Tag Archives: toronto star

Egypt: Connected to revolution

This piece is cross-posted from the Opinion Page of the Toronto Star which was kind enough to publish it this morning.

Over the weekend something profound happened. The Egyptian government, confronted with growing public unrest, attempted to disconnect itself. It shut down its cellular and telephone networks and unplugged from the Internet.

It was a startling recognition of this single most powerful force driving change in our world: connectivity. Our world is increasingly divided between the connected and the disconnected, between open and closed. This could be the dominant struggle of the 21st century and it forces us to face important questions about our principles and the world we want to live in.

Why does connectivity matter? Because it allows for free association and self-expression, both of which can allow powerful narratives to emerge in a society beyond the control of any elite.

In Egypt, the protests do not appear driven by some organized cabal. The Muslim Brotherhood — so long held up as the dangerous alternative to the regime — was caught flat-footed by the protests. The National Coalition for Change, headed by Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, seems to have emerged as the protesters’ leader, not their instigator.

Instead, Egypt may simply have reached a tipping point. Its citizens, having witnessed the events in Tunisia, came to realize they were no longer atomized and uncoordinated in the face of a police state. They could self-organize, connect with one another, share stories and videos, organize meetings and protests. In short, they could tell their own narratives to one another, outside the government’s control.

These stories can be powerful.

In Egypt, a video of an unknown protester being shot and carried away has generated a significant viewership. In Iran, the video of Neda Agha-Soltan dying from a gunshot wound transformed her into a symbol. In Tunisia, videos of protestors being shot also helped mobilize the public.

Indeed, as the family of Mohamed Bouazizi — the man who by setting himself on fire out of frustration with local authorities, triggering the Tunisian protests — noted to an Al Jazeera reporter, people are protesting with “a rock in one hand, a cellphone in the other.”

This is what makes movements like this so hard to fight. There is no opposition group to blame, no subversive leadership to decapitate, no central broadcast authority to shut down. The only way to stop the protests is to eliminate the participants’ capacity to self-organize. During the Green Revolution in Iran, that meant shutting down some key websites; in Egypt, it appears to mean shutting down all communication.

Of course, this state of affairs cannot continue indefinitely. Too much of the Egyptian economy depends on people being able to connect. The network that makes possible a modern economy also makes possible a popular uprising.

At some point Egypt will have to decide: disconnect forever like North Korea, or reconnect and confront the reality of the connected world.

For those of us who believe in freedom, individuality, self-expression and democracy, connectivity is among our most powerful tools because it makes possible alternative narratives.

From East Germany to the Philippines, Iran to Tunisia, connectivity has played a key role in helping people organize against governments that would deny them their rights. It’s a tool democracies have often used, from broadcasts like Radio Free Europe during the Cold War to the U.S. government’s request that Twitter not conduct a planned upgrade to its website that would have disrupted its service during the recent Iranian Green Revolution.

But if we believe in openness, we must accept its full consequences. Our own governments have a desire to disconnect us from one another when they deem the information to be too dangerous.

Today most U.S. government departments, and some Canadian ministries, still deny their employees access to WikiLeak documents, disconnecting them from information that is widely available to the general public.

More darkly, the government pressured companies such as Amazon and Paypal to not offer their services to WikiLeaks — much like the Iranian government tried to disrupt Twitter’s service and the Tunisian government attempted to hijack Facebook’s. Nor is connectivity a panacea. In Iran, the regime uses photos and videos from social networks and websites to track down protestors. Connectivity does not guarantee freedom; it is simply a necessary ingredient.

The events in Egypt are a testament to the opportunity of the times we live in. Connectivity is changing our world, making us more powerful individually and collectively. But ultimately, if we wish to champion freedom and openness abroad — to serve as the best possible example for countries like Egypt — we must be prepared to do so at home.

David Eaves is a Vancouver-based public policy entrepreneur and adviser on open government and open data. He blogs at eaves.ca

Case Study: How Open data saved Canada $3.2 Billion

Note: I’ll be on TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin tonight talking about Government 2.0.

Why does open data matter? Rather than talk in abstract terms, let me share a well documented but little known story about how open data helped expose one of the biggest tax frauds in Canada’s history.

It begins in early 2007 when a colleague was asked by a client to do an analysis of the charitable sector in Toronto. Considering it a simply consulting project, my colleague called the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) and asked for all the 2005 T3010s – the Annual Information Returns where charities disclose to the CRA their charitable receipts and other information – in Toronto. After waiting several weeks and answering a few questions, the CRA passed along the requested information.

After spending time cleaning up the data my colleague eventually had a working excel spreadsheet and began to analyze the charitable sector in the Greater Toronto Area. One afternnon, on a lark, they decided to organize the charities by size of tax-receipted charitable donations.

At this point it is important to understand something about scale. The United Way of Greater Toronto is one of the biggest charities in North America, indeed its most recent annual charitable donation drive was the biggest on the continent. In 2008 – the year of the financial crisis started – the United Way of Greater Toronto raised $107.5 million.

So it was with some surprise that after sorting the charities by 2005 donation amounts my colleague discovered that the United Way was not first on the list. It wasn’t even second.

It was third.

This was an enormous surprise. Somewhere in Toronto, without anyone being aware of it, two charities had raised more money than the United Way (which in 2005 raised target of $96.1M). The larger one, the International Charity Association Network (ICAN) raised $248M in 2005. The other, the Choson Kallah Fund of Toronto had receipts of $120M (up from $6M in 2003).

Indeed, four out the top 15 charities on the list, including Millennium Charitable Foundation, Banyan Tree, were unknown to my colleague, someone who had been active in the Toronto charitable community for over a decade.

All told, my colleague estimated that these illegally operating charities alone sheltered roughly Half a billion dollars in 2005. Indeed, newspapers later confirmed that in 2007, fraudulent donations were closer to a billion dollars a year, with some some 3.2 billion dollars illegally sheltered, a sum that accounts for 12% of all charitable giving in Canada.

Think about this. One billion dollars. A year. That is almost .6% of the Federal Government’s annual budget.

My colleague was eager to make sure that CRA was taking action on these organizations, but it didn’t look that way. The tax frauds were still identified by CRA as qualified charities and were still soliciting donors with the endorsement of government. They knew that a call to CRA’s fraud tip line was unlikely to prompt swift action. The Toronto Star had been doing its own investigations into other instances of charity fraud and had been frustrated by CRA’s slow response.

My colleague took a different route. They gave the information to the leadership of the charitable sector and those organizations as a group took it to the leadership at CRA. From late 2007 right through 2009 the CRA charities division – now under new leadership – has systematically shut down charity tax shelters and are continuing to do so.  One by one, International Charity Association Network, Banyan Tree Foundation, Choson Kallah Fund, the Millennium Charitable Foundation and others identified by my colleague have lost their charitable status. A reported $3.2 billion in tax receipts claimed by 100,000 Canadian tax filers have so far been disallowed or are being questioned. A class action suit launched by thousands of donors against the organizers and law firm of Banyan Tree Foundation was recently certified. It’s a first. Perhaps the CRA was already investigating these cases. It must build its cases carefully as, if they end up in court and fail to successfully present their case, they could help legalize a tax loophole. It may just have been moving cautiously. But perhaps it did not know.

This means that, at best, government data – information that should be made more accessible and open in an unfettered and machine readable format – helped reveal one of the largest tax evasion scandals in the country’s history. But if the CRA was already investigating, scrutiny of this data by the public served a different purpose – helping to bring these issues out into the open, forcing CRA to take public action (suspending these organizations’ right to solicit more donations), sooner rather than later.  Essentially from before 2005-2007 dozens of charities were operating illegally. Had the data about their charitable receipts been available for the public’s routine review,  someone in the public might have taken notice and raised a fuss earlier. Perhaps even a website tracking donations might have been launched. This would have exposed those charities that had abnormally large donations with few programs to explain then. Moreover, it might have given some of the 100,000 Canadians now being audited a tool for evaluating the charities they were giving money to.

In the computer world there is something called Linus’ Law, which states: “given enough eyeballs, all bugs (problems) are shallow.” The same could be said about many public policy or corruption issues. For many data sets, citizens should not have to make a request. Nor should we have to answer questions about why we want the data. It should be downloadable in its entirety. Not trapped behind some unhelpful search engine. When data is made readily available in machine readable formats, more eyes can look at it. This means that someone on the ground, in the community (like, say, Toronto) who knows the sector, is more likely to spot something a public servant in another city might not see because they don’t have the right context or bandwidth. And if that public servant is not allowed to talk about the issue, then they can share this information with their fellow citizens.

This is the power of open data: The power to find problems in complicated environments, and possibly even to prevent them from emerging.

Real Renewal – Creating a post-boomer Liberal Party

Taylor Owen and I published an op-ed entitled “Real Renewal” in today’s Toronto Star. You can comment on the piece here.

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OPINION

How about real Liberal renewal?

Nov 20, 2008 04:30 AM

David Eaves
Taylor Owen

In the weeks since one of its worst ever electoral performances, the conversation within the Liberal Party of Canada has rightly turned to renewal. To date, the establishment consensus suggests two options: shift right and recapture the ideological “centre,” or unite the left and merge the votes of the Greens, NDP and Liberals.

Neither choice, however, represents renewal. Both are simply electoral tactics focused on the next election. Neither necessitates a rethinking of first principles, nor encourages reflection on how liberalism, and its agenda, must evolve to create a 21st century vision that will speak to Canadians.

Consequentially, both approaches are likely to alienate a new generation of activists, thinkers and policy-makers whose new ideas and energy are essential to transcending the country’s staid political debates.

Take for example our friends and colleagues. Confronted with parties whose politics, policies and priorities are perceived as out of touch and ineffective, many have simply opted out of organized politics. But many are deeply engaged. They start or work at non-governmental organizations, volunteer internationally, create social enterprises or advocate outside of organized politics. Among our peers, the progressive spirit is strong, but progressive politics is not.

To progressives searching for a political home a united left offers few new opportunities.

While acknowledging the left was instrumental in creating many of the social programs Canadians have come to trust – many of today’s emerging progressives see a left that is often loath to reform or rethink them in the face of globalization, the telecommunication revolution, and a changing citizenry. In the last election voters faced an ideological paradox. The more left the advocates, the more entrenched they were against innovation and reform, even when such reforms would serve progressive values.

Seen this way, the NDP’s vision is in many ways a conservative one – a vision of Canada locked in the 1960s or worse, the 1930s. This conservatism of the left – even if found under one tent – will not inspire forward looking progressives, or Canadians in general.

Nor will moving to the centre attract new people or inspire new ideas.

Centrism requires there to something inherently good in the position between two ideological poles. Rather than compromise between the conservatism of the left and the right, many of our peers want pragmatic policies and ideas based on a governing philosophy rather than political gamesmanship.

Take how Barack Obama has mobilized a new generation of progressives. He inspires not because he compromises between the left and right, but because he offers pragmatic policy solutions, unrestricted by ideology. Obama’s watershed speeches – “Ebenezer Baptist Church,” “Yes We Can” and “A More Perfect Union” – are powerful because they transcend the ideological divides of the past 40 years.

How then could the Liberal party attract new people and ideas? The first step is to understand that we are on the cusp of a neo-progressive revolution.

While traditional progressives promoted their values to smooth the transition from agrarian to industrial capitalism and to spread the latter’s benefits, a neo-progressive Liberal party should seek to manage the shift from the industrial to the knowledge economy. In short, to develop a New Deal for the 21st century.

This would mean, like their progressive forbearers identifying new political axes around which a new governing coalition – drawn from both the left and right – could be built.

These emerging political axes include open versus closed systems, evidence-based policy versus ideology, meritocratic governance versus patronage, open and fair markets versus isolationism, and emergent networks versus hierarchies. It is these political distinctions, not the old left versus right, that increasingly resonate among those we talk to.

Such a shift will not be easy for the Liberal party. Transformative politics requires a painful process of introspection and a willingness to let go of past battles. The Liberal party, however, continues to treat “renewal” as a side process. For example, after Paul Martin’s 2006 defeat party insiders chose 30 issues they felt were critical, and then a select group wrote reports on each. Little technology was used, neither the membership nor the public was engaged, and almost none of the reports were released to the public.

The result: Few new people were attracted to the party, almost no rigorous debates were stimulated and Liberals were unable to articulate a new progressive agenda.

This recent history offers one critical lesson. If Liberals are serious about renewal, the process can’t just be about the tactics for winning the next election, but about making progressive politics relevant to the 21st century.

David Eaves is a fellow at the Queen’s University’s Centre of the Study of Democracy. Taylor Owen is a Trudeau Scholar at the University of Oxford.

Afghanistan: Tears are not enough, but neither are troops

Taylor Owen and Patrick Travers had a nice op-ed published in Saturday’s Toronto Star. Entitled, “2011 is a date, not a goal” it drives to the heart of the debate we aren’t having on Afghanistan.

It increasingly feels that in referencing the “Afghan Mission” the “mission” part has been lost somewhere. It is as though simply being in Afghanistan has become an end in of itself. This should not the case. We have a mission there, one that it would be nice if the government articulated from time to time and that it would talk to the public about whether or not we were getting closer or further away from achieving it.

My “top 10″ 2007 blogging moments: #4

July of 2007 – the 10th anniversary of blogging comes and goes and no one in the Canadian media notices. Of course given that the traditional media spent as much of 1994 to mid-2007 as they could ignoring the internet, this should surprise no one.

So Taylor and I take matters into our own hands and publish this opinion piece in the Toronto Star where we try to reign in technophiles’ overhyped promise of a coming blogosphere instigated social media utopia while at the same time hammering at the Andrew Keen like technophobes who see only doom and gloom.

electoral reform: maybe people just don't care

Yesterday, the Toronto Star had this fun story about the upcoming referendum on electoral reform. My favourite part was the beginning:

To find out what people think about the Ontario referendum being held a month from today, the Toronto Star stopped some 50 people at Yonge and Bloor Sts.

Just one person knew about it.

Only three others were interested enough to listen to what was being proposed.

Clearly this issue represents a burning platform for the electorate… Or not.

And let’s be fair – it is not like Canadians can’t get passionate about issues: The Charlotte Town Accord, Meech Lake, Free Trade, all caught voters attentions. If electoral reform hasn’t, maybe that means something…

Of course, proponents of Electoral Reform will claim this is because of a lack of press coverage and/or awareness on the part of the public. But then, this is the same bitter claim of any group whose issue isn’t dominating the news agenda.

Problematically, they’ll keep making that claim until their issue makes the news agenda and pierces the public’s consciousness. The basic precept being – everybody would care about this as much as I do – if only they were as well informed as I am.

Perhaps, or perhaps there is a simpler explanation. Maybe electoral reform is not a pressing issue to most people. Certainly a system the strengthens the power of the parties and the backroom boys isn’t easily going to inspire people I know…

Op-Ed in Yesterday's Toronto Star

Taylor Owen and I published this piece in the Toronto Star on the 10th anniversary of blogging and its impact on news media. (PDF version here)

Blogosphere at age 10 is improving journalism
Jul 30, 2007 04:30 AM
David Eaves & Taylor Owen

Although hard to believe, this month marks the 10th anniversary of blogging, a method for regularly publishing content online.

And what a milestone it is. A recent census of “the blogosphere” counted more than 70 million blogs covering an unimaginable array of topics.

Moreover, every day an astounding 120,000 new blogs are created and 1.5 million new posts are published (about 17 posts per second). Never before have so many contributed so much to our media landscape.

Despite this exponential growth, blogging continues to be misunderstood by both technophiles and technophobes. For the past decade the former have maintained that blogs will replace traditional journalism, ushering in an era of citizen-run media. Conversely, the latter have argued that a wave of amateurs threatens the quality and integrity of journalism – and possibly even democracy.

Both are wrong.

Blogging is not a substitute for journalism. If anything, this past decade shows that blogging and journalism are symbiotic – to the benefit of everyone.

To its many ardent advocates, blogging is displacing traditional journalism. But journalism – unlike blogging – is a practice with a particular set of norms and structures that guide the creation of content. Blogging, despite its unique properties (virtually anyone can reach a potentially enormous audience at little cost), has few, if any norms.

Consider another, more established medium. Books enable various practices, such as fiction, poetry, science and sometimes journalism, to be disseminated. Do books pose a threat to journalism? Of course not. They do the opposite. Journalistic books, like blogs, increase interest in the subjects they tackle and so promote further media consumption.

The same market forces that apply to books and newspapers apply to blogs.

Readers will judge and elect to read based on the same standard: Does it inform, is it well researched and does it add value?

Because blogs are cheaper to maintain they will always be numerous, but this makes them neither unique nor more likely to be read regularly.

Ultimately blogs, like books, don’t replace journalism; they simply provide another medium for its dissemination and consumption.

If technophiles mistakenly claim that blogging competes with – and will ultimately replace – traditional journalism, then technophobes’ fear of being swept away by a tsunami of irrelevant and amateurish blogs is equally misplaced.

Traditionalists’ concern with blogging is rooted in the fact that the average blog is of questionable quality. Ask anyone who has looked, and cringed, at a friend’s blog.

But this conclusion is based on a flawed understanding of how people use the Internet. The Internet’s most powerful property is its capacity to connect users quickly to exactly what they are looking for, including high-quality writing on any subject.

This accounts for the tremendous amount of traffic high-quality blogs receive and explains why these bloggers are print journalists’ true competition. As technology expert Paul Graham argues: “Those in the print media who dismiss online writing because of its low average quality miss the point. No one reads the average blog.”

Once this capability of the Internet is taken into account, the significance of blogging shifts. Imagine that only 5 per cent – or 75,000 – of daily posts are journalistic in content, and that only 1 per cent of these are of high quality. That still leaves 750 high-quality posts published every day.

Even by this conservative assessment, the blogo- sphere still yields a quantity of content that can challenge the world’s best newspapers.

In addition, as a wider range of writers and citizens try blogging, the diversity and quantity of high-quality blogs will continue to increase. Currently, the number of blogs doubles every 300 days. Consequently, the situation is going to get much worse, or depending on your perspective, much better.

As bloggers continue to gain tangible influence in public debates, our understanding of this phenomenon will mature.

And this past decade should serve as a good guide. Contrary to the predictions of both champions and skeptics, blogging has neither displaced nor debased the practice of journalism. If anything, it has made journalism more accurate, democratic and widely read.

Let’s hope blogging’s next decade will be as positive and transformative as the first.