Monday, February 5, 2018

B-side: Ghost busses and phantom transit data

I published an article in Model D this week that describes my and Michel's surprisingly rich six month experience living car-less in Detroit. In it, I glancingly touched on something I wanted to dig into a little deeper here: my experience using the DDOT bus system.

I'm a very recent DDOT user, having just gotten started in October. As I mentioned in the article, I have really come to love riding the bus in Detroit. I look forward to it, every time, for a whole bunch of reasons.

View from my bus last week

But as much as the system has evidently improved in the last couple years, it still has its problems — namely, busses occasionally not showing up when they're supposed to. As I mentioned in the article, this has been an infrequent occurrence, in my experience, but that doesn't mean that it's not a maddening, frustrating inconvenience when it happens. It's a real killjoy, especially in the cold. It's also unsettling, in a very specific way. You're standing there, squinting into the horizon, hoping to catch a glimpse of the indistinct but telltale orange marquee lights that means a bus is coming, wondering — did I get it wrong? Did I miss the bus? (Did it come early?) Is it five minutes away? Is it ten minutes away? Is it just not coming? Should I call a Lyft? Should I wait for the next one? Then you see those lights, and you feel relieved, but it gets closer and you see that it's not your bus at all, but another line, going someplace else.

Besides the glaring, systemic problem of the bus not being on time, there's another problem here, a human-scale problem: a problem of information. You don't know. There are tools that are supposed to help you know, but these are confusing and, evidently, inaccurate. For instance, the first time I caught the bus, I used DDOT's "Text My Bus" service, where you send a text and get an automatic response telling you how far away the bus is. It worked perfectly — it said the bus was five minutes away, and five minutes later, the bus showed up. But the next time, it said the bus was two minutes away, and two minutes later, no bus. Five minutes later, no bus. Ten minutes later? No bus. I texted again: next bus, 35 minutes. It was like a ghost bus had gone by.

"Use Transit," a friend said when I relayed my experience, referring to the free smartphone app that purports to offer realtime bus tracking info. "It's more accurate." Great! So I downloaded Transit, and after struggling a bit with the so-simple-it's-complicated-interface, I got the hang of it (or thought I did). Transit uses GPS to determine where a user is and shows the buses that should be coming by, displaying a list of upcoming, realtime pickup times. Except, when I started using it...more ghost busses. More confusion. What was going on here? Transit is supposed to be displaying real time data about the busses in Detroit. But is it?

I posed this question to the folks at Transit and got an illuminating response from a friendly representative named Katie. "Transit does in fact offer real-time information in Detroit for DDOT buses as well as SMART buses, and the new Q Line," she wrote. But she said that she noticed that some DDOT busses didn't have realtime data available. You can tell when there is realtime data, she said, by the radio wave icon that appears next to certain departure times. In the screenshot below, realtime data is only available for the 4:48 and 6:12 bus. The other times are all extrapolated from bus schedule data.

It's a subtle thing, that little radio wave icon. I never even noticed it before Katie brought it up, and the folks at Transit would do well to make its significance clearer up front. But now that I know, it's great! At least now, I know what I know, and what I don't. (And a few subsequent tests have proven this out — each time I've seen those radio waves, the bus in question has come right when it's supposed to.)

But that bit that I don't know remains problematic. Why, on the screenshot above, do only two of seven busses have realtime data? Why can't I know exactly when all those busses are coming? To understand that, I turned to Neil Greenberg, manager of service development and scheduling for DDOT. (He's also a bona fide transit enthusiast, a former bus driver, and the mastermind behind Freshwater Railway, the intricate but totally made-up regional Detroit transit system that made a splash in 2011 when it got Detroiters dreaming about what real, connected transit here could look like.)

"The realtime DDOT data just isn't consistent," Neil admitted. It's not reliable." The problem, he said, is that DDOT is using a 25 year old AVL, or automatic vehicle locator, computer system. "When you try and feed data from an old system into a newer system," he said, "things really get messy." So in the transfer, the data become unreliable. Buggy. It's the same problem for Text My Bus that it is with Transit — as users, we simply cannot expect reliable data every time, or even most times. His advice? Use bus schedules instead. The busses, after all, tend to come when they're scheduled, so in the absence of consistent realtime data, the schedule's the most reliable option.

The good news here is that, according to Neil, DDOT is currently embarking on a multi-year tech upgrade that will include a complete replacement of the AVL. "We're investing pretty heavily in all new systems," he said, "not just for the AVL, but downstream from that — apps, data processing, everything that ultimately makes it to the customer's hand. It'll be great to have. We don't just want something new, we want something that we can maintain and keep up to date." He expects the overhaul to be complete in 2019-20, and lists better realtime data as a major goal. He cited other forthcoming improvements, too, including a notification system to alert riders about delays, and a new website that would help make the experience of learning how to use the bus system more straightforward and accessible to more Detroiters.

So evidently, there's a lot to look forward to. For now, of course, the most pressing concern remains the big one: those late or MIA busses. The best way to address that problem, Neil counsels, is to let DDOT know about it. "We really like complaints," he said, "but please don't just blow steam and tell us how we wronged you; tell us when, where, and what line. We need specifics."

Ideally, of course, the bus system wouldn't wrong its riders at all, but as you may have noticed, we don't live in an ideal world. I'm going to keep riding DDOT because I like it and it's convenient and, in my experience, it usually works just fine. I'm sure, here and there, another bus or two is going to not show up, and I'm sure I'll feel frustrated and wronged and curse the fact that we just can't seem to get transit right in this town. But I'm glad I spent some time digging into this, because I'll also take some comfort from the thought that something better might be coming down the road. If I squint, I can almost see it.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Making rock music with Kathy Leisen

Oh Detroit, what have we done to deserve Kathy Leisen?

If you don't know Kathy, she's an artist, musician and singer with a voice like a smoldering, late night campfire beneath a big, starry sky somewhere out West, with some ragged clouds just starting to roll in and drizzle, but it's OK because you're with your friends and you've had a little whisky and you just spent the whole day outside. Her band Soft Location, with their mellow, slow-burn rock tunes crowned by Kathy's aching lyrics of love and longing, is a Detroit essential. Put on a Soft Location record and time slows; you drift a little. You melt. Here, listen:

Kathy also happens to be disarmingly graceful, forthright, and generous of spirit. I will perhaps forever associate her with the peaceful, matter-of-fact good vibes of the Detroit art community. She's one of the first people I met, seven or so years ago, when I started writing about Detroit art with any semblance of seriousness, and I won't soon forget the kindness and openness with which she welcomed me (nervous, unsteady) into the little sound art gallery in Eastern Market where she was noodling on an acoustic guitar.

Last weekend, she amply demonstrated that welcoming spirit in "Harmony By Any Means Necessary," an intimate performance at Popps Packing, the Hamtramck home, studio, and artspace of artists Graem Whyte and Faina Lerman. The concert was part of the Lounge of Saturn, an ongoing exhibition and performance series at Popps featuring work by a dizzying array of Detroit artists.

Popps Packing

For the occasion, Kathy donned a plain, billowy garment that her friend, the artist Chad Wentzel, created, a sort of giant apron that makes her one with her keyboard. ("I feel like I'm getting ready to go into surgery," she joked as she slipped into it. Chad told me that his ambition is to make a room-sized version of this piece, an environment, basically, that would join Kathy and her keyboard with the audience, a la James Lee Byars, maybe. Sounds like fun.)

As she set up the keyboard, Kathy placed five or six stones, maybe 2-5 inches long each, along the top of it, as well as a couple rolls of masking tape, and told the assembled company that she needed some help with the performance—or the game, as she put it. ("Art should be fun, shouldn't it?") The idea was that she would start playing, and then we would commence to shape the music together, with each audience member encouraged to walk up at any time and place a stone on a key, or group of keys, or else tape down a particular key. As the tones shifted, Kathy would correspondingly modulate the tone of her voice, producing a unique, improvised composition, co-created on the spot.

I've seen Kathy use her stones in a more straightforward solo performance recently, at the Shells record release party at Trinosophes, and it's a subtle but powerful gesture. Visually, tactilely, the stones carry a certain weight. They're of course such natural objects, freighted with idiosyncratic meanings about their (be)holder's connection to the natural world, about childhood exploration, ancient beginnings and environmental degradation. There is something fruitful, dialectical, about the relationship between the stones—with their utter simplicity, their mute, compact, essential rock-ness—and the keyboard, the big sound machine, hard-angled and complexly engineered. Their union (their reconciliation) could be gimmicky or precious, but it's not; instead, it's unexpected, a little whimsical, and quite elegant.

The sound, meanwhile, is notably...visual. There's the background, the pure, hard tones of the keyboard, which are minimal, even, unambiguous, and insistent: a drone. (A plane.) And the foreground: Kathy's voice, reverb-ed and echoing, freeform, soft, shifting, and abstract. (There are lyrics there, but they're fuzzy and indistinct—mostly you can make out an "I" here, a "you" there—all, perhaps, you need to know.)

With participation, of course, there is much more: you hold the rocks in your hands. You make choices, informed or not. (Kathy is definitely not worried about whether or not participants "know" music, which is in itself pretty incredible.) You perform the ritual; you walk up and make an offering, to...what? The god of music, maybe, or to Kathy, or to the Earth itself. And you do it in concert, with strangers, perhaps, or with friends. You play (in more ways than one) and then enjoy the remarkable result: that voice, that sad, silver voice, ringing out over the tones that you've manifested, together.

"Harmony By Any Means Necessary" was all over pretty quickly. Just three distinct compositions, maybe 15 or 20 minutes in total, but what a gift: a precious opportunity, these days, to shake off the weight of things, the anxiety, the despair, the ceaseless chatter, and to make something that stands apart—something simple and still, sacred and shared.