Boston Central Artery/Tunnel Project History Website
Sara E. Wermiel with the assistance of Thomas P. Hughes
This report covers activities and results of the CA/T history website for the twenty months since the last annual report, submitted in January 1998.
Given new guidance by Jesse Ausubel in December 1997 concerning the Sloan Foundations objectives for the STIM project, Thomas Hughes and Sara Wermiel reconceived the Boston Central Artery/Tunnel Project History website. We largely abandoned the original, publishing-to-the-web concept (which involved making CA/T-related documents available on-line) and instead designed a project aimed at testing the value of the web as a data collection tool. In order to do this, we first had to limit our inquiry. The aspect of the history of the CA/T we selected as our focus was the controversy over the design of the new bridges that would carry the new Central Artery highway over the Charles River, the original plan for which was known as Scheme Z. We decided to put the material we collected in an archive that other researchers could use, and informed potential contributors that this is what we would do with any material they gave us.
Prof. Hughes proposed a method for getting contributions, which was to ask the individuals in our target group to comment on his article about the history of the CA/T entitled, "Coping with Complexity." Contributors were told that this would be their opportunity to rewrite history according to their records and memories. Dr. Wermiel then designed the website around this recruitment strategy. In May 1998, she sent information about our project, along with the article, to about eighty individuals the target group and requested that they send comments via an on-line form, or send us written comments and materials that we could post to the website.
Response was slight: we received a few written comments, a few on-line comments, and permission to put some unpublished material on the website. Therefore, we changed tactics: Dr. Wermiel began to interview members of the target group and prepared summaries of the interviews for posting on the website, with approval of the interviewees. This approach succeeded for several interviews, but then it too faltered, when interviewees would not review, or give approval to post, the summaries. Dr. Wermiel continued to interview people, but she often had to promise that the information would be used in a conventional, journalistic way (without attribution, as background). Meanwhile, she surveyed the non-respondents in the target group about their use of the Internet.
Following are our findings and conclusions concerning the value to the web as a means for obtaining information from communities involved in prominent technological projects.
Designing a Data Collection Strategy and Tools
At a December 1997 meeting of the STIM PIs and staff, Jesse Ausubel clarified the Sloan Foundations objectives for the STIM project, which included testing the usefulness of the Web as a tool for collecting data about contemporary history of science and technology projects. He also offered an intriguing idea about which individuals should be contacted for information: he suggested that major technological or scientific innovations for example, an important invention or a prominent new structure usually involve no more than one hundred people. While a greater number of people help bring a project to fruition, the key players comprise a finite group on the order of one hundred or fewer and these individuals are the best informed about the history of the project. Still, interviewing even one hundred people would take much time, hence the idea of trying to use the Internet as a means to speed up data collection, involve actors in creating resources for future historians, and perhaps stimulate a conversation among the key players.
We designed our recruitment effort around this idea of a finite target group. First, we decided to focus on one aspect of the CA/T project: the history of the controversy over the design of the original bridges that would bring the new, depressed Central Artery highway across the Charles River. Then Dr. Wermiel put together a list of the main people connected with the event, which eventually contained about 80 names. Assuming that a few people had been overlooked and a few on the list had little to contribute, this number seemed a remarkable confirmation of Mr. Ausubels theory.
The next problem was how to get these individuals to give us information. Of course, we first we had to determine what we wanted from them and what we would do with the information we obtained. Our answers to these questions had important consequences for the success of the project. We decided that the material we collected would be put into an archive hardcopy and on-line, depending on the nature of the material. In other words, we would be collecting data that would be available to future researchers, and we would not necessarily use the material ourselves. This is because neither Prof. Hughes nor Dr. Wermiel was studying the CA/T. Prof. Hughes had completed his research his book, which included a chapter on the CA/T, was being published and he had no plans to work on the topic further.
On the question of how to obtain contributions, we felt that simply asking people to send information would not yield results. Moreover, we wanted to obtain information in some structured way so that the data from whatever source pertained to a limited range of questions; specifically, we hoped to obtain diverse points of view about select matters. One approach to structuring responses the one employed by Tim Lenoir at his computer mouse website was to pose questions for visitors to answer. Prof. Hughes proposed another approach, which was to ask people to comment on his CA/T article. It had been his practice, in writing Unbound Prometheus , to send drafts of chapters to the people he interviewed for their review and comments. Usually interviewees responded positively to this request, often providing extensive comments and corrections. Therefore, we asked members of the target group to respond to Prof. Hughes chapter about the history of the CA/T, "Coping with Complexity: Central Artery and Tunnel." In a letter explaining the project, Prof. Hughes wrote,
Professionals and the public hold many different opinions about Scheme Z and the alternative designs proposed to replace it. Historians need to evaluate the many points of view in their effort to reach a balanced interpretation. Because of the need for various view points, and because many lessons useful for future projects can be learned from a history of Scheme Z, my colleague, Dr. Sara E. Wermiel, and I are exploring a new way of collecting information about the CA/T and Scheme Z in particular.
We are asking you, among a select group of people who have been involved or interested in the CA/T project, to visit our website and contribute your interpretation of events, lessons learned, and memories. We would like for you to comment on and supplement my account of CA/T, especially the story of Scheme Z, which is told in the enclosed chapter.
However, there were several differences between this case and the usual request for interviewees to comment. First, very few of the people in the target group had been interviewed for the chapter (and those that had been interviewed presumably had already made comments). Thus, the majority had no relationship with Prof. Hughes and would not be correcting or commenting on information that they had provided. Second, the article on which they were asked to comment was about to be published and would not be changed in light of anything they said. Rather, what they contributed would go into an archive that future researchers might use.
Dr. Wermiel designed and built the CA/T History website. It contained a data collection form (a form for comments that was returned to her by e-mail), a "forum" where original material would be posted, and also pages with various kinds of information about history of Scheme Z. These included a chronology of Scheme Z, aimed at helping respondents recall events and get the sequence right; a bibliography of key documents in the history of the CA/T, arranged chronologically; and excerpts of some of these documents, accessed from both the bibliography and chronology pages. She also put illustrations on the website, for example, of the principal crossing schemes, designs of the bridges, and plans for the Charles River basin where the crossing occurs. These pages the bibliography, chronology, documents, and images are of use to anyone studying the history of the CA/T, not only to our target group. This enhanced the value of the site to people studying the history of the CA/T or highway projects generally: they could find published, though hard-to-find, material at the website, in addition to the original material in the forum section.
The interactive part of the site was the "contribute" screen. STIM staff at Stanford made this feature operational. The screen allowed individuals to write a comment and send it to us for posting at the website. Since a purpose of the project was to obtain information that future researchers could use, contributors had to identify themselves; however, they could request to have their comments posted anonymously (although their identities would be kept in a hardcopy version). At her request, the Stanford staff designed the system so that Dr. Wermiel could review comments before posting them. After someone sent a comment, it went automatically to her and she approved it for the site, if it was appropriate, or discarded it. She did not edit the comments.
Although we solicited comments from key people, and therefore made the existence of the site known to them, anyone could come to the website and make a comment. Comments from the public were treated like any others and posted if they were pertinent (we received about three such comments and only one was posted). We gave the target group members a code to identify themselves, in order to distinguish their comments from those of other people. As it turned out, since we received so few comments on-line, processing them was not a problem.
Once the site was operational, Dr. Wermiel mailed hardcopies of Prof. Hughes chapter along with a letter explaining the purpose of the project and how to use the website, to the approximately eighty individuals who had had key roles in the Scheme Z affair. She compiled these names from David Luberoffs federally-funded study of the history of the CA/T, Mega-Project, and from the CA/T and Charles River Crossing environmental impact statement/reports (EIS/R), which included copies of letters from individuals and organizations that had responded to the draft EIS/Rs. The letters and testimony in the EIS/Rs indicated who was concerned with Scheme Z specifically. The target group also included the members of the Bridge Design Review Committee. The mailing went out in mid-May.
A few weeks passed, with little response. Two people sent letters and a few more contacted Wermiel by phone or e-mail. One letter was suitable for posting, the other offered only a general reaction to Hughes chapter and did not provide any new information. A few individuals sent comments through the contribute screen at the website.
Two people wanted to talk about Scheme Z but not to write anything, and therefore Dr. Wermiel interviewed them. After interviewing Herbert Einstein, a tunnel expert, she summarized the conversation and, with his approval, posted his remarks to the website.
Following a few weeks of no activity at the website, Dr. Wermiel concluded that the individuals we wished to reach would not come to us and therefore, we had to go to them, as she had done with Prof. Einstein. Thus, she began to conduct interviews with the intention of putting summaries of them on the website. During the interviews, she also tried to gather information about how the interviewees used the Web and what they thought about our project. Conducting interviews defeated one of the purposes of the project, i.e., using the Internet to gather data more efficiently instead of the slow process of interviewing people in person. Nevertheless, we at least were able to gather original material, some of which we put on the website.
Although the website had not been operating for very long, the time seemed ripe for figuring out why the web-based data gathering idea was yielding such scant results. One could imagine many reasons for the low response, but obviously, lack of access to the Internet would be a major factor. Did our target group have access? If so, did they use the Internet outside of work (assuming that providing comments to us would not be considered work)?
In order to answer these questions, Dr. Wermiel conducted a survey of the target group. She prepared a form with a few questions about the sort of access people had and how much they used the Internet; printed the questionnaire on postcards; and mailed the postcards to target group members. These individuals only had to check off boxes and drop the postcards in the mail. Of the 70 letters sent out (excluding people who had already responded in some way), 31 postcards came back.
Of these 31 valid responses, 58% of the respondents had Internet access both at home and work. Almost a quarter reported having no Internet access. While all those with Internet access used e-mail, only about half indicated they used the World Wide Web outside of their work. Those who used the Web (apart from e-mail) reported using it very little, for less than an hour a week, either at home or at work.
This light use of the Internet was surprising since the target group consisted of professional and business people, all highly educated. However, even among university faculty, use of the Internet is uneven, with some faculty members using it extensively and others not at all.
Most disheartening was their responses to the last two questions in the survey. While all but one respondent had visited the CA/T history website, nearly half said they did not plan to contribute. A third of the total said they would contribute something (although few did) and some others indicated they were not sure what they would do. Clearly, the Internet was not the best means to reach this group, even if our topic was more compelling for them or had been free of some other features that limited participation.
In September 1998, Dr. Wermiel discussed the CA/T history website project and presented results of the postcard survey at the Fall Colloquia of the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT. The audience had little to suggest concerning how we could improve the response, since no one in the audience had tried to create a website aimed at gathering data from a delimited group of people. Indeed, one person who tried to get a conversation going on a controversial topic (one that concerned technology) reported that comments came entirely from one side. Another person described a website he created that mainly had links to related sites. The fact that the CA/T website was aimed at a target group and therefore had not been widely advertised struck a few people in the audience as "undemocratic." Dr. Wermiel explained that anyone could visit the CA/T and contribute it they wished, but that the purpose was to obtain information from people who were most knowledgeable about the subject. Nevertheless, just to see if it publicizing the website would boost the number of visitors, she sent information about it to Alta Vista and Yahoo search engines. As it turned out, listing the sites in these directories did not increase participation and the number of visitors remained small.
Through the fall and winter of 1998-99, Dr. Wermiel interviewed members of the target group. In all, she interviewed sixteen individuals, three of these twice. In all but three cases, she prepared summaries of the interviews and sent them to the interviewees with the request that they review and change the text to most accurately reflect their views and words, then approve the summary for posting on the CA/T forum page. Only three people complied with this request, although Dr. Wermiel contacted several others repeatedly requesting their approval to post comments. Several interviewees indicated before or during the interviews that their comments could not be posted and were for background only. Their contributions cannot even be available in hardcopy.
By late spring of 1999, the project had run its course. The idea of using the Web to gather data about the Scheme Z affair had been tested. A good deal of substantive information had been collected, though some of it could not be made available in a hardcopy archive, much less on-line.
Rotch Library, the architecture and planning library at MIT, agreed to take the CA/T website and link it to the librarys website and to put the hardcopy material in its collection. Wermiel redesigned the CA/T website, removing the interactive feature and adding information about the hardcopy materials that would be available at Rotch. She also added more images plans for the Charles River basin and drawings of what the new Charles River highway bridges will look like to the website. Although a search capability and on-line cataloguing of the CA/T pages had been created for the website by Stanford-based STIM staff, it did not work the way Dr. Wermiel had hoped, and so was and is not part of the site. The new website can be found at http://libraries.mit.edu/rotch/artery/
The non-use of the Internet by our target group was not the only factor that prevented us from developing an archive of original information about the CA/T. Even if people had been comfortable with the Web, they would not have participated for reasons that had to do with the topic itself and the design of the project.
Reasons people said they would not, or were reluctant to, participate:
- Ambiguous objectives for the project
- Were perplexed by the idea of using the Web to obtain information, which discouraged them participating
- Subject matter (Scheme Z controversy) was very sensitive; people would not speak on the record and were circumspect off the record
1. Respondents did not know what we wanted. They found the idea of contributing to an archive less than compelling. They saw no reason to comment on Prof. Hughes article since they did not see how their input would have an effect.
We decided to focus on Scheme Z because it was a manageable topic surrounded by controversy. Scheme Z was a time-bounded event, the players were identifiable, many still lived or worked in Boston; and many continued feel strongly about what happened. However, we did not have any specific questions we wanted them to answer.
The decision to use a published article, which was not going to be revised, discouraged responses. When Dr. Wermiel asked individuals why they did not contribute via the Web or otherwise, they told her that since Prof. Hughes chapter was being published as it then existed, they didnt see why they should bother commenting on it. The idea of contributing material for an archive, for future researches, held no appeal. They presumably do not understand how historians work that historian resort to archives and that such material would be valuable to them or that the Central Artery records may not be preserved.  Only the prospect that Wermiel would be writing an article, and therefore their comments could affect some tangible product, encouraged people to talk.
2. Many people considered the method of gathering data (via the Web) flawed and this discouraged them from participating. Very few individuals Peter Howe, a reporter for the Boston Globe was one of the few regarded the method of the project as a worthwhile experiment. Mr. Howe, who covered the Scheme Z controversy during its height, contributed copies of all his Globe stories on Scheme Z to the archive, summaries of which are available on-line. Most of the people who agreed to participate thought the topic (Scheme Z) was an important one to chronicle. It seemed that the method of collecting data worked against goal of collecting it.
3. The fact that many in the target group still feel strongly about Scheme Z and the bridge redesign process might seem like conditions that would encourage participation. But counteracting this is the fact that the Central Artery is a live project; many of these people are still involved in some capacity. For various reasons, they could not say things for attribution and would not speak frankly about sensitive matters.
This exposes the problems of documenting the work of a "community" made up of opponents. The group worked together and forged a result, but through opposition, not harmony. In a situation where there are rivals, competition, politics, and so on, you have the seeds for distrust, reticence, and manipulation, which complicates creating an historical record through the Web.
The Charles River bridges are being built now. Many of the people who opposed Scheme Z feel defeated: they believe the plan under construction is little better than Scheme Z and the new bridges will blight Bostons riverfront. Those who supported Scheme Z cannot see this; to them, the bridges pass through an already blighted transportation corridor that cannot be further harmed, and are the final piece that allowed an important highway project to be realized. Participants take what happened personally. Those who wanted a less-obtrusive bridge feel they were bullied. Those who got the bridge they wanted (more or less) resent the people who pressed for another crossing plan, view them as unreasonable obstructionists who were willing to sacrifice the whole highway, and who delayed it and raised its total cost. Nevertheless, many people on both sides of this issue still work together today and have to put these feelings aside. Only those no longer involved can afford to air their private feelings.
Are there big lesson for policy, for highway planning, to be learned from the events surrounding Scheme Z and its replacement? I posed this question to many of the people I interviewed, and no one could suggest any. A few people believed that the event said a lot about highway politics in Massachusetts, on the one hand, and the character of Fred Salvucci, on the other. The geo-political and highway struggles in Massachusetts (the questions of whether more roads help or hurt the states economy, and who should bear the burden of gridlock and of rights-of-way and traffic) are long-standing and many of the people interviewed felt that Scheme Z was another manifestation of these debates. The upshot was, Scheme Z is a local story. The price tag for the CA/T and the complexities of implementing it are unprecedented, but the politics are very familiar.
The lessons from the CA/T project for using the Web as a tool to investigate contemporary history of science and technology questions can be boiled down to this: choose your topic carefully. Choose one for which potential contributors use the Web regularly. Give people strong incentives to contribute some result that they will value. Do not ask too much of them (i.e., asking them to compose original essays, even asking them to respond to a piece of writing, proved to be too much). Thus, questionnaires and questions requiring short answers probably will yield better response. Of course, such an approach sacrifices depth. If one needs depth, traditional tools will probably work better.
Appendix: Supporting Material