champagne anarchist | armchair activist

Trust instead of algorithms

A number of Dutch cities have contracted a company named Totta data lab to predict which welfare recipients may have committed fraud (the cities were somewhat secretive about this approach, but newspaper NRC wrote about it last spring). Totta has trained algorithms on a considerable amount of personal data: 2 to 3 hundred variables over a period of 25 years.

Such analyses carry the risk that existing biases are reproduced:

Luk [A Totta spokesperson] says that in some municipalities more fraud is found among people who have a partner (e.g., they don’t report income), whereas in others it is people without a partner (failing to report they live together). «But it’s quite possible that only that group has been investigated and we build our algorithms on that.»

Luk says they sometimes add ‘deviant’ citizens to the suspects, apparently in an attempt to look beyond the usual suspects.

Another problem is the lack of transparency regarding how this type of algorithms work. Totta doesn’t disclose its algorithms because it wants to protect its business interests; further, it can be difficult to interpret and explain how algorithms work. As a result, the government is unable to explain what criteria it uses to prepare decisions that affect citizens. Recently, the Dutch Council of State expressed concerns over digital decision-making by the government.

Proponents of algorithms argue that they help to detect more fraud while reducing the burden for innocent citizens. In fact, there may not be such a clear distinction. The organisation of welfare agencies said that alleged welfare frauds are often people who mean no harm, but who get into trouble as a result of complex and ambiguous welfare rules.

Still, Amsterdam city council member Anne Marttin (VVD) finds the approach interesting. She asked if Amsterdam uses algorithms and data mining to detect welfare fraude. The answer is no. This is why:

The city government is aware of the use by other municipalities of algorithms and/or data mining to fight welfare fraud. The city does not use such instruments to deal with or prevent welfare fraud. […]

Our services for welfare recipients are based on trust. Further, the city government attaches great importance to the privacy of citizens and the way in which their data is used by the government, for example to develop algorithms. The city government thinks it’s very important that the use of data mining and algorithms doesn’t have a negative impact on the privacy and the legal protection of citizens.

Source (pdf)

Scooter-free cycle tracks in Amsterdam

Amsterdam plans to ban scooters from most cycle tracks. Currently, cycle tracks are still used by the so-called snorfiets category which has a speed limit of 25km/h - although most ride (much) faster. The measure will make cycle tracks safer for cyclists, and it will also result in cleaner air on cycle tracks.

The city has produced a map showing the new snorfiets regime. By my calculations, snorfietsen will have to use the road on a total of 180km (blue on the map) and they will be banned from another 71km of routes where there’s only a cycle track (marked in red). However, they’ll still be allowed to use about 93km of cycle tracks (green), at least for now.

Busy cycle tracks

To decide where to ban scooters from the cycle track, the city used data from the Fietstelweek, the large-scale initiative to collect smartphone location data from cyclists. This is interesting, since governments have complained that the number of participants in the Fietstelweek is declining (they started experimenting with Strava data instead).

Perhaps that’s why the city of Amsterdam used the 2016 edition of the Fietstelweek (rather than 2017) to assess how busy cycle tracks are. It used its own traffic counts to validate the Fietstelweek data. The Mathematics Centre of the University of Amsterdam deemed the method used ‘reliable and suitable’.

I’ve created a map to show how the new snorfiets regime compares to Fietstelweek data. The width of the pink lines corresponds to the number of cyclists who used a route; the green dotted line shows where snorfietsen will still be allowed to use the cycle track.

It appears that the city has done a decent job at avoiding the busiest cycling routes (in some cases, this is because these routes don’t have separate bicycle tracks to begin with).

That said, some problems remain. One example is the cycle track along the IJ north of Central Station, which can be very busy and where some snorfiets riders overtake other traffic in a dangerous way. And there’s the Amsterdamse Brug and Schellingwouder Brug (the bridges to the northeast of Amsterdam), where cycle tracks are too narrow for snorfietsen.

Making all cycle tracks scooter-free

In the future, the city intends to ban scooters from all mandatory cycle tracks within the A10 Ring Road. Obviously, they want to do this without compromising the safety of snorfiets riders. This will be easier on routes where car speed is already low.

The map below shows the current average car speed on major roads. The green lines indicate where snorfiets riders will initially be allowed to continue using the cycle track.

Of course I don’t know what the situation is when you’re reading this, but likely some of the highest car speeds (on sections where snorfietsen will initially be allowed to use the cycle track) will be on the Gooiseweg, entering the city centre from the southeast, and the aforementioned Amsterdamsebrug and Schellingwouderbrug. On those bridges, many motorists exceed the speed limit. The city wants to change the road design to invite lower speeds before banning snorfietsen from the cycle track.

Elsewhere, it should be relatively easy to make the remaining cycle tracks scooter-free. Of course, a more practical solution would be to abolish the snorfiets category altogether.

If you wish to respond to the city’s plans, you can use this form. The deadline is 24 September.

Method

I used Qgis to create the first map and Leaflet for the second. I used GeoPandas and Shapely to calculate lengths. On the first map, the width of the pink may be slightly distorted due to varying distances between cycle routes in opposite directions.

Alas! They don’t make the Joep bicycle anymore

Photo: Gonca Akyar

[This is a translation of an article from 2016] - I think the Joep bicycle - and the women’s version Ari - were launched in 2008. Joep Salden, owner of a bicycle shop in Utrecht, designed a minimalistic, functional bicycle, without any unnecessary accessories. The only concession was a bicycle bell. «You’ll need one; on this bicycle you’ll overtake anyone», Salden said when I bought my greyish green Joep in 2009.

I’m happy with my Joep and I’m not the only one: Utrecht alderman Lot van Hooijdonk owns one too. TestKees, the bicycle tester of cyclists’ organisation Fietsersbond, tested a number of fast city bicycles in 2009. His conclusion at the time:

Joep and Ari mainly stand out because of the minimalistic assemblage and the beautiful classic look. The frame and the parts go well together. (…) It’s clearly faster than the VanMoof and much faster than the luxurious city bicycles with gear hub and suspension that have been so popular in the Netherlands for years.

For Salden, the fact that his bicycles look good came second. «I appreciate that people are enthousiastic about how it looks, but for me the most important thing is for them to ride off thinking: that’s a smooth ride!», he said in an interview. The bicycle was supposed to last at least ten years.

Imitation

Coincidence or imitation: by now, there are various bicycles on the market with designs and colours reminiscent of Salden’s bicycles. Take the citybike, since rebranded courier bike, introduced by the Hema department store in 2011. On the face of it, they look a lot like the Joep and Ari - even though the execution is inferior, with wide aluminium tubes and a comfort saddle.

In Amsterdam, I was once addressed by the owners of a bicycle shop at the Weesperplein. They said my Joep was a beautiful bicycle, but also an imitation of the Achielle bicycles they sold. But I don’t think it’s true Salden has imitated Achielle. That said, Achielle has beautiful Sam and Saar bicycles that show similarities to the Joep and Ari.[1]

Interestingly, Salden had his frames built in Belgium. Achielle is also based in Belgium, and has its origins in a family business of frame builders. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Joep frames used to be built by Achielle.

[Update: on Twitter, Achielle has since stated that they used to build the Joep bicycles and that the frames are the same as those of the Sam and Saar.]

Someone else once said my Joep is reminiscent of the VanMoof bicycle produced in Amsterdam, but I have to disagree. Tastes differ, but I think the Joep is restrained and elegant, whereas the VanMoof is neither.

Out of business

Currently, I use my Joep in Utrecht, where I work. It isn’t as shiny anymore as when I bought it, but it’s still a beautiful bicycle. What’s more, it still runs very smoothly, even though it has seen little maintenance.

Meanwhile, I needed a new bicyle in Amsterdam. I reckoned I’d just buy another Joep. But the website of Salden’s bicycle shop, Het Fietspad, was no longer online and its phone number had been disconnected.

At the location of Het Fietspad, there’s now another bicycle shop, Cycleworks, with beautiful old road bicycles hanging from the wall. They told me that Salden is out of business for good. In fact, he has been for a while, as I found out later.[2] Alas!

Meanwhile, I’ve placed an order for a shiny black Achielle Sam with path racer handlebars. Also quite nice.


  1. Especially the version with the lightly bent Miel handlebars. The oldest references to the Sam and Saar I could find on Google are from 2010 - that’s why I don’t think Salden imitated them.  ↩

  2. According to the Chamber of Commerce, Het Fietspad went out of business on 14 January 2015.  ↩

Is tourist dispersion working? An analysis of Lonely Planet maps

Discussion

For more than fifteen years, Amsterdam has been trying to convince tourists to visit areas outside the city centre. There is a concern that the inner city is approaching the limit of how many tourists it can handle.

To explore the effect of these policies, I analysed changes in the maps in Lonely Planet guides. Over the past years, sights have been added in areas outside of the inner city - mostly areas that had already been affected by gentrification. Still, the large majority of sights are still in the traditional tourist areas, in the city centre and some parts of the Zuid district.

It appears that the effect of tourist dispersion policies is modest at best - and not nearly enough to compensate for the growth of tourism. Reducing the impact of tourism may well require a different approach - for example targeting hotel capacity and low-cost flights to Schiphol Airport.

Dispersion policies

In its coalition agreement, the new city government said that the positive aspects of tourism are increasingly overshadowed by its negative effects, putting the liveability of some neighbourhoods at risk. One of the ways to deal with this is spreading tourists over the city (and the surrounding region). Amsterdam is to be primarily a place where people live and do business, and only in the second place a tourist destination.

The idea to disperse tourists is not new. In 2016, Amsterdam launched a campaign to promote areas outside the inner city. Interestingly, the campaign caused a bit of a controversy when politicians noticed the Nieuw-West district had been left out of a promotional map. Amsterdam Marketing responded that ‘in our professional opinion’, the district is currently ‘less suitable to be offered as a primary alternative to the city centre’. They argued that neighbourhoods must first be embraced by locals, which suggests that city marketing follows gentrification.

In 2009, Amsterdam planned to promote the eastern parts of the city as ‘the new (2nd) Museum Quarter’; the Northern IJ Waterfront as ‘Creative City’, the Westerpark as a variation on Berlin’s ‘Kulturbrauerei’; the Eastern Harbour Area as Docklands; de Pijp as ‘Quartier Latin’ and Oud-West as ‘Notting Hill’.

And as early as 2001, the tourism board warned that the inner city had almost reached the limit of how many tourists it can handle. «But where should they go? To IJburg for architecture; fun shopping at the Arena Boulevard in Zuidoost and visit the former GVB tram depot in Oud-West.»

A common denominator of the campaigns is that they target repeat visitors. As the tourism board explained in 2001, «we don’t want to send first-time foreign visitors to the outskirts».

Lonely Planet maps

To get an idea of the impact of these policies, I analysed changes in the sights shown on maps in Lonely Planet guides (for caveats, see Method below). If tourists turn to new parts of the city, you’d expect these areas to show up on those maps. Further, in 2009, the tourism board started seinding information about sights outside the city centre to publishers of travel guides. «Inclusion in the guides is not guaranteed, but this often happens.»

2006 is a bit of an outlier. A number of sights outside of the city centre were added, only to disappear again in the next edition (see below, Sights that were dropped). If you zoom in on specific neighbourhoods, you’ll notice more changes. For example:

  • A number of sights in Oost were added in 2012: Oosterpark (including De Schreeuw, Slavery Memorial and Spreeksteen), Dappermarkt and Frankendael;
  • In 2018, a number of sights in Noord were added, including some at the former NDSM Wharf, EYE Film Museum and Nieuwendammerdijk.

The table below shows the percentage of sights per district:

District 2000 2006 2012 2016 2018
Stadsdeel Centrum 84 74 78 78 75
Stadsdeel Zuid 10 12 11 11 10
Stadsdeel Oost 1 3 6 5 6
Stadsdeel Noord 2 1 0 0 5
Stadsdeel West 3 5 4 5 4
Stadsdeel Nieuw-West 0 1 0 0 0
Stadsdeel Zuidoost 0 1 0 0 0
Wijk 00 Amstelveen 0 3 0 0 0

There has been an increase in especially Oost and Noord, but the large majority of sights are still in Centrum and in Zuid (which includes the Museumplein).

Sights that were dropped

In each edition, new sights are added and others are dropped. The latter category includes sights that don’t exist anymore, such as the Netherlands Media Art Centre, the Vakbondsmuseum (trade union museum) and temporary locations of the Stedelijk Museum. Other sights apparently fell out of grace with the authors.

The authors of the various editions have their own preferences and interests. For example, Andrew Bender, author of the 2006 edition, appears to be a bit of a health enthousiast. He added many sports facilities and fitness centres, which explains why his edition had more sights outside the city centre. Most of these were dropped in the next edition. In 2012, Karla Zimmerman and Sarah Chandler added many hofjes (~almshouses). Again, most of them didn’t make the next edition.

Method

I used the following editions of the Lonely Planet Amsterdam guide:

2000: Rob van Driesum, Nikki Hall
2006: Andrew Bender
2012: Karla Zimmerman, Sarah Chandler
2016: Catherine Le Nevez, Karla Zimmerman
2018: Catherine Le Nevez, Abigail Blasi

I analysed sights in the legends of the maps at the end of the guides. The maps also include categories like eating, drinking, sleeping and entertainment. I focused on sights, reckoning that this category would likely present less problems when you want to geocode information from old maps. Note that the classification of especially the 2000 edition is somewhat different from later editions.

It’s possible that errors occured in geocoding or in copying data from the guides. If you spot any errors, please let me know.

Obviously, Lonely Planet maps are not a perfect measure of tourism dispersion. On the other hand, if there had been major shifts in the areas tourists visit, it seems rather unlikely they wouldn’t be reflected in the sights Lonely Planet shows on its maps.

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Circular Metro and Tram map of Amsterdam

This weekend, Amsterdam’s new North-South metro line will open. To celebrate the occasion, Straatkrant Z! offers a free copy of Eric Hammink’s beautiful circular Metro and Tram map of Amsterdam. Z! is a newspaper sold by homeless people.

Seven years ago, Hammink designed the first version of his map, modelled after the pattern of the city’s canals. At the time, there was talk about Amsterdam’s public transport company GVB adopting the map, but apparently they haven’t. A missed opportunity.

The map is also used in Hammink’s iPhone route planner app.

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