Do Crowds Know Best? Some Reflections on CBS Correspondent David Begnaud’s Experiment in Crowdsourcing Journalism on Puerto Rico #6MonthsAfterMaria

One area of research that has fascinated me for the longest time is whether or not crowds’ responses to a particular question are correct. This is an issue that has been widely debated in academic circles. And the literature on this subject is far from conclusive.

While experiments in crowdsourcing are not always successful, thanks to the growing influence of social media, journalists have used these experiments to great effect. In 2015, Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism released its Guide to Crowdsourcing, highlighting different reasons why so many news organizations have adopted these techniques. One of the report’s main takeaways is that when done right crowdsourcing empowers “people to share what they know individually so that journalists can communicate the collective information” (p. 14).

Journalists who are willing to use these techniques recognize the limits of their own knowledge. Thus their “call-outs” are designed to help them get a deeper-understanding of their news stories and hence improve the quality of their reporting. Crowdsourcing journalism changes the dynamics between the journalist and readers, giving readers an opportunity to shape how media organizations cover a particular event.

A good example of crowdsourcing journalism is CBS News Correspondent David Begnaud’s March 16, 2018 “call-out” to his social media followers for suggestions on issues to cover and places to visit in Puerto Rico six months after Hurricane Maria. His reports echoed his followers’ suggestions, as he noted in a video he recorded at the end of his trip to the island. For more information on Begnaud’s methods, read my earlier post.

Begnaud’s crowdsourcing experiment gives us an opportunity to test how knowledgeable the respondents are about Puerto Rico’s challenges post-Maria.

As I noted in an earlier post, using Pablo Barbera’s rFacebook package for R, I downloaded 2,658 responses to Begnaud’s “call-out” for information in Facebook. I utilized Julia Silge’s and David Robinson’s Tidytext package to tokenize the responses, to remove stopwords (i.e. prepositions) and to put together a corpus we can analyze. Begnaud’s followers encouraged him to visit Yabucoa, Humacao, Utuado and other towns in the southeast as well as in the mountains.

Any person following Puerto Rico’s post-Maria recovery knows that one of the top news stories is the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s (PREPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) troubles repairing the island’s electric grid. The lack of electricity serves as a good proxy to the many problems that have affected Puerto Ricans since September 20, 2017: lack of access to reliable healthcare, traffic lights not working, troubles with the distribution of potable water, access to banking services and so forth. And Begnaud’s followers identified electricity as the top issue of concern.

My corpus included over 30,000 words and his followers’ references to electricity represent 4% of this total – a really high number! The main words associated with the electric’s grid repair are included in the following pie chart.

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How much do Begnaud’s followers know about Puerto Rico’s challenges  post-Maria? As noted above, any person who has paid attention to the island’s struggles would have encouraged Begnaud to cover how the lack of electricity has affected Puerto Ricans’ lives. Thus, this piece of “collective information” by itself is not too interesting. But combining these data points with the towns Begnaud followers’ encouraged him to visit demonstrates that most of his followers do have a deep understanding of the island’s post-Maria struggles.

As detailed in the next table, PREPA groups the island’s 78 municipalities into seven administrative regions. The figure in the last column aggregates the municipalities mentioned by Begnaud’s followers. For example, PREPA’s San Juan Region aggregates all the times San Juan, Guaynabo, or Trujillo Alto were mentioned in the responses, which was 107 times.

PREPA Region Number of Meters Percent of Meters Number of Municipalities Per Region Sum of Municipalities Mentioned By Begnaud’s Followers By Region
Arecibo 153,407 10.4% 12 519
Bayamón 226,041 15.4% 8 127
Caguas 214,396 14.6% 17 1,288
Carolina 133,861 9.1% 9 226
Mayagüez 229,290 15.6% 15 200
Ponce 207,784 14.1% 14 207
San Juan 308,227 20.9% 3 107
TOTAL 1,473,007 100% 78 2,674

For the last two months, the USACE has been publishing the percentage of meters connected to the electric grid in each of PREPA’s regions. The biggest challenge has been reconnecting the meters in the Caguas Region followed by the Arecibo Region, as demonstrated in the graph below.

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If we only look at the municipalities that were mentioned 20 times or more, then we can appreciate how informed Begnaud’s followers are. Note that those who responded to his “call-out” mentioned 15 out of the 17 municipalities located in the PREPA’s Caguas Region.

PREPA Region Number of Municipalities Per Region Number of Municipalities with 20 Mentions or More
Percentage of Top Municipalities Mentioned
Arecibo 12 7 58%
Bayamón 8 3 38%
Caguas 17 15 88%
Carolina 9 2 22%
Mayagüez 15 4 27%
Ponce 14 4 29%
San Juan 3 1 33%
TOTAL 78 36 46%

What can we learn from this analysis? First, it was a very good idea for Begnaud to crowdsource information from his Facebook and Twitter followers regarding his trip to Puerto Rico.

Second, Begnaud’s experiment in crowdsourcing was successful because his reporting has been closely followed by Puerto Ricans both in the island and in the mainland. As I noted in two earlier posts (here and here), Begnaud’s social media audience started to rapidly grow when he was in Puerto Rico reporting on the humanitarian catastrophe that ensued after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. Thus, many of the followers that responded to his “call-out” probably had some type of personal connection to the island and its people.

This second point is important because crowdsourcing works best when a majority of the people who responded to his “call-out” have some prior knowledge of the issues being considered. Thus, this particular analysis does not answer whether or not crowds are always right. But it does demonstrate that a majority of the followers who responded to Begnaud’s call for information knew quite a bit about Puerto Rico’s and its challenges following Hurricane Maria.

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Electricity Restoration in Puerto Rico #6MonthsAfterMaria at the Regional Level

Since late January 2018, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been publishing regular snapshots of the number of meters connected to the electric grid at the regional level. These regions represent the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s (PREPA) regional divisions. The following table provides some key information on each region.

PREPA Region Number of Meters Percent of Meters Number of Municipalities Per Region
Arecibo 153,407 10% 12
Bayamón 226,041 15% 8
Caguas 214,396 15% 17
Carolina 133,861 9% 9
Mayagüez 229,290 16% 15
Ponce 207,784 14% 14
San Juan 308,227 21% 3
TOTAL 1,473,007 100% 78

As of March 20, 2018, the USACE reports that 93.4% of the island’s 1.47 million electric customers are connected to the grid and the system’s generation capacity has been increased to an instant maximum production of 2258 mega watts – the highest reported amount since before Hurricane Maria made landfall.

While progress has been made, the sad reality is that more than 104,000 customers are still without power.

chart (17)

As the stacked bar demonstrates, the Caguas Region, which includes some the municipalities hardest hit by Hurricane Maria, lags way behind the other regions. This trend has been consistent since the USACE starting to share data on customers with electricity at the regional level.

chart (14)

The pie chart below puts in perspective in which regions the 104,000 customers without electricity live. And while the Caguas Region is the fourth biggest region in terms of the percentage of total customers, it currently has over half of the island’s customers without electricity.

chart (16)

In a recent video posted in the USACE’s social media accounts, the commander of the Task Force Power Restoration, Colonel Jason Kirk, explained that the numbers in the Caguas Region will start to improve soon, as crews and resources are being directed to this region.

The USACE and PREPA expect to have restored electricity to 95% of the island’s customers by the end of March. But many of the people living in towns located in the island’s central mountain range will not be as lucky. They should get their power restored by the end of May… a few days before the start of the 2018 hurricane season.

 

Restoring Puerto Rico’s Electric Grid at the Municipal Level: Does the Mayor’s Party Affiliation Matter?

AJ Vicens, a reporter who covers Puerto Rico issues for Mother Jones, noted in a tweet:

Someone I met in San Juan tonight compared electric grid restoration in different parts of town to gerrymandering.

I found this tweet interesting so I replied to Mr. Vicens’s tweet, asking what he thought the person meant by that statement. And he promptly replied:

I think it was implying that power resources are distributed based on political and other factors, not necessarily on need or in an even way.

When I visited the island last week, to visit family and do some research on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s (PREPA) efforts to restore electricity, I also heard similar opinions. In addition, many people talked about countless alleged cases of corruption in PREPA. Some of these were covered by the local press – a subject that will be explored in a future Congressional hearing.

For now, let’s ignore the bribery allegations. I am interested in the following question: has politics played a role in the efforts to restore electricity to the island’s municipalities? In other words, does political party affiliation or political favoritism determined the USACE’s and PREPA’s efforts? And why do Puerto Ricans feel that this is the case?

Before we answer these questions, it is important to first note that Puerto Rico is divided into 78 municipalities, each with an elected mayor and an elected legislative assembly.

In terms of population, the biggest municipality is San Juan with 347,052 people and the smallest is Culebra with 1,818 people. While the pro-statehood, Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP) won all the territory-level  institutions (i.e. the governorship, the legislature and the resident commissioner seat) in the 2016 general election, the pro-Commonwealth Partido Popular Democrático (PPD) won 45 of the municipalities. Over 2 million people live in municipalities controlled by the PPD, while close to 1.4 million live in municipalities controlled by the PNP. 

As of this morning, 179 days since Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, 92% of the island’s 1,473,000 electricity customers have power, leaving around 120,000 customers without power. As the graph below shows, since 2 January 2018, around 545,000 customers have been reconnected to the electric grid.

chart (5)

Unfortunately, we don’t have these customer level data for the last months of 2017 as PREPA’s computer systems could not calculate how many meters were connected to the grid. But the graph shows that the process to repair the electric system has been very slow and has frustrated many Puerto Ricans.

Another problem with this graph is that it does not actually tell us how many people have electricity at the municipal level. Since mid-January 2018, the USACE has been sharing the number of connected meters by regions. The regions corresponds to PREPA’s division of the islands into the following clusters: Arecibo, Bayamon, Caguas, Carolina, Ponce, Mayaguez and San Juan.

Since mid November 2017, some PPD mayors have questioned whether PREPA and the USACE have spent more time and resources addressing the electricity needs of municipalities controlled by the PNP. While PREPA officials have denied these claims, in mid January 2018, more PPD mayors, frustrated by the slow pace of the recovery, raised the same concerns. While Governor Ricardo Rosselló asked the mayors not to politicize the recovery efforts, his chief of staff, William Villafañe, admitted that the mayors needed access to more information on PREPA’s efforts. Villafañe’s efforts however have not addressed these mayors’ concerns, as many of them noted in a meeting hosted by the governor on 28 February 2018.

Given the island’s politics and Puerto Ricans’ frustrations with the slow recovery process, it is not surprising that many believe that the efforts to repair the island’s electric grid has been shaped by political connections to La Fortaleza – the governor’s residence. But, is this the case?

On 19 January 2018, Puerto Rico’s largest newspaper, El Nuevo Día, as a reaction to PPD mayors’ growing criticisms, published the percentage of meters connected to the electric grid in each municipality. As noted in the table below, 60% of the island’s electric customers had power. The average of customers with electricity in municipalities controlled by either political party was the same.

I recently received a copy of a map prepared by the USACE and PREPA for the 28 February meeting mentioned above. At the time, 80.5% of the island’s electric customers had power. The figures suggest that the average number of customers with electricity in municipalities administered by mayors of the PPD and PNP is roughly the same. But given that more Puerto Ricans today reside in PPD-controlled municipalities, the total number of customers connected to the grid is larger in PPD-controlled municipalities than in PNP-controlled ones.

chart (8)

Although I do not have recent figures, these numbers suggest that political favoritism probably did not influence the USACE‘s and PREPA’s efforts to restore electricity to Puerto Rico’s customers. Looking at averages is a tricky undertaking as these numbers can hide important trends. In future posts, I will break these numbers at the regional level. This may provide new ways to look at the data, discover new trends, and reveal insights that may answer these important questions.

While more research is still need, it is also critical to take this opportunity and reflect as to why the mayors and so many Puerto Ricans believe that the USACE and PREPA’s efforts are driven by political favoritism and corruption. Lack of trust in the island’s political parties or political institutions is not a new development. The slow recovery process has only heightened these sentiments and these will further complicate efforts to reform Puerto Rico’s economy and political structures.

Similarly, this lack of trust is also an outcome of a poor public relations strategy on the part of the Puerto Rico’s government. To be fair to the USACE and PREPA, they have used their various social media accounts to inform the world about their efforts. Although their communications do help us understand why it has taken so long to repair the electrical system, they have not addressed Puerto Ricans’ frustrations or anxieties.

Moreover, Puerto Ricans’ negative view of PREPA’s record of poor service has shaken their confidence on the public utility’s capacity to restore power to the island. Similarly, Governor Rosselló’s repeated criticisms of the USACE’s efforts has forced many Puerto Ricans to question its personnel’s commitment and resolve.

It is too late to correct these problems. But lessons need to be learned as Puerto Ricans start to prepare for the 2018 hurricane season.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Installation of Blue Roofs in Post-Maria Puerto Rico: An Update

On a 19 December 2017 post, I presented some data on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) Blue Roof program in post-Maria Puerto Rico and some of the challenges FEMA faced trying to procure these blue tarps. At the time, 31% of the requested blue roofs had been installed. As the graph below demonstrates, the current percentage of installed roofs stands at 97%.

chart (4)

What is interesting about this graph is not the number of installed tarps but that the number of requested blue roofs has declined from 75,000 to 63,000. What factors explains this decline? One possible answer is that FEMA may have provided some of these families the money to repair their homes, nullifying their request for a temporary roof.

Similarly, some families may have been fed up with the slow installation of these blue tarps and they may have decided to repair their roofs without USACE or FEMA support. As I noted last December, procurement of these blue tarps slowed down the process. In the last weeks, one of the challenges has been connected to the bidding process, where conflicts between the USACE and local contractors did slow down the installation process.

Finally, many Puerto Rican homes are illegal or their owners do not have the requisite paperwork to prove they own the property. Additionally, many more homes in the island were not built according to code. Under these conditions, FEMA and the USACE may have denied these requests.

All in all, the USACE has so far installed more than 59,000 blue roofs. It seems that in the next weeks it will finish the program. And while 59,000 have benefited by this program, there are many unanswered questions about the people who have failed to gain access to the program. I will try to explore these issues in future posts.

 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Generation of Electricity in Puerto Rico Post-Maria

In the last few posts, I have been looking at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) efforts to restore Puerto Rico’s electric grid after Hurricanes Irma and Maria. As I noted earlier, the USACE is not leading these efforts. It is part of the Power Restoration Task Force to Coordinate the Restoration Efforts, which is headed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Puerto Rico’s government.

The USACE’s efforts have been guided by a four-part strategy, which includes: (1) the installation of emergency power generation; (2) restoring electricity generation to the pre-Maria average of 2500-3000 megawatts (MW); (3) repair of the grid’s transmission system; and (4) the rebuilding of the distribution system.

Since 18 October 2017, the USACE has regularly provided a snapshot of PREPA’s electricity generation capacity. Echoing the Puerto Rican government’s information portal, StatusPR, electricity generation is expressed as a percentage. StatusPR’s measurement is problematic because it does not specify how much electricity the island’s power plants are producing at a given point in time. The USACE’s statistics are more useful as they provide the actual megawatts of electricity being produced on a daily basis. For example, on 16 February 2018, electricity generation stood at 1928 MW, while it was 2008 MW four days later.

The USACE’s numbers show that we can measure power generation via three different mechanisms. First, we can calculate the actual generation of megawatts per day, which the following graph captures.

chart (3)

Because the USACE’s goal is to restore the grid’s generation capacity to between 2500 and 3000 megawatts, we can calculate the daily amount of power generation against these two goals. In the next graph, the blue line represents the actual percentage of generated power reported by the USACE’s infographics and StatusPR. This is the actual number consistently reported by the media in their reporting. Thus, on 20 February 2018 the reported percentage is 85%.

The red line uses 2500 MW as the goal, while the yellow line sets the goal to 3000 MW. In this manner, each line represents the percentage of generated electricity based on these goals. On 20 February total generation equaled 2008 MW. Thus, this represents 80% of the total power the USACE wants to generate in the near future, if we use 2500 MW as the generation goal. Similarly, if we use 3000 MW as the standard, the island’s power plants are generating 67% of the goal.

chart (2)

What role has the USACE played in restoring the grid’s power generation capacities? An assessment conducted by PREPA and the New York  Power Authority found that most of Puerto Rico’s seven power plants experienced some damage because of Hurricane Maria. On 20 October 2017, the USACE’s Commanding General and Chief of Engineers, Lt. General Todd Semonite, explained that while damages to the grid’s transmission and distributions systems were the most challenging aspects of the restoration strategy, there was not “enough capacity in Puerto Rico’s existing power plants to provide electricity to the island.” Thus, one of the USACE’s main objectives was not only to work with PREPA to repair the existing power plants, but to also purchase and install new electricity generators.

On 16 October 2017, the USACE contracted the Pennsylvania-based Weston Solutions to install two 25MW generators in PREPA’s Palo Seco power plant. By the end of October, both plants were generating around 30MW of electricity, helping to “stabilize the power grid in the San Juan area”.  In an effort to provide electricity to manufacturing facilities, hospitals and other critical infrastructure in the southeastern towns of the island, the USACE awarded a contract in early November 2017 to Aptim Federal Services to install a 25MW generator in the Yabucoa power plant. The new generator became operational on 9 December 2017.

The USACE and PREPA, along with their contractors, have increased the grids capacity to generate electricity. While things have improved, it has been a slow process. And given the Stafford Act’s provisions, the most problematic aspect of this strategy is that these restoration efforts are not transforming the island’s electricity system. Hence the post-Maria electricity system will be highly dependent on fossil fuels and it will fail to meet current environmental standards.

The next posts will examine the USACE efforts to restore the electric grid’s transmission and distribution systems.