Failing information structure

When I was stuck trying to get into and around New York today, all I wanted was information. But just as government failed me when it did not drain the streets and subways, so did news media fail me when I could not get the most essential and obvious information.

Shadow and Metro traffic are utterly useless. I sat in a single traffic jam for two hours and they never reported it. My friend Nick Veronis used to have a rule: always go to where they say there’s a problem because by the time they know it and say it, the problem is sure to be gone. The corollary today: Don’t go where they say there’s no problem for there surely will be.

There were thousands of people in that jam. We all knew what was going on and could have informed the thousands more who followed into the same trap. And I’ll be most of us would have done that out of sheer altruism, in the hope that someone else will help us avoid the next jam. Why have we not yet invented systems to capture and share that knowledge? I’ve been plotting this for years: I met with these and other traffic services a decade ago begging them to come up with the means to gather our knowledge of traffic: We could call into numbers that have logged our usual routes and report our conditions and get the conditions ahead. Or we could set up the means to monitor and report the movement of those phones along routes and cell towers. Or we could simply enable people to call a service and leave trouble reports. Anything. But, no, we knew nothing.

It got worse. I came into New York and had no idea — not a single report from any of the many radio stations I was monitoring — that the subways, every damned one of them, were closed. For all their tooting their horns about giving us news around the clock — give us two minutes and we’ll waste two minutes — they gave us nothing.

But now I have my wonderful new mobile internet tools. I went to the New York Times and only thanks to Sewell Chan in the CityRoom blog did I learn anything. And I was most grateful. But there were complications there, too: It wasn’t easy to find each time I came back to the site on my small screen. The information was usually at least an hour out of date. And here’s the interesting part: When the paper did what papers do and rewrote this into a proper news story — the structure that makes them so comfortable and that they think adds the value we want — I lost all the current and useful information. Oh, I got lots of obvious verbiage and quotation but I didn’t get answers to the simple question I desperately needed: Is the E train running? A newspaper’s habit is just not built for this simple urgency. It is built to create stories. But I didn’t need a story. I needed a fact. It took some digging to get back to Chan’s blog post, which was a bit out-of-step (it quoted a city official an hour earlier saying that E train was not running when, by then, it was) — but it was still my only source of the only news that mattered to me during the day.

If those traffic services and radio stations and newspapers thought like readers on the street — if they let us tell them what to do — thousands upon thousands of us would have asked for simple answers to simple questions: What’s jammed?