Open Data Waterloo Region
There is now a website for Open Data Waterloo Region as well as a mailing list.
Open Data movements are about getting governments to open up their data sets in accessible electronic formats for citizens to use as they see fit. This allows people to render the data more widely understandable and readable, and to combine data in fruitful ways. I’ll leave further explanation as links: Three Laws of Open Data, 8 Principles of Open Government Data, and Creating Effective Open Government Portals.
In Ontario, Ottawa and London have strong Open Data movements. Here in Waterloo Region, despite the high-profile technology focus and the proliferation of Blackberries, we don’t yet have one. I’m hoping to fix that, perhaps in time to have some impact on the upcoming municipal elections.
Anyone who is interested in helping to build Open Data Waterloo Region — to advocate for and to use local government data to improve our community — is invited to an informal organizational meeting this Thursday in Waterloo. (See the Facebook event listing if you like.) Whether or not you can make it, you are welcome to join the Facebook group to show your support and stay updated on progress. Please direct people who may be interested to this post.
Thursday, September 9, 6pm – 8pm.
Huether Hotel – the BarleyWorks operations room (2nd floor of BarleyWorks)
59 King St N (at Princess St), Waterloo, ON
(Google Maps link. Note that getting there requires traversing several flights of stairs.)
Barriers to entry and the path of least resistance
Many people will volunteer that taking transit or eating locally is a good thing to do. But yet, people do not undertake sacrifices in droves to make “right” choices, unless there is no alternative. If we aim to change the choices people make, it helps to have a good way of thinking about the decision-making process. Here’s my way, which I find useful as a general conceptual framework:
People generally follow the path of least resistance given their situation and reject other paths due to higher barriers to entry. Moreover, the pool of resources for overcoming barriers is limited.
To be more precise, what matters is the perceived resistance and barriers.* We can be influenced by culture or limited information to perceive a choice as being more or less difficult. Though I think it takes a great deal of culture to get us to willingly refrain from littering, or to get us to recycle — and even then, we need those options to be easy.
Barriers to entry are anything that comes between the path of least resistance (or between no choice) and another choice. These could be a lack of information, difficulty of usage, discomfort of use, price, how long something takes, etc. — and there is both commonality and individual variation in the factors. The current path of least resistance may well have had its own barriers to entry.
Take the example of driving. At some point, the motorist had to learn to drive and had to buy and register a car. Following the framework suggests that overcoming those barriers actually was the path of least resistance, e.g. lacking a car severely restricted mobility. But once the car is in your driveway, the barriers to entry are few: the perceived marginal cost of gas/maintenance/depreciation (low), the price of parking (generally free), the price of the roads (generally free), and congestion to face (now we might be getting somewhere).
The view offers some specific guidance to changing choices:
Remove barriers to entry: provide frequent transit service for which one doesn’t need a schedule, let people use their cell phones or credit cards to get on transit, eliminate marginal costs through universal passes, get rid of helmet laws for cycling, make available bicycles that are easy to use in all conditions.
Put up barriers to entry: increase congestion, increase (or make more obvious) the marginal cost of driving — motorists won’t take into account the costs of highway infrastructure or parking if they’re never faced with them. Make roadways more narrow, thus decreasing the speed of least resistance (instead of hoping that speed limits will work).
Take advantage of the barriers that already occur, such as the large initial barriers to driving. Provide sufficiently good alternatives to car ownership — transit, cycling, walking, carshare — that it simply never makes sense to take the plunge and buy a car, and maybe not even to get a driver’s license. It’s much harder to get people not to use the car they own than it is to get people to continue not owning one.
Demolish false perceptions of barriers to entry, through education, good information and maps, and marketing.
The overwhelming implication of the perspective is this: to change people’s decisions, focus less on convincing and more on making the choice easy. Instead of attributing choices to something intrinsic about the person, or blaming the person for not doing enough, start changing the path of least resistance.
*To be even more precise and general would require adding in a notion of utility.
Good ideas: Permeable pavement
Most pavement is impermeable to water. As a result, paved surfaces need to be designed to funnel water into drains, and drainage and sewer systems need to be designed for the high capacity necessary to deal with runoff from the huge number of paved surfaces in our cities. Instead of replenishing groundwater, precipitation is redirected to rivers and lakes. Runoff from roads carries with it automotive pollution, which is then concentrated in downstream bodies of water.
Various technologies are coming into use, however, for pavement that is permeable to water. Porous asphalt and pervious concrete are fairly new techniques, so they are still being developed and improved. The main difficulties include weight resistance and longevity, as well as cold climate installation. And, of course, it’s more expensive to install (particularly for cold climates), though it may be cheaper than conventional pavement if considered together with the costs of storm-water management.
What’s the point? First off, urban runoff is reduced, and with it pollution and the need for large and extensive drainage systems. But there are other benefits that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere. On impervious road surfaces drainage can work poorly, leading to the sometimes hazardous accumulation of water, which could be averted by permeable pavement. Likewise, it can prevent the ubiquitous puddles that form in depressions on sidewalks and paths. This pavement can also eliminate the need for drainage grates that are often encountered on bike lanes, which can be a hazard and nuisance to cyclists. If pervious concrete is used, it has the added advantage of reflecting more sunlight than asphalt, which can have a significant mitigating effect on climate change.
The technology is promising and I am surprised that the Region of Waterloo hasn’t yet taken up the idea. The Region should investigate permeable pavement and at least pilot the technology. They could do worse than paving the path through Waterloo Park as a test.
Good ideas: Hybrid garbage trucks
Hybrid buses seem to be all the rage these days in many cities — and including Grand River Transit. If hybrid buses make sense, then why are there no hybrid garbage trucks?
Especially when operating suburban-type routes, garbage and recycling trucks make very frequent stops. This means they lose quite a lot of energy to braking, which could and should be recaptured. From each of their frequent stops, they have to accelerate their massive weight — and here an electric motor would do a much better job than a diesel one, I would think.
As with buses, the hybrid drive should make the diesel engine last longer and of course improve fuel use. In addition, there is the significant external benefit of lower diesel emissions and, especially, less noise. Garbage trucks struggling to accelerate with their diesels is a truly awful sound in the mornings.
So hybrid power makes sense for garbage trucks at least as much as it does for buses. Why aren’t they on the roads, then? My uninformed guess is that it has to do with them being owned and operated by private companies as opposed to the public transit operators that buy hybrid buses. GRT’s hybrid buses cost around 50% more than the regular ones, and that probably has something to do with it as well.
Upon investigation: within the last year or two such trucks have appeared, not just in hybrid electric form, but also as hydraulic hybrids. The industry group Calstart has a Hybrid Truck Users Forum that is working on hybrid refuse trucks, and impending U.S. government emissions standards seem to be pushing manufacturers in this direction. New York City is trying out a few competing versions, and will probably set the example for others. With increased demand, competition and scale will drive down costs, and I suspect hybrid garbage trucks will become the norm for new purchases within a couple of years.
Good ideas: Lawn-mowing bicycle
Somewhere along Highway 8 between Cambridge and Hamilton, I thought I glimpsed a weird-looking old tricycle / lawn-mower. Using a bicycle to make it easier to mow with a reel mower seemed like a terrific idea. To my surprise I found that such a thing appears to have never been mass-produced. What I did find, however, was a gallery of such bicycle lawn mowers at TreeHugger. If you are handy then these are apparently not too difficult to construct.
Lawn mowers (and their small-engine ilk) are the sources of some of the most annoying but ubiquitous sounds in all places with lawns, so I am all for people replacing them with quieter bicycle mowers — or even just regular reel mowers. Of course, they also don’t stink up the neighborhood, and I suspect they’re probably a fair bit safer.
Cheap organic fair trade hand soap
It may seem like some sort of contradiction, but it’s legit and ridiculously simple. Find any flavor of Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap — which is fully organic and fair trade certified. Then take a foaming hand soap dispenser (the ones from Method are nice), fill it perhaps 1/8th full with Bronner’s soap, and fill the remainder with water. That’s it.
You can use one of the scented varieties, or just get the basic one (called Baby Mild) and add some essential oils yourself if you like. Dr. Bronner’s soap comes in large containers that are relatively inexpensive, and you don’t need very much of it for any of its numerous uses. It certainly works out cheaper than any of the chemical-laden cleansers/washes that are sold at the same concentration in which they are used.
Apart from the cost and ingredient sourcing, this does make for a pretty nice hand soap, in my opinion.