Category: Work

Tour of DoITT

On Tuesday, I was lucky enough to get a guided tour from Bob Whalen of the DoITT facility in Brooklyn, New York City, where TLC stashes its servers, along with many other city agencies, and the future home of the joint 911 Call Center.

The first thing Bob showed me was a sketch of the power systems in the facility, which gave the impression that these guys were prepared for almost anything. Not only do they have battery-based UPS systems, but they have 2 generators on-site with enough fuel to power everything they have for about 2 days before the storage tanks need to be refilled. Which is comforting, since a lot of the city agencies have their data centers and connectivity through this facility.

We then stepped into the DoITT data center. They have an entire floor to themselves with row after row of servers (using an arrangement method called “hot isle cold isle” where the server racks face each other, so one row is all cabinet fronts and another is all exhaust), followed by rows of switches, cables, and networking equipment. And despite having run the network for a while from the building, the cabling was still clean, not the usual rat’s nest.

Off in one corner was what amounts to a NOC, where workers watch terminals 24/7 looking for network issues. The room looked like something pulled straight from the movies, with 2 big displays showing some real-time data and rows of computers waiting for a crisis. It was the kind of setup every computer nerd dreams of operating.

Downstairs, Bob gave me a sneak peek at the new 911 Call Center. At the moment, the various departments (fire police, etc) all have their own in separate locations, but starting soon, they’ll be under one roof. The technicians were just starting to install the final touches: the computer monitors and setting up giant displays all around the room. It looked like the room, while one long hall, was partitioned into smaller groups. Each operator had their own desk with 3 or more monitors, a hydraulic desk that moved up and down as preferred, and its own climate controls. Each desk was then circled around a larger display.

It was pretty neat, and I’ll definitely be looking out for internship availabilities over there in the future.

Last day with TLC

Yesterday was my last day at the Taxi and Limousine Commission. The majority of the day was filled with minor bug fixes and explaining the applications I created to the people that will be taking care of them from now on.

For lunch, I was invited to a Japanese restaurant called “Megu” with the people I was working for all summer. The restaurant itself seemed like it was pulled straight out of Deus Ex, without any graphics upgrades. The food was pretty good, I had a burger made with Kobe beef and some mystery sauce that tasted like the burgers Cat’s dad usually makes (marinated in butter before being grilled). After lunch, the person who had been supervising me all summer presented me with a very nice “thank you” card, a TLC cap, and a shirt with a New York City taxi medallion on it. It was an unexpected, but greatly appreciated gesture that started to make me realize how much my work was appreciated this summer.

The final realization came around 4 PM, when I was called into the Commissioner’s office to demo the frontend I had coded for the Call Center. I showed him how it was geared towards answering the customer’s questions as quickly as possible, and how easy the interface was to use, and he became very interested and excited about it. It was one of the greatest feelings of accomplishment to see the commissioner of the TLC playing with a system that I made, and describing all the uses it has that I never thought of.

All things considered, this has been one of the best summers of my life. I got to work with a group of intelligent and interesting people, learned about an industry that I never would have thoguht about otherwise, and left them with a useful tool that will hopefully continue to be useful and benefit the TLC, a tool that forced me to learn a whole new language and pushed the limits of my programming ability. And that is something I definitely wouldn’t have gotten out of Bear Stearns.

Rolling out the app

For the last month or so, I’ve been working on an ASP program that displays data from an SQL database that, until now, was done in a command line interface that looked far too confiusing to be functional. However, there were a few barriers to completing this assignment:

  • I’ve never coded ASP before.
  • I’ve never connected to a Microsoft SQL server through a server side app before.
  • I had no idea what the structure of the database was.

So essentially, 50% of my time has been spent learning ASP, 25% figuring out where stuff is in the database, and 23% actually coding the system. A system which went into beta testing this afternoon.

After writing and debugging close to 3,000 lines of code in a language I’ve never seen before, watching as the intended users interact with the system was one of the best feelings of accomplishment I’ve felt. And what’s even better was, except for a few minor feature requests, there wasn’t a single complaint. It seems like everyone naturally figured out how to work the system, and it displayed exactly what they needed. All that’s left is some tweaking next week, writing 2 more pages, and I can hand it off to the local IT department to maintain as I trudge back to Penn State.

5 more days of work, and then I’m free for the rest of the summer (or at least what’s left of it).

Pre-HOPE update

As soon as the clock strikes 5 PM tomorrow, I’m off with Cat to pick up our passes for HOPE, so we can beat the rush on the registration table that’s bound to happen on Friday morning. After that, the next thing you’ll probably see posted is the presentation post, with my slides, and probably the audio (after the presentation is over).

Speaking of the presentation, I really feel indebted to all the people at work who went out of their way to help me with this presentation. I can’t thank them enough for the time, effort and patience they displayed in helping a lowly intern be able to present on a topic as controversial as this. I’ve probably inconvenienced more than a few people in the process of preparing for Friday, and to them I apologize, and extent my heartfelt appreciation for their patience.

However, despite having help from the TLC, all the research, figures, and images in this presentation will be from public sources, such as the New York Times, the TLC website, and the Taxi 07: Roads Forward book published in December 2007. I’m going to try to link to as many of the sources I’ve used as possible in the post, but the bulk will already be referenced in the presentation. This presentation is designed to be an introduction to the NYC taxi system for out-of-towners, as well as a discussion on the privacy concerns in the “GPS” system implemented last year, and as such there will be no big surprises. Everything I’m presenting has already been said, I’m just gluing the pieces together.

One last thing to keep in mind is that I’m not an actual TLC employee. Technically, I’m a “consultant” working for ComSys, the company JP Morgan is using to place and pay all the former Bear Stearns interns. As such, I’m not a spokesman for the commission (although how you’d get the idea that I was, me wearing a black t-shirt, shorts and sneakers, I don’t know), just an individual interested in the way the system works. Just like any other hacker presenting this weekend.

That said, I think I’ve put together an informative, entertaining, and interesting 30-45 minute presentation, with a lot of stuff the average person doesn’t think about, and I’m looking forward to standing up in the Turing room at 8 PM and seeing where the night takes me. But hopefully not too far from my notes!

73, and I’ll see you in NYC!

I will be presenting at “The Last HOPE” conference, NYC, July 18-20

With the posting of the list of speakers for the upcoming HOPE conference last night, I guess the cat is out of the bag: I will be presenting a talk on the NYC Taxi system, the technology enhancements that have been going on this last year, and the trade-off between privacy and utility that comes with the new technology.

For those out of the loop, the NYC taxi system has been undergoing the T-PEP (Taxi Passenger Enhancements Project) upgrades, which bring a few new things into the cab. The passenger gets a PIM (Passenger Information Monitor) with real-time GPS location, TLC news, and other programming provided by the company that made it (there are 3 companies doing the installations). The driver gets a text messaging device so TLC can communicate with any cab driver in the field. The cab gets GPS tracking which records the start, end, distance, time, and other metrics of the trip. And, in addition to cash, cabs should now accept credit cards.

However, all these great enhancements come with some drawbacks. There are questions about the security of private information, and people are concerned about the government being able to track them. Thanks to a ton of research, and working with the Taxi and Limousine Commission, I’m going to be discussing these issues in depth at the conference.

There is one small hurdle, though: I need to clear my presentation with TLC before I can give it. I’ve got a gigantic non-disclosure agreement I need to appease thanks to my internship being through ComSys (the company Bear Stearns hired to place us), and I’ve already submitted the presentation for review, so it shouldn’t take that long.

Here’s the blurb from the HOPE conference website:

The New York City Taxi System: Privacy vs. Utility

Nick Leghorn

When people think of New York City, three icons come to mind: the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, and the classic yellow taxi cab. However, even the most seasoned New Yorker barely understands the complicated system that transports over 241 million passengers every year, includes more than 40,000 vehicles, and generates in excess of $2 billion every year. During this presentation you will learn about the New York City taxi system and how the new technologies (such as GPS tracking, credit card transactions, SMS messaging, and touch screen kiosks in the car) are being implemented, including the privacy and security concerns that surround them. You’ll also take a peek at some of the proposed changes that will make the New York City taxi system more accessible and more efficient.

The presentation and all related materials will be published here on this blog as the presentation is beginning, followed by the audio (and possibly video) from the presentation as soon as it concludes.