Informing the public about delays in completing large public projects

The reasons for delayed Jane Byrne Interchange project in Chicago are only now trickling out to the public:

In January 2015 — just over a year into construction — university workers noticed the building had been sinking and shifting, leaving cracks in the foundation and making it impossible to shut some doors and windows, according to court records…

Over the next 1½ years, IDOT blamed engineering firms it had hired for missing the poor soil conditions that contributed to the problem. That led to a redesign of a key retaining wall that boosted costs by $12.5 million and dragged out that part of the project at least 18 more months…

IDOT’s Tridgell gave the Tribune a list of other reasons for delays. Among them: The city was leery of shutting down ramps and lanes on many weekends because of festivals and other events. And other local agencies required extra permits and reviews for work…

UIC’s Sriraj said public outreach is challenging on big projects, with no “gold standard” on how much is appropriate.

The public is likely not surprised that such a large project is behind schedule and over budget. This is common on major infrastructure projects. They just want the project done. (And I’m sure some of the cynical ones will note that even when the Byrne project is done, repaving of its surfaces will probably begin again very soon.)

Is this expectation of poor performance what then allows public agencies to not have to explain further delays and costs? Realistically, there is little the public can do whether they know about the delays and cost overruns or not: the construction keeps going until it does not. And the article hints that there is possibly little the state can do to compel contractors to do better work. So, because the news looks bad, is it just better to sit on the information?

I would prefer it work this way: given that such large projects affect many people and involve a lot of taxpayer dollars, the public should have access to clear timelines and explanations for delays. Many people won’t care, not matter how much information is available. But, in general, public life is valuable and information should be widely available and not hidden for fear of angering people or avoiding blame. At the least, knowing about delays and increased costs could theoretically help voters make better choices in the future about leaders who will guide these processes.

How to count crowds accurately, not for PR

Counting large crowds is an inexact science:

“In reality, estimating the size of crowds at mass public events is much more about public relations than a quest for truth,” said Steve Doig, a crowd counting expert who is the Knight Chair in Journalism at Arizona State University.

So how can this be done well?

1. Make a grid
A credible estimate will require knowing the size of the area where the crowd is gathered.

2. Estimate density

It’s important to understand that crowds are not uniform in nature. People clump in some areas and spread out in others. Determining density helps understand how many people can realistically fit into a space…

3. Verify with other sources

A large crowd will require special accommodations. Many will choose to take public transportation to an event. Others will drive. Either way, attempt to compare the crowd-size estimate with other sources, like passenger volume data.

It is not unusual to have vested interests when acquiring data. Different sources with different vantage points – like organizers, police or officials, and the media – could produce multiple counts for a single large event. Perhaps the people with the better social position are the ones whose numbers end up carrying the day. Yet, we could have a variety of reasons for wanting to have the most accurate data including for history’s sake and in order to provide the needed local services for such large gatherings.

Just for fun, here is Wikipedia’s List of largest peaceful gatherings in history. Interestingly, there is a section at the bottom that discusses the methodology of accurate crowd counts. However, it looks like the citations for most of these large crowd counts refer to media sources which could be drawing from a variety of counters including the media itself.

Mining Twitter for ratings of mass transit and what the agencies can do in response

A new study examined Twitter comments about mass transit in the United States and Canada and came up with a ranking of those invoking the most positive and negative sentiments:

The results of her study, published this month in the Journal of the American Planning Association, ranked 10 of the largest public transit agencies in the US and Canada by how well regarded they are on Twitter. Based on Schweitzer’s “mean sentiment score” and more than 60,000 tweets collected between 2010 and 2014, Twitter was nicest to Vancouver’s Translink, which was followed by Portland, Oregon’s TriMet and Toronto’s TTC. The harshest tweets concerned systems in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. For comparison, Schweitzer calculated scores for public figures (the sentiment score ranged from William Shatner to Osama Bin Laden), airlines, police departments, and welfare programs (the full chart is at the bottom of this post).

Schweitzer used text mining to pick out positive and negative words from the tweets (and manually added terms including brokedown, wtf, scam, epicfail, pervy, and unsuck). Machine learning helped spot things like parody accounts and unusually frequent tweeters. Schweitzer and her graduate students also analyzed some 5,000 tweets by hand, to ensure they lined up with the computer system’s interpretations. Reasons for complaint included delays, facilities, staff conduct, public mismanagement, and the class, race, and gender of other riders.

Here’s the funny thing: The transit system’s scores don’t line up with service quality (judged by on-time performance). But the unsurprising fact that public griping doesn’t necessarily match reality doesn’t make the data useless. Because Schweitzer did find one factor that predicts “mean sentiment”—the way the transit agencies themselves behave on Twitter…

So what’s the takeaway? If you’re looking for a low investment way to improve your public image on Twitter, use Twitter as a tool for conversation, not one-way communication. It may seem that someone complaining to 18 followers that their train is late doesn’t matter, but Schweitzer makes the point that social media does influence broader public perceptions.

Engaging in public relations on social media is not new. However, the idea that government agencies or infrastructure organizations need to may be more recent. On one hand, Americans expect government to be responsive. On the other hand, mass transit is one of those areas that seems monolithic: leaders in those organizations are not elected and infrastructure faces its own kind of difficulties (aging, weather issues, particular funding sources, a sort of permanence that is difficult to change quickly). But, at least the disgruntled might feel heard if there is social media interaction even if their complaints are not fixed immediately.

Possible next steps: would major mass transit groups make policy decisions based on Twitter? Remember, a small percentage of Americans use Twitter regularly but those users can be pretty vocal and/or well positioned in society.

Chicago to get its own “Carmageddon” on the Kennedy in June

Major repair work on the Kennedy in June is being dubbed Chicago’s own Carmageddon:

Chicago-area drivers are being urged to steer clear of the downtown stretch of the Kennedy Expressway during the last three weekends in June, officials said Thursday. That’s when bridge demolition on the Kennedy interchange at Ohio and Ontario streets will require shutting down expressway lanes, first in the inbound direction, then outbound and finally the Ohio and Ontario feeder ramps…

Officials hope the stern warning will help prevent hourslong snarls along the expressway that carries an average of 260,000 vehicles a day, avoiding what some traffic engineers have referred to a “carmageddon.”…

The work to tear down sections of the bridge, drop the concrete pieces onto the Kennedy and haul away the debris is scheduled for a series of tightly choreographed 55-hour periods on the weekends of June 13-15, June 20-22 and June 27-29, according to IDOT plans…

On an average project, IDOT tries to “scare away’’ 15 percent of the traffic to compensate for lane closures, officials said. During the Kennedy work, they hope to divert about 25 percent of traffic elsewhere.

There are echoes here of the Carmageddon in Los Angeles several years ago that ended up working out pretty well. While this location is a key part of the Chicago highway system, there are alternative routes either in the downtown area or different highways that can route people further around the city. At the same time, this does highlight the importance of fixing the Circle Interchange nearby to have better traffic flow.

It will be interesting to watch the PR for all of this. In fact, is two weeks enough time to start alerting people to Chicago’s own Carmageddon? Yet, I imagine local news outlets will eat this up.

Municipalities and Wall Street argue over using eminent domain to stop foreclosures

Some municipalities are considering using eminent domain to slow foreclosures – and Wall Street and those in real estate are not happy:

On Saturday, Mayor Wayne Smith of Irvington, N.J., will announce that his mostly working-class city is proceeding with a legal study of the plan. Irvington could try to head off legal action and repercussions through what are called “friendly condemnations,” in which incentives are used to persuade the owner to drop any objections, he said. “We figure if this program works it can help anywhere from 500 to 1,000 homes.”

This summer the similarly working-class city of Richmond, Calif., in a heavily industrial part of the San Francisco Bay Area, became the first to identify homes worth far less than their owners owe, and offer to buy not the houses themselves, but the mortgages. The city intends to reduce the debt on those mortgages, saying that will prevent foreclosure, blight and falling property values. If the owners of the mortgages — mostly banks and investors — balk, the letters said, the city could use eminent domain to condemn and buy them.

Since then, intense pressure from Wall Street and real estate interests, including warnings that mortgages will become difficult or impossible for Richmond residents to get, has whittled away support for the plan. The city has yet to actually use its power of eminent domain, but it is already fighting two lawsuits filed in federal courts…

Opponents of the strategy, including the institutional investors BlackRock and Pimco, Wells Fargo and the Mortgage Bankers Association, say that taking mortgages by eminent domain is a breach of individual rights and that investors will not receive fair market value for the mortgages. In Richmond, Mayor Gayle McLaughlin has asked investors to come to the table to work out a price, but they have so far declined to negotiate.

An interesting convergence of rights. Typically, eminent domain usage tends to raise the ire of citizens but this article makes it sound like this is something residents want. Is this the case? One argument often leveled against eminent domain is that allowing another case gives governments more opportunity to do what they want when they want. However, with this strategy, the municipalities are trying to work for the residents and against larger entities.

I wonder if the only thing that would convince banks and mortgage holders to consider this would be bad publicity, something along the lines: “Those Wall Street banks want to take advantage of distressed communities and are unwilling to work with them to improve their neighborhoods or help their residents.” This would involve less of a legal strategy and more of a public relations strategy.

 

New public relations push for public housing

Here is a new public relations initiative for public housing:

A new public relations initiative called ReThink is trying to change those attitudes. Funded by Housing Authority Insurance, Inc., which provides insurance to public and affordable housing projects, ReThink aims to educate Americans about the benefits of public housing not only for the people who live in it, but for society as a whole.

Perceptions of public housing, according to research funded as part of the ReThink project, are a jumble of preconceptions and contradictory attitudes. Sixty-three percent of those surveyed say they would support public housing in their communities, but 53 percent don’t want to live close to it. Sixty-one percent believe that public housing has some positive impact on its residents, but nearly a third of respondents (31 percent) don’t think public housing residents are hard-working members of society…

Advocates, she says, need to educate “Joe Six-Pack” on how public housing should be one of those priorities for the nation’s cities, because it encourages stability and community among America’s neediest residents.

To that end, on ReThink’s website, you’ll find first-person stories from public-housing residents whose lives have been transformed by the availability of public housing. The highly produced two- to three-minute spots cut against the popular image of public housing residents as unemployed, directionless, and without ambition.

See the ReThink website with the videos here.

Sounds interesting but this is a tough sell for many Americans. It may be easier to convince people that public housing is needed for a small portion of American residents (currently less than 1% of the US population according to ReThink) but it becomes much harder to suggest some or more money should go toward it or that these public housing developments should be located anywhere near middle- and upper-class residents. The stigma is hard to overcome, even with positive stories today as well as positive stories of the past like featured in The Pruitt-Igoe Myth where past residents talked about what a beautiful place housing projects once were.

Also, ReThink doesn’t offer much on their website about what this public housing will look like. Are we talking mixed-income developments? Scattered-site housing? These details could go a long way toward the success or failure of a public relations push.

I am curious to see how people react to this…