Sorry, but Madison architecture is boring. (Or, please stop building the same building)

[Warning: This post is full of a lot of graphics. You may need 15 seconds or so for it to load, especially the Google Street Views. Also, this post is best viewed in Firefox – Google Maps Streetview with custom views doesn’t play well with Safari, so if you don’t understand what you’re looking at, just rotate the view in the window a little bit]

Last time I talked about people, not brick and mortar, but today I do want to talk about bricks and mortar.

I am not the first person to say it, but living in DC has really driven it home for me: Madison architecture sucks. I’m not talking about comparing the big federal buildings and monuments here to buildings back in Madison, nor am I talking about the historic buildings in Washington (which are impressive) – I’m looking at the new developments in Washington, and comparing it to what I see us building in Madison, and it’s not good. Madison is building boring buildings, over and over again. Let’s look at some examples:

21 N Park, the new UW business offices. Down the street, you can see Meriter, and if you rotate up a little bit you’ll see Smith Hall, also the same design.

Regent and Washington, in a long stretch of sameness:

The monotony of the Student High Rises. Except for the copper roof at Gorham/University/Bassett, not a one of them has anything worth mentioning:

Grand Central, at Mills and Johnson. Where have I seen those colors before? “Oh, we’ve got both kinds of music, Country and Western”

The new Mendota Court development.. It’s a tried-and-true formula.

It’s not getting built, but the Shorewood hills apartment building that would have replaced the cylindrical tower on University Avenue.

This week there was news a new project was moving forward. I’m all for redevelopment on Park Street, but does it have to be the same as every other street in Madison?

I could go on – the Badger Bus Depot redevelopment, the buildings near First St, some of the south side senior housing redevelopment.

Enough. Please, for the love of God, I’m going to scream if I see one more Prairie School building proposed. I just can’t take any more brown and yellow buildings with stubby little wings sprouting off the top. It’s not that they’re bad buildings or they’re ugly, it’s just they’re all the same.

For comparison, I took a four-block walk in DC and took a few (admittedly, crappy) iPhone photos of buildings I found interesting.
Here’s a example of what you can do in a small footprint. Look – a curve!

I really like this building. You can still have right angles, but they don’t all need to be in the same plane as the roof or walls. A little bit of layering and depth is nice.

Old and new can mesh together well. It can have prairie school influences, but not everything needs to run the length of the building.

You can vary the color and shape of the building, and you can do interesting things in the courtyard. Occasionally, a curved surface is fine!

Sometimes, some negative space adds a lot to a building. Not everything needs to go right out to the edge of the building or align the same way.

You can use a corner as a face of the building, too.


It’s not that Madison is not aspirational or that we don’t want bold or interesting buildings, because we do. A year or so back, I was showing a friend the UW Campus Master Plan for the East Campus Mall, and she excitedly pointed to a building (labeled 7 in this picture) and said “Oh, what’s that going to be!”

She was very disappointed when I told her it was the building we were in, the University Square redevelopment


So, what’s the problem? How is it that from an essentially random 4 block sample from Washington, DC I can find a slug of interesting buildings, but yet Madison keeps building the same boring building or worse, turds like University Square?

Obviously, some of it is economics. While land costs more in Washington, construction costs in DC are likely within a reasonable factor of Madison construction costs (a brick is a brick, and bricklayers in DC probably make about what bricklayers in Madison make.) However, rents are much, much higher here – and I doubt the land costs explain all of it. Therefore, the developers have some extra money to work with, which means they can build more complicated designs or use better materials on the exterior – costs that the Madison real estate market can’t support.

Maybe it’s fewer architects in the Madison area. Madison has a small enough development community that when I go to meeting where they’re presenting plans, I can often recognize the architects or from a project proposal tell you who likely designed the building. Each architect has a style and things that he or she likes to do, and maybe with more architects we’d have more variety.

Or, maybe it’s the Urban Design Commission, which is charged to “assure a functionally efficient and visually attractive city in the future.” The UDC is made up of architects, design professionals, and is staffed by the City’s planning department, so they do know what they’re talking about, and should serve as a good form of peer review on designs that we’re going to live with long after the terms of any development deal are finished.  I believe the UDC’s mission is important, for example, it should stop awful buildings like this one:

(It’s an ugly building to start with, and put forward by the same people who brought us the travesty at Randall and Spring. There are also some pretty serious sustainability and public policy issues since they UW is likely to have to tear it down in 20 years (and pay a premium to do so). All of that aside, the background color for the rendering is very unfortunate. Every time I look at that I keep thinking of the “Dark Tower” series by Stephen King)


So what if it is the UDC? Architects spend their entire career and training being reviewed and critiqued by other architects, so the UDC review shouldn’t be anything unlike everything that they’re already used to doing. Is it tougher than it needs to be? Do developers simply stick to designs and styles that the UDC has traditionally approved so as to not rock the boat?  Is the UDC’s definition of “making projects better” actually “make projects look like what we’ve approved before?” Or, what if it is just economics? Is there a public interest in seeing varied designs, and how do we incentivize that? Why does it seem like we’re getting the same building over and over again, and why do people complain about the architecture in Madison? If we had more Kenton Peters (and maybe if the new Kentons had a better reputation of being easier to work with), would we see more things happening in Madison?

This question of “why are the designs so boring in Madison” is an important question to understand, because we’ve sold ourselves on the idea of redeveloping East Washington Ave, and we envisioned it as something new for Madison, in part with pictures like this. Do we think we can actually build anything like this in Madison?


Most of the pictures I took from DC were from 14th St NW, which is both an important transit stretch in DC (the bridge from Virgina into DC that passes the Jefferson Memorial is 14th) and is undergoing the same sort of revitalization that we want to see happen on East Washington. So how do we ensure that what we dreamed was possible actually comes to pass, or, will we wind up with another stretch of the same boring design we seem to be getting good at building?


ps – if you want to stay current with Madison development news, absolutely the best source I’ve found is this thread on Skyscraper City. (It’s 40-something pages of messages long, so skip to the end to see current projects.) These posters love redevelopment, and collect images of proposed projects. If you ever wonder “what is that hole in the ground going to be”, they’re pretty good. The City’s planning site is usually pretty decent, too.

The story I want to know more about: SAFRA and Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation

Here’s a story idea for Madison journalists: what do the recently passed SAFRA student loan reforms mean for 1200-employee strong and Madison-headquartered Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation?

The brief synopsis of SAFRA/the Budget Reconciliation that is relevant to this post: beginning in July, all Stafford loans will be publicly-funded and government guaranteed Direct Loans, and not privately-funded but government guaranteed and subsidized FFEL loans. President Obama argued that the FFEL program was a waste to the taxpayers, because the subsidies went to bankers and middlemen instead of students and families.

Under FFEL, lenders – private organizations (for-profit corporations, non-profits, and some state-government sponsored enterprises) raised money from the capital markets (by borrowing money/selling bonds, or by taking in deposits like a bank) and then lent that money out as student loans. Because the lenders are borrowing money to make the student loans, the Federal Government helps the lenders by paying some of the interest on the borrowed money. The Federal Government also promised to step in and pay for students who default on their student loans, in effect making the loan risk-free for the lender, which meant the lender never had to worry about how it would pay off any bonds or loans it had taken out. That guarantee made bonds sold by the lender a safe investment, and as such the bonds didn’t have to pay a very high interest rate.

All together, the lender just profit off the difference in the interest rates the student paid to the lender and the interest rate the lender paid on the funds it borrowed to make the student loan (which, remember, were also being subsidized by the Federal Government!) There are hundreds of lenders, and why not, because it’s a pretty easy way to make money, and the lenders fought tooth-and-nail to keep the FFEL program going, but the gravy train is coming to an end soon. It’s going to be a difficult transition for companies in the business, and there well may be some layoffs, but that’s what happens in creative destruction.

Great Lakes is not a lender, but a big part of their business is supporting lenders by acting as the guarantor and provider: in effect, doing all of the hard work for the lenders. The WSJ gives a good overview in a December 2007 story “Working with Students to pay for college”. With the elimination of the FFEL program, no new loans will be issued, and there will be less and less demand by lenders for Great Lakes services. It won’t go away immediately – all of the existing loans under the FFEL program will continue to exist, and will need to be managed, but it won’t be a growth industry and it would be a slow twilight for Great Lakes.

However, Great Lakes is not a member (at least, not publicly) of the lobbying effort to keep the FFEL program. That can get to the other scenario for Great Lake’s future.

Great Lakes is one of four companies under contract by the Department of Education to “service” the FFEL loans that the Feds already have. You see, sometimes when banks want to get out of the business of handling student loans, they can sell the loans they have to other banks, or, additionally, to the Federal Government. This was especially important in the 2008 credit crunch: banks that needed to refinance loans or roll over bonds couldn’t get credit, and the Feds acted as buyers of last resort. The Federal Government needs to keep track of all of the loans it owns, and make sure that students make their payments, have access to updated balances, etc. Even more importantly, the contracted companies are expected to play a role in servicing the Direct Loan program – which is what all future Stafford and PLUS loans will be after July. Even if SAFRA hadn’t passed, many schools were switching to the Direct Loan program and away from private lenders. (UW Madison announced earlier this year that they were making the switch) Undoubtedly, the news that the Obama Administration was pushing to eliminate the FFEL played a role in pushing some schools to jump ship anyway, but as the FAQ at UW Madison points out, there are benefits to the Direct Lending Program regardless. This summer, Direct Lending activity is going to double, and as an NPR story wonders, will the Department of Education be able to handle the increase in load? Will the Dept of Ed have to rely more on their private partners, in an example that is right of Donald Kettl’s book on the nature of leveraged-governance.

So, what it sounds like, and in talking with some friends at Great Lakes, is that the downturn in FFEL business will likely be more than made up for in growth in servicing the Department of Education directly. (There’s also the possibility of expanding into the private market too, but I didn’t ask much about that.) Even more so, what I’m hearing is that Great Lakes is very bullish and may be looking towards expansion. So, to any enterprising journalist reading this, part of your story should be on what the City of Madison can do to help.

Madison can do the usual, boring things, like put in new stoplights or expand traffic lanes coming up to their headquarters, and if it will help we should. But we can also do something bold. While some of the jobs will be technical – Great Lakes employs a lot of computer programmers – there’s a good chance that at least some of the jobs that will be created aren’t necessarily going to require specific technical skills. Instead, many will just need a solid “liberal education” (after all, you can’t really major in “Servicing Student Loans”.) This doesn’t necessarily mean a full college degree, just some core competency skills.  If Great Lakes knows its going to need people, and if some of the jobs are amenable to it, let’s help them with recruiting – and even more importantly – training. Let’s create a couple month bootcamp and lift more Madisonians into the middle class. Madison will find people and take the risk on the training, and Great Lakes can hire out of that pool at the end. Let’s treat investing in people as economic development instead of bricks-and-mortar.

(If you want to read more about SAFRA and its impact, check out the Student Lending Analytics blog, which is where I found a lot of the links in this post. In particular, check out this roundup of reactions to SAFRA, this post on the day after SAFRA, and the Two Days After post. Also, this roundup from Inside Higher Ed was great, especially the comments, and covered the legislative process from the past few days. )

ASM Roundup

A couple of random things, since Smathers keeps teasing us but never actually posting the next day. (It turns out it’s hard to keep up with everything 🙂

— I have formally resigned from ASM council. I stayed on for a little while longer, to finish up some grad student RA things, and to submit some final pieces of legislation, but there’s nothing now that I need to be a council member to do. I think I’ve only picked up one unexcused absence (special meetings don’t count.) I also did not file for reelection, and I think the deadline has passed, so I’m done.

The SSFC is working in “subcommittee“. I always think of my church when I think of SSFC, and the liturgical calendar. There are feast days and seasons, and some are more joyous than others, and some you just don’t much care about. Subcommittee is the Lent of SSFC – preparing for the upcoming resurrection of SSFC. My brief reaction to the items they’re discussing:

Campus Services Fund: Good idea. We need to diversify the funding streams and not just have everything go through the GSSF, nor should we assume that a student group will come forward and provide the services we want.

Move the SACGB and Finance Committee under SSFC: Maybe. Initially I was opposed, but I’m warming up to the idea. Getting the VPN part right is really hard, and it’d be nice to have more consistency between the three groups. However, in a broader picture, I’m not sure I want to put any more responsibility in the SSFC, particularly ASM policy. In fact, I’d like to roll some back and make SSFC less important in the ASM Budget.

I really want to change the name of the Finance Committee to be more descriptive of what they do – maybe even something as uninspired as Events, Operating, and Travel Committee. I think it’d be easier for students to understand ASM if the some of the names were a little more sensible. It’d also help when trying to fill committee spots – right now, we get a ton of applications to serve on the Finance committee from Finance Majors – none of whom have a fucking idea what the ASM Finance Committee does and would never have applied if it didn’t have Finance in the name. Whenever we put these people on the committee (and we do, because oftentimes they’re very bright, just not hip on the ASM lingo) they quickly figure that they want nothing to do with it, and if we’re lucky they formally quit, otherwise they half-ass it or just don’t show up and it’s a quorum problem.

Capping the GSSF: Figure out how to do it in a VPN manner and we can think about it.

College Student Council Funding Stream: Hate it, for a very simple reason: It’s meaningless for L&S and the Graduate School, which make up the overwhelming majority of the students and neither of which will ever have a college level student council. The only colleges that want it are Engineering and CALS. When this was proposed last year, in the 15th session, the way it would work would be every student be charged, regardless if their college used the funding stream or not.

If you’re a college student council and you want seg fee funding: go to your dean and ask for differential seg fees. Leave the rest of us alone.

Stipend Bylaws – Whatever. I don’t mind the current way stipends are set, but I don’t object to making it a formula.

Internal Budget Changes – Hell Yes. First, cut out the Finance Committee entirely. They don’t do finance, they make event grants. Most FC members don’t know the first thing about the rest of ASM. The Student Council Chair should write the first draft of the budget and let Council edit it.  Then, make SSFC an up-or-down vote, no amendments. They don’t know much about ASM either, and certainly shouldn’t be making changes to the priorities the council sets. Their sole check is to make sure that ASM council isn’t doing anything egregious. However, if they don’t like say the line item for the textbook swap, too bad. Run for council instead of SSFC next time.

GSSF Wages – Why are all wages flat-rate? There are enough market-worshippers on the SSFC that I’ve never understood why they think that every job should pay exactly the same.

Vice Chair duties – I like the idea of formalizing some of the reporting responsibilities with the Vice Chair, particularly with the contracted services. I don’t have a clue what role the SSFC VC would play with Shared Gov, so I guess I’m opposed to that, until it’s better explained.

The thing that’s missing from the subcommittee discussion? My eligibility bylaw change from last fall. The first part, that would just enable applying for eligibility a year before a group had to, which would create a “rolling horizon” of eligibility. (Forget the 2nd part about making it retroactive, that’s no longer relevant). I’m pretty sure Brandon told me that SSFC would at least talk about the first part in subcommittee this spring…

Overall, Brandon and Adam have done a good job with their new blog – posts are detailed enough that they’re useful sources of information. I don’t quite agree with Adam on the SAFRA bit being attached to the reconciliation bill as a problem, but that’s more detail than I care to go into tonight.

Max is also doing a good job at getting out information. A little stream of conscious sometimes, and I’d lay off the  “I’m going to post more tomorrow” bit, but he does a good job of getting information out before he proposes something.

It’s never bothered me too much that Tyler didn’t blog much, because I’d rather the ASM Press Office did more of that. And I’ve been a lot happier with the press for the past two or three weeks – they’re actually starting to post things ahead of time, not just after the fact. However, I would like one change.  They write a beautiful email every Sunday to the campus press, detailing what’s coming up, but for some inexplicable reason they don’t post it on the blog. So, unless it tickles the fancy of the BH/DC/WSJ/CapTimes, students never know about things. This week it looks like they’ve distributed all of the information out into the the different posts, but it’d be nice to have it all in one place, posted at a consistent time.

Tomorrow’s council meeting looks pretty boring. The agenda is here. I’d expect the SSFC stipend stuff to take a long time to explain and figure out on the council floor, but with it written down ahead of time it might go easier. I don’t get the SSFC Intern Project idea: is it for this semester, or next fall? If it’s this semester, maybe I get it. If it’s the fall, then it’s pointless. By the time you get an intern in place, eligibility is mostly done, and by the time you get an intern up to speed, budget hearings would almost be done too. The intern will be useless unless he or she knows a fair amount about SSFC. If you really want to do this, find a former SSFC member (ideally, a former officer) and ask them to serve as your liaison.

I’m also happier with the language for the textbook committee, now that it’s clear they won’t be interfering with the selection of textbooks. I would never have touched it without this line:

The Committee strongly affirms the principles of academic freedom and the rights of faculty and academic staff to set curricula and select the most pedagogically appropriate course material

I’m still skeptical that it will amount to much, but I’m fine giving it a go. If we want this committee to be taken seriously, the chair should always be a faculty member.

–Going back a ways, Smathers laid things out for both this year’s council and next year’s council. I don’t take objection to anything Jason says, but I do get annoyed at something in the article. The quote is from Max, but I know the same sentiment is held by many other people on the council so I’m not aiming this at Max alone:

“It’s hard for me to find fully tangible things that we’ve done this year as a student council that benefit the student body,” Rep. Max Love told me at the beginning of his interview. “Student Council has been really administrative this year, and that’s been a problem.”

If you’re on the council and complaining about this, you’re part of the problem.

If you don’t think the council has done enough that’s tangible, well, then why haven’t you done anything tangible? The council acts through legislation, and legislation doesn’t write itself.

— There are a couple of Union names on the ballot. I’ve decided I don’t care how lame people think it is, I like “Discovery Union” and am glad it’s on the ballot. Memorial, Discovery, and the eventual West Union (circa 2025), which should have a health/healing name, I think sets up a good naming scheme incorporating broad themes, and in particular reemphasizes Memorial as being dedicated to those that have died in war. My bet is Varsity Union wins, though.

— The SJ reallocated seats for the next election. They’re right, it does need to be done, and done this year, and it’s their job to do it if Council doesn’t do it. However, that should be construed to mean that Council can’t do it, nor that they have to wait for four years to do it. I didn’t realize where we were on the allocation cycle, and would have preferred that we waited until next year to move seats around, given that we’re likely to have an amended constitution that will let us move some elections into the fall. At that time, I think it will make sense to adjust the makeup of the council, when we’ve had a chance to carefully consider not only who but when. For this year, I think the council should just pass the bylaws I proposed earlier, with an amendment to match the seat allocation as the SJ has ordered. There are times when it’s just not worth the fight, and this is one of them. Just pass the bylaw to establish the precedent that Council has a role to play here, too.

— Finally, just in a setting the record straight part, Jack yesterday had a discussion with Brian Benford about some city issues. It was a good post and I don’t have anything to say on the substance of the post , I just have to take him to task for this little throwaway:

Benford is also a UW student and was a member of student government until he left last semester to tend to a sick family member

Sorry, but Benford’s performance as an ASM council member doesn’t deserve that generous of a description. Let’s just make sure that the history is correct here: Brian attended one and a half ASM council meetings. He left at the first break as soon as he lost the Chair race and we finished up with the Vice Chair election.

Now, I certainly don’t hold it against him for leaving that night. His sister was gravely ill, and at the time didn’t seem like she had much time left (thankfully, she’s much better now).

My complaint with Benford is that when he left, after he lost the chair, he completely disappeared.  Except for two comments on Danny’s blog, we heard nothing. He said he had “dogs to walk”, and then complete radio silence.  I know that he had a job conflict with the Wednesday night meetings during the semester, but that doesn’t excuse his absences from all the summer meetings, or zero participation in any of the committees, nor did he make it to any of the events. He lost the chair, left, and never looked back.

Not everyone makes it the full year, hell, I didn’t. But I had the decency to resign when I reached the end of the things I was going to do with ASM.  We didn’t even get so much as an email explanation or apology anywhere in those nearly 6 months that Benford held a seat without attending  or doing a single thing. This was particularly frustrating, because Brian emailed council members repeated while he was running for Chair, flattering all members, and repeating how much he respected us. (See here, and here, and here, and here.) Then, nothing.

It’s too bad, because although I thought he was the wrong person for the ASM Chair, I was really excited to have him on the ASM council. He would have been a fantastic resource in ASM. (ASM Leg Affairs made the city a priority this year, and it’s been far more successful than I ever thought it would be – but imagine how much farther we’d be if we had a 2-term Alder intimately involved.) Even more importantly, I think he had an obligation to help clean up some of the mess he made when running for the chair – if you put your name forward, you do need to be prepared to see things through, and it took a long time to get past the chair election. His sister was obviously more important that night, but at some point in the 6 months after, he should have found some time. I was very disappointed that he never did.

ASM Power Hour: The “128 Sweep”

[Edited at 10:00am EDT 15 March 2010 to add one more question]
I was going to just ignore this one, but I had a few thoughts, and the supporting documentation is such a mess that you have to really be bound and determined to find out more about what happened, so I’m going to spend one hour on it and see how far I get. (OK, fine, this turned into a longer than one hour project)

ASM Chair Tyler Junger gave his report to the rest of us on what happened with the state raid on auxiliary reserves this summer, along with essentially an open records request on all supporting communications. Max has put Tyler’s report online, and Tyler put all of the supporting emails online, but they’re in useless Outlook .msg format, so they’re virtually impossible to read. [To be fair, when talking with Tyler he didn’t realize that they’d be so painful for Mac users and he thought they’d be readable by everyone. I’m just happy they’re online]

So, to make things easier, here are all (I think) of the emails in PDF format (I may be missing one – MyWebspace says there are 70 items, but when I told it to give me everything in one zip file it only gave me 69 files, and I don’t feel like looking for the wayward one. That’s an exercise for the reader.)

I’ve combined a number of emails into single PDFs, logically grouped.
The First PDF covers the initial notice of anything happening with fund 128 and a meeting. It also contains the 1 page spreadsheet that was the ONLY documentation that ASM ever saw in the whole situation. It also contains the request from Katrina to update the Council on what’s happening.  From the email dump, this PDF includes the following messages (though I deleted a few that were just Tyler forwarding the same message to himself between different email addresses)

062509 PDF of the 128 Funds doc (51).msg
062509 Re  PDF of the 128 Funds doc (71).msg
062609 128 meeting (67).msg
062609 128 meeting.msg
062609 Fw  128 meeting.msg
062609 Re  128 meeting (55).msg
062609 Re  128 meeting (57).msg
062609 Re  128 meeting (63).msg

The next PDF is mostly a discussion between Lisa Aalri, director of ASM and Tyler. The email with the staff’s comments and an explanation of what the spreadsheet means (from the previous PDF) was never forwarded to council despite there being a decision to do so. I don’t believe the staff brainstorming list was ever sent to council, though I know that I got a paper copy of it on the 26th. It also shows the first incomplete in Tyler’s report – it references an email from April 1st 2009 from Bill Richner that is critical to knowing the full history. This PDF includes the brainstorming list, and covers messages
062609 Re  PDF of the 128 Funds doc (48).msg
062609 Re  PDF of the 128 Funds doc (49).msg
062609 Re  PDF of the 128 Funds doc (69).msg
062609 Re  128 meeting (46).msg
062609 info on 128 cuts (45).msg
062609 Re  128 meeting (66).msg

The next set of emails is the back and forth between a couple of us (Myself, Tyler, Kurt, Tom) – most of it flowed through Tyler; I don’t think I CCed anyone. It starts as the benediction from Tyler after the meeting of the 26th, and then includes:
062709 Fund 128 (33).msg — Benediction from Tyler
062909 128 fund info (38).msg — From Tom, on some language that gives the UW Flexibility. Tom’s budget attachment is here.
070109 128 stuff (79).msg – From me, discussing how the UW has flexibility, and how ASM is not an auxiliary and should be exempt
070109 Re  128 stuff (77).msg – Tyler’s followup to my message, wondering if we’ve found our out
070109 Re  128 stuff.msg – My response, with the idea that seg fees should be exempted and how we need something in writing going forward
070210 tonights meeting (453 KB).msg – From Tom, includes a letter from Tyler and an agenda for that night.
070309 128 Situation.msg – Kurt’s take on what the budget requests meant, as of July 3rd. I think he got it backwards.
070309 Seg Fee Reductions (1.76 KB).msg – From Lori Berquam, to Biddy, just as a heads-up that ASM was going to the Regents
070709 128.msg – Kurt’s summary of what needed to happen before the Regent’s meeting.
070709 Re Fwd 128 fund info (2.98 KB).msg – Just an FYI from me to Tyler, explaining the provenance of Tom’s information for future reference
071009 Fund 128.msg – The Cardinal open-records requested the useless spreadsheet we had (the Fund 120D document)

I’m ignoring the following messages, since they were just Tyler and Deborah Ziff playing phone tag
070109 Fund 128 sweep.msg
070109 RE  Fund 128 sweep (31).msg
070109 Re  Fund 128 sweep (60).msg
070109 RE  Fund 128 sweep (83).msg
070109 RE  Fund 128 sweep (84).msg
070109 RE  Fund 128 sweep (87).msg

The next message I’m leaving standalone. It’s me, complaining to Tyler about the whole process and the lack of documentation and communication. That I still hadn’t gotten the written documentation I wanted in July by the end of October was why I wrote the report legislation.
071409 grumpiness about the 128 process.msg

I’m ignoring this, because it’s just some random thing to Adam from Tyler saying there will be a discussion about the 128 stuff at the July council meeting.
071809 128 Stuff.msg

The next one I’m also leaving standalone, because it details how much the UW is taking to pay off the State. I’m upset that I haven’t seen this one until now. (Earlier, I was fucking pissed, but I’ve calmed down.) Finally, exactly how much the state is taking. But what the hell is this about the FY11 contribution? Where is that in our budget?  This is important.
093009 FW  Seg fees 128 account.msg

The next one is the ASM meeting at the end of October where I got frustrated waiting and wrote legislation demanding a written report. I wanted the ASM staff to write it, but it got amended to be Tyler. I knew that Tyler would be: A – Busy, and B – I wanted staff to do it because I wanted them to be communicating with Bascom, and I wanted to know what they knew and when they knew it. I stripped out everything but my legislation from the agenda.
102709 ASM Student Council Agenda 10 28 09.msg

Next we move on to the ASM Reserve Board Meeting. The Reserve Board is responsible for managing the ASM Reserve Funds, which at the (End?) of FY09 (June 30, 2009) had $446,540.  The messages included in this PDF are from Brandon, the SSFC Chair who is also the Reserve Board Chair, scheduling the meeting and posting the agenda, and then the followup from Lisa Aalri, director of ASM. Lisa included two spreadsheets, as well as email from Donna Halleran of the Vice Chancellor for Administration’s office to Tom. Note that Donna completely ignored Tom’s question of “Is the UW expecting ASM to contribute another $75,000 to the state?”. This gets back to the September 30th email – the UW is, or at least was in September, expecting another $104,000 from ASM on July 1 2010. The 102909 message also included a spreadsheet of the breakdown of all of segregated fees, but I haven’t found it that useful so I’m ignoring it. This set of emails is important because it details exactly how the UW calculated what they’re expecting ASM to contribute.
102809 RE  Reserve Board.msg
102909 128 sweep (44).msg

I skipped these two messages, because they were just “I’ve got the swine flu and can’t make it”
102709 Reserve Board.msg
102809 Re  Reserve Board (1).msg
Finally we have an exchange between Lori Berquam, Donna Halleran, Freda Harris of UW System, Aaron Wingrad (one of the Regents), and Tom/Tyler/Brandon/and Michael Romanesko. In it, UW System lays out its rational for taking money that originally came from seg fees and why they’re pretty much OK with that. This is where there is the most room to negotiate.
110609 RE  128 funds.msg

These two messages are included in the above so I’m ignoring them.
110409 128 funds (43).msg
110609 RE  128 funds (74).msg

I ignored this because I can’t remember find anything about the 128 sweep in this agenda nor do I remember talking about it at this student council meeting.
111109 ASM Student Council  11 11 09.msg

I ignored all of these because they’re just about scheduling a meeting with Darrell about the 128 sweep. There is no record of what we discussed nor decided at that meeting.
111609 FW  Meeting with Vice Chancellor Darrell Bazzell (20).msg
111609 FW  Meeting with Vice Chancellor Darrell Bazzell.msg
111609 RE  Meeting with Vice Chancellor Darrell Bazzell (2).msg
111609 RE  Meeting with Vice Chancellor Darrell Bazzell (22).msg
111609 RE  Meeting with Vice Chancellor Darrell Bazzell.msg

I ignored all of these, because they’re just forwards of earlier emails between accounts for Tyler. He’s nothing but complete.
111809 Fwd  128 Situation.msg
111809 Fwd  128 fund info.msg
111809 Fwd  128 funds.msg
111809 Fwd  128 stuff.msg
111809 Fwd  FW  Seg fees 128 account.msg
111809 Fwd  info on 128 cuts.msg

I’m ignoring these because they’re just Student Print wanting to know what’s going on, and Tyler forwarding on those messages from one account to the other
021209 Fw  Request for Information  128 account raids and the MOU.msg
021210 Request for Information  128 account raids and the MOU (40).msg
021910 RE  Request for Information  128 account raids and the MOU.msg
022410 Fwd  Request for Information  128 account raids and the MOU (3).msg

I’m ignoring these, because they’re Max asking for all of the information in this post.
022510 Re  Open Records Request 2.msg
022610 Re  Open Records Request 1.msg
02510 Open Records Request.msg
02510 Re  Open Records Request.msg

I’m ignoring these, because its Max explaining his legislation.
030710 Segregated Fee Sweep.msg
030910 RE.msg
030910 Untitled.msg

I’m going to look at this exchange between Max and Tyler . Tyler is wrong: ASM is not an auxiliary unit. We are nothing like an auxiliary, except that we also collect segregated fees. ASM has nothing that is fee-for-service – that’s what makes an auxiliary and auxiliary.  That we’re classified as one is a problem. (Though, Student Print is clearly an auxiliary, but I’m in favor of totally spinning off Student Print anyway)
030910 Re  RE.msg

So, that’s what the records dump contained.

Where does that leave us?

We’re not done with the report. We need to know the following things:

– We need the email from Bill Richner on April 1 2009, detailing what the UW administration was concerned about with surplus money in reserve accounts. We also need the agreement that lead 15th session of ASM to spend down its reserve funds.

– We need a detailed “tick-tock” from Lisa Aarli for June 24th, 2009 – who approached Lisa with the 1-page spreadsheet listing the proposed cuts?

– We need a through explanation from Darrell’s office detailing how the UW selected the date to snapshot its financial picture, which determined the amount of money any unit with reserves is expected to contribute, and how the numbers from that day project forward into the expected contribution for FY11. Also, how did that relate to the advice to spend down the reserve funds we got from Bill in April of 09?

– [Edit 10am 15 March] We need clear guidance on the difference between the 1% efficiency charge ($104,000) for FY10 and FY11 and the one-time charge of $181,000 in FY10 for WHEG. Let’s make sure that we’re all on the same page as to what those numbers mean, where the numbers came from, where the money is going to come from/has come from, and what the money is being used for.

– We need a better explanation from the administration on how they envision FY11 contributions to work. By my figurin’, there’s $75,000 that they’re expecting ASM to cough up, of which $14,000 would come from the ASM Internal. (See the spreadsheet in the Reserves Board emails) I don’t think we have that money. Hopefully we do, through some leftover reserves, and the GSSF budget should come in under and we’ll be OK.

– Why are the FY11 numbers calculated the same way as the FY10 numbers, especially given that auxiliaries operate on a year-to-year basis?

– We have authority to deficit spend in FY10. Does that carry over to FY11?

I’ve held off having any comment on the 128 sweep at all since October, because I knew I didn’t have enough information. This report and email gets me closer to knowing what the next step should look like. I was sick of working from incomplete information, and it was not productive. I’m annoyed that it took 5 months to finish this report, and lots of negotiation has been happening, some of based on incorrect information. Overall though, I’m mostly happy that we finally have all of this information.

Obviously, that next step will be finishing a draft of the Memo of Understanding between the administration and ASM. I am not 100% opposed to releasing some of the ASM reserves towards the UW-Madison’s part of the WHEG program. It’s a tough budget and there’s no new money coming from the State, and if not ASM reserves it will be something else that affects students that gets cut.  I do believe that the UW-Madison has discretion on how their contribution should be funded, and an across-the-board contribution is the wrong way to approach it.  I’m particularly concerned with how the FY11 contribution is expected to work.

Max has gotten very interested in this process lately. I’m not sure what new information he thinks he’s found; I think we’ve looked at everything he brought up. Unfortunately, his agitating is not helpful. This is a long-term negotiation, and it’s ongoing. The first tool in the toolbox should not be a mass protest, and throwing verbal bombs at the administration and ASM just leaves you outside, and at a disadvantage when it comes to ever having to deal in good faith with the administration. There are times when the right thing to do is to mobilize, but this isn’t there yet.

Long term, we need to get ASM money out of “128” funds, because we’re not an auxiliary enterprise of the University. I suspect the best home for us is 136, or maybe 131, but we’d need someone from the VC of Administration and the Office of the Dean of Students to go over that us and see where we might best fit, and what problems having ASM funds as a different type might cause. This is what Letters and Science did after the last auxiliary sweep. Actually, I suspect the best thing to do is to create an entirely new fund type – I see 139 is open! Allocable seg fees are clearly special in the University, and its worth tracking that. (Unfortunately, I think new fund types may require legislative action, which is not exactly speedy.) That won’t protect us from future raids, but it will make it more explicit and less likely to fall under blanket sweeps.

Going forward, I think the best thing for ASM to do is to go into closed session on Wednesday night and give an update on the MOU negotiations, and see where the council comes down.

All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again (Lease Renewal Ordinances version)

2000: “Proposed ordinance to delay future tenant-property showing” (By then Daily Cardinal writer and future Wisconsin State Journal higher ed reporter Deborah Ziff)

2010: “Proposal would help student renters before they’re pushed to sign new lease” (It would have been a lot more fun if Deborah had written this one, too – but anything by Kristin is always good)

Unfortunately, the Cardinal’s archives only go back to Jan 1 2001 so I can’t find the full story on their website. My memory is a bit hazy, so I don’t remember exactly how the 6 months got cut down to 4 months by the time the Cardinal’s archives come to life. That’s history we should know, so we don’t repeat the process. It was later changed to 3 months. (The Herald’s archives are no better. Please, to both papers – go back a few more years!)

As the 2010 article points out, even if the non-standard lease provisions are struck, landlords are likely to just use waiting lists and big deposits to hold a spot in line, and we’re not much better off than we were before. I think we need to make a bigger effort to change the marketplace. The Housing Fair is one attempt at that. The first fair would be held in November 2010, then in 2011 we’d do it in December, then in 2012 in February. If it’s a big enough event, it could be the unofficial start of the rental season.

There’s also a lot of lobbying that should be done with the Apartment Association to pressure their members to not rent so early. Eli Judge made it a point to build excellent relations with the apartment association, and was able to get things done with them, and Bryon Eagon has continued that trend. There is certainly more opportunity for ASM to also get involved on a person-to-person level and start working to see what can be done.

Or, and this is a wild, crazy and probably bad idea that I’ve been thinking about for all of maybe three minutes now, and will probably delete from this post before anyone reads it, but maybe a per-month tax on any lease that’s been signed but the term haven’t started? ie, if you sign a lease in November of 2010 that starts in August of 2011, you pay a tax in Nov 10, Dec 10, Jan 11,…,and July 11? Maybe its a tax on anything more than three months in advance, so it’s not too onerous. (And 3 months isn’t a real proposal – it could be 2 months or 4 months or 6 months, whatever. Just something so the system is not “the only way to pay no tax is to sign a lease the day of.”) You can (and people do) make a case that keeping the rental market somewhat liquid is good for the city – if you’re new to the city and want to live downtown, it’s a problem if you have to sign a lease 6 months in advance. The money raised can be used to help fund building inspectors or something else useful to renters.

Like I said, this is almost certainly a bad idea: I wonder, does it discourage people from renting in Madison at all? I don’t think it should apply to businesses, so off the top of my head I can’t think of how it would harm them, except if it discourages people from renting in Madison it would also negatively impact their ability to attract workers, but I suspect there are very few if any people who get hired 6 or 9 months in advance and sign a lease that far out. Finally, if it doesn’t seriously change the market, then people would still rent early anyway. In that case, it’s just a tax on renters for no good reason, and that’s a step backwards. But, it might be a big enough signal to the market that renting later is better, and if people intentionally delay renting to avoid the tax, then maybe it’s worth doing.

An update on RA Unionization

Here’s the email that went out to all graduate students at UW-Madison yesterday from ASM. The Herald’s sub-headline is misleading – there is no “group will meet to decide if new union will be formed by secret ballot or authorization cards” – whatever group they’re talking about doesn’t exist.  The only thing that is happening in the short term is the State is setting the rules for how the union formation process will eventually work. (Otherwise, the story was pretty accurate)

(ps to the Herald – why not link to primary sources when writing stories? I know you had a copy of this email! 🙂


Dear fellow graduate students –

We apologize for the length of this email, but we believe it is
important. For a top-level, plain language summary of where ASM
believes RA Unionization is now, please jump to the bottom.


As you may recall, this past summer the State of Wisconsin authorized
some research assistants at UW schools to organize themselves and
bargain collectively, if they so choose. At the beginning of the
school year, ASM shared with you the information it had collected,
with the assistance of the University Administration, the TAA, and the
Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission. At that time, we promised
to update you when there were any new developments.

It has been a quiet fall and winter, but there is some recent news to
share with you. The Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (WERC),
the state agency that regulates the relationship between employers and
employees, has issued its proposed rules for how an RA union could be
formed. While the broad scope and shape of the rules were defined by
the state legislature, WERC is responsible for filling in the details.

In the proposed regulations, WERC has clarified the use of
authorization cards to create a collective bargaining unit. State law
provides that if a majority of RAs sign authorization cards, no secret
ballot election is necessary and a collective bargaining unit is
automatically formed. WERC’s proposed rules provide that a secret
ballot election is still a permissible process for creating a
collective bargaining unit. The decision of which method to use is
left to the organization trying to become the representatives of the
RAs, and ultimately, to the RAs who are eligible to participate in a
collective bargaining unit.

WERC’s proposed rules have also clarified that they will not accept
any petitions before July 1, 2010. However, authorization cards
collected before that date would be valid, if their rules are adopted

WERC is collecting feedback on their proposed rules. You can read them
online here:

or a brief summary here:

You can provide written feedback by phone, by writing or emailing Peter
Davis at the WERC, or by attending an in-person hearing on Thursday, March
11th, at 10am at the WERC offices. All of the contact information for
Peter Davis, as well as directions to the WERC offices are found in
the rules_hearing_notice above, or at this link:

All feedback to WERC is due March 22nd, 2010.

Please note that the hearing and the written comments are for the
rules only, and not on the overarching issue of should UW-Madison RAs
unionize. That is a discussion for our campus.

WERC expects to have the final version of the rules published and in
place by July 1, 2010.

========= SHORT VERSION =========

ASM has made an effort to describe the process using cautious
language, reflecting all possible outcomes. We recognize that many of
you may prefer a simpler explanation of what is likely to occur.
Please keep in mind that this is just ASM’s best guess for future

ASM does not expect that there will be any effort to collect
authorization cards, or otherwise begin the process to form an RA
Union, until at least the fall semester 2010. ASM believes the TAA is the only
organization that would consider being the offical representatives for
RAs. ASM has not heard of any other group that is interested in coming
to UW-Madison to represent RAs, nor has it heard of any group of
UW-Madison RAs interested in creating a separate “RAA” organization.

ASM does expect that a group of RAs will eventually come together,
under the auspices of the TAA, and begin the process of RA
unionization with the TAA as the representatives. ASM does not know if
they would pursue a secret ballot election or “card-check.” ASM has no
opinion on whether there should be a secret ballot election or

ASM is planning to hold a townhall meeting, discussing RA
Unionization, the Graduate School reorganization, segregated fees, and
the Natatorium renovations. That will be near the end of March, and
we’ll be sending another email announcing the date and location soon.

As always, ASM welcomes your feedback. Please feel free to contact any of us:

Colin Ingram, Chemistry

Erik Paulson, Computer Sciences

Matthew Tobelmann, Chemical Engineering

ps – for more information, please see the ASM RA CBR Info Center:

The UW Administration maintains their own page

Thoughts on Google Fiber for Madison, a 4 part series

The day the Google Fiber announcement came out, I was very excited and had a lot of thoughts I wanted to put down in a blog post. At about the same time, I got a fellowship out in Washington, DC – starting March 1st, so blogging fell down the priority list as I put life on hold in Madison and headed out east for a few months. I managed to get about half of it done before I skipped town.

Because I am not known for my blogging brevity, I broke things up into four posts.

1.  Why is Google building this network in the first place? This post is a bit technical, though read the end for two good links on privacy and liberty in a world where everything you do produces computer data.

2. Why might Madison get the network? I cover a bit of why I think Madison might get the network, why Madison might not get the network, some background on MUFN – the Madison Unified Fiber Network, and MBI – the Madison Broadband Initiative, which is like MUFN but hasn’t been covered much or really at all in the press, and finally, some thoughts on what happens if Madison doesn’t get the network – should we just build it ourselves anyway?

3. How should Madison go about trying to get the network? What are we doing well with our application, what are we not doing well, what’s going on with the THRIVE and the Madison Economic Development Commission, and finally, how does this relate to Government 2.0, and citizen empowerment?

4. My original email to the Mayor and Alders. Just for completeness.

Thoughts on Google Fiber: Why is Google doing this (Part 1 of 3)

First, I assume I don’t need to explain the broader picture – Google wants to encourage the use of the Internet, especially to replace traditional media distribution systems, because Google stands a much better chance of making money if you watch video online than if you watch it on a TV. So, in that sense, a faster Internet means more use of the Internet, which means more money for Google.

There’s a deeper motivation for Google’s actions – simply put, they’re building a new Internet. They’re not starting from scratch, as some academic projects are considering, but instead they’re building incrementally. Some of what they’re building is parallel to the existing Internet, and some of it is through tweaks to the existing Internet. This is par for the course for Google – see Android, Chrome, ChromeOS, App Engine, and many, many more. But their work on the Internet is particularly interesting. Consider their moves in the Domain Name Service (DNS.) Google operates their own, public DNS Servers, and has proposed extensions to the protocol that would give a DNS server more information about what client is ultimately making the request. Both changes would allow Google more of an opportunity to where traffic goes on the Internet. Even better for Google, neither requires end users to make a change – for the most part, network administrators can make the change, who as a group are much smaller, more technical, and more Google-fawning than the population at large.

Where are they directing this traffic? To Google’s private Internet. In the 90s, in the dot-com boom, there was a huge explosion of installed fiber optic cable– way more than was needed. After the crash, Google (and others, including for example UW-Madison) bought up much of this cable, and likely laid a bit of their own to fill in the gaps. Some people refer to this network as GooglesNet, and they use it to connect their own data centers together, and to tie into larger ISPs directly. This has been a boon to Google; for example, it’s believed that Google doesn’t actually exchange much cash for YouTube video bandwidth, because they have agreements with ISPs to deliver it directly and they can bypass the large backbone providers.

That then brings us to why Google is considering getting into the ISP business: a serious roadblock to innovation is the exchange between Google’s private network and the ISP. By controlling both sides, Google can rapidly iterate and roll out new ideas quickly. Bob Cringley mostly gets this right, but I disagree with him a little bit: Bob thinks Google expects other companies to come up with the idea of what to do with all the new bandwidth, I suspect Google has the hubris to believe that it will be the primary driver of new applications. Cringley is certainly right about Google wanting to get deeper into the ISPs’ networks, though I don’t know that they’re going to go as far as actually placing data centers at the neighborhood/city level, even if they are only as big as one shipping container.

Placing data centers that close is important for two reasons: latency and bandwidth. Latency doesn’t seem to be that painful in the current Internet, especially with smart clients, and HTML5 will only make that better. Bandwidth matters if the connection out of the city is limited – that was the thesis that Brilliant Cities, Inc made at the last Broadband Telecommunications Regulatory Board meeting. In their model, deploying local fiber is great, but ultimately is a waste because everyone with their 1 gigabit connection chokes when they try to leave Madison and access the Internet. (IE, if the Internet were streets, we can have a lot of cars out on the road at once, so long as they’re all on different side streets. If everyone is trying to get onto the I-90 onramp, traffic is slow.) In Brilliant Cities’ model, and in Cringley’s model, there is a local data center, so most of the data is served without having to get on to the Interstate. (The Interstate is actually a good analogy – the UW’s Internet connection runs parallel to I-94, and you can see a couple of repeater stations fenced off next to the highway)

Nearly all ISPs do something like this already, forcing all outgoing web traffic to first go through their own web proxy so they can cache popular items, and we’ve been doing that for 15 years. The problem is many things aren’t easy to cache with today’s protocols.

For Google, having the ability to place data centers deep in the network, or as far in as they choose could be very interesting, or they may have enough bandwidth on their private network to handle the traffic going back to their major data centers. Regardless, when they have the control, they can experiment and discover what works and what doesn’t, and can rewrite their applications to support whatever new features they deploy in the network. They can also redefine what it means to peer with a network. There is some really cool work out of the other UW (Washington) looking at sharing data between data centers. If Google gets the interface right, they can replica it with other ISPs, and they don’t have to try and run ISPs everywhere. Sometimes Google gets into things just to set the direction, too. Its made noise about getting into the 700MHz radio auction, and promised that if it won the bid it would run the network in a very open fashion. Ultimately, they decided not to bid, but not before the FCC incorporated many of Google’s ideas into the bid requirements.

Ultimately, what’s the big application that Google wants to get in on? Personalized, in-show TV advertising. It’s insane that the same ads are shown to every person watching the show, but there’s nothing better infrastructure-wise today. Even just with the basic demographics it would get from knowing the name on the cable bill, Google could do a better job of not showing me ads that I will convert on anytime soon (like, for example, AARP-branded insurance) – but Google can do much better than that. By combining search history, data from applications, and the rest of the data exhaust that we leave behind every day Google will know nearly exactly who’s likely to be watching the TV show, and what ads make sense to show. The $70 Billion dollars that are spent on TV advertising could be far more effective, and advertisers could know and test exactly what works and what doesn’t.  It could be a tremendous economic boon to the country. If Google builds a network that can deliver, advertisers will demand it from the other network providers. And because no one comes even close to Google in this area, the other ISPs/cable companies will naturally partner with Google, giving Google a cut without Google having to run the network itself.
And by the way, if the above paragraph didn’t make you nervous about privacy, it should. I, like others in the field, are starting to struggle with the implications of what we’re able to do. To really have your mind blown, read this, and consider turning your cell phone off.

Thoughts on Google Fiber: Why Madison? (Part 2 of 3)

Now, why does Madison stand a good shot at being a candidate city? First, Why not? It’s as good as any other city, and it’s doubtful that Google has candidates already in mind, unless they’re just looking to see how ridiculous cities are willing to go, to give them something to chuckle about at the Googleplex. Given that they haven’t announced any real criteria, or even how many networks they’re looking to build, at best we can make a few guesses from what they have said. In the end, for all we know they’re going to go with the city that the roommate of some engineer’s cousin thought has the best set of burger joints.

Demographically, we’re about perfect: right in the middle of the population size they’re looking to target, education and income levels above national averages, which means Madisonians are more likely to be able to want and afford faster Internet access, and our particular geography on the isthmus makes us a bit denser than other cities, which means less fiber build-out. Without a doubt, our biggest asset is the University – it more than anything else in the area can be the source of new applications that need the high bandwidth. Many technology-enhanced learning proposals would make much more sense if there were more parity between off-campus network bandwidth and on-campus bandwidth. The UW is also such a disproportionately large employer, has many jobs that can telecommute, and can be nimble enough to believably say that its employees actually will telecommute. (The State of Wisconsin would be great too, but no one would believe it if it said it was going to drive applications or change work patterns that true high speed Internet might make available.) As much as possible, our application should talk about what we want to do with a high speed network, and not just hope that someday we’ll figure it out.

I don’t want to be too down on the local high-tech scene, because I think there are some great people who I consider friends here doing great work, and it’s only getting bigger and better, but it’s not really big enough to be credible. Certainly, we should mention it – but it’s not our lead. Epic is big, but it’s not a real driver of other technology companies. We don’t read enough about new companies “founded by former Epic Engineers.” Getting more people to quit Epic and start their own companies (with the knowledge that if they fail, Epic will still be there and they could go back) is something the region should be focused on for economic development.

MUFN is a big deal and should be emphasized. MUFN, the Madison Unified Fiber Network, is a “Middle Mile” network. (Borrowing agan the highway analogy, this would be like the East Washington Ave or Stoughton Road of network – not a lot of people live on them, but they’re vital for connecting an area. They feed smaller networks, and connect to larger networks.) MUFN was never intended to be a way for consumers to connect directly to the Internet. To quote DoIT staff who worked on MUFN, “The primary focus of the partnership is… for public sector gateway institutions, and the UW’s interest is in enhancing network connectivity for many units that are located on off campus locations in the metropolitan area.” I’ve never seen the full MUFN proposal, but there was a summary document from the school district that has some good information, and the “Fact Sheet” for MUFN from the BTOP program submissions from Wisconsin has some good information.

MUFN is only half of what we asked for, though – there is a companion request for the “Madison Broadband Initiative“. It’s a “Last Mile” proposal, ie it would actually connect consumers to the Internet. To quote, “The purpose of the Madison Broadband Initiative (MBI) is to provide free, low-cost or competitively priced broadband service to anchor tenants and vulnerable populations through fiber deployment and a Wi-Fi mesh network.” It wouldn’t cover the whole city, only some parts, like the northside and southside, where MadCityBroadband doesn’t currently provide service. (MadCityBroadband would operate the network to consumers.) The full application is here. I don’t think we’ve heard back from the Federal Government on whether or not MBI has been funded yet – we just heard back on MUFN, and they’re meant to be partner programs, so I think we’ve got a good chance on MBI. MBI is interesting for the Google app because it’s an opportunity for a partnership with Google. Google is only interested in fiber, but wireless can and should be part of a subscriber’s service, so it’s a way for Google to offer better service to their customers without having to build out a wireless network of their own.

Obviously, having the Google office in Madison helps, but I doubt it’s a big enough deal to make a serious impact.

So, are there strikes against Madison? Not a lot. The big one is “we’re as good as any other city”, which means that there are lots of other cities that could make a convincing case. If we have a strike, it’s probably our electricity fuel mix – Wisconsin relies disproportionately on coal for its power. If, as part of their network, Google wanted to open a large data center nearby, Wisconsin would be a less-likely choice, because when carbon is finally priced into the electricity bill, Wisconsin will suffer. It’s not clear that Google wants or needs to put a data center here, though.

In the end, if we don’t get it, does it really matter? Probably not. Hopefully, just by doing this, Google forces the rest of the industry to catch up. Google is good at that – does anyone remember how online mapping worked before Google Maps? In the first few years, it’ll be nice to have a leg up over other cities, and it’d be a temporary boon for the city to attract workers. (I’m sure there are people who would look at the availability of 1Gbs Internet access as a strong incentive to chose living in Madison, which would help our employers attract workers. If Google selected Madison and only covered the Isthmus, it’d probably spur some downtown condo sales, too) However, in the end, that high speed access will be the norm, not the exception.

As a final note, one of the most exciting things about Madison completing this RFI and collecting the supporting information will be to see how excited people are for more faster Internet access, and to talk about how by building this infrastructure, we’ll be unleashing a lot of economic potential that’s been just waiting below the surface – potential we’ve always known was there. It’s not like it’s a technical challenge to build what Google’s proposing to do. That invites the question – why haven’t we done this earlier? Instead of waiting for a white knight from the marketplace to save us, why didn’t we do this for ourselves? We briefly explored this on the BRTB, trying to find a way to build a fiber network for Madison. The reason we can’t? Republicans pushed through a law, straight from industry playbooks, preventing cities from building their own broadband network and offering it to consumers. It was supposed to make it possible for competition to come in, but it’s been six years, and nothing has happened. Instead, it’s just protected the profits of the incumbents, who are content to just enjoy the revenue stream. There’s good reason to believe that a “public option” for a fiber network would spur competition.

If, at the end of this process, we amass overwhelming evidence that high speed Internet access would create jobs and grow our economy, and Google doesn’t select us, will we shrug and say “Oh well”, or will we find the courage and political will and do ourselves what we say is needed?

Thoughts on Google Fiber: What should Madison do? (Part 3 of 3)

One of the advantages of taking forever in actually finishing this set of blog posts is that the “what should Madison do” part got a lot easier, because we’re actually doing some of it.

Obviously, the first concern a month ago was just getting Madison to apply. That seems to be covered.

The next question is, what should be in our application? The answer to that is, “we don’t know.” Frankly, the only people who do know all work at Google, and they’re not saying. Dane101 unhelpfully blasted the Madison application process as “bureaucratic.” That’s not really fair, because for all we know that’s exactly what Google is looking for. In fact, we do know that’s some of what Google is looking for – detailed bureaucratic technical information that the city is in the best position to provide. That’s all that Google has clearly asked for, so in that sense, the bureaucratic answer had better be damned good, because that might be all that counts. (In fact, if you look at the questions Google has actually answered in any detail, they’re all bureaucratic)

Now, Google is also looking for community support, but what exactly does that mean? Certainly, there’s not going to be a community that says “Nah, we don’t want a company to come in and offer a service thats an order of magnitude better than our existing service, on their own risk”. Personally, I think the best thing we can do is to stress the UW as an application driver, and to get consistent messaging between the city, community groups, and citizens who are nominating Madison, but that’s just a wild guess, and I haven’t seen anyone with a factual basis for why their guess is better than mine.

My advice for the process is the same advice you give your friend – you know, the who’s having trouble dating, but you’re pretty sure he or she can and will find the right person with a bit of luck: “just be yourself”. So, Madison, let’s not stress what the application should or shouldn’t have in it, because we don’t know. Trying to read Google tea leaves is pointless. Let’s just put in our application whatever we’d put in if we ourselves were evaluating it, and if it works out, great. Google will either fall in love with us or they won’t, and there’s no point in trying to be someone we’re not.

If we’re not doing something well, it’s that we’re not being very transparent in what our application will look like. There’s information flowing into the city, but not much coming out. We can’t, as a community, come up with a response if we never get to see a draft of what’s being included. If we’re looking for new and innovative ideas for what to include, the best way to encourage people to think of things is to let them see what other people are thinking, so they can riff off of those ideas. We should be completely fine if other cities “steal” our ideas, because ultimately, if they’re good ideas we want to see them implemented. Of course, maybe this will all change in a few days with the community meeting, but I don’t get the impression that the city is looking to make that meeting a two-way street.

I don’t want to say that there’s been failed leadership here, but I think it’s safe to say that there’s been muddled leadership from the city. Who, actually, is in charge? The IT director? Mark Clear? The Mayor should have put Rachel Strauch-Nelson as the lead on this project, because she does a good job of communicating, and has the time and authority over city staff to do so, unlike Alders.

This process has exposed some what I think are pretty serious weaknesses in how we respond as a community to these sorts of opportunities. For one, we have organizations that are supposed to jump at these sorts of things. Where the heck is THRIVE in all of this? They should be organizing a community response. The Economic Development Commission discussion was embarrassing. I once wanted to be on the EDC, but now having sat in on a couple of meetings, and read Brenda’s recap of others, I have to wonder, what is the point? The EDC doesn’t strike me as actually accomplishing anything.

The most impressive efforts have been by the local high-tech community, which is trying to organize itself to be able to respond, and is leading the charge with the Facebook page – but there’s that ambiguity in leadership again. We think we need citizen action to pull this off, but citizens need some coordination to make it happen. This is where government can and should play a role – what Tim O’Reilly is talking about when he says “government is a convener and an enabler–ultimately, it is a vehicle for coordinating the collective action of citizens.” The government is legally authorized and empowered to bring people together. That’s the broader picture of Government 2.0: It’s not just the government providing crime data so people can build Google Maps mashups, it’s envisioning a new way of thinking about government, where citizens create what they need. It doesn’t replace elected officials – it’s completely compatible with a republican form of government, with elected representatives who call on the citizen experts to assist.

I strongly suspect that some of the vocabulary might be a little bit different, but the Gov 2.0 underlying principals of citizen participation are already the norm in Madison and in Wisconsin, thanks to progressive ideas from the beginning of the 20th century. It’s other cities where they are just now discovering the value of active citizen engagement that makes Gov 2.0 so exciting for so many people. That said, it wouldn’t surprise me if there are some twists that we haven’t considered, and we certainly need the technology upgrades to bring those principals into the 21st century. One of the things I want to do while I’m out here in DC for the next few months is to meet up with the local Gov 2.0 folks here, and bring that back with me to Madison to get a “Madison Gov2.0” group going. One of the results of the Google Fiber submission is going to be a collection of people who on March 26th are sitting around saying “now what?”. If Madison gets Google Fiber, or if it doesn’t, we shouldn’t let this group scatter back to the wind. Technologically, I think it’d be fun to get a some people together and say “let’s stop waiting and just build something for Madison” – maybe a new iphone bus tracker app, or a decent iphone problem reporter, or the start of an open 311 system. From a civic engagement perspective, I think it’s part of the way to have a larger conversation about what we want out of our citizens in governing Madison.