Monday, 22 June 2009

Railways in the UK

To people in Britain born before -- say -- 1955, the name "Doctor Beeching" automatically conjures up the story of the drastic curtailing of the UK railway network. Following a study of the financial health of the UK railway system, in the early 1960's, Doctor Beeching recommended the closure of many railway branch lines and many stations on the remaining lines. From a network which connected cities, towns and villages, the network became one which connected cities and large towns. The report envisaged rail users commuting to their nearest station by car or public transport, and continuing their journey by rail. Over the years, the Beeching closures have been condemned by many people. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to reverse them; old tracks have been taken up, and the land has reverted to farmland or used for housing. Some stretches of the network have become footpaths and cycleways.

Last week, proposals were published to try and reverse some changes, by reopening lines and reinstating stations. Intriguingly, the proposals were based on a cost-benefit analysis, and the proposals were those which exceeded a threshold for the ratio of costs to benefits. So O.R. was used, at least in the financial model. Two cheers for the report! It would get three cheers, if there was evidence that the compilers had looked at the feasibility of the proposals, asking questions such as the availibility of car-parks for rail users, and whether or not timetables could be adjusted to include the new stations and lines.

Digital Britain

Last week the UK government launched a programme based on a report titled "Digital Britain". The aim is to develop the electronic infrastructure of the UK in the next decade or so. The news media have homed in on three proposals from the many (an executive summary of 30 pages seems to go against the desire to be concise). One relates to the funding of the national broadcasting services (BBC), one to the funding of the national broadband network (so every home can have 2MBps broadband by 2012) and the third to the desire to move many FM radio transmissions to Digital by 2015.

Let's look at the second and third from an OR perspective. The proposed funding scheme is a tax of £6 per year on each telephone landline in the UK. (It's not clear if this will be applied pro rata for businesses with internal exchanges.) The media have questioned why such a tax is needed. The government scenario is that the objective of extending the broadband service can only be done by government intervention. An alternative scenario is that commercial operators will develop the broadband provision in response to demand and their financial objectives. So far the operators have done very well without the need for taxes to help. And with the increasing convergence of computer technology and telephone technology, is the scenario seen by the government the correct one?

The third proposal is intriguing. Digital radio in the uK is often referred to as DAB-radio. The government argues that the cost of upgrading the FM network will be about £200million, and this is not worthwhile. Instead, they are looking to manufacturers to develop radios that cost less than £20. So, instead of spending £200million, consumers are expected to replace their radios. Currently, our home has 7 FM radios, plus one in the car. All of these have other functions -- a radio alarm, radios with CD players, an MP3 player with FM radio. So, to replace these will cost rather more than £20 each; unlike TV sets which often have a limited life, radios go on and on and on. Of our 7 household radios, I expect 5 or 6 to be in working order in 2015. Is the scenario of scrapping them a good one? I don't think so.

Finally, the report was launched with a triumphant "We want the UK to be the best in Europe or the world". What about helping other countries to develop in their use of technology? Do we selfishly optimise our bit of the system, or do we think globally and optimise the whole? I favour thinking globally, even if it means that the UK infrastructure is not quite the best in the world!

Monday, 1 June 2009

How not to display data

In an earlier blog, I quoted one of my email signatures which uses the following quotation:
In the information age, somebody has to specialize in the development and presentation of really useful information. Doing that for management and decision-making applications is the core role of Operational Research scientists. (Randy Robinson, the first executive director of INFORMS)

Ever since I read the books "The Use and Abuse of Statistics" and "How to Lie with Statistics" I have been alert to examples of poor communication of data. Today's example comes, I am afraid, from my own university (Exeter).

Here is a map showing the modes of transport used by a sample of employees of the university. I am not sure whether to point the finger at the university or Devon County Council. So what's wrong? A few thoughts to start with.

1) The map covers far too great an area; there should be enlargements around Exeter.
2) The symbols are horrible. A black parenthesis on top of a coloured exclamation mark.
3) When you magnify the map to see the detail (and in most cases, to see the colour) then the symbols are lost.
4) What is the point? Is it to inform?

Let's be positive: could the information be presented in a different way? Suppose that we separated the modes of transport to see where the walkers come from. And those who use public transport? And those who car share? And those who travel less than 2 miles by car? The maps for many of these could be on a large scale. Then we might apply some contours of equal travelling time. But we still haven't answered the question "what is the point?"