Representation

Representation is always difficult, and nowhere more so than on maps.

In constructing a map for a project, I spent – what I initially thought was – an inordinate amount of time on it. But I realised otherwise upon producing the final copy.

What I learnt about what took me so long was the exact thing holding me back from completing the task: Wanting to be perfect. I wanted to be as exact as possible so as to do justice to the geography.

At some point, it dawned on me that for the purpose of what I wanted to achieve, accuracy was still important – but faithfulness was not.

All I needed was an approximate model for people to get from Point A to Point B. Here, I had to strike a balance between what I wanted ideally and what people really needed.

If map-making is a metaphor for sharing one’s wisdom about finding one’s way in the world, then this route stands out: art, like life, entails having to be comfortable with making choices and accepting sacrifices.

Nevertheless, these trade-offs cannot be made unthinkingly; for example, there will be situations in which accuracy and faithfulness are equally important, and approximations will not suffice.

Also, while there is much value in putting in the hours to learn the intricacies and nuances of any craft, sometimes, it’s always better – and quicker – if you have a guide to show you the way.

I hope this map guides your path in the same way it will guide mine.

Satire in an age of fake news

Trump and the "very, very stupid people" (IMAGE: Tom Toles)
Trump and the “very, very stupid people” (IMAGE: Tom Toles)

As an aside, this Ministry of Chindian Affairs thing is a long-running joke between me and my friends.

The last time I posted about it was in 2014 – and in how things have changed since then.

I thought it was telling – and a bit sad, really – that today, I had to explicitly tag/indicate that this post was #satire.

I had a conversation a while back with a fellow writer about art, where we talked about the tension between accessibility and obscurity when it comes to writing.

We don’t have to be too obvious, she said. The reader should get what it is we want to say, without us trying too hard.

And if they don’t get it, so what? Their loss.

It’s a different age now.

It’s become compulsory to make clear that what is written is satirical, just to prevent keyboard warriors from coming up with trumped-up charges of “fake news”.

Perhaps the writing was on the wall in late 2016, after Trump got elected.

Back then, I noticed how The Borowitz Report’s slogan quietly changed from “The news, reshuffled” to “Not the news”.

Subsequently, the column name itself evolved from “The Borowitz Report” to “Satire from the Borowitz Report” sometime in 2017.

It’s sad when the assumption is that the reader will wilfully misinterpret what it is we are say, so all subtlety has to be forsaken.

And it doesn’t say much about the state of intelligence in society, as well as skills of critical thinking, media literacy and all that jazz.

Then again, maybe it might make for a more compelling reason for why learning literature should be compulsory.

Because if a child can’t even interpret irony, then how is she going to begin to figure out fake news?

User error or system flaw?

Lately, I’ve been seeing these signs at the exit doors of buses:

A transcription of the copy in case you can’t see the image:

“Tap Out For Better Services

You make a difference when you tap out with your travel card (including concession card/pass holders)! How?

By tapping out, you provide more accurate data about bus trips and crowding. That helps us to plan better bus services.

Make a difference!
Tap out now!”

It’s an attempt at a nudge to get concession card users to “tap out” i.e. to tap their travel passes on the card reader at exit doors of buses before alighting.

(By the way , “tap out”, in this context, is a non-standard use of the term #notsayiwanttosay)

Why do I say it’s an attempt at a nudge?

Singapore has been using proximity/contactless cards for its public transport since 2001.

Most commuters have learnt to tap their stored-value cards on the entry reader when they board, and to tap the same card on the exit reader when alighting.

There is incentive to comply.

The maximum fare, calculated from when they board to the bus’ terminal destination, is deducted upon boarding.

If the journey ends before reaching the bus terminus, the card is tapped on the exit reader to obtain a refund of the balance .

To illustrate: A commuter’s journey would cost $1.50, if he boarded at a stop where the maximum fare of $2.00 was deducted, and $0.50 were refunded to him, if he tapped on the exit reader before alighting.

If the latter action were not taken, the sum would be forfeited – though if the commuter so desired, he could make a fare refund claim.

The respective penalty and hassle of the previous two outcomes thus provide a disincentive to non-compliance.

But there is no similar disincentive for concession-card holders – such as senior citizens, students, and national servicemen – who often bypass the exit reader.

This group pays a fixed travel fare, often lower than what adults riders might pay (and rightfully so, because of their relatively limited income as compared to working adults).

Because their fares are fixed, whether or not they tap their cards when alighting has no bearing on fare calculation.

Now that data collection to inform service provision has come into vogue, the behaviour of this group of riders is unproductive for transport planners.

Without knowing where and how many people alight at a certain place or time, it’d be unhelpful for, say, allocating more buses during peak periods or modifying bus routes to better serve commuters.

And that’s where the poster comes in – to remind concession-card holders to “close the loop” on their public transport journeys.

It remains to be seen, though, how much a poster could possibly nudge people to change their behaviour.

As seen from the Free Pre-Peak Travel scheme, it takes a certain approach to encourage people to break certain habits, or discourage them from doing what has been easy for them.

To be sure, not tapping before alighting is not exactly user error; it’s been a good 16 years of habituation for concession-card holders because of how the system was designed.

Yet, to bite the bullet now and apply the same “deduct when boarding, return when alighting” approach to concession-card holders may not work.

It’d entail much more churn, in terms of having to deal with multiple fare refund claims before users settle into the desired habit.

That’d take away a lot of time, energy and effort from the core business of data analysis to improve services.

Perhaps a more middle-ground approach here would suffice: word the poster differently to appeal to commuters’ sense of following behaviour norms.

Even then, it depends on the generosity and altruism of the user to follow suit.

Clearly, this is a textbook case study of why planners should pre-empt system flaws and design processes with the user in mind.

That is: make usage friendly and intuitive, while understanding users’ idiosyncrasies and catering for such quirks.

This creates systems with longer-term sustainability and adaptability to evolve, along with the times, to meet future needs.