Lesson in Misunderstanding Abundance and Scarcity: Quebec and Abitibibowater

One of the biggest problems old institutions have grasping the internet is how it changes notions of abundance and scarcity. We are used to a world of scarcity where, if you have something, I cannot also have it, so we need a way to figure out how to allocate it (market forces, government regulation, etc…). The two following examples are wonderful cases of acting like their is scarcity when there is abundance, and acting like there is abundance, where there is scarcity…

The Province of Quebec – Don’t help people vote!

The other day a friend of mine, a web developer who goes by the name Ducky, asked the Province of Quebec for image (KML) files for provincial ridings in Quebec. These files would allow her to show people, in say, Google Maps, which riding they live in, who their representative in the National Assembly might be, etc… The Government of Quebec was happy to share, but only on the condition that she never make money using the information:

From: Charlotte Perreault <Cperreault@dgeq.qc.ca>
Date: 2009/12/8
Subject: Shapefiles pour les circonscriptions électorales québécoises
To: ducky@*******.com
Cc: Mireille Loignon <Mloignon@dgeq.qc.ca>

Madame Duck Sherwood

Nous avons pris connaissance de votre demande concernant l’utilisation des cartes des circonscriptions électorales québécoises sur le site http://www.electionsquebec.qc.ca/fr/copyright.asp .  Après analyse, nous considérons que pour l’instant il n’y a pas d’utilisation commerciale de ces fichiers.  Par conséquent, vous êtes autorisée à les utiliser en mentionnant la source, soit la Commission de la représentation électorale du Québec.

Cependant, si vous souhaitez un jour commercialiser un produit fait à partir de ces cartes, vous devrez communiquer avec nous en nous transmettant plus de renseignements comme par, exemples, le prix de vente dudit produit, ou tout autre renseignement qui nous permettra d’évaluer correctement  votre demande.

Veuillez agréer, Madame, l’expression de nos meilleurs sentiments.

Charlotte Perreault, conseillère en communication
Direction des communications
Directeur général des élections du Québec
Édifice René-Lévesque
3460, rue de La Pérade
Québec (QC)
G1X 3Y5
So, if Ducky, or say a newspaper, wanted to create a website to help residents of Quebec identify what riding they live in… and were going to have advertising on the site, they couldn’t do that without permission from the Quebec government. Heaven forbid that someone offer citizens or voters a helpful or interesting service, especially using information that is in the public interest.
Why is this? I’m not sure. If Ducky created her site, it wouldn’t preclude someone else from using the exact same information to create their own site. No, the Quebec government is turning something that is infinitely abundant and that can be used over and over again (election data) and making it scarce by preventing anyone from using it in a way that could be useful and profitable. Maybe they think they could make some money from the data… but sadly, every academic anlsysis shows they won’t – usually money recovered for data like this is covers the cost of collecting the money, and nothing else. In the end, the losers in all this are… Quebec residents.
Abitibibowater – Print, Print and Print more!
On the flip side of this is Abitibibowater, the producer of “a wide range of newsprint, commercial printing papers, market pulp and wood products.” Apparently, they have become concerned about the number of people who include “do not print this e-mail” at the bottom of their emails. So they sent around this memo to their employees:

To all our employees:

At AbitibiBowater, we rely on the forest to make our products, and respect for the environment is a fundamental part of everything we do. Too often, however, we see the use of paper singled out as something ‘bad’ for the environment, which is the reason why some people include “do not print this e-mail” notes to the end of their electronic messages. There has been ongoing discussion concerning this matter in the media recently, given the proliferation of electronic readers. Here is a link to a March article that appeared on PBS’s website, which raises this issue.

We believe it is OK to print, especially if you use paper sourced from independently certified forests and recycle the paper after you are finished with it. Our Company works hard to operate in a way that is sustainable, and that reflects the values of our employees, our customers, and the communities in which we operate. We are continuously improving our manufacturing processes and reducing our environmental footprint.

We have developed a page on our website to address this issue (abitibibowater.com/print) that explains why you can feel comfortable knowing that using paper is an environmentally responsible choice. We have written our own e-mail footnote that makes this point and invites others to find out why:

It’s OK to print this e-mail. Paper is made from a renewable resource. Please choose paper sourced from independently certified sustainable forests and recycle. For more information visit abitibibowater.com/print.

Uh… actually it is still really, really, wasteful to print an email that you could just forward to someone. Even if that email is printed on certified paper. Paper may be a renewable resource, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t scarce. Trees used for making paper aren’t being used for something else, like say, building homes, making tourists happy, or, say, converting CO2 into air.

Pretending like something is abundant when it is actually scarce is deeply irresponsible – and Abitibi’s email is prompting me to actually add the “do not print this email” signature to the bottom of my own emails.

The economics of abundance and scarcity matter – knowing which one you are dealing with matters. Make the wrong choice, and you could end up looking at best like a fool, at worst, deeply irresponsible.

7 thoughts on “Lesson in Misunderstanding Abundance and Scarcity: Quebec and Abitibibowater

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Lesson in Misunderstand Abundance and Scarcity: Quebec and Abitibibowater | eaves.ca -- Topsy.com

  2. the_rat

    You seem to very confused. The Quebec government didn't want you friend to make money from, if I read your post correctly, graphics of ridings created by the provincial government. She wanted to use the product of the labour of a government employee for her personal enrichment. This has nothing to do with scarcity or abundance, it has to do with the province saying that if she wants to make a profit then create the graphics yourself. She wasn't asking for data, she was asking for the end product.As for printing or not printing an email, again you think that paper is some kind of rare product? I would disagree but again you've missed the point. Printing an email is often done for archiving purposes. Digitally stored data has a tendency to disappear because storage and archive space IS “rare”, and the technology of storage changes rapidly leaving people unable to recover the data from an obsolete format. Paper, on the other hand, is rather immune to the delete button and hasn't become obsolete.

  3. David Eaves

    The_rat thank you for the comment. No confusion here. Indeed you comment sums up all the problematic thinking in this space. Can't wait to respond when I get back to a keyboard and can write something longer and more thoughtful.–http://www.eaves.ca

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  5. David Eaves

    Ah, now I have a key board.I'm really trying to read the_rat's comment with a positive attitude, but I'll confess, I'm struggling. I'm definitely not confused. I don't think it is unreasonable for someone to want to make money using a public resource. Newspapers make money reprinting press releases (an end product) my tax dollars paid for and companies ship goods and make money using roads (an end product) my tax dollars paid for. Why can't someone take data and make money using it? Why is it somehow different? Indeed, the one way in that it is different is that it isn't a scarce resource. Unlike roads (in which there is a finite amount of space) the data can be used over and over, by anyone, to do whatever they want, at no cost to the government. If she wants to take this data, enhance it, and see if there is a model to charge for this added value… why would the government prevent her?Is paper a rare product? Well there are a finite number of trees. Moreover, there is nothing about the campaign which says “Print this to archive it.” There campaign is “Print this email to share it.” Moreover, given that most corporations only want to keep records for 7 years (the legal requirement) I'm fairly confident they'll still be able to access all those word and txt docs 7 years from now…Anyways, feel free to respond – I'm more than comfortable to let readers judge for themselves.

  6. liberex

    I feel as a librarian and archivist the wrong-headedness of the comment regarding the superiority of paper as an archival medium needs adressing.In the short term, your comment is senseless. Give me one example of a file format made in the last, say, decade that has gone obsolete to the point of not being accessible. As for the deletion – paper is destroyed frequently. The susceptability of to loss of digital media is significantly LESS than paper – just ask any insurer which has cheaper coverage.In the long term, your comment is just wrong. Consumer grade digital media has storage lifetimes orders of magnitude longer than office copy paper, not to mention much simpler, smaller and cheaper storage requirements. How can it be coherent to suggest digital storage and archive space is rare? I can store tens of thousands of pages of documentation on a bit of plastic the size of my thumb-nail, and I can buy a dozen of these for the cost of one filing cabinet.Paper means mess, wasted energy and the added expense of printer upkeep and maintenance.


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