What makes (or forces/allows, depending on the situation) a person or a group of people to take an action? What impels (or propels/liberates, again depending on the situation) someone to act a certain way? It’s not always clear. I am fascinated by these questions because often the answer is the right set of incentives.
Two articles crossed my desk* and they show how complex incentives for people really are.
On the one hand, there is a really cool initiative happening over at my alma mater. A piece in the today’s New York Times highlights the work of Balaji Prabhakar, a professor in EE and CS. Essentially Prof. Prabhakar realized that rush hour on Stanford campus was bad. He also realized that “congestion pricing” — that is, charges for driving to peak places during peak hours — is unpopular with drivers, though is a common tactic to fight congestion. So rather than a disincentive from driving at busy times, he developed an incentive structure. You enter a lottery when you drive or park off-peak and can win up to $50. Simple.
It’s brilliant since it cuts down on wasted time, creates less rush hour pollution and is also flexible in how it scales. It’s a brilliant move and from an incentive standpoint, totally logical: people are willing to change their behavior in order to receive a benefit, in this case, money.
On the other hand, an even loftier goal is afoot to help improve obesity and public health in Philadelphia. Context: the US spends $147B treating obesity each year. That’s more than the GDP of New Zealand. Of America’s big cities, Philadelphia has the highest obesity rate and poorest population.
Unfortunately, access to healthy food in a neighborhood has no causal link to improved health outcomes wapo.st/JS4caz
— Christian L. Tom (@cltom) June 12, 2012
The new program to combat this is to turn the local corner grocery into a greengrocery. The city is working with 900+ stores to stock healthy items. To me, this sounds great since it stands to reason that greater access to healthy food (particularly in poorer neighborhoods where it’s not otherwise available) will increase selection of healthy food and increase healthy outcomes. Making it easier to buy healthy food should be a huge incentive to making one and one’s family healthier.
Except not. Emphasis mine:
“In the U.K., we’d started making policy about this before there was any empirical evidence,” says Neil Wrigley, a professor of geography at Southampton University in England, who works on urban planning research. “Time to time, this happens, where you get policies that outstrip the evidence. Then the evidence needs to catch up.”
Wrigley conducted one of the first studies of a food desert intervention, looking at what happened when a grocery store was brought into an underserved part of Leeds, an industrial city in northern England. Of shoppers surveyed, 45 percent switched to the new store. Their habits, however, barely changed: Consumption of fruits and vegetables increased by one-third of a cup per day — about six grapes or two broccoli florets.
“The results came out quite small, a very modest increase in consumption of nutritious foods,” Wrigley says. “It seemed an almost nonexistent improvement.”
Similar research in the United States shows much the same.
There are some good explanations for this. For example, access to food is not also only dependent on proximity to home but also about distance from public transit.
Still, when presented with two options — healthy food and not (selling apples is not mutually exclusive with selling candy) — people often choose the candy, simply because they want the candy.
Maybe the problem is this program in Philadelphia really only removes a barrier without providing a kick. And with the Stanford driving experiment, there is a good catalyst in cash rewards. Still, I look at these articles and I see two behaviors that are trying to be changed. It seems like both could be successful (and both are, after all, just starting so success is not predetermined). I read these excited about them both. And while initial trials at Stanford have gone well, the skepticism by experts regarding the Philadelphia work worries me since it’s rational, it’s too logical.
Note: Also check out the awesome Dan Pink TED talk from a few years ago about extrinsic and intrinsic motivators which I posted to this blog last year.
According to Stanford (via the Stanford Report), yesterday Santa Clara County officials informed the University that seven (7) now eight (8) students tested “probable” for swine flu.
It appears that:
(1) These are the first reported cases of the H1N1 flu at Stanford.
(2) The students who tested positive have since either recovered from their illnesses or “are on the way to recovery.”
(3) Some were treated at Stanford Hospital; others were seen at Vaden (a scary thought unto itself).
(4) None of them needed hospitalization.
(5) No changes in the university schedule or its plans for Commencement are planned, though “the University is augmenting health precautions around upcoming events.”
(6) According to the CDC, there are essentially 3 levels of definition: confirmed, probable and suspected. These cases fall under the category of “positive for influenza A, but negative for human H1 and H3 by influenza RT_PCR” (I am guessing RT-PCR is reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction– thanks Genomics class!).
In the Stanford Report, Vaden Director Ira Friedman was quoted as saying:
Following the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the county public health department, we are treating this as we would seasonal influenza [emphasis mine]. So, we recommend that students follow the precautions they were given to avoid spread. Based on the advice of county health officials, we do not believe there is need for any other action at this point. The flu has been circulating widely in the country, state and county, so these results do not surprise us.
This answer does surprise me, in light of the fact that Provost John Etchemendy wrote us all an email on 28 April saying that if there were a confirmed case on campus, “we could be required to close most of our dorms and send as many students as possible home.” I know he said confirmed and none of these are at that point, and he also qualified his statement with a firm could. However, to go from that sort of language to an almost flippant “we’re treating this like a regular ol’ flu” is a pretty big reversal. Especially since we’re talking about 7 8 cases here, not just one isolated incident.
UPDATE: As reflected throughout the post, there are now eight cases to speak of, with the University hinting that there may be more probably cases since “additional samples are awaiting test results.”
I’ll update as more information becomes available. The official Stanford flu page is here; The Stanford Daily is (supposedly) updating; nothing yet on the Mercury News breaking news but I’m sure there will be something soon; I’ll be checking the @stanford Twitter stream also.
For a while now, I’ve been well-aware of Stanford’s desire to regulate undergrads. From a perhaps overly zealous OSA to a redesign of White Plaza which, in my opinion, doesn’t serve students well, it’s all there.
But perhaps the most annoying of it all has been the absurd proliferation of bike signs around campus.
That photo was taken under Braun Music Center, a much-trafficked area between White Plaza and the Row.
The signage has been particularly excessive here. Take a look at this walking tour I made, for example (it’s less than 1 minute long):
If you’re still not satisfied, I even made a schematic of the area (overkill, I know):
Take a close look. There are eighteen (18) total bike signs in there. That space is about 35′ x 15′ by my estimate.
On the side closest to the Muwekma and Storey, the three bollards and the garbage can have a total of eight signs on them. Is that really necessary?
I know, this is not, in the grand scheme of things, a big deal. Or even a small deal, really. And I mainly created that map up there because I wanted an excuse to use DocStoc. (Forgive me).
But it’s all just kind of absurd. Right along that path, they are building a pedestrian sidewalk. In an open area. Where there are no cars. (See below).
And in their effort to force bikes to park anywhere besides in the sacrosanct archways/arcades, there are bike racks in all the wrong places.
There was an interesting article today in Slate’s Green Lantern section which answered a question about biodegradable plastics. (“Breaking Down Is Hard To Do“).
The biggest challenge, it seems, is not simply getting people to recycle– after all, here was a self-proclaimed frat boy about to throw a night of debauchery asking about biodegradability.
The problem is that the term “biodegradable,” as a marketing term, is unregulated by the federal government. This means that, “manufacturers can sometimes get away with being a little squirrely in their advertising.”
Granted, the science behind it is complicated as well, since landfills have different levels of biological activity: many compact trash tightly and cover it daily with dirt and clay to reduce odor. Then there’s the question of whether biodegradability is such a laudable goal at all:
Then there’s the fact that biodegradability may not be a worthy goal in the first place! The tomblike conditions in most landfills mean that any biodegradation that occurs is going to be anaerobic. In the absence of oxygen, the process produces methane, a greenhouse gas that’s 21 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. So your biodegradable party-ware might end up warming the planet more than a standard plastic cup—which would at least sequester its carbon for a long, long time.
What I take away from all of this is not that sustainability is worthless, or that it is impossible for the average college student, urban dweller, suburban mom/dad, etc. to do.
This is on the same day that SF Mayor Gavin Newsom announced San Francisco now recycles 72% of all trash, making the goal of 75% by 2010 and zero waste by 2020 a distinct possibility.
Large-scale recycling efforts, then, are not out-of-reach. In fact, Newsom’s announcement shows me that the key to sustainability is in government regulation, outreach and support.
This means starting small and scaling up. Take, for example, the ASSU Green Store here on Stanford campus. The student government, with I’m sure some help from the University Administration, has made an effort to make sustainability easier for students throwing parties (like the Stanford version of the frat boy in the Slate article).
Now consider how the ASSU initiative fits into a greater Bay Area political effort, such as Gavin Newsom’s emphasis on recycling.
And if the federal government were to enact legislation imposing tougher sanctions on what “biodegradable” is (like the USDA does for “organic“), then you’d have a comprehensive set of incentives and opportunities for people to lead more sustainable lives.
While sustainability is not “cheap,” price is one clear hurdle which can be passed. I did some quick comparison shopping:
|Source||Type/Brand||Number||Price||Cost per item (in cents)|
|ASSU Green Store||Recyclable||50||$5.60||11.2|
|BevMo (online)||Solo (Jack Frost)||100||$11.99||11.9|
So while cost plays into the decision, it ultimately would dictate that buying Green Store cups is the best bet anyways.
The role of the government, then, is to take a more active stance in regulating marketing terms for consumers who may not understand but who want to make the right purchase. Correction of misinformation (and misleading advertising) when combined with community and national initiatives can result in– if not a lot of good– at least a lot less of bad.
Tags: assu, bevmo, biodegradable, costco, cups, garbage, gavin newsom, Government, great pacific garbage patch, green store, marketing, organic, party cups, recycling, regulation, san francisco, SF, slate, Stanford, sustainability, trash