Episode One Hundred and Nineteen: Bridj Laziness; Deciding In Public; Terrible Tools

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

Leaving drinks with ex-colleagues this evening, fitting toddler-escape-prevention bars to windows this afternoon.

Where: fries and a Diet Coke at Tilt, melting in the sun.

1.0 Bridj Laziness

Outrage of the day came late, courtesy of Bridj[1], a startup based in Boston, Massachusetts, that promises “[b]etter transit. For everyone.” which is strike one against it in terms of a) not delivering better transit, and b) certainly not for “everyone”, not least of which because a) it’s more expensive than conventional mass transit, so its market reach is smaller, and b) [all?] Bridj passengers must be 18 years or older[2], which is a curious definition of “everyone”. Of course, most mass transit systems realise that they provide a service of immeasurable value to those who, say, can’t drive, and that those without transport options are sometimes the most disenfranchised. But whatever, that doesn’t matter so much because the luxury shuttles are awesome and Bridj is using data.

From my point of view, this is pure laziness and overreach. There’s certainly *something* interesting in Bridj (if not, say, mildly offensive to someone with European transport sensibilities, but I guess that’s how you get things done in America), in that they’ve clearly observed the Tech Bus explosion with a keen eye and are wondering if it’s possible to disrupt, in any way.

Of course, this ignores the other type of disruptive transport that has happened for years in American cities, deftly brought to life in the New Yorker’s recent report, New York’s Shadow Transit[3]. Perhaps that’s what Bridj means when they say that America has been “[leading] the way in innovating and changing the way cities travel and move.”

When I posted about Bridj rather passively-aggresively on Twitter, Simon Batistoni remarked that there was a special place in hell for that American sensibility of wanting to treat each and every single moment as more opportunity for productive, value-creating work[4].

Bridj itself comes with the usual trigger-warnings for those overly-sensitised to the world of startups: it deploys “millions” of data points, machine learning and big data. All of these, combined with driverless vehicle technology (remember, you don’t need to tip your driver – it’s all handled) add up to a zeitgeisty pitch, one that looks like it’s solving a big problem, but when you examine it under only the slightest of pressure, it all falls apart.

Of course, this could all just be a property of their communication. But how you talk about what you’re going to do – how you communicate your intentions – is incredibly important. Bridj talks about being for everyone, but the uses cases it talks about are for point-to-point transport of a regular nature: your commute and in terms of getting you to work. It’s as if Bridj has been designed, cargo-cult like, to approximate a mass-transit system, by people who’ve never, well, experienced a *good* mass transit system. Mass transit systems aren’t just for people getting to work. They’re for *transit*. They’re for getting from place to place. It sounds facetious, but Bridj, because it’s communicated and designed as anawesome luxury shuttle service to get you to work, but for less than a town car, but slightly more than a metro ride, doesn’t work when your car needs a repair and you need to get to the doctor. It doesn’t work when you need to get anywhere else. And there’s no indication that the people behind Bridj intend to solve that problem.

All of this is yet another example of the “precedent as burden” kind of thinking – perhaps not as explicit in this case, but more of the “hey, we haven’t looked at all of the other urban transit systems and what makes them work and why they exist the way they do, but big data and machine learning algorithms!”

The flipside of this is, of course, seen in Europe where you get transport policy like this[5] from Finland. In the model proposed for Helsinki, transport truly is integrated and service is aggregated across multiple providers – both public and private, whilst competition is at the same time built in – citizens / consumers vote with their feet and their currency as they shift funds from provider to provider in a more efficient matching of supply to demand, and a sort-of mythical transparency might allow for more seamless transport “experiences”.

And yet, only a couple of days ago, the United Kingdom’s National Health Service celebrated its sixty-sixth birthday, and a certain image introducing the service did the rounds on the usual social media services. Here’s how the NHS was introduced:

“The New National Health Service

Your new National Health Service begins on 5th July. What is it? How do you get it?

It will provide you with all medical, dental, and nursing care. Everyone–rich or poor, man, woman or child–can use it or any part of it. There are no charges, except for a few special items. There are no insurance qualifications. But it is not a “charity”. You are all paying for it, mainly as taxpayers, and it will relieve your money worries in time of illness.”

As a Brit, it’s easy to get tied up in nostalgia for the ideals of the NHS as opposed to the blunt reality with which you might be exposed on the front line of receiving – or dispensing – service. But there’s something for the plain-spokenness of the language used in the leaflet and the communication of intent.

In other words, if you mean “everyone”, Bridj, you should actually deliver to “everyone”.

[1] Bridj

[2] Bridj FAQ

[3] New York’s Shadow Transit, The New Yorker

[4] https://twitter.com/hitherto/status/486634513217228800

[5] The future resident of Helsinki will not own a car

2.0 Deciding in public

Hey kids, here’s some free advice: you never feel like an adult, and you might never feel like you know what you want to do. I’m (*counts*) 35 this year, and damned if I’ve been able to figure out what I want to do. As much of this is about figuring out what it means to live up to others’ expectations, and what it means to live up to your own expectations. I’ve had a stupendously potted history: from a unique combination of arts/sciences A-Levels during my sixth form when my school had to jiggle things around timetable-wise for me, to spending three years studying law which was fine I guess but ultimately not what I wanted to do, even after I then spent another three years training for (and getting offered) a job in the field.

So the (first world, self-actualisation, lots of talking with therapist kind of) problem that I’m dealing with right now, that I alluded to last episode is more of the somewhat-diversity of choice sort, where there are in principle a bunch of avenues open in principle to me, and all I have to do is *decide*.

Because hey, deciding’s always really easy, right?

But all of this process required a checking in with myself: there are lots of things out there that are *interesting*, and an excitable brain can always run off with them and chain together a whole bunch of cascading outputs just from a few inputs. That doesn’t mean that they’re intrinsically interesting, just that the concepts fire off certain pattern matchers and then before you know it, you have a whole bunch of second-order firing off unrequested in your brain. But they might not have fired off on their own.

So that’s the thing, the malaise of figuring out “what you want to do” when it feels like there are so many things that you *could* be interested in, but trying to figure out what it is that you *want* to be interested in.

3.0 Terrible Tools

I think this is a short bit, but the UK’s Government Digital Service has written Yet Another blog post, this time about building a service for booking prison visits[1]. One of the things that I’m struck by – after having leaving drinks with a bunch of my former colleagues – is the sense of a relentless focus on solving the problem. Solving the problem in the case of the prison booking system looks like – from the outside – not an intractable problem, but more a deficit of hard work and the time taken to actually do the hard work.

And also: actually solving the problem, rather than using communications to solve the problem. To me, this has been one of the most frustrating parts of the agency experience. It might seem incredibly obvious, but let’s say that there’s two types of non-advertising people who end up at agencies: the type that want to make advertising (of which I’ve met, and some of them have turned out to be pretty good at it), and the type that want to creatively-solve-problems. Bluntly, (advertising) agencies aren’t in the business of creatively solving problems, they’re in the business of using communications to solve business problems. There’s a difference – one’s a subset of the other, for starters, but the point remains that you don’t ask a communications/marketing/advertising agency to solve the root problem. You’ve already decided to solve it with communications.

This is why it’s interesting and weird to see things like the Fuelband which are undoubtedly *manifestations* of a brand, but are not advertising in and of themselves. They’re not communications. And this is where the trouble with “digital” comes, because it turns out there’s lots of ways to both skin and cat, and solve a problem.

To bring this back to the job of the UK’s GDS, what’s encouraging about them is that they’re not doing an agency job, and they’re not necessarily even doing just a service design job. They’re in the solving-problems business, and digital is a way to solve those problems. They’re not just talking about solving them – they’re solving them. And that’s what makes their work refreshing.

In some senses, it’s also what makes their work boring from a whizz-bang point of view. It is as much a management problem and an attitude problem as it is a design problem: but what they’re doing is making sure that they have enough contact hours to make sure that the problem is solved *in the best way possible*. The output of this is hardly going to win creative awards for grabbing attention. But it’s valuable, useful, and impactful work, because – and it helps because they’re doing it in a public service context – these things that they’re building, the processes that they are manifesting, *help people get things done*.

It makes me think about the problem with enterprise software: it’s hard to see how an outside vendor could, for example, countenance spending as much time (because that equals money) getting to know stakeholders in whichever guise, and making something quite so boring as a prison visit booker. What ends up being built is bespoke, because it solves a problem at scale, but in the right way, for the people who’re using it – and they know it does that, because it’s been tested. And because GDS is internal, as it were, there is no “purchasing decision” or decision-making person who decides whether or not this is the right thing to buy, or does it check off enough features from what they’ve been reading in this month’s issue of White Middle Aged Dude On The Cover of CIO Monthly.

In other words, GDS is building a cult around the user as the customer. The user is the person who pays, in sweat and time, every time they use the software, every time they attempt to accomplish that goal – which is their *job*.

[1] Making prison visits easier to book