The day after concluding my excellent month in East Africa, I stumbled jet-lagged into Transportation Camp West for a warm welcome back to the United States, the Bay Area, and transportation data wonkery. Two days later, more at Aspiration Tech’s Non-Profit Software Development Summit. And again, two days later with the Open Planning Tools Group in Sacramento. Some summary thoughts on this rapid ramping up back to real life.
Transportation Camp West
Who: Organized by Open Plans and Young Professionals in Transportation, Transportation Camp is an unconference about, yep, transportation planning. Land use, housing, and other topics come up, of course.
Best Moment: The session on driverless cars. Most of the folks were reasonable and cogent, and optimistic on the growth of the sharing economy. It’s true: our most sustainable future does involve driverless cars, so we need to focus on these positive applications of the technology. Not everyone was so reasonable. I’m thankful Miranda was sitting in the right place to capture this reaction shot:
Skepticism in the driverless car discussion #TranspoWest
— Miranda (@ellemenohpe) November 16, 2013
Take Away: This felt more like a reunion than anything else. I love all the exciting things happening in the Bay Area, I’m excited about the people doing them, and I’m flattered to be among their ranks. For example, someone pointed out that BCDC shuttles are publicly funded but their schedules aren’t on 511. I knew they meant BAAQMD, another Bay Area agency, and was able to send an inquiry up the chain of command at 511. Bam!
Non-Profit Software Development Summit
Who: Aspiration Tech is an SF-based organization that builds non-profit capacity by connecting technical people with advocates (and technical advocates). I’ve attended two of their TechFests (which focus more on connecting non-profits to tools), and always leave feeling inspired. This was my first DevSummit, which is more focused on exchanging ideas among socially minded technologists.
Best Moment: I should say it’s the session I facilitated, but I never feel like we have enough time to dig into everyone’s awesome work. You can only do so much in an hour.
— Kathryn Benedicto (@happysnowmantec) November 19, 2013
No, the best parts were the open small group discussions. I hadn’t slept well the night before (did I mention jet lag?), so I was in listening mode for the first few hours, but discussing work and aspirations with this thoughtful group of people brought more clarity than any amount of caffeine. I also enjoyed the practice of including preferred pronouns in self-introductions (it felt comforting to be back in the politically correct West).
Take Away: I’ve been batting around an idea for a new kind of small town civic hackathon for a couple years. Rather than trying to solve all the city’s problems in a day, focus on local tech development. Recruit some small businesses in need of a web presence to sponsor a one-day website building competition, reach out to tech-savvy high school and college students, and then get the Chamber of Commerce or similar to host all the entries and contact information into the future. I ran it past some folks and got excellent encouragement and support. I may just have a chance to pull it together in Georgia this January, so I left with a challenging but manageable project.
Open Planning Tools Group
Who: OPTG is an assortment of software developers, regional planners, academics and others working with scenario planning tools. The two-day unconference was in Sacramento, and I was invited by my former colleagues from the Strategic Growth Council.
Best Moment: After the cuddly lovefests of TranspoCamp and DevSummit, OPTG was a brisk call back to reality. The folks in the room are working on fantastic projects, and were incredibly open and welcoming, but it was hard not to feel out of my league at various points. I’m not quite enough of a developer to grasp all of the technical concepts, but not quite experienced enough as a planner to recall all of the language and requirements. So the best part of this event was coming home, trying to explain the event to someone else, and realizing I actually do know a fair amount about scenario planning tools. Nah, just kidding. The best part was happy hour at Bike Dog in West Sacramento.
Take Away: I’m a total broken record on the idea that the lure of ever more complex models is a distraction from planning and policy-making. If you’ve got three options, a model can advise you to pick the best one along a set of metrics. Models are a decision support tool, but people get distracted in the search for precise predictions, forgetting that true accuracy is impossible. As our technical capabilities improve and we are able to model more and more complex scenarios, we’re deluded into thinking we have more control over real life.
But then it hit me: we won’t be satisfied to condense a 24-hour model run to 10 minutes, because then we’ll run it 144 times across all possible inputs, and claim to have optimized the inputs. Now it’s enough for a model to say 34 units per acre is better in a specific project than 4, but what if we could run a model for every integer until it told us the optimal value was 20? The nature of the modeling would be lost in the enthusiasm for these precise outputs, and they’d be taken as gospel. I find this frightening.