How Good Policy Alongside Good Design Improves Lives

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Tishaura Jones, the first female treasurer of St. Louis, set out to improve her city through good design. Through her own struggles dealing with the city’s bureaucracy she identified many problems with how information is presented, she noted she wasn’t the only one running into bad design. Jones decided to do something about it; the policies were there but nobody knew how to understand them since the information was presented in a Byzantine way. She has led St. Louis to alter how information gets communicated to its citizens.

As treasurer of St. Louis, she used two key design techniques to improve policy delivery and outcomes. First, she reached out to other cities that had prototyped and tested new, human-centered policies. Building on what other cities had learned allowed St. Louis to springboard forward instead of getting stuck reinventing wheels. Second, she brought together policy and processes, applying people-centered design to the rules that governed services and the delivery of them. By building connective tissue between policy, process, and people, Jones was able to built new trust in old institutions to deliver real change impacting residents’ lives.


Justin King, policy director of the family-centered social policy program at New America, where I did research, has spent his career working on issues at the intersection of children’s lives and government policies. “Tishaura and Jose before her are reinventing what’s possible inside government,” he says. “People see the state and municipal government, in a lot of cases, as a predator on them and their communities . . . [Their work] is against the tide. It is really positive and really innovative and really worth talking about.”

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America Might Find Salvation in Satire

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2016 witnessed the election of Donald Trump thanks in a large part to Russian meddling in the American democratic process. One of the most effective things that the Russians did was lie and spread contradictory information to make it hard for people to discern reality. Trump’s marketing skills made use of these Russian efforts to convince people to vote for him (by a very small margin and still lost the popular vote). How do we get out from the propaganda launched by Russia, Trump, and others?

The answer might just be late night comedians. Yes, a country run by a celebrity famous for being born rich will be saved by other rich celebrities. At the very least it’ll be great to see elevated discourse!

This is all to show that there is now proof that the mainstreaming of lies in the Trump era is indeed rotting our brains. It was first thought that one way to prevent the spread of false information would be to flag it by third-party fact checking, but the study cited above showed that that effort did not sufficiently help.

And that’s where the comedians come in. Thus far there have been no studies that have compared cognitive processing of satire with cognitive processing of falsehoods. But there is significant research to show that it may well be true that the best cognitive defense against Trump era falsehoods is satirical comedy. We know, for instance, that those who consume sarcasm are smarter, more creative and better at reading context. All are useful tools to process lies.

What is most interesting is that processing falsehoods and processing certain types of satire appears to follow a very similar cognitive path. In both cases, the brain has to be able to distinguish between what is said and what is true. And in both cases the brain has to reconcile ambiguity, incongruence and the misuse of words. It further has to process tone, context and body language to infer meaning.

We knew back when Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were on Comedy Central that their viewers were among the most informed on issues of any group consuming news. But now the role of satire in informing the public may be even more important — satirists may be the one thing that is keeping analytical thinkers engaged.

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Jaywalking Shouldn’t be Illegal

So far in 2018 a car driver has killed a person every week; if this continues Toronto will see yet another year in which more people die from vehicles than guns. Automobile advocates argue that it’s the victim’s fault for dying and demand stricter punishment for trivial things like jaywalking. Clearly, the debate in Canada needs to change. In America the situation is worse, the pro-car (and historically pro-wealth) policies around pedestrians for walking are being used for reasons beyond protecting drivers from hitting flesh. Sadly, in the USA jaywalking is used by police to target minority populations – and people are already working to change this.

The solutions is clear: don’t let trivial issues like jaywalking be policed the way they are today.

Jaywalking is a trivial crime, one that virtually every person has committed multiple times in their life. This makes it susceptible to arbitrary enforcement. Sacramento’s black residents are five times more likely to receive a jaywalking citation than their non-black neighbors. Seattle police handed out 28 percent of jaywalking citations from 2010 to 2016 to black pedestrians, who only make up 7 percent of the city’s population.


Eliminating jaywalking and similar offenses won’t lead to anarchy on American roads. It’s not illegal in countries like the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, for example, and both countries enjoy markedly fewer traffic fatalities than the United States. It’s not clear how much money flows into state coffers from pedestrian tickets, but it’s likely far less than traffic tickets for drivers. Any lost income may also be offset by the savings for police departments. Fewer unnecessary contacts between officers and citizens means fewer costly lawsuits and officer dismissals.

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Resistbot Makes it Easy for Americans to Reach Politicians

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The inability to easily take action is a leading factor in why people don’t engage in political change. The creators of a new service, Resistbot, want to make it simple for Americans to have their voices heard. Resistbot is a bot you can interact with via SMS or using it has a plugin to Telegram or Facebook Messenger. For now, it has simple services but has it grows more abilities are being added to help people connect, organize, and have their voices heard.

Text RESIST to Resistbot on Telegram, Messenger, or to 50409 on SMS* and I’ll find out who represents you in Congress, and deliver your message to them in under 2 minutes. No downloads or apps required.

After I help you write or call Congress, your state governor, or the White House, you’ll discover more of what I can do: like town hall lookups, daily reminders, and opportunities for volunteering. New features are being added all the time.

So keep it personal, unscripted, and be persistent. Here are a few users who’ve gotten letters back or read more frequently asked questions.

Check out Resistbot.

Why the Parkland Shooting can Change the Gun Conversation in the USA

Out of the tragedy of the Parkland school shooting might come some good. You might be sceptical as Americans are used to schools being attacked by gunmen and we’ve heard before that the most recent shooting will change things. Indeed, school shootings are still so common that the Onion runs the same headline every time. Will the reaction to Parkland actually be different though? It looks like it.

FiveThirtyEight has taken a look into why Americans are complacent with students being shot in schools and the American love of guns. They note that people don’t equate gun violence with guns nor understand how better policy could solve America’s gun problem. The good news is that the reaction to the Parkland shooting is different insofar that the conversation around guns and gun control is more direct. The students from Parkland may represent a new movement for finally stopping gun-based violence in the USA. Indeed, it’s remarkable that two weeks after the shooting Americans are still talking about.

Change in America’s love affair with guns is happening. Companies that favoured the NRA are stopping their support and just today a large American sports store made it slightly harder to get guns. Progress is happening!

The characteristics of the Parkland shooting — and the response to it — mean that this incident could be positioned to overcome some of these psychological barriers. Slovic speculated that focusing on restrictions that target the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle used in the shooting, rather than guns as a category, might make it easier for gun owners to psychologically distinguish the gun used in the shooting from the weapons they personally possess. That could create some common ground that leads to banning or at least limiting the AR-15’s use.

The numbing effect of repeated exposure to violence is also enabled by a quick drop-off in media coverage, but the Parkland students’ vivid stories — combined with images, text messages and videos from the attack — could imbue the event with continued urgency and make viewers empathize with survivors in a new way. “Hearing directly from people who have experienced the trauma is understandably very powerful,” said Sandro Galea, a professor of public health at Boston University who studies trauma and firearms.

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More on the FiveThirtyEight podcast.

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