Friday, 24 February 2012

Someone Left The Windows Open

Every spring I look forward to that first day when you can open up all the windows in the house, and let Mother Nature breathe her wonderful energy into the nest with a burst of clean, cold air. It always feels like a new home should, open and inviting, inspiring smiles and the search for something to do.

Around the garage today, that is exactly how I felt. The past two days have opened the doors and windows at the garage, and it is as if many employees are feeling like there is a new season approaching. You can see it on their faces, in the way they walk, and in how they respond to you. Something is very different this week.

I have read all of the media coverage of Mr. Mercier's sacking. I have even taken the time to read some of the comments under the articles.

I have read the emails you folks sent me after I commented on this whole story. The range of emotion expressed was really interesting, and in some cases, a little scary.

The email about my quote that appeared in a few news articles... all I can say is I'm sorry about how that looked out-of-context. I don't want to kick Alain Mercier while he's down. That quote was an observation, not a euphoric victory speech.

I can't honestly be impartial to the "Fire everyone, privatize OC Transpo" type emails. I'm sorry, but I find the logic to be simpleminded and obtuse. After the backlash of riders complaining about cuts to under-performing routes, I can't imagine how these folks think Laidlaw or FirstBus could mine profits from philanthropy, while finding 1500 bus drivers to work for less than their trucking divisions. But I digress.

I can however respond to the folks claiming to be drivers who brought up my previous blog entries In Defense of Alain and Alain Part Deux .

My positions on living within Mercier's tenure and living within the new regime of Mr. Manconi are pretty much the same. We need to find a way to get along, drivers and managers. Dysfunction sucks. I wasn't having fun listening to how bad the job was each and every day. Somebody needs to start positive dialog to affect positive change, and that is why I write this stupid blog.

Let's face a little reality here. The idea that the general manager is the steering rudder of the organization holds true, so long as we understand that the rudder is held in part by a political commission, and navigated by a city council. There are a pile of desks that the official papers have to cross before Mercier (or now Manconi) gets to sign them. The commission agenda is what matters to transit users. So what real change is accomplished by firing Alain Mercier?

I understand what city council went through in trying to get straight answers from Mr. Mercier. If you ask bus drivers, you will find that the overwhelming majority of them simply didn't trust his numbers as he tried to convince us to accept major scheduling changes. Unlike council, we had the tools to do the hard math. We could see that the promises had enough english on them to sink the cue ball with backspin.

From there, the distrust grew. Drivers rejected two contract offers out of distrust, and barely passed the third stop-gap measure just this past fall.  Whether it was a contract offer or a city council briefing, drivers felt that the numbers were always a little too slippery to hang onto. I am not sure the membership would have ever signed their name to any contract under the Mercier regime that contained any meaningful changes to language. Rightly or wrongly, that is the truth of the situation.

So the biggest change I can foresee is the City's ability to get a long term contract done with ATU local 279. Like it or not, that is a HUGE positive change for everyone, including the public.

A change of focus has opened up the windows of 1500 St. Laurent. Spring is here, and the change is a welcome one.

Mr. Manconi, I wish you the best sir. I appreciate the letter you wrote to us, and you are welcome to this driver's input at any time.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Wow. Just... Wow.

This is perhaps the most uplifting and morale boosting story that OC Transpo drivers have read in the Ottawa Sun since the story about Larry O'Brien's failed re-election attempt. Glasses are clinking in every garage today, and I have yet to come across a blue collared worker that isn't grinning from ear to ear.

The tumultuous reign of one of the most controversial general managers has come to an end. If you came here to read how my bashing pen would handle that hated sword, you've come to the wrong place. I won't bash the man. As a matter of fact, I'm just as worried now as I was yesterday.

The morale boost aside, Mercier's exit comes long after the real damage was done. It wont take back the strike. It wont rebuild our relationships with the customers that were hurt by it.

In reality, the management at OC Transpo has become quite a bit more political with this move. Politics simply don't mix with service, unless you live on a city councilor's street and need the ice removed from your sewer. The hands that guide this commission are still seeking your votes, or at least the votes of those special interests that have a lobby voice.

I think most drivers laud the move to oust Mercier, but haven't fully thought this through, past the personal gripes and onto the real meat and potatoes of what affects them at their jobs.

So long as council votes on what routes to cut, and to buy toys instead of what transit in Ottawa actually needs, then this move is a sideways shuffle to put the hands of power up another puppet's pants.

I'm hoping our new GM has the vision of creating a world-class transit system, and has the cahones to stand up to the political process in favour of his clients, instead of the electorate currents of council.

If the move to Manconi represents a shift in how the blue collars are treated at OC Transpo, or at least their *perception* of how they're treated, then this move will have a lasting effect on all of Ottawa. If our workforce can get back to being a family again, something that was unquestionably lost during Mercier's tenure, then our customers will be the ones to reap the greatest reward.

In the meantime, I will enjoy this new found euphoria around the garages. It sure is great to see all of us smiling again.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Ad Revenue Opportunities

So the city is looking for new streams of advertising revenue, and has posted tender to get the ball rolling. I think the focus of the so-called "new" revenue streams is mobile devices, which seems logical as the company is set to release GPS data to these devices very shortly. I would love to see mobile devices be rolled into fare payment too, but as the company is only getting set to enter the late 2007's, it would be crazy to make such a leap so quickly.

So where else could the company stream ad revenues from? Are there existing areas on buses to post ads? You bet.  We all remember the whole "There Probably Is No God" campaign a few years back. What people don't realize in these kinds of uproars is that the ads themselves provide free advertising for OC Transpo as well as the client company. To really get people's attention these days, you need to be creative. You also need to be prepared to take risks. If city council disapproves, that's a good start to increasing your revenues. The niche of bland advertising is well covered by newspapers and google adwords. City transit should be open to taking risks because of their superior visibility, their exposure to such a large and captive audience (who don't want to make eye contact with each other), and their wide demographics. Yet, we're stuck with cheap boring ads on buses in Ottawa. Where is the vision? We need to look for opportunities to offer something no other ad stream can offer to clients. We have a unique canvas. Buses could be a marketing destination, something to be talked about. But it isn't, and that's a shame.

Having a look at a few of the clever ads I've posted here should be an eye opener. Look at what we can do with a simple sight gag, or a clever wording. A small TV screen could advertise any array of ads designed for certain parts of the city, local businesses, or nationwide ads. The announcement system itself could be a revenue stream, announcing specific businesses along a route instead of simple street intersections.

I can already hear Clive's son proudly announcing that "This bus has been lowered for you by WalMart, home of the low prices!", and that "The ramp has been set out by Extenze, home of the longer..." errr, well, maybe not that last part. (I used to love those Smiling Bob commercials.)

It's time to look a little deeper than simple mobile apps, because that's what everyone else is doing.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Excuse Me While I Blow The Sky

We are a city of many different faces. On any given day you can interact with dozens of different cultures, see many different faces and ages, and hear hundreds of points of view. Every once in a while, you're left shaking your head, or laughing out loud at something someone says or does.

I love watching people, which makes driving a city bus the perfect job for me.

Is there anything more entertaining than watching people approach a set of storefront double doors, only to grab the one that is inexplicably locked? Push the door. Nope. Now pull the door. Nope. Allemande left... walk through the adjacent unlocked door. The expression on their face is usually a mix of "That was stupid" and "Why the @#$% is that door locked, anyway?" Nobody really knows why the door we pull is always the locked one, but it is.

The rear doors on a bus are much the same. Sometimes they don't act the way we expect. In fact, most of the rear doors are completely automatic. The tricky part is trying to figure out how to activate them.

The old buses were easy. Step down on the treadle, and the door opened. But that didn't stop people from standing on the top step and trying to push the door open with their hand. So what would happen is that the door push would activate the "Drunk Buzzer" which holds the door shut with a lock and will not release until the person stops pushing on it. Which of course was when they would step down, activating the door motor which would would push on the door with the drunk buzzer locking doohickey holding the door closed electronically in some kind of Catch 22 designed by the cast of Punk'd. If you weren't drunk, you sure felt that way as your driver gave you the news that you'd have to get up off the steps, get back on the steps, and DON"T TOUCH THE DOOR!

Then along came the Nova LFS buses. Wave at the door, sir! Wave at the door, sir! No, no. Just wave at the door sir, not at me. You have not lived until you have completely exhausted yourself trying to get a Carleton University Engineering student to activate a rear door by waving at a sensor that he cannot see. What the hell kind of sadistic person came up with a no-touch system of opening a door, anyway? I will never forget yelling back to "Wave at the door, sir" when a passenger at the front door began to wave too. Safety in numbers, I guess.

Now they have the buses with the Magic Strip. It doesn't look like a button. It doesn't feel like a button. It doesn't even act like a button. Don't act like you don't know what I'm talking about. I see you folks driving your thumb into that plastic thingy as I'm stopping. You're looking at me in the mirror as the reluctant door pauses a little too long before opening. Will it open? Will it close as you're halfway through it, forcing the Indiana Jones leap to freedom... narrowly getting your hat as it drops behind you. Who says engineers don't have a sense of humour?

Interactions in general can be pretty funny too.

I listened to two twenty-somethings explain to me that they should "Apply" for City Hall so they could clean up the city in one month. All we need is common sense. Like putting another 86 on around 1pm. And plowing the friggin' sidewalks. And firing everybody so we can hire cheaper people. Sounds easy when you put it like that. I gave them an application for City Hall. (kidding)

I've never been a really open talker on buses either as a passenger or a driver. Speak when spoken to is usually a safe bet when in transit situations. I'm helpful, but I'd rather not have a bus trip be an overly social experience. I had a regular passenger who felt otherwise. This guy would chat away about anything and everything he came into contact with. I heard stories about his parents, his kids, his job, his hobbies, you-name-it. After a month or so, I guess we got to know each other pretty well and I would put in a zinger here and there. I try to be funny with most folks. Funny is good people in my books. So I had made some comment about my bus being late because bus drivers can't read numbers that aren't on wooden blocks... and he made a verbal typo that still makes me laugh out loud to this day. He said : "I love your self defecating humour."

I nearly crapped myself laughing.

And then there's the language barriers. Sometimes it's so tough to understand what someone wants, that I over-think the question. A simple mispronunciation can turn Baseline into Bass-sell-eene, causing my brain to search hundreds of streets and repeat things mentally until I'm well beyond the light of understanding. Other times, people just say the darndest things, and you can't help but laugh.  A thick accented lady ran up to the front of my bus yelling and waving to the front window signifying her desire to get on the bus in front of me: "Ay ay ay ay ay ay ay ay ay ay ay! CAN YOU BLOW THAT GUY!" I felt the clean taste of pennies in my mouth as I clamped down on my enunciator and rifled through my mind's Rolodex of responses.  Dinner first? No, I can't say that. I don't think its my turn. No, definitely can't say that. Not with that guy's mouth and you pushing. Absolutely can't say that. So I just honked the horn, defeated.

And said under my breath:  Excuse me while I blow the sky.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Open Data Release

After weeks of speculation, backtracking, votes, letters to the editor, hand wringing, accusations, recinded business plans, and finally a vote... The GPS data will flow on March 22nd, as per the orders of OC Transpo's political commission.

This is all such a strange, overblown issue. The company itself thinks that GPS data has a monetary value and could be used to generate revenue. They're likely right in that regard, although I question whether the company could put together a tendering process in a timely manner and actually use the tender to generate revenue before GPS data technology gets replaced by some other technology. Public tender is such a slow process. I can't imagine what it would accomplish.

Having said that, even the smallest amount of forethought into the use of GPS data at the management level of OC Transpo could have produced an in-house app long before the general public even thought they were missing out on something. After all, the company is already monitering the data within its own data infrastructure.

Prior to the installation of the new new GPS systems I was a lone voice of criticism of the fact that all OC Transpo technology seemed to be used almost solely in the supervision of its employees instead of as an assisstance to helping employees help customers. (Click here and scroll to « Everything is Automatic, Everything is Skin Deep ») There seems to be an odd way of thinking in the transit industry, and it's an epidemic of putting the service provider's needs ahead of the service itself. It took three different tracking technologies installed on OC Transpo buses before we finally got one that could actually provide the customer with information, and the company is still dithering over whether to actually use it in that vain.

It seems that there is way too much reluctance on behalf of municipal entities to gear the service towards the taxpayer, instead of the managers. Look how long it has taken to put arena bookings online. The city moves at the speed of bread. We pay for this information through our taxes. It is not City data, it is taxpayer data. They have made the right decision to push it forward, but that still doesn't mean ALL the data needs to be released. All the tinfoil hat wearing going on throughout the city and the forums that discuss these issues is getting tiresome. I've heard everything from terrorism worries to a big municipal cover-up on deadheading buses. 

You may take the bus to work. You may even have a few ideas on how to make the service better. That does not make you an expert on scheduling buses. This is the real problem with open data. We live in a society where Idol watchers think they are experts. They get all the terminology of singing down pat... "He's too sharp", "Her falsetto breaks too early"... and yet they're just repeating what they have heard other people say. Cherry picking a few deadheading buses off of a data set compiled of hundreds of thousands of time-points and trips could produce wasteful out-of-context opinions of the service that are grossly unwarranted. In context however, the data would represent something very different. It takes expertise to analyze this kind of data, folks. Simply being a bus rider doesn't make you Paul Harvey, even if you could look at all that information.

Ken Gray posted the following from Transit Activist Tim Lane:
Mr. Mayor and Councillors:
I believe that one of the main reasons OC Transpo are
so reluctant to release raw GPS data, is that it would allow
savvy outside programmers to track deadheading buses,
buses laying over, and buses that change routes throughout
the day.
And, Transpo doesn’t want this data to fall into the wrong
hands, because it might show, on careful analysis, that
many of the things that Transpo does with our buses,
in the name of “increased efficiency” in the operation of
the system, actually do the opposite.
They waste buses, and drivers, they use the wrong type
of bus on the wrong routes, they have buses sitting idle
at the busiest times of the day, they cause delays on one
route to quickly spread throughout other routes, and thus
all through the system, they cause drivers to forego much-
needed breaks, etc.
More specifically, the performance we have been getting
from our much-more-costly-to-purchase hybrid buses has
been considerably worse that the original expectations,
How much of this poorer performance can be laid at the
doorstep of one of OC Transpo’s most cherished operating
philosophies – Interlining?
I would love to have you Transit Commissioners ask that question,
and require OC Transpo to back up with raw data, their response.
Thank You,
Tim Lane

The X Files would be proud of this theory. He's partially right in the fact that the company should protect the non-revenue statistics from people like him. If programmers think they're getting the empty bus data, they're dreaming. Let's be honest here. The company will scrape the data to produce revenue service data only, and that's exactly what they should be doing. Do you really want an OC Transpo Failblog app that only sends out data on broken down buses, buses involved in accidents, buses held up due to problem passengers, buses doing charter work, buses in transit for repairs, buses laying up between runs, buses driving empty to start or finish their assignment, buses layed up as extra buses waiting to fill in for other routes that have the aforementioned list of delays, buses stuck in snow, buses housing the tenants of evacuated apartment buildings, training buses, buses with defective GPS units, buses on road tests for safety issues, buses being towed... are you getting the picture yet?

No, we don't want all that. The open data should produce a product that accurately represents in real time what the revenue service is doing in the context of the posted schedule, and how late or early a specific route may be along its planned timeline. The general public really gains no benefit from knowing the rest of the data, because it doesn't affect their specific route.

Now on the other hand, if you wanted to release the rest of that data to council... fine. I doubt they have the expertise to analyze it properly, but at least they could refer the data to the AG for some constructive analysis instead of having random programmers put the data into non-contextual apps for the sole purpose of manipulating it to whatever purpose suits their arguments.

The data will be available March 22nd according to the transit commission vote. This coincides with the first day of the spring booking for drivers. I'm anxious to see what the programmers will do with the data. I plan to follow myself in real time and report to you how accurate the apps may be. You all can figure out which bus is mine, just look for the one driving in circles.