Biking to all 19 Carnegie Library Branches - In One Day!

I left my house in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh at 10:30AM on Wednesday, 5/17/17 with a single purpose – to bike to all 19 Carnegie Library branches in a day. Not only that, but I wanted to go inside each branch and get a stamp for my Carnegie Library passport, which the Library produced last year to encourage patrons to visit other branches. The idea to bike each of them came from a classmate of mine at CMU, Laura Calloway, who calculated the shortest distance to travel to all of them – approximately 45 miles. What she neglected to mention is that there’s over 7,500 feet of elevation change along the route. It was a hot day, nearly 90 degrees, and the trip to the first few branches (Hazelwood, South Side) was extremely pleasant, as there are few things nicer than biking along the Monongahela River on the Three Rivers Heritage Trail; except maybe doing the entire Great Allegheny Passage, which I hope to be my next big adventure. At that moment on the route, biking the 335 miles from Pittsburgh to DC seemed like a great idea. Yet that feeling would soon fade.   

This route, while optimized for distance, did not appear to be optimized for topography. Climbing the South 18th Street hill from the South Side up to the Knoxville branch should have been my warning sign of the challenges yet to come. From there it was onto the very-soon-to-be demolished Carrick branch, the only one that I couldn’t visit that day as it is closed for renovation. Yet the scariest part of the day came from turning a corner onto Newett Street only to be met with a downhill that must have easily been 20% grade, followed very shortly thereafter with an uphill that, you guessed it, was also 20% grade. All things that go down must come up, I suppose. I now know why this stretch of Route 51 floods so regularly.  

The trip from there out to Mt. Washington was hilly, but enjoyable, as I was rewarded with what I believe to be the most amazing view of any city in the United States. I then proceeded on to the West End branch with its unique small house collection that a resident, who constructed each one, bequeathed to the library. Heading out to Sheraden and Woods Run, I was reminded at how unique each of Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods are. Circling back to Allegheny and the North Side, I crossed over the Roberto Clemente bridge and dodged rush hour traffic to visit the downtown branch.

By this point it was 4:00pm and I was exhausted. The hills on the Southside and the Northside (isn’t there any side that is void of hills?) took a toll on this cycling novice. However, I set out with a single mission in mind: to visit each branch when it was open. Thankfully for me, most of the branches have generous hours on Wednesday: 10:00AM-8:00PM. However, there was one branch that closed at 5:00PM and thus became my motivation for keeping on pace. Therefore, I hurriedly passed through the Hill District and Main Library branch in order to make it on time. But I’m so glad that I did, because it was absolutely the branch that I enjoyed the most. The branch was the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.

Unlike the other branches, the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped gets most of its funding from the state of PA in order to provide free Braille and audio resources for patrons across the state. But they don’t rely on Audible or your favorite audiobook app to do it – no, they have volunteer voice actors who actually read each book and volunteer editors who edit each one. Equipped with two soundproof studios onsite in an old Studebaker factory, they have all of the equipment needed to do it (and do it well, might I add, as they had me test it out and do a 2-minute recording myself). They also have a service where people can call a trained staff person there and receive recommendations of what books they may like to read, based on what they’ve read in the past. Think of it like a human Amazon.

While I could have stayed there for hours, they unfortunately closed about 20 minutes after I got there. From there, I headed to the Lawrenceville branch before heading east to East Liberty and Homewood for the home stretch. I neglected to mention that this entire trip was completed on a 1986 Peugeot bike, with lever gears and rubber brake pads (which by this point were well-worn through). Frankly, I was surprised that, over 40 miles in, I hadn’t yet had to replace a flat or do any other maintenance on the bike. But wouldn’t you know – with exactly one mile left to go – I discovered that my back tire had gone flat. Thankfully, it seemed to be a slow leak, so I put some air in it and made my way to my very last branch, my local Squirrel Hill branch. And with that - I was complete.

Some observations:

  • Librarians are the kindest people on Earth. I can’t count the number of times I was offered water and other conveniences along the way. They are beyond helpful when it comes to finding books and that same level of commitment extends to all situations.
  • Divided by topography, each neighborhood takes on a character of its own and I found each branch to be an expression of that character. Their location was almost always set in a prominent position at the crossroads of the neighborhood. Yet in some cases that wasn’t the case. For some of the older locations, like Lawrenceville and South Side, their location doesn’t necessarily match where the “heart” of the neighborhood is now – a testament to the change in neighborhoods. For example, Lawrenceville’s branch is located on Fisk Street, not Butler, and South Side is located right next to the off-ramp of the Birmingham Bridge, which it preceded by almost 80 years.
  • All in all, I’d highly recommend this trip to anyone with an interest in seeing and experiencing Pittsburgh through its neighborhoods and through an institution that is one of the finest in the country. Like all good journeys, it wasn’t always easy and requires determination along the way, but you’ll be rewarded with a uniquely Pittsburgh experience.

Reflections from a SUDS Founder

Since graduating a few weeks ago, I've had some time to think and reflect on my time spent helping to found and build SUDS over the course of two years.  

In August 2015, I founded Students for Urban Data Systems (SUDS) at Carnegie Mellon University.  It began as a student group dedicated to promoting the study of urban science, open data, and civic hacking. Since its launch, we’ve grown to over 400 members across every discipline, including computer science, architecture, machine learning, public policy, and even physics.

While I didn’t know if anyone else would join at the time (I didn’t even know the term “smart cities”), I knew that there was groundswell of interest in the convergence of data science and local government, as evidenced by programs like CMU’s MS in Public Policy and Management - Data Analytics track, NYU CUSP’s MS in Applied Urban Science, and University of Chicago’s MS in Computational Analytics and Public Policy (MSCAPP), none of which existed (at least in name) 5 years ago.   

Therefore, I’d like to share a few lessons that we’ve learned at SUDS about how cities and students can work together. The general theme is an unsurprising one: partnerships. In this case, a partnership with local government, community organizations, and the university.  

Local Government

We’ve been lucky in Pittsburgh to have an exceptional Innovation & Performance (I&P) department that added SUDS into their Inclusive Innovation Roadmap and helped give our organization credibility and a process for self-evaluation.  We now meet regularly with I&P to provide updates, which keep us honest and helps to provide structure – which is essential given the tendency for student groups to become nebulous and experience high turnover.  They have supported us and we have supported them, participating in their annual city-wide hacking competition Steel City Codefest.  An effective partnership involves both give-and-take.

Community Organizations

We also realized early on that, while we started as a student group, we needed to be community-facing. In fact, we openly welcome individuals from the community to become members and participate in every event. In our case, the Western PA Regional Data Center was an outstanding resource for bringing community members into the process. Through this connection, as well as partnering with our local Code for America brigade, we met organizations like the Alliance for Police Accountability, Greater Hazelwood Community Collaborative, Healthy Ride Pittsburgh, and the Port Authority, all of whom our members provided analysis for in 2016. These projects can be viewed on our SUDS website.

University

The university has to be your strongest partner. In the case of CMU, we were lucky to have the support of an organization called Metro21, an initiative that uses a research, development and deployment (RD&D) model to develop 21st century solutions to the challenges facing metro areas. In fact, its emphasis on city-university partnerships spurred the creation of a national network called MetroLab Network, which has grown to over 40 cities. Check to see if your city is a participating member.

Finally, you ultimately need to earn the trust and legitimacy from fellow students. You need to create programming that’s fun and offers different levels of engagement, recognizing that students are busy. While some may wish to just attend one tour of a local tech company, others may wish to attend skills-based workshops to learn about new data tools or meet regularly at a community hack night to work on an ongoing data project with a local community organization. I haven’t figured out yet how to breed the latter, but when you find those people, give them ownership and help them succeed however you can.

5 Tips for Transitioning Leadership in a Student Org

Students for Urban Data Systems (SUDS) started as a student organization at Carnegie Mellon in August 2015 to create a space on campus for students and community members to come together to work on ongoing data projects with community organizations, learn new data tools through workshops, and learn about the “state of the practice” from speakers. Like all student organizations, one of our greatest challenges was the nearly constant turnover of members. Most importantly for us, we were facing the loss of all of our founding Board members in May 2017, all of whom were graduating. While we knew that there was interest among students and community members to keep the organization alive (we had over 400 members), we were unsure how much interest there would be to lead the organization.

Therefore, we put into place an aggressive strategy for recruiting, selecting, and training a diverse group of students to join the Board. The five key points of our strategy are below. While these are SUDS-specific, I think that any student group transitioning leadership can adopt this strategy.

1.       Invite potential leaders to take up responsibilities early. Nearly 6 months before we started the official transition, we began to open up our Board meetings and invited other students who had shown an interest in leadership to attend these meetings and take on responsibilities. In fact, people outside of the Board planned nearly all events that occurred in the months leading up to the transition. By the outgoing board stepping out of the way, they created room for the upcoming leaders to step in. This helped the current Board work closely with these new potential leaders and allowed the potential leaders to “see themselves” in the organization.

2.       Schedule one-on-one meetings. In the 2-3 months leading up to the application process, I encouraged current Board members to meet one-on-one for coffee or lunch with students who had shown an interest in SUDS. At these meetings, we spoke with the students about their aspirations and interests and encouraged them to apply, if we thought SUDS fit with those interests. This direct appeal was extremely successful, and nearly everyone we met with ultimately submitted an application.    

3.       Hold an organizational “open house.” This step would not have been possible without the support of the local civic tech community. We hosted a leadership open house at a nearby restaurant and invited all students interested in leadership and our community partners to attend and share in food, drinks, and conversation. This was a terrific way for students to see the broader ecosystem in which SUDS worked and helped SUDS differentiate itself. Incoming SUDS Director Chris Worley remarked that “the event was attended by community and student leaders and allowed those with an interest in taking a more active role in "doing good with data" a chance to meet with the folks who are doing just that in Pittsburgh.” We also scheduled it so that it occurred the day before the application opened, so that the social aspect of SUDS was fresh on their mind when applying.

4.       Make applications easy and the selection process transparent. We knew at the beginning that we were looking for a transparent, fair way to encourage a broader group of people from diverse backgrounds to apply and join, as SUDS prides itself on being one of the few truly multi-disciplinary organizations on campus. When we finally opened the application process, we sought to make it easy while still being thorough, as we did not want a burdensome application to be the reason someone new did not apply. In addition, we changed our selection process from a voting process to an application process. There were two reasons for this: first, our membership structure is loose so there is a question of who should be eligible to vote and second, we found that voting tended to elect people from the same degree programs that were already in the organization.

5.       Have a leadership retreat. Approximately 2 weeks after the Board was selected, we scheduled a half-day retreat at a non-profit off campus with the new and old Board members, again with the support of the civic tech community. This not only served as a “knowledge transfer” for the incoming group, but also allowed the outgoing members an opportunity to talk about SUDS mission, objectives, and aspirations that they had for the organization as well as allowing the incoming members an opportunity to get to know one another.

What were the outcomes of our strategy? Well, we received 13 applications from undergraduates, graduates and PhD candidates across 4 of the 7 colleges at CMU, a healthy pool for an organization that previously only had 4 Board positions all from the same college. We ended up selecting 10 of these applicants and filling all vacant Board positions, while also creating two new ones – Undergraduate Liaison and Speaker Series Chair.

While we were extremely pleased at these outcomes, and at the enthusiasm and commitment the incoming leadership has already demonstrated, there are always areas for improvement and with SUDS there is no exception. I think the organization can continue to build a sense of inclusiveness by actively partnering with other organizations on campus in order to recruit a diverse membership body (and by extension, a diverse leadership structure). While I am proud of everything we accomplished in the first 1.5 years as an organization, I am even more excited to hear about the good work that is yet to come.

For many smart cities, a shift to students

Originally published on StateScoop

Cities today are being pulled in two different and contradictory directions: They’re being told to work smarter but to not spend any more taxpayer dollars doing it, a modern variation of the age-old paradox of “doing more with less.” 

In response, cities are increasingly looking to federal grants — like the federal Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge — and other funding sources for help. But one, perhaps overlooked, resource cities can tap is its students: They are cheap (or free) labor, offer fresh perspectives, and can devote significant time, whether through a class, fellowship or thesis project, to evaluate an essential government service that otherwise would not be prioritized. 

And the timing is right — we see students increasingly shifting their focus to the intersection of data analytics and government. In many ways, this can be traced to Healthcare.gov’s spectacular failure and the dream team of wunderkinds that the Obama administration brought in to help save it. This “geek squad” provided a band of big data superheroes for young civic-minded technologists to aspire to become. It also highlighted the impact that young people can have on government.  

After Healthcare.gov was overhauled, many members of this small cadre of tech all-stars then stayed within government and helped to create programs like the U.S. Digital Service, General Services Administration's 18F tiger team, Presidential Innovation Fellows, and innovation labs, all of which are providing more opportunities for young people to have an impact in government and will be expanded if the Clinton campaign wins in November. 

Finally, the explosive growth of massive open online courses (which doubled in users to 35 million in 2015, and didn’t even exist five years ago) means that eager and self-motivated nontraditional students are able to go online and take computer science or programming classes (which grew from 7 to 17 percent of all classes offered in just one year) for free. All of these trends point to one thing: Students now have more opportunities than ever to acquire and apply skills to help government in a meaningful way.    

So how are students already helping government? 

Some universities are incorporating it directly into their curriculum. For example, NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress requires students to complete an Urban Science Intensive, a two-semester project working with a city agency to address a current urban challenge. At other universities, student groups focused on urban systems, data analytics, Internet of Things, and civic engagement provide a bottom-up approach to create opportunities for students. Finally, some places are creating new employment opportunities, such as the recent announcement by the Harvard University Ash Center that it will provide yearlong fellowships for students to work in local government. 

Working smarter means to “eat that frog,” or to do the most difficult task first. In most cases, such tasks involve updating legacy IT systems, reviewing outdated procedures, and changing the way things have always been done. Working smarter also means taking stock of the resources and partners that a city has and bringing existing data together to extract new information.

In this vein, cities are beginning to recognize the value of their unique city-owned assets — the thousands of miles of paved streets, light poles, bus stops, parking garages, street lights, phone booths, and sidewalks, to name a few. Together, these assets are the building blocks of the city and provide an opportunity for a positive interaction with its residents.  

Some cities are already using data to capitalize on these assets. In Chicago, a group of Data Science for Social Good fellows from the University of Chicago brought together data about building records, census data and blood tests to identify the houses most at risk for lead contamination. In Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University is working with the Department of Public Works to optimize snow plow routes, to clear the streets of snow and return service as quickly as possible. There is one unifying resource that both of these cities have successfully tapped: students. 

The idea of being “smart” is not about how many sensors are embedded in a city’s streets, it’s largely about how well a city uses its unique assets to build partnerships and “expand the pie” without spending more taxpayer dollars. Students, driven by a desire to work for a cause that they believe in, can play an important role in helping cities work smarter, helping to reimagine essential government services in the 21st century.