On the use and abuse of Technology and its Management from the perspective of an academic at UCL specialising in Project Management, Systems Engineering and Space Science/Technology.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Capacity Optimisation

A brief rant on my other blog about trains, hence Capacity Optimisation.

As cycling swells in popularity, some decisions and assumptions made about 10 years ago on the design of train carriages now have noticeable effects. This sort of effect happens all the time, and it's frustratingly hard to see emergent properties like this, let alone model them.


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Birth of a System - London Cycle Hire

People in London can't have failed to notice the introduction of a new transport system lately - the Cycle Hire scheme. At the time of writing it's roughly a month into operations. For the uninitiated, there are roughly 400 docking stations around town, each housing up to 20-30 bikes. Registered users present their dongles, unhook a bike and pedal off. At the other end, the bike is re-docked, and, in a database somewhere, a small charge is incurred. (More intro, Guardian, July 2010)

Some things I've noticed, and some questions.:

It's obviously a multi-element system: Bikes, Docks, Terminals, Back End Data, Billing, Logistics. It's additionally part of TfL's great big system-of-systems. It's got the Mayor's Office paw prints on it, but clearly has been in the works for years. It couldn't have happened, without Paris and a few other prototypes. Expect to see more in big and small cities round the world soon.

There are sprawling requirements everywhere, not completely understood. Here, for example, is a story about an odd feature of the database that caused the owners to back-pedal on a particular function, the multi-key account. Is the development cycle capable of adapting to new, or recently clarified, requirements? My guess is that, oops, the database contract has been and gone, and this feature will sink, rather than be implemented properly.

The initial users are enthusiastic, communicative, and alive to the possibilities it offers. Has this resource been tapped into? The forumites all want to talk to TfL and Serco (for it is they) but I suspect the drawbridge is up.

Data! There are plenty of feeds that allow the growth of applications (and, of course, Apps) to entertain and inform the users. Here, for example, is Oliver O'Brien's visualisation of real-time Dock status. (Oliver is a GIS nerd at UCL, but I don't otherwise know him). Here's another of his, showing daily stats, for example. Note how system availalbility is about capacity of both Bikes and Docks at each end of the prospective journey. Unlike a little French town (Lyon? Paris?), London's scheme is being used a lot, in two daily peaks, by edge-to-centre commuters. Machines and Holes are both at a premium at critical times. Has all this been modelled?

The contractors and operators aren't saying much for now, other than "we are working on the best way to do things". Do they mean us?

Originally Posted at Systems Engineering on KTN _connect.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Issues and Risks : philosophy of Present and Future

In Project Management, the concept of a Risk is fairly well established.

"An event, which, if it occurs, will have an effect on the Project's Objectives".

So if it's a harmful future event, we would note its likelihood, impact, and causes, and seek to manage it. By doing so, we reach into the future and handle it so that it does not impact the present in a way we would not wish.

Whereas an Issue is defined, at least in the APMP syllabus (PRINCE2 and PMI may differ on this definition) as
"a threat to the project objectives that cannot be resolved by the project manager. ... issues have already occurred and are therefore not uncertain".

APM Body of Knowledge, 5th Edition.

In teaching this, we fall into a sideline. Students ask: what about future events that are nearly certain. Aren't they also Issues? or Risks with very high probability? or just issues? Since escalation at the proper time is a key result of the Issue Management process, we should have a clear answer. We can reply by saying that the cause of the event was in the past, whereas the manifestation of the problem could be in the future. That satisfies some people, but not entirely. Then I saw this:

"Modern Western culture has absorbed the threefold Greco-Roman concept of time as "past" (that which has gone before), "present" (that which is), and "future" (that which will be). It is easy to associate these concepts with the three Norns Urdhr, Verdhandi, and Skuld. It is also incorrect. The Germanic time-sense is not threefold, but twofold: time is divided into "that-which-is," a concept encompassing everything that has ever happened - not as a linear progression, but as a unity of interwoven layers; and, "that-which-is-becoming," the active changing of the present as it grows from the patterns set in that-which-is. That-which-is is the Germanic "world," a word literally cognate to the Norse ver-├Âld, "age of a man." One will notice that even in modern English, there is no true future tense; the future can only be formed through the use of modal auxiliaries. For the Teutonic mind, all that has been is still immediate and alive; the present only exists as it has been shaped by the great mass of what is, and the future only as the patterns of that which is becoming now should shape in turn."
- By Kveldulf Gundarsson, Tuetonic Magic, p. 24.

Seen in Cloud Hands, Mike Garofolo's blog about TaiJi.

I can see the same dichotomy of viewing the future/potential in the way Risks ("that which is becoming") and Issues ("that which is") are treated. To put them in the Graeco-Roman mould of Future and Present seems to create difficulties which are avoided, to my mind, if we instead follow the Teutonic pattern. Ja?

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Misison statements and all that

I quite liked this post from Signal v Noise about crappy mission statements. Are they a US disease?

Some of my colleagues seem to think so. Furthermore, such drivel causes as much distress for the inmates of such organisations as for their supposed customers.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Invention by Design, Petroski

Henry Petroski, Invention by Design

Henry Petroski has written a number of books that cluster around the craft and process of engineering. This one sets out to illustrate the inventive process of engineering design. I picked it up hoping to know more about innovation in other fields than my own.

In the ten or so case studies presented, the theme of the problem-as-impetus clearly emerges. Engineers, as critics of existing products, are driven to devise further inventive steps to reach toward a more excellent product. With some exceptions (the Boeing 777 case, which although probably the most contemporary, seemed to be lacking an undefinable quality of fidelity: does he really get what's going on there?), the cases revolve around the thoughts and craft of individuals. In some cases (the drinks can) their identities are obscure, whilst in others (the bridges of San Francisco) they spring from the pages dramatically. Exhibitions of patent documentation provides the bare bones, Henry P re-constructs the whole animal.

It's also clear that teams of engineers, or even distant collaborations, don't simply progress by cutting through an underlying bedrock of physical properties to get to the solution they seek. Rather, at each inventive stage, a higher order product, an improvement from the last, emerges from a mist. Thus we step from toggles to buttons, thence to what must have a been a nightmare of "automatic" clothes-tieing devices, to the zip as we know it. A series of hops then to the Ziplok bag, and yet another string of manoeuvres to Velcro.

But perversely, despite each invention begetting more invention, at the same time each enlargement of the scope and scale of the products seems to make it harder to analyse the next-generation design. Boeing's exponentially growing development budgets attests to this. Not all of the added complexity comes from within the product though, as there are network effects and social or legal changes concerning the use of the products that add further layers of requirement to each iteration.

The idea of resources as enablers, such as materials or tools, for certain types of design activity is also strongly exposed. He exemplifies this all through the book, pointing to CAD as a key technology for Boeing, standardisation for the Crystal Palace among many others. He seems to be too early to notice much use of computing in architecture though.

The chapter on buildings as systems shows how the problem complexity rises with each generation. Perhaps there is an inherent bias in these works, forgetting the industrialisation of innovation in mundane structures. The wonder of the local supermarket, reproduced thousands of times, as opposed to the award-seeking skyscrapers of the capital.

He uses terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center as an example of resilience of design. He refers of course to the 1993 bombs in the basement. What would he make of the later total failure of the designs in 2001, and was this indeed a failure of that particular building as a system, but a failure of a wider, un-designed system?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

New Technology Disaster

Here's a story about waste from the streets of England. Generally speaking, the streets of the Kingdom are not strewn with rubbish, by international standards. The systems and infrastructure to support the removal of our wastes might not be the best possible, but they are pretty good.

It wasn't always. Go back a century or two, and you really would be looking at serious daily health hazards, not only in piles of discarded household waste, but also human wastes. Remember the Great Stink? Not many do, that's why I'm glad to plug UCL's Stinkfest.

But I digress. What happens when technologists look at systems for economically collecting waste, with the added requirement of wanting to incentivise waste reduction. This is a new requirement by the way. Back when you could throw everything away, you could run waste as a reactive service. Nowadays there is no "away", and the economist's response is to put a price on waste. From a local council's point of view, this makes sense. Bin-men cost money.

Enter technologists. Let's weigh the bins as we collect, and send you the bill for massive wastefulness. Sounds good, except even if it works in Germany or Shangri-La, it will need installing here. By "it" we mean weighing arms, identifiable bins or houses, recording systems, billing systems, training and all the rest of it. Not a light bulb then, but a complex system. You can expect databases to grind, for people to be standing in the wrong place, and for the odd bit of hardware to get broken. Worse than Terminal 5 on a good day, just like all perfectly normal field tests of things which looked fine in the lab.

Two stories from the press, following a halted trial, (not even a "pilot") in Norfolk:

Daily Mail (hates the government for messing with the bins, and god knows what else) "disaster, devastating blow for the scheme"

Guardian : "Schemes to go ahead"

Partly, these trials got media attention because of the RFID angle "they are spying on our bins, haven't they heard of the Magna Carta?". What most irritates me, aside from the axe-grinding of the Mail, is the complete lack of technological nous. It's obvious to me, admittedly now after years of exposure to the field, that the newer and bigger the tech the more carefully it will have to be prototyped and worked out locally before going live. So it's a "disaster" then? The local Tory MP cheerfully jumps on and pronounces left, right and centre, and tries to shake of the "government-imposed scheme" (the local council would have creamed off a good wodge of the Government grant for trying this out on their patch, and would have been in the front line for savings from a live scheme).

The Grauniad's report on the other hand isn't really looking at the technical risks at all, but sells it as political battle, showing the government's deafness to its critics. It's just as blind to the systems development issues.

The Mail could still be right, there could be serious system-level difficulties with this system, and they could be unique to the UK, or indeed South Norfolk. We just don't know reading these reports.