vehicles by analyzing their predicted movements, modeling traffic conditions, estimating location and then verifying position. In 2003, this combination of GPS, cell and computer technologies probably had a bit of a WOW factor.

A quick check of the NextBus tracking site demonstrates a reasonably responsive interface.

Boulder, Colorado, as noted in these December 12th, 2005 Transportation Advisory Board minutes, has had a few problems:

Cris Jones presented information showing an increase in numbers of people accessing the NexBus website. Still have telecommunications issues. 11 signs have problems with cell network and are not working. Should be fixed within the next couple of months. Information is pulled every two minutes through the orbital technology, so can only see busses every two minutes. Project is in the works to improve this. HOP and Buff Bus have much better prediction times than the rest of the RTD system.

  • Roettker: Is NextBus giving us some compensation for the lack of effectiveness in their system?
  • Jones: Yes.

So did Arlington, Virginia:

The NextBus technology service which allowed riders of the 38B Ballston-Farragut Square line to get real-time arrival information on their computers, cell phone, or web-enabled PDA has ended. The NextBus technology was installed on the 38B buses in September, 2001. However, the sevice turned out to be unreliable and the NextBus contract was not renewed. Service ended on March 1, 2004.

Zooming to February 19th, 2006, this San Franciscan gives a qualified “thumbs up”:

I find that NextBus works very well for my commute on the MUNI in San Francisco. I have a choice of taking a bus that stops two blocks from my house or a streetcar three blocks away. The streetcar is covered by NextBus but the bus is not. Both lines supposedly run every twenty minutes but in reality are rarely on time. As I leave my house, I check the streetcar on NextBus and if there is one coming in between 5 and 15 minutes I head down to the streetcar stop and catch it, otherwise I take my chances with the bus. It is very reassuring to know exactly when the streetcar will arrive. The accuracy of NextBus is uncanny. When NextBus says the streetcar will arrive in one minute, I can always see it down the tracks a block or two away.

The only bad thing about NextBus and MUNI is that only 10 of the agency’s 86 lines are covered. Cost is obviously a factor. Each vehicle needs a GPS receiver and radio transmitter and of course there is the expense of the software and web hosting. An approximate idea of the cost can be gleaned from this public document (pdf) which shows that it will cost AC-Transit, another San Francisco Bay Area agency about $1 million for equipment, implementation and seven years of operating expenses for a NextBus system covering 199 buses on 25 routes including 44 electronic signs along with mobile and web access.

December 25th, 2005, another San Franciscan not only notes the secret “backdoors” into NextBus’ tracking system:

Tipped off by the fine folks at the SFist, I’ve learned that there are “secret” links to MUNI routes not listed in the main Nextbus directory, meaning that for a good chunk of MUNI’s routes, you can see exactly where the buses are in real time. (This will probably mean nothing to you if (a) you do not live in San Francisco or (b) are not a hard-core public transportation zealot. You have been warned in advance that this post contains some frighteningly pedantic information.)

This is fantastic because, at long last, MUNI riders can now capture irrefutable evidence of those two hour minute driver breaks at the end of the line. (I can second Mattymatt’s observation that the standard MUNI driver response: “Another bus will be along in a minute,” is pretty much the norm.)

but observes that real-world discrimination has a way of leaking into cyberspace:

Some bus lines are wired; some are not. In fact, when we examine this list, it’s interesting that nearly every route which limns the rich and superficial pockets of the Marina is listed (including the rinky-dink 41!), while the crosstown routes that serve the people who don’t wear overpriced Hugo Boss suits on a regular basis (the 29, the 38 — at 54,000 daily passengers, the nation’s busiest bus line, and the 71) aren’t wired up yet. Nor are any of the Owl lines. The latter, in particular, would be helpful for those who need to catch the only damn buses running at 3 AM and stand waiting in the shivering cold with an empty wallet and a dead cell phone (thus precluding a taxi) for 90 minutes hoping to hell the bus in question will actually stop for them.

The Federal Transit Administration observes that adding “predictability” into the transit system does increase ridership:

While waiting may always be a part of the commuter experience – in a car or on a bus – commuters appear to be less affected by “hurry sickness” if they simply know how long they will be waiting.

Some of the most successful transit agencies have taken advantage of technology to deliver real time transit information to riders on their palm pilots or cell phones. Others have created web-based trip planners. A great example of this is on our ridership web page. In Ithaca, New York, the local transit agency (Tompkins Consolidated Area Transit) added trip planning software to its website in March 2002. The trip planner lets customers select routes and schedules 24 hours a day, 7 days a week based on mode, need for a bike rack, wheel chair accessibility, and traffic conditions. Within one year, fixed route bus ridership increased almost 4 percent.

In Ventura County, California, the Ventura Intercity Service Transit Authority (VISTA) has seen real results from adopting new technology. In August 2002, they contracted with NEXTBus on behalf of VISTA and five other municipal transit operators in the county to provide bus tracking and arrival prediction services. Approximately 100 buses have been equipped with tracking equipment. Now, arrival times and related information is provided on electronic signs at 26 transit transfer points and via the internet. The result? Between 2003 and 2004, ridership increased over 15%.

Clearly, the strategic use of information technology can be an important tool for attracting new riders – especially among today’s hurried commuters.

I won’t argue against the FTA. It makes sense that eliminating uncertainty in the transit system will increase overall satisfaction leading to increased ridership.

But we don’t need NextBus’ system to remove that uncertainty.

Catch the NextBus IV – New Hope?

Wednesday, April 26th, 2006

Thank you town staff, Ms. Hall especially, for the assistance in assembling this information.

April 24th, 2006 – two days ago – after concerns were raised about the NextBus, Inc. deal – the town signed a contract with NextBus, Inc. for their proprietary system.

Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi; you’re my only hope.

The schedule of work starts May 1st, 2006:

  • May 1st, 2006 – Order vehicle hardware – $230,350.00
  • July 1st, 2006 – Automatic vehicle location, maps, website – $276,000
  • Aug. 1st, 2006 – Install signs – $75,000
  • Sep. 15th, 2006 – System acceptance – $367,675

This will cover 14 signs, a website with 26 routes and equipment for 83 buses.

What a terrible deal compared to the recent ACTransit’s!.

ACTransit: 100 signs, 25 routes, 199 vehicles, 7 year warrantee – $1,031,079.
Chapel Hill: 14 signs, 26 routes, 83 vehicles, unknown warrantee – $949,025.


May 8th I had an opportunity to speak with one of the folk from ACTransit who negotiated their great deal.

Turns out ACTransit got for their $1M:

  • 54 new signs, 46 existing
  • 125 new vehicles, 74 existing
  • 13 new routes, 12 existing

7 years of support for their existing and new infrastructure.

New material: 54 signs, 125 vehicles, 13 routes. Coverage for existing 46 signs, 74 vehicles and 12 routes. Chapel Hill: 14 signs, 83 vehicles, 26 routes.
What a great deal!

I’ve contacted our IT director, Bob Avery, to get the detailed specifications, the criteria used to select a vendor and the results of comparing various solutions.

General Tagge: What of the Rebellion? If the Rebels have obtained a complete technical reading of this station, it is possible, however unlikely, they might find a weakness and exploit it.

Darth Vader: The plans you refer to will soon be back in our hands.

Admiral Motti: Any attack made by the Rebels against this station would be a useless gesture, no matter what technical data they have obtained. This station is now the ultimate power in the universe. I suggest we use it.

Even without the Death Star’s plans, based on Exhibit A of the contract, the obvious, expensive problems of this system are evident.

Six of seven questions to NextBus reveal a concern about additional costs due to excessive cellular phone charges. The concern appears to center on keeping the data flow to less than 5MB (megabytes) per month.

NextBus will be reselling Cingular Service to the town to support this data flow.

As an individual, I can get unlimited Cingular data service for $60 per month (that is, I can get it where their cruddy signal can reach – imagine NextBus’ problems getting a decent signal!). I have to believe it’ll be quite a bit cheaper for NextBus.

Is this a misplaced concern from a transit system with a 2006-2007 operating fund of $13.6 million ( $5M from UNC, $2.6M from Chapel Hill)?

But that’s beside the point! Why cellular at all?

We should be using a standards-based system that supports fixed and mobile networking, is expandable using off-the-shelf components, satisfies the highspeed connectivity demands of our first-responders and, for gosh sakes, advances the town’s technology infrastructure.

Two birds – one stone or a pig in the poke?

I hope the Council can intervene before the pig comes home to roost….

Wifi – For a few dollars less….

Sunday, April 23rd, 2006

One of the issues the soon to be disbanded Technology Committee discussed in the last year was a proposal for digital signs along our bus transit routes to report bus ETAs.

Just a week after voting to dissolve the group, the Town is poised to make an extremely expensive technology mistake.

While other municipalities, like Portsmouth UK, with 305 buses, and Cedar Rapids, with a planned 50 bus deployment, are getting security, digital ETA and both fixed and mobile Internet access, we’re about to spend $950K of Federal monies on a proprietary, single-use system from NextBus, Inc.

From the April 23rd HeraldSun:

Kurt Neufang, interim director of Chapel Hill Transit, which serves Chapel Hill, Carrboro and the UNC campus, said the digital information signs will help make the system more convenient for riders. Neufang said he hopes the signs will be installed and working by August.

“We’re trying to get it done before the beginning of the [fall] semester,” Neufang said.

Federal money helped fund the bulk of the $949,025 project, he said.

Nothing like over paying big bucks for the privilege of proprietary technology lock-in.

Why “for a few dollars less”?

Cedar Rapids is spending $125K on their 7 mile long system covering more stops, with security, mobile access and the capability for their Motorola mesh network to carry police, fire and other first-responder network traffic.

Another example of the wasted opportunity: St. Cloud, Florida

  • $4,000,000 cumulative ANNUAL savings to the community! [link]
  • 28,000 residents
  • 10,000 households
  • 15 square miles
  • $200 per household one time capital cost, $3.33 operational cost/month
  • FREE high speed access

So, for about twice the cost of 14 digital bus stop signs the community of St. Cloud is getting town-wide ubiquitous FREE high speed broadband.

Just a great example of how a citizen’s board can intervene before the Town makes a seriously expensive technology expenditure mistake.

I’ll be trying, as a citizen, to get our Council to try an approach that maximizes the use of these funds, to reconsider NextBus and to substitute a solution that delivers much more for the citizen’s dollar.

[UPDATE:] Saw this article on St. Cloud’s initial rollout. There’s been a few bumps on the road but the first 45 days of service are quite impressive: “50,000 users sessions…just 842 help line calls….3,500 registered users and 176,189 hours of usage.”

The Technology Board discussed educational strategies for making sure the citizenry’s initial expectations aligned with the reality of any initial technology rollout.

[UPDATE:] Spoke with Cedar Rapid’s Five Seasons Parking and Transportation about their system. Short story: ETA works, realtime security video doesn’t, few folk using mobile Internet capability, educational effort ongoing. Portsmouth UK is a model I think we should investigate seriously.

Net neutrality at risk…

Saturday, April 22nd, 2006

The ‘net is the new Town Commons and the commons are under attack from the same feckless monopolists that charge us $200 billion in excess fees under the ’96 Telecommunications Act provisions to provide high-speed symetrical broadband but instead pilfered the bucks.

The latest offense? Throttling ubiquitous access to ‘net-based services.

Local audio activist and muni-network proponent BrianR has covered the salient issues quite well.

If you want a 2-minute video synopsis, here’s a clip from MyDD.

A Chapel Hill municipally-sponsored network will help keep the commons free for all. Next month, if all goes well, a public forum will be held on the benfits of citizen-owned communications.



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