Tag Archives: automation

Identifying useful work in large organisations by revealed preference

Some members of large organisations seemingly do work, but actually contribute negatively by wasting other people’s time. For example, by sending mass emails, adding regulations, changing things for the sake of changing them (and to pad their CV with „completed projects”) or blocking change with endless committees, consultations and discussions with stakeholders. Even if there is a small benefit from this pretend-work, it is outweighed by the cost to the organisation from the wasted hours of other members. It is difficult to distinguish such negative-value-added activity from positive contributions (being proactive and entrepreneurial, leading by example). Opinions differ on what initiatives are good or bad and how much communication or discussion is enough.
Asking others to rate the work of a person would be informative if the feedback was honest, but usually people do not want to officially criticise colleagues and are not motivated to respond thoughtfully to surveys. Selection bias is also a problem, as online ratings show – the people motivated enough to rate a product, service or person are more likely to have extreme opinions.
Modern technology offers a way to study the revealed preferences of all members of the organisation without taking any of their time. If most email recipients block a given sender, move her or his emails to junk or spend very little time reading (keeping the email open), then this suggests the emails are not particularly useful. Aggregate email activity can be tracked without violating privacy if no human sees information about any particular individual’s email filtering or junking, only about the total number of people ignoring a given sender.
Making meetings, consultations and discussions optional and providing an excuse not to attend (e.g. two voluntary meetings at the same time) similarly allows members of the organisation „vote with their feet” about which meeting they find (more) useful. This provides an honest signal, unlike politeness-constrained and time-consuming feedback.
Anonymity of surveys helps mitigate the reluctance to officially criticise colleagues, but people may not believe that anonymity will be preserved. Even with trust in the feedback mechanism, the time cost of responding may preclude serious and thoughtful answers.

Feedback requests by no-reply emails

We value your feedback” sent from a no-reply email address shows not only that the feedback is not valued, but also that the organisation is lying. More generally, when someone’s words and deeds conflict, then this is informative about his or her lack of truthfulness. If in addition the deeds are unpleasant, then this is the worst of the four possibilities (good or bad deeds combined with honest admission or lying).

The fact of sending such no-reply feedback requests suggests that either the organisations doing it are stupid, needlessly angering customers with insincere solicitations, or believe that the customers are stupid, failing to draw the statistically correct (Bayesian) conclusion about the organisation.

Some organisations send an automated feedback request by email (Mintos) or post (Yale Student Health) in response to every inquiry or interaction, even ones that clearly did not resolve the problem. The information about the non-resolution could easily be scraped from the original customer emails, without wasting anyone’s time by asking them to fill out feedback forms. The inefficient time-wasting by sending feedback requests is again informative about the organisation.

Free wifi lies

Many airports, hotels and other public places advertise free wifi, but in a significant fraction of them, the wifi does not work, e.g. in Doha Airport. One view about this is that you get what you pay for. On the other hand, the claim of providing free wifi makes people try to connect and wastes their time. Everyone would be slightly better off if the non-working wifi was not advertised – the advertiser would save the cost of printing the „Free wifi” signs and the visitors would save time.

It is cheap for the service provider to check whether the wifi is in fact working – just program a few cheap used smartphones to periodically try to connect to the wifi and send a notification to IT if the connection attempt fails. The connection failure may even trigger an automatic restart of the router.

Some airports may have wifi available, but only to a restricted group of people. For example, in India, connecting requires a local phone number, which most international travellers do not have. In Singapore and Shanghai airports, the wifi requires either a local number or scanning one’s passport in a kiosk, and the kiosks are sometimes out of order. Again, looking for the kiosk and trying to scan wastes time.

Intermittent wifi may be better or worse than none, depending on what fraction of time it is available and people’s average time cost of trying to connect.

Online check-in lies

Almost all airlines advertise the option to check in online and send email reminders to do so. In my experience, some airlines (Qantas, Air New Zealand and Qatar Airways) frequently do not allow online check-in despite falsely claiming that it is always available, or only unavailable to underage people and large groups. Email reminders to check in online seem like mockery in this case, but are still sent.

The false advertising of online check-in wastes customers’ time by encouraging them to start the data entry process. Often the process can be almost completed and only at the end does a message appear saying that online check-in is unavailable. To reduce the wasted time, the process should be stopped as soon as possible whenever it cannot be completed but is nonetheless started. It seems a simple IT fix to not send the automated reminder emails when online check-in is unavailable, and display the message „Online check-in unavailable” at the start of the data entry process instead of at the end.

A similarly ironic tone to falsely advertising online check-in is achieved by sending „we value your opinion” emails from a no-reply email address, or claiming to listen to customers but providing no contact email or phone on the website. Such mockery is practiced by many large companies. Sometimes the firms provide a feedback form that is user-unfriendly and requests lots of personal data. Or they may refer inquiries to a very limited FAQ section. The FAQ sometimes lists questions no real customer would ask, along the lines of „What makes your product so excellent?” These questions are in the FAQ just to let the company repeat their marketing slogans.

Ventilation switch that detects odours

Many homes in the US have a switch to turn on the ventilation in a toilet or bathroom. Also, all kitchen range hoods and laboratory fume hoods I have seen must be manually switched on and off. Of course the ventilation could be run continuously, but this would be noisy, waste electricity and remove warm air (or cool air-conditioned air in hot weather) from the building. For toilets, bathrooms and kitchens, the main reason to ventilate the room is only temporary – removing odour or humidity.

An untapped business opportunity is to produce a switch that detects odours or humidity and turns on the ventilation just long enough to remove these. Humidity detection is easiest – just connect a hygrometer to the switch. Detecting smelly gases such as grease vapour in the kitchen, hydrogen sulfide, methanethiol and dimethyl sulfide in the toilet may require spectrometry or a chemical reaction. Laboratory gases are probably the most difficult to automatically detect due to their variety.

Parking space availability detection from the air

Much fuel and time is wasted by drivers zigzagging through a parking lot looking for an empty spot. Some parking garages have automated systems for detecting which spaces are empty and directing drivers to these using electronic displays or coloured lights on the ceiling. Drivers of course prefer to spend less time looking for a space and to find places closer to the exit, so providing availability information gives a commercial parking building a competitive advantage and reduces traffic and pollution inside it. The same availability information would be helpful for outdoor parking lots, including the tops of garages that are open to the sky.

A business opportunity is to develop an app that uses either satellite images or cameras on drones or surrounding structures (highrises or streetlights) to detect empty parking spaces and direct the drivers to these. The cheapest black and white security camera is sufficient to distinguish a car from an empty rectangle of asphalt. Even at the busiest times, such as the peak shopping hours on Saturday afternoon, the parking availability info only needs to be updated about once every 30 seconds to be maximally useful. The only hurdle for this system is the placement of the cameras, because buying two satellite photos per minute for every parking lot may be expensive for the app provider. Drones may not be permitted over urban areas. The owners of the structures surrounding the parking lot may ask for payment to allow camera installation on their property. Of course, permissions should not be a problem if the surrounding buildings are retail establishments who profit from more customers parking closer to them, but the upper floors of tall buildings are typically offices or residential spaces.

Recording speaking time to prevent meetings from running over

To prevent meetings from running over because some people like to listen to their own voice, one way is to publish how much of others’ time each participant took. Measuring the talking time and making the results public helps participants with low self-awareness realise how long they talked, and creates social disapproval of those who go on for too long, potentially motivating them to be more concise.

A related method to prevent time overruns using current meeting rules, e.g. Robert’s Rules, is to allocate each speaker a fixed amount of time in advance. The problem with this method is the lax enforcement both during and after the meeting. If a speaker goes over and does not respond to requests to stop, then the moderator or chairperson usually does not shut the speaker up (turn off the microphone, forcefully remove the waffler from the stage, clamp a hand over their mouth). After the meeting, the possible sanctions (e.g. not inviting the speaker to future meetings, monetary fine, opposing the speaker’s proposed policy) are also infrequent or weak. Of course this enforcement problem also arises when talk time is recorded and published. However, the clear measurement removes one excuse of the speakers going over, namely their flat denial that they took more time than allocated, or more than others.

Public time-recording is especially helpful in less formal meetings that have no moderator or chairperson keeping time and notifying speakers to stop, and in meetings where a speaker is powerful enough that other participants are reluctant to interrupt with reminders of the time limit. A timekeeper is not needed to record the duration of a speech nowadays, because smartphones can identify a person based on their voice and calculate the time for which each voice spoke. There is a business opportunity in developing an app that identifies the number and timing of the speakers. The resulting data could also be used for research into social dynamics, e.g. whether some age, gender or race groups speak less, whether people in positions of power talk and interrupt more.

A smartphone app can also play a notification sound when a speaker’s time is up, eliminating the problem that the less powerful participants do not remind an important speaker to stop. In large meetings with a microphone, a computer keeping track of speech durations can force a speaker to stop by cutting power to the microphone when the time is up. A computer may be attached to other means to stop a speaker from unreasonably taking others’ time, e.g. it may draw the stage curtain, turn off the stage lights or start noise-cancelling the speech.

Real estate website improvements

Almost all real estate websites I have read are missing the essential information about a lease from their search filters. The core info is whether the property is available from a certain date to a certain date, whether the minimum and maximum lease lengths allow a tenancy for the specified term, what is the monthly rent for that term. Some websites specify that information in the description of the property, but do not allow searches based on it. On some websites, the rent doubles when the term is halved, which would be good to know from the start instead of after clicking on a search result.

If the property is only rented to a specific class people, e.g. requires a number of years of good rental history, a certain income level, etc, then it would be good to know this at the start of the search, instead of during the application process.

Almost useless info like hardwood floors, granite countertops, historic building, etc should be removed or relegated to the bottom of the page.

In general, any search website should allow the user to remove specific results (that the user has deemed irrelevant) from future searches, like Craigslist does. Being able to save the search like in Craigslist is also a useful feature.

Improvements for hotels

Commonly in hotels the room keycard has to be inserted into a slot for the lights in the room to turn on. An annoyance occurs when the lights are reset each time the card is removed and re-inserted, such as when leaving and re-entering the room (this problem and most of the subsequently mentioned ones are based on Courtyard by Marriott Chennai, but some are based on other hotels). Typically all the lights turn on and the unnecessary ones have to be turned off one by one. A simple and cheap microcomputer could remember the on-off settings of the lights and keep these until reset. Another similar problem is that the temperature of the AC or heating, as well as the fan speed, gets reset when the keycard is removed from the slot. Thus the AC has to be readjusted after each re-entry.

The keycard should work consistently, not require several attempts to operate the lift or open the room door.

It is a nice touch for a hotel to have a steam room, sauna or jacuzzi next to the fitness centre, but it would be even better if these were in working order and clean. Another nice touch is to provide slippers in the room, but if these are child-sized, then they are not very useful for an adult male. If there are two pairs of slippers in a room, then different-sized pairs would be reasonable and almost as cheap to provide as same-sized ones.

If (free) wifi is advertised, then it would be nice if it was working. Wifi problems can be detected automatically (by wifi-enabled devices placed in the corners of the hotel remotest from the routers) without waiting for annoyed guests to contact the front desk.

An electric kettle in the room is good for making tea, but placing glasses next to the kettle invites an absent-minded person to pour hot water into these, which cracks them.

The carpet should not shed hair that sticks to socks and anything else it comes into contact with (by floating in the air for example).

The fitness centres in hotels are typically less than 25 square metres. It is possible to choose machines and weights for a small room in such a way that cardio and all major muscle groups can be trained, but hotels seem to choose the machines randomly, e.g. three ellipticals and a stair stepper, but no rowing machine. Or two quadriceps training machines (leg extension and leg press), but no hamstring training machine (prone leg curl). This is despite the fact that quads are easy to train without a machine (do squats with or without weights), but hamstrings difficult.

A common problem in hotels is street noise in the room, which may be expensive to fix if the hotel construction quality is bad. One hotel in which the room was quiet despite a busy street outside was Sheraton New Delhi. A possible reason for its quietness was that the windows had two layers of packet glass, consisting of two or three layers each.

Hotel breakfasts should have a list of ingredients next to each dish, not just the name of the dish, especially when the name is unfamiliar to most visitors, e.g. the name is in the local language for a traditional ethnic dish. The list of ingredients would be especially helpful to people with food allergies, but the non-allergic would also benefit – it is easier to choose with more info. The ingredients in the list should be ordered, starting with the ones that constitute the largest percentage of the dish.

The arrangement of dishes at buffet meals should make it logistically convenient to get food, i.e. movement to and from the dishes should be unrestricted (no closely placed tables blocking the way) and similar foods should be located together. Sometimes hotels make strange food placement choices, for example I have seen soups and meat dishes alternate. Rydges on Swanston in Melbourne placed all the dishes in a small recess off the dining area, so there was a traffic jam of people trying to get into and out of that nook with their plates.

Made-to-order (live cooking) dishes at buffet meals could be prepared and distributed faster if their order system was computerised and the eaters could order the dishes from their smartphones. Peak demand time can be predicted and the cooking started in advance to speed up the delivery of the dishes. Such just-in-time production has economies of scale, so is especially easy for larger buffets.

The hotel room logistics are often strange, e.g. a narrow corridor leading from the door to the room, with wardrobes built into the side of the corridor. The doors of said wardrobes open outward, blocking the corridor. On the other hand, in the Chennai Marriott bathroom the shower stall and the the toilet were behind the same sliding door. To access the toilet, the door had to slide in front of the shower, and to access the shower, the door closed off the toilet. This would be annoying if two or more people stayed in that suite and tried to use the shower and toilet simultaneously, because both could not be behind a closed door at the same time.

Another logistical problem in both hotels and apartments is a toilet door that opens inward. When the toilet is small, the door almost hits the pot, making it difficult to maneuver around the door for entry and exit. Some toilets are so tiny that when sitting on the pot, the knees touch the opposite wall. In this case, it would be better to place the pot diagonally so the knees fit in a corner.

Two doors at the ends of a short corridor that both open into the corridor are impossible to open at the same time, which lengthens the time of passing through both doors.

Some hotels want to show how modern they are by replacing light switches with small touchscreens with LED backlighting. The little LED lights are numerous enough to somewhat light up the room when the ceiling and other lights are turned off. For sleeping, it would be good to be able to turn off the LED lights of the touchscreens.

If a motion detector turns on the light, then being able to switch off the motion detector and the light would be preferable. Sometimes the light is unnecessary, such as during the day with curtains open. The sudden bright light may also be annoying, for example when visiting the bathroom at night.

Hotel beds are usually short, so people over 180cm have their feet over the edge, unless they lie diagonally. Luckily hotel beds are usually wide, so their diagonal is significantly longer than the long side.

Saving ventilation cost by using the wind

Most large modern buildings have active ventilation built in, meaning that electric fans drive the air through the building. The airflow direction is usually fixed at construction time. However, if the wind happens to blow from the opposite direction to the ventilation flow, then the fans require extra energy to counter the wind. On the other hand, if the wind agrees with the airflow in the building, then the fans may not need to be run at all. To save electricity, a building could have a wind direction sensor (a weather vane) on the roof connected to a switch that reverses the ventilation fans, so that the fans always pump air in approximately the same direction as the wind. If the wind is strong enough, a wind speed sensor (a small windmill or windsock) on the roof could stop the ventilation fans altogether.
The tradeoff for this adaptive ventilation system is the initial fixed construction cost and the ongoing maintenance of the weather vane, windsock and controller of the fans. All the extra components of the system (relative to the current unidirectional ventilation) are cheap and robust, so the both the fixed cost and the maintenance should be negligible.
Current ventilation systems have differently shaped air inlets and outlets in the rooms, which suggests that the system requires a particular airflow direction. In this case, adaptive ventilation may be much more expensive than the current ones, because the ventilation shafts and air vents need to be doubled. To avoid the need to build twice as many shafts and vents, have just the air inlets and outlets of the whole building switch roles with the wind direction. The rest of the system can remain unidirectional when the valves from the building’s inlet and outlet to the rest of the system switch appropriately. The air inside the building can then move in the opposite direction of the wind some of the time. In this case, the electricity saving is only realised if the building is sufficiently airtight, which is the case for modern highrises that have unopenable windows. If the air is allowed to move through the building independently of the ventilation and the wind is opposite the airflow in the system, then the fans have to overcome the air pressure difference like in the current systems. This wastes electricity.