Building the world’s next 15.5 million miles of roads accounting for environmental concerns

Here is a quick look at the massive road-building in the world’s future:

According to a 2013 study by the International Energy Agency (pdf), humans are going to pave 15.5 million miles of road by 2050. Ninety percent of this is expected to take place in developing countries.

The researchers approached the problem initially by making two base maps. The first rated the world’s environmental value pixel by pixel taking into consideration things like biodiversity and proximity to protected areas. Using similar estimations they made another map that showed economic value of future roads based on the agricultural value of the lands they connected. (The maps to the left show each value in isolation.) Then, the researchers analyzed the overlap between the two layers.

The result is a color-coded map of ecological and economic value. Greener pixels indicate more environmental value, while red means there’s money in the banana stand. Darker pixels represent potential areas of conflict, where both values are high.

road-world

Of course, the assumption that environmental concerns should be taken into account when building roads is an interesting one. A good argument can be made that quickly building roads and ignoring environmental concerns will eventually lead to other increased problems down the road, including possibly declining productivity and growth. However, the short-term demand for economic growth in first-world or third-world countries is often a powerful motivating force. Roads are so basic to trade and movement of people that inevitably some roads will be constructed with less than ideal consequences for the environment.

The Worlds islands in Dubai haven’t quite made it

A slideshow of failed tourist projects includes The Worlds project in Dubai:

The World Islands, Dubai

This artificial archipelago of small islands was dreamt up by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, to look like the map of the world. And his hope was to turn the World Islands into the playground for the rich and famous. Construction of the 300 islands — made entirely of dredged sand — began in 2003. But when the financial crisis in the real world, it brought production of this $14 billion-dollar fantastical world to a halt. To date only two of the islands have come to fruition.

The World Islands, Dubai

It looks cool but it is hard to imagine (1) how much money and work it would take to finish such a project and then (2) who might purchase all of these unique properties.

But, if it did all go forward:

1. Who would purchase what spots in the world? Who wants the awkwardly placed Antarctica?

2. Does the development allow connections between the locations? How about bridges only where Risk lines are drawn?

Average full-time work week is 47 hours; median is around 40 hours

A number of headlines have screamed about a recent Gallup finding that the average American full-time worker works 47 hours a week. Yet, the median appears to conform to the typical 40-hour work week:

Adults employed full time in the U.S. report working an average of 47 hours per week, almost a full workday longer than what a standard five-day, 9-to-5 schedule entails. In fact, half of all full-time workers indicate they typically work more than 40 hours, and nearly four in 10 say they work at least 50 hours.

Average Hours Worked by Full-Time U.S. Workers, Aged 18+

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 40-hour workweek is widely regarded as the standard for full-time employment, and many federal employment laws — including the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare” — use this threshold to define what a full-time employee is. However, barely four in 10 full-time workers in the U.S. indicate they work precisely this much. The hefty proportion who tell Gallup they typically log more than 40 hours each week push the average number of hours worked up to 47. Only 8% of full-time employees claim to work less than 40 hours.

These findings are based on data from Gallup’s annual Work and Education Survey. The combined sample for 2013 and 2014 includes 1,271 adults, aged 18 and older, who are employed full time.

Is the average the best measure here? This is a classic case where the median and mean give you different conclusions. The median tells you that not much has changed from the standard: half of full-time workers work 40 hours or less. The average, on the other hand, is pulled up by those people working 50+ hours. As the Gallup analysis goes on, it notes that there is a difference between salaried and hourly employees with salaried workers working more of those 40+ hour weeks. These salaried workers are likely white-collar and professional workers, people who may be working more but likely have more credentials, are getting paid more, and have higher-status jobs.

So, perhaps the headlines might be more accurate by saying “Salaried full-time workers have higher [47? 50?] hour work week.”

What does Stephen Harper have against sociology?

One academic suggests some reasons why Canadian Prime Minister dislikes sociology:

So what does Harper have against sociology? First, Harper is clearly trumpeting a standard component of neo-liberal ideology: that there are no social phenomena, only individual incidents. (This ideology traces back to Margaret Thatcher’s famous claim that “there is no such thing as society.”) Neo-liberalism paints all social problems as individual problems. The benefit of this for those who share Harper’s agenda, of course, is that if there are no social problems or solutions, then there is little need for government. Individuals are solely responsible for the problems they face…

But there’s yet another reason this ideology is so hostile toward the kind of sociological analysis done by Statistics Canada, public inquiries and the like. And that has to do with the type of injustices we can even conceive of, or consider tackling, as a society.

You see, sociologists often differentiate between “personal injustices” and “systemic” or “structural injustices.” Personal injustices can be traced back to concrete actions of particular individuals (perpetrators). These actions are often wilful, and have a relatively isolated victim.

Structural injustices, on the other hand, are produced by a social structure or system. They are often hard to trace back to the actions of specific individuals, are usually not explicitly intended by anyone, and have collective, rather than isolated, victims. Structural injustices are a result of the unintended actions of many individuals participating in a social system together, usually without knowing what each other is doing. Whereas personal injustices are traced back to the harmful actions (or inactions) of individuals, structural injustices are identified by differential societal outcomes among groups. Sociologists call these “social inequalities.”…

What should be clear, then, is that Harper’s seemingly bizarre vendetta against sociology is actually an ideological attempt to prevent Canadian society from being able to identify, and tackle, its structural injustices. Without large-scale sociological analyses, we can’t recognize the pervasive, entrenched social inequalities that these analyses reveal. And because structural injustices are actually generated by our social systems, both their causes and solutions are social.

One of sociology’s key tenets and strengths is the ability to get beyond the individual level of analysis and look at the bigger picture in society. Think Durkheim’s explanations of sui generis social facts or Marx’s idea that people make choices within circumstances not of their choosing. Harper’s perspective sounds like one that is often identified with Americans, an individualistic approach that tends to ignore social structures and instead looks at whether people work hard or have good morals.

So why doesn’t someone ask Harper directly about social injustices? Certainly he must recognize some. Of course, he might still propose individualistic solutions to these but some are hard to pin solely on individuals such as situations like extreme poverty in developing countries.

Northeastern University moved up 113 spots in the USN&WR rankings in 17 years

Northeastern University successfully moved itself up the US News and World Report college rankings in a relatively short amount of time:

Figuring out how much Northeastern needed to adjust was one thing; actually doing it was another. Point by point, senior staff members tackled different criteria, always with an eye to U.S. News’s methodology. Freeland added faculty, for instance, to reduce class size. “We did play other kinds of games,” he says. “You get credit for the number of classes you have under 20 [students], so we lowered our caps on a lot of our classes to 19 just to make sure.” From 1996 to the 2003 edition (released in 2002), Northeastern rose 20 spots. (The title of each U.S. News “Best Colleges” edition actually refers to the upcoming year.)

Admissions stats also played a big role in the rankings formula. In 2003, ranked at 127, Northeastern began accepting the online Common Application, making it easier for students to apply. The more applications NU could drum up, the more students they could turn away, thus making the school appear more selective. A year later, NU ranked 120. Since studies showed that students who lived on campus were more likely to stay enrolled, the school oversaw the construction of dormitories like those in West Village—a $1 billion, seven-building complex—to improve retention and graduation rates. NU was lucky in this regard—not every urban school in the country had vast land, in the form of decrepit parking lots, on which to build a new, attractive campus.

There was one thing, however, that U.S. News weighted heavily that could not be fixed with numbers or formulas: the peer assessment. This would require some old-fashioned glad-handing. Freeland guessed that if there were 100 or so universities ahead of NU and if three people at each school were filling out the assessments, he and his team would have to influence some 300 people. “We figured, ‘That’s a manageable number, so we’re just gonna try to get to every one of them,’” Freeland says. “Every trip I took, every city I went to, every conference I went to, I made a point of making contact with any president who was in that national ranking.” Meanwhile, he put less effort into assessing other schools. “I did it based on what was in my head,” he says. “It would have been much more honest just to not fill it out.”…

In many ways, Aoun tries to distance himself from Freeland. He resists talking about the school’s meteoric rise over 17 years—from 162 to 49 in 2013—and plays down the rankings, brushing them aside like an embarrassment or a youthful mistake. “The focus on the ranking is not a strategy, for a simple reason,” he says. “You have thousands of rankings. So you will lose sleep if you start chasing all of them.” While it’s true that U.S. News no longer appears in the university’s strategic plan, it does appear in NU’s portrayal of itself: The school has no qualms using its high ranking in recruiting materials and publicity videos. Yet multiple Northeastern administrators expressed concern over this article’s focus on the rankings. One vice president telephoned Boston’s editors in a panic.

Despite Aoun’s carefully crafted image, the school’s actions undercut his words, as gaming U.S. News is now clearly part of the university’s DNA. And Aoun is a willing participant. “He may not admit to it, but that’s definitely what’s going on,” says Bob Lowndes, who is retiring as vice provost for global relations. Ahmed Abdelal, provost under both Freeland and Aoun, says the two presidents have shared “the same goal: further advancement in national ranking.”

These rankings clearly matter and few schools can ignore them completely. A few parts of this that I found interesting:

1. There are some indications in the article that some faculty resisted this rankings push. It would be interesting to hear more. At the same time, doesn’t being ranked #49 now mean faculty would also benefit?

2. The article suggests but doesn’t say exactly how much Northeastern was able to budge the reputational assessments. These can take take a long time to move. Another difficulty is that for a school like Northeastern to move up, others have to move down. But, it sounds like the gladhanding campaign had some effect.

3. Articles like these suggest that gaming the rankings is a bad thing. Lots of academics would talk about how this goes against the true values of a college education. Yet, the rankings matter to the public. The success of the US News & World Report Rankings has helped lead to a whole cottage industry of other assessments based on the best financial value schools, the best schools for public service, and so on. And, it is hard to imagine that once you introduce a quantifiable system like this in any industry that is highly based on status – and academia is perhaps a status industry par excellence – that one of the outcomes will be that different actors will want to work their way to the top.

US unemployment figures distorted by lack of response, repeated takings of the survey

Two new studies suggest unemployment figures are pushed downward by the data collection process:

The first report, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that the unemployment number released by the government suffers from a problem faced by other pollsters: Lack of response. This problem dates back to a 1994 redesign of the survey when it went from paper-based to computer-based, although neither the researchers nor anyone else has been able to offer a reason for why the redesign has affected the numbers.

What the researchers found was that, for whatever reason, unemployed workers, who are surveyed multiple times are most likely to respond to the survey when they are first given it and ignore the survey later on.

The report notes, “It is possible that unemployed respondents who have already been interviewed are more likely to change their responses to the labor force question, for example, if they want to minimize the length of the interview (now that they know the interview questions) or because they don’t want to admit that they are still unemployed.”

This ends up inaccurately weighting the later responses and skewing the unemployment rate downward. It also seems to have increased the number of people who once would have been designated as officially unemployed but today are labeled as out of the labor force, which means they are neither working nor looking for work.

And the second study suggests some of this data could be collected via Twitter by looking for key phrases.

This generally highlights the issue of survey fatigue where respondents are less likely to respond and completely fill out a survey. This hampers important data collection efforts across a wide range of fields. Given the enormity of the unemployment figures for American politics and economic life, this is a data problem worth solving.

A side thought: instead of searching Twitter for key words, why not deliver survey instruments like this through Twitter or smartphones? The surveys would have to be relatively short but they could have the advantage of seeming less time-consuming and could get better data.

Doomsday prepping in New York City

How do you prepare for the end of the world in the #1 global city, New York City?

These urban doomsday preppers look very different from the stereotype of the rural, gun-toting conservative depicted on shows such as “Doomsday Castle,” Anna Maria Bounds, a sociologist at Queens College, City University of New York, said on Monday (Aug. 18) here at the 109th annual American Sociological Association meeting…

Urban preppers usually don’t own guns, their political views are all over the map, and they are often people of color, Bounds said. Many have seen firsthand, in disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, how long it can take for local and federal government agencies to restore order, she said…

One simple step is to make sure the car (if you have one) is always filled with gas and that medical prescriptions are always filled. Urbanites should also look around their apartments and figure out what would work in different emergencies, Bounds said. For instance, is the stove gas or electric? What services would a power outage eliminate?

Another essential for a mass New York exodus is to have a “bug-out” bag ready. This bag is typically a backpack filled with several days’ worth of survival gear that weighs between 20 and 25 pounds (9 to 11 kg). Typical items in a bug-out bag include water filtration systems, food and water, face masks and goggles to protect against airborne hazards, compasses and duct tape. Preppers go on long treks during all seasons to make sure they can carry them for extended periods, Bounds said.

Urbanites should also plan their escape route, which includes knowing how to evacuate a tall apartment building when the power goes out, and how to get out on foot, Bounds said.

Let’s hope it doesn’t have to happen. But, it is a fascinating question: how would you quickly, orderly, and effectively evacuate a major city like New York City? Even planning things like turning both sides of federal Interstates outbound assumes that people own cars and/or there are enough vehicles to evacuate all the people that need to leave.

The irony here is that although New York City (and other major cities) are seen as the places to be because of jobs, culture, exciting neighborhoods, and other features, the preppers assume the last place you would want to be when complex societies break down is in those same cities.

Summarizing a year of your life in an infographic report

One designer has put together another yearly report on his own life that is a series of infographics:

For nearly a decade, designer Nicholas Felton has tracked his interests, locations, and the myriad beginnings and ends that make up a life in a series of sumptuously designed “annual reports.” The upcoming edition, looking back at 2013, uses 94,824 data points: 44,041 texts, 31,769 emails, 12,464 interpersonal conversations, 4,511 Facebook status updates, 1,719 articles of snail mail, and assorted notes to tell the tale of a year that started with his departure from Facebook and ended with the release of his app, called Reporter…

New types of data forced Felton to experiment with novel visualizations. One of Felton’s favorite graphics from this report is a “topic graph” that plots the use and frequency of specific phrases over time. It started as a tangled mess of curves, but by parsing his conversation data using the Natural Language Toolkit and reducing the topics to flat lines, a coherent picture of his year emerges a few words at a time.

After nine years of fastidious reporting, Felton has an unparalleled perspective on his changing tastes, diets, and interests. Despite a trove of historical data, Felton has found few forward-looking applications for the data. “The purpose of these reports has always been exploration rather than optimization,” he says. “Think of them more as data travelogues than report cards.”…

Felton says it’s relatively easy for companies to make sense of physical data, but properly quantifying other tasks like email is much harder. Email can be a productivity tool or a way to avoid the real work at hand making proper quantification fuzzy. “The next great apps in this space will embrace the grayness of personal data,” says Felton. “They will correlate more dimensions and recognize that life is not merely a continuum of exercising versus not exercising.”

Fascinating project and you can see images from the report at the link.

I like the conclusion: even all of this data about a single year lived requires a level of interpretation that involves skills and nuance. Quantification of some tasks or information could be quite helpful – like health data – but even that requires useful interpretation because numbers don’t speak for themselves. Even infographics need to address this issue: do they help viewers make sense of a year or do they simply operate as flashy graphics?

As a suburb, Ferguson is not that unusual

The particular events in Ferguson, Missouri may have been particular but its social context is not that unusual:

Ferguson’s version of the story has several layers. Many of the aviation companies that were once a source of good jobs have shut down or moved away, leaving behind limited employment opportunities, especially for workers without a college degree. The tax base has shriveled, leaving the city dependent on fines and fees — including traffic tickets — for a disproportionate share of its funding. According to the city’s 2014 budget, Ferguson expected to take in $2.7 million in fines and fees in fiscal 2014 — 14 percent of the city’s revenue, up from 8 percent five years earlier.

The recession added to the challenges. Parts of the city were hit hard by the foreclosure crisis; of the 10 Missouri zip codes with the most seriously delinquent mortgages, four are at least partly in Ferguson and three others are in other North County communities. That has turned formerly owner-occupied homes into rentals, often with absentee investors as landlords. The number of Ferguson residents living in poverty has doubled since 2000; its poverty rate, at 24 percent, is one and a half times the national mark.

In all of that, Ferguson is typical of inner-ring suburbs around the country. It isn’t even a particularly extreme example. Ferguson’s schools are struggling, but unlike some surrounding districts, they retain their accreditation. Its foreclosure rate is high by Missouri standards, but is nowhere close to those in Florida, Nevada and Arizona, states that were at the center of the housing crisis. North County has lost much of its manufacturing base, but retains several large employers, including a multinational manufacturer, Emerson Electric Co., and a fast-growing prescription drug provider, Express Scripts.

Ferguson’s experience with poverty is especially typical. St. Louis’s suburbs now have more people living in poverty than St. Louis itself, a pattern repeated across the country. Concentrated poverty of the kind found in southeastern Ferguson is also becoming more common in the suburbs. According to researchers at the Brookings Institution, the number of suburban neighborhoods with poverty rates above 20 percent has more than doubled since 2000.

casselman.ferguson.0826-chart

A familiar story: deindustrialization and a loss of manufacturing jobs, a declining tax base, changing demographics, plenty of suburbanites living in poverty. And a pressing question: what can be done to reverse the fortunes of such communities? These sorts of inner-ring suburbs are not going to be the first choice of many gentrifiers and it can be difficult to switch economic emphases. One possible solution proposed by some is metropolitanization, sharing taxes more across communities in a metropolitan area. However, this requires buy-in from wealthier suburbs who often reject the notion that should provide help to less well-off suburbs.

It will be interesting to return to Ferguson in 5, 10, 20 years to see what has happened. While the shooting of Michael Brown led to a lot of attention, it won’t necessarily alter the course of the community.

Toronto park also serves as a dyke to protect surrounding neighborhood

One Toronto park goes beyond providing recreational space by providing protection against flooding:

Corktown Common Park is a beautiful urban oasis—the 18 acre park, situated in the West Don Lands district of Toronto, boasts a wildlife-filled marsh, athletic fields, playgrounds and plenty of place to sprawl out on grass or host a bbq. But the coolest of the park’s features is the one you can’t see. Built into the sprawling greenland is a plan to protect the surrounding neighborhoods from flood waters. The landscape architects from Michael van Valkenburgh Associates partnered with engineering firm Arup to build a park that looks like nature, but works like a dyke…

Because Corktown Common was developed on a flood plain, the team began by building up the area’s natural elevation. Nearly nine meters of land was added, creating a natural barrier to rising waters. “We had to make sure that the park and the infrastructure were well integrated so that in the end it didn’t feel like a piece of pure infrastructure but felt like a welcoming park that is connected to the urban fabric,” explains Mueller De Celis. This required MVVA to add an additional six meters of topography on top of the original infrastructure. It comes in the form of rolling hills, playgrounds and open green space.

The park is split into a wet and dry side. As water falls on the dry side—whether that be from rainfall, flood waters or from the water playground—it gets collected and directed through a series of underground pipes into a cistern. This water is then reused for irrigation. MVVA says it expects the water to be used anywhere from two to four times before it evaporates. Beyond sustainability, this system also has the added benefit of relieving pressure from the mouth of the Don River by slowing the water flow that dumps into Lake Ontario.

This infrastructure is masked by more than 700 trees, and more than 120 species of plants (95 percent of which are native to the area). Mueller De Celis says that as soon as the marsh was implemented, wildlife bloomed in what used to be a browned-out, post-industrialized area. She recalls one day when she was giving a tour of the park. There was construction happening in the neighborhood, as usual. “The people who were touring couldn’t hear me, not because of the construction but because of the frogs,” she recalls. In the process of building development-enabling infrastructure, Toronto has found itself with a real ecosystem in the middle of the city (no wildlife was reintroduced). As Mueller De Celis puts it: “It might be a constructed landscape, but the wildlife don’t know that.”

Building parks in floodplains is not a new idea – it can be a good use for that space and flooding then does not damage as much. But, this sounds more unique in protecting a surrounding urban area and providing space for development. And, it sounds like all of this is hidden out of sight from people in the park, making it yet another piece of important infrastructure that works best when no one notices it in the background.