Fashioning more effective, more agile services at City Hall entails listening to citizens -- that is what democracy is about -- but it also means aggressively prototyping new ways of doing stuff and rethinking the way we've handled policing, civil engineering, housing/neighborhood development, economic development, streets, citizen engagement, etc. And it means doing things that might not succeed initially.
Our fab, still emerging PlaniTulsa effort -- Tulsa's new comprehensive plan -- calls for prototyping new facilities, concepts, etc. Thinking hard about how the revolution in info tech/mobile systems is reshaping transportation is something that we really ought to ponder big time, in advance of major capital funding requests being placed before the voters. Just now, we have a high intensity discussion at City Hall of a nearly billion dollars street improvement and transportation initiative that may come before the voters in November. All the usual stuff is being discussed, and there's an enormous amount of interest in this second rendition of "Fix Our Streets."
Some days ago, I had the fortune of meeting Jennifer Pahlka, the founder and executive director of Code for America (CfA). Some readers may know that CfA is a kind of Peace Corps for geeks -- the mission of the organization: to enlist very talented analysts and skilled computing and data systems folks to help open up and re-conceive city government operations and services. Wonderfully, we have local folks who are interested in doing this work -- with or without the big dollars from Google and other sources that CfA's charismatic Pahlka has at her disposal.
In a piece later this spring, I want to outline in detail what Code for America is doing across the country -- work that may shortly have a profound impact on the responsiveness of a wide range of public services, delivery systems, and missions. For example, CfA is executing a fascinating new project for the City of San Francisco that hooks up veterans, homeless folks, and other people with assistance needs to the benefits, agencies, and professionals who can truly help them -- all available via a smart phone or a library computer.
Excitingly, there is already a link with CfA here in Tulsa -- we could grow that link to outsized potential if we can get deep interest going in places like City Hall and in our philanthropic community. Already CfA has partnered with a group here in town via their new "brigade effort." So we have some local people pointing the way forward.
I spoke recently with Luke Crouch, a coder/computing pro who has been very active on this front: Crouch has worked on a draft street accident/construction application and has helped Tulsa Transit get up to speed on a real time bus tracking system that bus users could employ with cell phones. Crouch and his peers in Tulsa's informal "Hackathon" community have also spent their time and superb talent on an intriguing fire department dispatch and hydrant application. With time this gizmo could be an astonishingly powerful tool for looking at community "fire dynamics," the location of fire stations and how we could optimize fire runs and other aspects of one of the city's biggest and most expensive operation. My plan is to talk in detail with Crouch and other Tulsans committed to this essential work this spring.
An array of sensor systems and a conscious effort to invest foundation dollars and city funds strategically could transform big parts of life as we've known it in Tulsa -- and transportation systems are a sizable part of this effort. Keen observers believe that the next stage in computing, together with powerful efforts to open up public data systems and actively empowering regular people in improving services is underway. The next, very disruptive wave will make use of what some call "physical" computing or reality mining. The landscape may feature arrays of inexpensive "smart sensors" to intensively monitor our air, water, ambient environment, odors, microclimate details -- all on a real time, dynamic basis. A citywide sensor grid would use a wild mix of artificial intelligence, digital cartography, advanced visualization and modeling, and smart phone apps to "scan" the real world with their human masters.
Getting There on Time
You're on East 91st Street and South Yale Avenue at 5pm. You need to get downtown to Friday Art gallery night in the Brady District, and you want to avoid accident sites, slowdowns, and construction spots that would impede your progress. Soon you'll be able to use a fully functional rendition of a still-in-development Tulsa application crafted by Tulsa Hackathon to do that. When finished, the app will tell you where accident sites are and give you pointers on how you can avoid delays. This very cool "hack" is an example of stuff that is surely at the core of Tulsa's future: it is arguably as strategic as the hundreds of millions we are poised to spend on traditional street improvements and our soon-to-be very contentious arterial widening conversation.
Giving Tulsans real time access to traffic volumes in their immediate areas, and info on tie-ups, accidents and bus headways looks like a really doable proposition. Tulsa's "pro-social" hacking community is already taking a stab at doing the traffic part of this work. And apparently Tulsa Transit Authority, with help from Crouch and others, is making an aggressive move to use Google Transit and other resources to deliver a real-time bus tracking application: one that would be of tremendous utility to T-Town bus users. Tulsa Transit General Manager Bill Cartwright needs to be applauded for what looks like a grand effort to get this up and running.
But beyond rad info apps, we need to seriously look at initiatives -- in advance of the impending "Streets Prop" -- that go to doing novel street sustainability trials and using new material technologies for building and maintaining streets, bridges, etc. Break out traffic signalization improvements using what cutting-edge transportation planning pros call adaptive systems/neural net systems could also help us to vastly extend the capacity of our existing street network and make optimal use of whatever improvements come out of the current "Fix our Street" discussions.
But we should also be prepared to spend some real money -- say part of the $800 million in funding anticipated for the November street proposition -- on doing some of these things, looking at a powerful sensor grid and anticipating the myriad recharge site, zoning, safety, and waypoint challenges need to support a soon to come avalanche of electric/advanced hybrid cars we need to try to see around the corner.
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