The Crafter, The Contributor and The Covid Tracker

The Crafter

This week’s local neighborhood newspaper reported on a mom type volunteer doing the homey thing and stitching up masks for anyone who needs a buffer from the virus. She puts a plastic bin of them on the sidewalk in front of her home, and only asks that you donate an extra cotton shirt if you have one to spare.

On Wednesdays, Moira Knutson sets out two big plastic storage totes on the concrete walkway of her home. One is empty, for donations of 100% cotton shirts, and the second is full of patterned masks. Anyone who happens to be walking by is welcome to take a mask from the bin, free of charge.

Like many people, Knutson was first motivated to sew masks for health care workers when the pandemic began but is perhaps unique in that she never stopped. By her “guesstimate,” she’s made about 2,000 masks since March.

The Collaborator

Wikipedia was founded almost twenty years ago and has thrived on a volunteer-contributor model. A paper written by Benjamin Mako Hill while at MIT evaluates this form of collective action. His analysis studies why Wikipedia succeeded whereas seven previous attempts, which involved the general public giving of their time to build an online encyclopedia of knowledge, did not. The paper is called Almost Wikipedia: Eight Early Encyclopedia Projects and the Mechanisms of Collective Action.

Abstract: Before Wikipedia was created in January 2001, there were seven attempts to create
English-language online collaborative encyclopedia projects. Several of these attempts built sustainable communities of volunteer contributors but none achieved anything near Wikipedia’s
success. Why did Wikipedia, superficially similar and a relatively late entrant, attract a community of millions and build the largest and most comprehensive compendium of human knowledge in history? Using data from interviews of these Wikipedia-like projects’ initiators and
extensive archival data, I suggest three propositions for why Wikipedia succeeded in mobilizing
volunteers where these other projects failed. I also present disconfirming evidence for two important alternative explanations. Synthesizing these results, I suggest that Wikipedia succeeded
because its stated goal hewed closely to a widely shared concept of “encyclopedia” familiar to
many potential contributors, while innovating around the process and the social organization
of production.

Note that last line: “…because its stated goal hewed closely to a widely shared concept of “encyclopedia” familiar to many potential contributors.” The shared objective was clear.

The Covid Tracker

Bloomberg reports on the Covid tracking project which has been run mostly by volunteers -or- Data Heroes.

Since then, the Covid Tracking Project—run by a small army of data-gatherers, most of them volunteers—has become perhaps the most trusted source on how the pandemic is unfolding in the U.S. The website has been referenced by epidemiologists and other scientists, news organizations, state health officials, the White House Coronavirus Task Force, and the Biden transition team. There are other reliable sources for pandemic statistics, but the project stands out for its blend of rich, almost real-time data presented in a comprehensible way. “I think they’ve done extraordinary work and have met an important need,” says Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, which publishes its own set of pandemic data (and draws some information from the Covid Tracking Project). “They’re tracking things that aren’t being tracked.”

And this:

The project is a demonstration of citizen know-how and civic dedication at a time when the country feels like it’s being pulled apart. Yet it’s confounding that, almost a year into the pandemic, the Covid Tracking Project is doing what might be expected of the U.S. government. “It’s kind of mind-boggling that it’s fallen to a group of volunteers to do this,” says Kara Schechtman, one of the project’s early volunteers, who’s since become the paid co-lead for data quality.

Work–Not for a salary, but for the public

The crafter, the contributor and the Covid tracker all have something in common. They engaged their services once they found a worthy goal. This, in combination with extra time on their hands, as well as a skill that could clearly be leveraged toward a windfall result, motivates the workers to step up. Notice that the goals fall into public benefits such as (pubic) health, (public) education and (pubic) governance. And this just-in-time response, especially when the need is great, out performs the established bureaucratic system.

These are all examples or work in the public sphere.

The battle for the kids

Parochial schools are doing well, from what I hear, in the battle to attract and maintain a student body. They opened on time in September with increased enrollment, and have stayed open through this Thanksgiving holiday. There will be a break in in-person learning now (like all other schools and universities in the area) until January. My sources report no sizeable outbreaks or health concerns for either the learners or learned.

The 91 Catholic schools in Minnesota compose the 4th largest district in the state. This unexpected swelling in enrollment is a benefit to their bottom line. As they do not receive the per pupil funding which finances the public schools, they are on their own to market within their faith community as well as to those who value smaller class sizes. In some cases, sports families are attracted to an increased probability that their athlete will make the varsity team.

The use of direct mailings to reach families throughout the area seems like a good fit. However, when a large public school district, where attendance is dictated by place of residence, pummels direct mail right over school boundary lines, it feels objectional. Why is that? Both the schools are in the business of delivering education, both require funds to operate. Attracting students is the same as attracting customers–no?

Customers use private funds to purchase a good or service. The parochial schools are offering a service, one that complies with the standards set by the state, but has been customized to the requirements of a specific community. The funding that follows a child to the public school district they attend is not private, it is taken from a pool of funds which is collected under mandate to educate all Minnesota kids.

Plus– it isn’t just the funding allocated per child that is lost when a family sends their offspring out of their district. Since busing is only offered within the school boundaries, it is a given that one parent is available to drive them to and from school—or will once the whole virus thing wraps up. By self-selection these parents often donate their time to school activities, fund raisers, and all those extras efforts that make an educational community stronger.

So when a school district pumps a bunch of dollars into a direct mail piece with messaging along the lines of, ‘Hey, we’re better, come on over,’ they are drawing students as well as high-social-capacity families to their district. Which means they are draining adjacent districts in an equal amount. On net, the dollars spent on this type of private business marketing is not fulfilling the state mandate to educate all students. But rather is congregating the haves and leaving behind the have-less’s.

The parochial schools are working in a private sphere even though they are fulfilling a public obligation. So it is fitting for them to use private strategies. Public schools are working in the public sphere so using private methods sets up externalities.

Put me in title

In the is-it-private-or-is-it-public game, I agree that a home is a private good. The event which makes you a home owner is a closing, which in Minnesota, is usually held at a title company. On the chosen day the buyers and sellers sit down (pre-Covid) and the buyers sign up for a mortgage to finance the purchase while the sellers sign over a warranty deed. Done deal. No take-backs. The fees include a little state tax and filing fees so the documents are filed publicly in the county recorders office.

The process almost seems trivial but it so powerful. This singing over of a title and its public recording in a government office is the most significant feature of private wealth in the US system.

Interestingly, there are a whole assortment of local norms and customs revolving around closings across the United States. Most states either close at the table or over an escrow period. In Wyoming, however, real estate agents conduct the closings. Also specified and unique to almost every state is a foreclosure process. Most weigh heavily on consumer protection. And here is an interesting table breaking down all the nit picky processes and fees.

Owning a home is a staple of the American dream. Owning a home ties you to a community where you participate in measure of all public venues: public safety, pubic schools, public transportation, parks trails and the environment, governance and civic pride.

Fireworks

In a recent post, which challenged whether national defense is a public good, I suggested that sunlight was a public resource. Then I got to thinking about height restrictions in new construction, and in particular about a luxury high-rise development that was squashed by neighboring residents. A few years ago plans were underway for two residential towers on the west side of Southdale Center which is in an up-scale suburb of the Twin Cities. When over 200 folks filed into the city council chambers, there were more opposed than in favor.

But dozens of residents spoke against the towers, listing issues with everything from its height to the shadows it would cast.

So you see sunlight can be privatized. The owners of the 50’s built one-level homes to the west argued that the new apartments would steal their sunlight. The two towers would privately claim the warm beams, leaving them in the shadows. In economic terms, the new high rise would externalize shade.

There is a cost to shade. If you sell condos you know that southern exposures are more desirable than northern (though thankfully some feel a south view is a tad too warm). Being that there is more demand for this exposure these condo garner a higher price than those pointed north.

Here’s my original post challenging the breakdown of goods into public, private, club and common. Today I’m challenging the idea that fireworks are a public good. One would think that no-one could be excluded from seeing the fireworks. At least, once you already assume that you really mean no-one who is already close enough in the first place, can’t be excluded. An assumption which in itself, makes it a private good when you live one county over.

Realizing it has this private good, say the city lures people to move to their downtown by advertising an amazing fireworks display on the Fourth of July, shot from a bridge over the Mississippi. By fall the new residents have moved into a beautiful condo overlooking the stone arch bridge which spans the mighty river. By the following summer, however, a new condo building has been built which blocks their view.

Mr. and Mrs. NewRes show up at City Hall hotter than a hornets nest and demand compensation for being denied their access to a public good. After all it was the city that approved the permit that allowed the building to steal their view of the fireworks.

Here’s where I say be careful to identify your public, be careful to know your groups. The fireworks are public to those who show-up in a public space within sight of them. And you say I am splitting hairs. But am I?

When we tell families their children have access to a uniform public education for grades K-12, are we offering fireworks that can’t be seen by everyone? We all know that there are different levels of school performance all across the districts. At least a portion of that performance can be attributed to work done in the neighborhoods which support the learners and the educators in ways that are not supported elsewhere. So when the state says all learners will be provided ‘the same’ public good, is the state committing to make-up for the difference in the neighborhood support? Because that would tally quite a hefty tab.

Who Killed Home Ec?

That’s the title of an article in Huff Post which pens some interesting history on the discipline. Go figure the first women admitted- Ellen Swallow Richards— to MIT is credited with generally credited with its development back in 1876.

Far from regressive the aim of the coursework is described here:

At the Women’s Laboratory, Richards turned her scientific attention to the study of how to make home life more efficient. According to the Chemical Heritage Foundation, “Richards was very concerned to apply scientific principles to domestic topics — good nutrition, pure foods, proper clothing, physical fitness, sanitation, and efficient practices that would allow women more time for pursuits other than cooking and cleaning.”

The categories under the umbrella of home economics today have expanded to seven: Cooking · Child Development · Education and Community Awareness · Home Management and Design · Sewing and Textiles · Budgeting and Economics · Health and Hygiene .

An enhanced understanding of these directly effect community engagement from health to housing, governance to safety. Such a shame to have lost fifty years of home focused education to a stigma.

Fungible is more Fun

What does it mean for a transaction to be fungible, or non-fungible? Here’s the dictionary’s definition for the word when googled;

fun·gi·ble/ˈfənjəbəl/Learn to pronounce adjective LAW adjective: fungible

(of goods contracted for without an individual specimen being specified) able to replace or be replaced by another identical item; mutually interchangeable.”it is by no means the worlds only fungible commodity”

Wikipedia talks about fungibilty in this way:

In economicsfungibility is the property of a good or a commodity whose individual units are essentially interchangeable, and each of its parts is indistinguishable from another part.[1][2]

For example, gold is fungible since one kilogram of pure gold is equivalent to any other kilogram of pure gold, whether in the form of coins, ingots, or in other states. Other fungible commodities include sweet crude oil, company shares, bonds, other precious metals, and currencies. Fungibility refers only to the equivalence and indistinguishability of each unit of a commodity with other units of the same commodity, and not to the exchange of one commodity for another.

In the sense of a transaction being fungible or non-fungible I offer the following understanding. If you buy your gas at a Holiday station, whether it is on the corner leaving your neighborhood, or the one near your place of work or the one half way to your vacation destination, the transaction is the same. One purchases a indistinguishable commodity which is paid for with some form of currency of consistent value. The transaction starts and ends in the matter of minutes. It is fungible.

Now consider a different type of transaction, one that happens in a neighborhood. Every morning nine to ten kids gather at a bus stop to catch a yellow bus to the local elementary school. School starts at 9am and ends at 3pm. Most kids stay for after school programming so their parents have a chance to get home and pick them up before heading home to pull something together for dinner.

Now say it is mid January in a northern climate, and a mega storm develops predicting twelve inches of snowfall. The schools close at noon before buses full of children slide into the ditch and the roads are gridlocked as the snowplows can’t keep up with the descending flakes. Afterschool programming is cancelled leaving working parents in a bind.

One of the parents, call her Amanda R, works third shift at the hospital, and has the means to contact everyone as the families went through Baby-and-Me classes together at the community center. She lets them know she’ll be at the bus stop to collect the first-through-six-graders and let them hang out at her house. “Drive safe!” emphasises the text.

If the families would have taken personal time from work to the tune of four hours each, that would have amounted to thirty-two work hours. (With an average wage in Minnesota at $58K/yr, that comes to $892). Amanda R doesn’t expect payment for her offer. She knows that over the course of their elementary school experience there will be a track and field day, and the third grade band concert (that only a parent can love) and the fifth grade science fair and the list goes on. There will be plenty of opportunities for parents to stand in for each other.

The work Amanda R did to allow parents to stay at their jobs while keeping their kids safe from harm was a non-fungible transaction. She won’t receive any immediate payment or exchange for her time. She can’t trade those hours within another neighbor down the block. What she’s betting is that she will receive assistance many times throughout her kids’ school experience.

Certainly it might be more fun to work for cash and spend it on concert tickets or new clothes or a trip. But the beauty of non-fungible transactions is that they are held within the group and often engaged when the stakes are high.