Tag Archives: british columbia

Lying with Maps: How Enbridge is Misleading the Public in its Ads

The Ottawa Citizen has a great story today about an advert by Enbridge (the company proposing to build a oil pipeline across British Columbia) that includes a “broadly representational” map that shows prospective supertankers steaming up an unobstructed Douglas Channel channel on their way to and from Kitimat – the proposed terminus of the pipeline.

Of course there is a small problem with this map. The route to Kitimat by sea looks nothing like this.

Take a look at the Google Map view of the same area (I’ve pasted a screen shot below – and rotated the map so you are looking at it from the same “standing” location). Notice something missing from Enbridge’s maps?

Kitimate-Google2

According to the Ottawa Citizens story an Enbridge spokesperson said their illustration was only meant to be “broadly representational.” Of course, all maps are “representational,” that is what a map is, a representation of reality that purposefully simplifies that reality so as to aid the reader draw conclusions (like how to get from A to B). Of course such a representation can also be used to mislead the reader into drawing the wrong conclusion. In this case, removing 1000 square kilometers that create a complicated body of water to instead show that oil tankers can steam relatively unimpeded up Douglas Channel from the ocean.

The folks over at Leadnow.ca have remade the Enbridge map as it should be:

EnbridgeV2

Rubbing out some – quite large – islands that make this passage much more complicated of course fits Enbridge’s narrative. The problem is, at this point, given how much the company is suffering from the perception that it is not being fully upfront about its past record and the level of risk to the public, presenting a rosy eyed view of the world is likely to diminish the public’s confidence in Enbridge, not increase their confidence in the project.

There is another lesson. This is great example of how facts, data and visualization matter. They do. A lot. And we are, almost every day, being lied to through visual representations from sources we are told to trust. While I know that no one thinks of maps as open or public data in many ways they are. And this is a powerful example of how, when data is open and available, it can enable people to challenge the narratives being presented to them, even when those offering them up are powerful companies backed by a national government.

If you are going to create a representation of something you’d better think through what you are trying to present, and how others are going to see it. In Enbridge’s case this was either an effort at guile gone horribly wrong or a communications strategy hopelessly unaware of the context in which it is operating. Whoever you are, and whatever you are visualization – don’t be like Enbridge – think through your data visualization before you unleash it into the wild.

Public Policy: The Big Opportunity For Health Record Data

A few weeks ago Colin Hansen – a politician in the governing party in British Columbia (BC) – penned an op-ed in the Vancouver Sun entitled Unlocking our data to save lives. It’s a paper both the current government and opposition should read, as it is filled with some very promising ideas.

In it, he notes that BC has one of the best collections of health data anywhere in the world and that, data mining these records could yield patterns – like longitudinal adverse affects when drugs are combined or the correlations between diseases – that could save billions as well as improve health care outcomes.

He recommends that the province find ways to share this data with researchers and academics in ways that ensure the privacy of individuals are preserved. While I agree with the idea, one thing we’ve learned in the last 5 years is that, as good as academics are, the wider public is often much better in identifying patterns in large data sets. So I think we should think bolder. Much, much bolder.

Two years ago California based Heritage Provider Network, a company that runs hospitals, launched a $3 Million predictive health contest that will reward the team who, in three years, creates the algorithm that best predicts how many days a patient will spend in a hospital in the next year. Heritage believes that armed with such an algorithm, they can create strategies to reach patients before emergencies occur and thus reduce the number of hospital stays. As they put it: “This will result in increasing the health of patients while decreasing the cost of care.”

Of course, the algorithm that Heritage acquires through this contest will be proprietary. They will own it and I can choose who to share it with. But a similar contest run by BC (or say, the VA in the United States) could create a public asset. Why would we care if others made their healthcare system more efficient, as long as we got to as well. We could create a public good, as opposed to Heritage’s private asset. More importantly, we need not offer a prize of $3 million dollars. Several contests with prizes of $10,000 would likely yield a number of exciting results. Thus for very little money with might help revolutionize BC, and possibly Canada’s and even the world’s healthcare systems. It is an exciting opportunity.

Of course, the big concern in all of this is privacy. The Globe and Mail featured an article in response to Hansen’s oped (shockingly but unsurprisingly, it failed to link back to – why do newspaper behave that way?) that focused heavily on the privacy concerns but was pretty vague about the details. At no point was a specific concern by the privacy commissioner raised or cited. For example, the article could have talked about the real concern in this space, what is called de-anonymization. This is when an analyst can take records – like health records – that have been anonymized to protect individual’s identity and use alternative sources to figure out who’s records belong to who. In the cases where this occurs it is usually only only a handful of people whose records are identified, but even such limited de-anonymization is unacceptable. You can read more on this here.

As far as I can tell, no one has de-anonymized the Heritage Health Prize data. But we can take even more precautions. I recently connected with Rob James – a local epidemiologist who is excited about how opening up anonymized health care records could save lives and money. He shared with me an approach taking by the US census bureau which is even more radical than de-anonymization. As outlined in this (highly technical) research paper by Jennifer C. Huckett and Michael D. Larsen, the approach involves creating a parallel data set that has none of the features of the original but maintains all the relationships between the data points. Since it is the relationships, not the data, that is often important a great deal of research can take place with much lower risks. As Rob points out, there is a reasonably mature academic literature on these types of privacy protecting strategies.

The simple fact is, healthcare spending in Canada is on the rise. In many provinces it will eclipse 50% of all spending in the next few years. This path is unsustainable. Spending in the US is even worse. We need to get smarter and more efficient. Data mining is perhaps the most straightforward and accessible strategy at our disposal.

So the question is this: does BC want to be a leader in healthcare research and outcomes in an area the whole world is going to be interested in? The foundation – creating a high value data set – is already in place. The unknown is if can we foster a policy infrastructure and public mandate that allows us to think and act in big ways. It would be great if government officials, the privacy commissioner and some civil liberties representatives started to dialogue to find some common ground.  The benefits to British Columbians – and potentially to a much wider population – could be enormous, both in money and, more importantly, lives, saved.

Ethical Oil and the Northern Gateway Pipeline Process

This piece is cross-posted from the Toronto Star’s Op-Ed Page.

This week the “ethical oil” argument adopted by the federal government took an interesting twist. While billions from China pour into Canada to develop the oilsands and fund the construction of the Northern Gateway pipeline, on Monday the government announced its desire to revise the rules so that Canadians will have less time to share their concerns and properly review these massive projects.

Why the change? Because environmental organizations, “other radical groups” and, ironically, foreign money, are allegedly corrupting the process. Is this the future of ethical oil — a world where the Canadian government limits its citizens’ ability to talk over an issue so that China, a country the Prime Minister’s communications director calls a dictatorship, can be allowed to own and exploit Canada’s natural resources?

It’s a curious twist. Many Canadians — me included — agree with one part of Ezra Levant’s ethical oil argument: oil should be evaluated by its environmental impact as well as its effect on the respect for human rights and international stability.

But where does it leave the government’s case for ethical oil if Canadians are sidelined in the decision-making process to please a country both Levant and the Prime Minister have accused of human rights violations? Indeed, on his show The Source, Levant is often critical of China, hosting discussions on how “the freedoms of its people are still on the decline” and labelling the country a “dictatorship.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has had equally strong words about China. He once said of the country: “I don’t think Canadians want us to sell out important Canadian values — our belief in democracy, freedom, human rights. They don’t want to sell that out to the almighty dollar.”

So why start now? Especially when Canadians share the Prime Minister’s former concern. A recent poll of British Columbians showed that 73 per cent were worried or very worried about China investing in or owning Canada’s natural resources. Given the environmental implications, the broader ethical concerns raised by Levant, as well as the government’s promise to be more transparent and more engaged with Canadians, this is precisely the wrong time to limit discussion.

There is also a great deal to discuss with regard to foreign influence. Although the word “China” only appears once on the Northern Gateway pipeline website, Sinopec, China’s second largest energy company, was part of a group that recently invested $100 million in the pipeline, the terms of which also enable it to buy an ownership stake in the future. It also spent $4.65 billion (U.S.) to buy 9 per cent of Syncrude Canada. Another company affiliated with the Chinese government just paid $673 million (U.S.) for the remaining 40 per cent of the MacKay River oilsands development, completing its takeover of the project.

If the Northern Gateway pipeline is built, the influence of foreign money in Canada — especially from China — will increase, not decrease. Doesn’t the ethical oil argument demand that Canadians be given a comprehensive opportunity to discuss the pipeline and its impact?

Ultimately, this is why Canadians should be cautious about changing the rules for reviewing projects like the Northern Gateway pipeline. As more money flows in, the numerous decisions risk becoming less and less about Canada and more and more about China. This is something that deserves more conversation, not less.

Finally, I don’t know if the pipeline should be built, and suspect most Canadians don’t either. But this is probably the most important reason Canada needs a process that allows for a far-reaching consultation, so that a broad set of perspectives and issues may be heard. Maybe the new rules would be sensible. But proposing to change the rules on the fly, decrying the trickle of foreign money from the United States while ignoring billions from China and labelling those who would question or criticize the oilsands as “radicals” doesn’t inspire confidence as an opening move.

As leader of the opposition, a younger Stephen Harper once correctly asserted: “When a government starts trying to cancel dissent or avoid dissent is frankly when it’s rapidly losing its moral authority to govern.” The Prime Minister tapped into a powerful truth in that moment — a truth that Canadians still hold dear today. If the government’s approach to the pipeline amounts to nothing more than disempowering Canadians — and in particular the project’s critics — then its cancelling and avoidance of dissent will inspire confidence in neither the ethical oil brand nor the government itself.

How Architecture Made SFU Vancouver’s University

For those unfamiliar with Vancouver, it is a city that enjoys a healthy one way rivalry between two university: the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Simon Fraser University (SFU).

Growing up here I didn’t think much of Simon Fraser. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way, I mean it literally. SFU was simply never on my radar. UBC I knew. As high school students we would sneak out to its libraries to study for finals and pretend we were mature than we were. But SFU? It was far away. Too remote. Too inaccessible by public transit. Heck, too inaccessible by car(!).

And yet today when I think of Vancouver’s two universities UBC is the one that is never on my radar. After noticing that several friends will be on a panel tonight on How Social Media is Changing Politics at UBC’s downtown campus I was reminded of the fact that UBC has a downtown campus. It may be the most underutilized and unloved space in the University. This despite the fact it sits in the heart of Vancouver and under some of the most prime real estate in the city. In fact I don’t think I’ve actually ever been to UBC’s downtown campus.

In contrast I can’t count the number of time’s I’ve been to SFU’s downtown campus. And the reason is simple: architecture. It’s not that SFU simple invests in its downtown campus making it part of the university, it’s that it invested in Vancouver by building one of the most remarkable buildings in the city. If you are in Vancouver, go visit The Wosk Centre for Dialogue. It is amazing. Indeed, I feel so strongly about it, I included it in my top ten favourite places when Google Maps added me to their list of Lat/Long experts for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Photo by Bryan Hughes

What makes the Wosk Centre so fantastic? It seats 180 or so people in concentric circles, each with their own a mic. It may be the only place where I’ve felt a genuine conversation can take place with such a large group. I’ve seen professors lecture, drug addicts share stories, environmentalists argue among one another and friends debate one another, and it has always been eye opening. Here, in the heart of the city, is a disarming space where stakeholders, experts, citizens or anyone, can be gathered to share ideas and explore their differences in a respectful manner. Moreover, the place just looks beautiful.

Centre-for-dialogue-300x300

The building is a testament to how architecture and design can fundamentally alter the relationship between an institution and the city within which it resides. Without the Wosk Centre I’m confident SFU’s downtown presence would have meant much less to me. Moreover, I’m fully willing to agree that UBC is the better university. It ranks better in virtually ever survey, it has global ambitions that even achievable and likely does not want to be involved in the city. That’s a strategic choice I can, on one level, respect. But on a basic level, the Wosk Centre makes SFU relevant to Vancouverites and in doing so, allows the University to punch above its weight, at least locally. And that has real impact, at least for the city’s residents. But I think for the university as well.

Reading the always excellent Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From I can’t help but think the UBC is missing out on something larger. As Johnson observers, good ideas arise from tensions, from the remixing of other ideas, particularly those from disparate places. They rarely come from the deep thinker isolated out in the woods (UBC lies at the edge of Vancouver beyond a large park) or meditating on a mountain top (SFU’s core campus is atop a small mountain) but out of dense networks where ideas, hunches and thoughts can find one another. Quiet meditation is important. But so to is engagement. Being in the heart of a bustling city is perhaps a distraction, but that may be the point. Those distractions create opportunities, new avenues for exploration and, for universities concerned with raising money from their intellectual capital, to find problems in search of solutions. So raising a structure that is designed to explicitly allow tensions and conflicts to play out… I can’t help but feel that is a real commitment to growth and innovation in a manner that not only gives back to its host community, but positions one to innovate in a manner and pace the 21st century demands.

As such, the Wosk Centre, while maybe a shade formal, is a feat of architecture and design, a building that I hope enables a university to rethink itself, but that has definitely become a core part of the social infrastructure of the city and redrawn at least my own relationship with SFU.

Smarter Ways to Have School Boards Update Parents

Earlier this month the Vancouver School Board (VSB) released an iPhone app that – helpfully – will use push notifications to inform parents about school holidays, parent interviews, and scheduling disruptions such as snow days. The app is okay, it’s a little clunky to use, and a lot of the data – such as professional days – while helpful in an app, would be even more helpful as an iCal feed parents could subscribe to in their calendars.

That said, the VSB deserves credit for having the vision of developing an app. Positively, the VSB app team hopes to add new features, such as letting parents know about after school activities like concerts, plays and sporting events.

This is a great innovation and without a doubt, other school boards will want apps of their own. The problem is, this is very likely to lead to an enormous amount of waste and duplication. The last thing citizens want is for every school board to be spending $15-50K developing iPhone apps.

Which leads to a broader opportunity for the Minister of Education.

Were I the Education Minister, I’d have my technology team recreate the specs of the VSB app and propose an RFP for it but under an open source license and using phonegap so it would work on both iPhone and Android. In addition, I’d ensure it could offer reminders – like we do at recollect.net – so that people could get email or text messages without a smart phone at all.

I would then propose the ministry cover %60 percent of the development and yearly upkeep costs. The other 40% would be covered by the school boards interested in joining the project. Thus, assuming the app had a development cost of $40K and a yearly upkeep of $5K, if only one school board signed up it would have to pay $16K for the app (a pretty good deal) and $2K a year in upkeep. But if 5 school districts signed up, each would only pay $3.2K in development costs and $400 dollars a year in upkeep costs. Better still, the more that sign up, the cheaper it gets for each of them. I’d also propose a governance model in which those who contribute money for develop would have the right to elect a sub-group to oversee the feature roadmap.

Since the code would be open source other provinces, school districts and private schools could also use the app (although not participate in the development roadmap), and any improvements they made to the code base would be shared back to the benefit of BC school districts.

Of course by signing up to the app project school boards would be committing to ensure their schools shared up to date notifications about the relevant information – probably a best practice that they should be doing anyways. This process work is where the real work lies. However, a simple webform (included in the price) would cover much of the technical side of that problem. Better still the Ministry of Education could offer its infrastructure for hosting and managing any data the school boards wish to collect and share, further reducing costs and, equally important, ensuring the data was standardized across the participating school boards.

So why should the Ministry of Education care?

First, creating new ways to update parents about important events – like when report cards are issued so that parents know to ask for them – helps improve education outcomes. That should probably reason enough, but there are other reasons as well.

Second, it would allow the ministry, and the school boards, to collect some new data: professional day dates, average number of snow days, frequency of emergency disruptions, number of parents in a district interested in these types of notifications. Over time, this data could reveal important information about educational outcomes and be helpful.

But the real benefit would be in both cost savings and in enabling less well resourced school districts to benefit from technological innovation wealthier school districts will likely pursue if left to their own devices. Given there are 59 english school districts in BC, if even half of them spent 30K developing their own iPhone apps, then almost $1M dollars would be collectively spent on software development. By spending $24K, the ministry ensures that this $1M dollars instead gets spent on teachers, resources and schools. Equally important, less tech savvy or well equipped school districts would be able to participate and benefit.

Of course, if the City of Vancouver school district was smart, they’d open source their app, approach the Ministry of Education and offer it as the basis of such a venture. Doing that wouldn’t just make them head of the class, it’d be helping everyone get smarter, faster.

The Curious Case of Media Opposing Government Transparency

My gosh there is a lot going on. Republicans – REPUBLICANS(!) who were in charge of America’s prison system are warning Canada not to follow the Conservatives plan on prisons, the Prime Minister has renamed the government, after himself and my friends at Samara had in Toronto the Guardian’s Emily Bell to talk wikileaks and data journalism (wish I could have been there).

It’s all very interesting… and there is a media story here in British Columbia that’s been brewing where a number of journalists have become upset about a government that has become “too” transparent.

It’s an important case as it highlights some of the tensions that will be emerging in different places as governments rethink how they share information.

The case involves BC Ferries, a crown corporation that runs ferries along critical routes around the province. For many years the company was not subject to the province’s Freedom of Information legislation. However, a few months ago the government stated the crown corporation would need to comply with the act. This has not pleased the corporation’s president.

To comply with the act BC Ferries has created an FOI tracker website on which it posts the text of FOI requests received. Once the records are processed they are posted online and some relevant listservs. As a result they can be read by an audience (that cares).

Broadly, journalists, are up in arms for two reasons. One bad, the other even worse.

The terrible reasons was raised by Chad Skelton (who’s a great reporter for whom I have a lot of respect and whose column should be read regularly).

Skelton argues that BC Ferries deserves part of the blame for stories with errors as the process lead news agencies to rush (carelessly) in order to beat each other in releasing the story. This is a disappointing position. It’s the news media’s job to get the facts right. (It’s also worth noting here that Skelton’s own media organizations did not make the mistakes in question). Claiming that BC Ferries is even partly responsible seems beyond problematic since they are in no way involved in the fact and error checking processes. We trust the media (and assess it) to get facts right in fast moving situations… why should this be different?

More interesting is the critique that this model of transparency undermines the ability of journalists to get a scoup and thus undermines the business model of traditional media.

What makes this so interesting is that is neither true nor, more importantly, relevant.

First, it’s not the job of government to support the business model of the media. The goal of government should be to be as transparent as possible about its operations. This can, and should, include its FOI requests. Indeed, one thing I like about this process is that an FOI request that is made but isn’t addressed starts to linger on the site – and that the organization can be held to account, publicly, for the delay. More importantly, however, I’m confident that the media will find new ways to exploit the process and that, while painful, new business models will emerge.

Second, the media is not the only user of FOI. It strikes me as problematic to expect that the FOI system should somehow be tailored to meet needs alone. Individuals, non-profits, businesses, opposition politicians and others all use the FOI process. Indeed, the policy strengthens many of these use cases since, as mentioned above,  delays in processing will be visible and open the organization up to greater pressure and scrutiny. Why are all the use cases of these other institutions somehow secondary to those of journalists and the media? Indeed, the most important use case – that of the citizen – is better served. Isn’t that the most important outcome?

Third, this form of transparency could make for better media. One of my favourite quotes (which I got via Tim O’Reilly) comes from Clayton Christensen in a 2005 Harvard Business Review article:

“When attractive profits disappear at one stage in the value chain because a product becomes modular and commoditized, the opportunity to earn attractive profits with proprietary products will usually emerge at an adjacent stage.”

So BC Ferries has effectively commoditized FOI requests. That simply means that value will shift elsewhere. One place it could shift to is analysis. And wouldn’t that be a good thing to have the media compete on? Rather than simply who got the fact fastest (a somewhat silly model in the age of the internet) readers instead started to reward the organization with the best insights? Indeed, it makes me think that on superficial issues, like say, the salary of an employee, it may be hard for one individual or organization to scoop another. But most often the value of these stories is also pretty low. On a more significant story, one that requires research and digging and a knowledge of the issue, it’s unclear that transparency around FOI requests will allow others to compete. More interestingly, some media organizations, now that they have access to all FOI requests, might start analyzing them for deeper more significant patterns or trends that might reveal more significant problems that the current scattered approach to FOI might never reveal.

What’s also been interesting is the reaction stories by journalists complaining about this issue have been received. It fits nicely in with the piece I wrote a while ago (and now published as part of a journalism textbook) about Journalism in an Open Era. The fact is, the public trust of opaque institutions is in decline – and the media is itself a pretty opaque institution. Consider these three separate comments people wrote after the stories I’ve linked to above:

“I wonder over the years how many nuggets of information reporters got through FOI but the public never heard about because they didn’t deem it “newsworthy”. Or worse, that it was newsworthy but didn’t follow their storyline.” (found here)

“And the media whining about losing scoops — well, tough beans. If they post it all online and give it to everyone, they are serving the public –the media isn’t the public, and never has been.” (found here)

“The media’s track record, in general, for owning up to its blunders continues to be abysmal. Front page screw-ups are fixed several days (or weeks) later with a little “setting it straight” box buried at the bottom of P. 2 — and you think that’s good enough. If the media were more open and honest about fixing its mistakes, I might cut you a little slack over the BC Ferries’ policy of making your life difficult. But whining about it is going to be counterproductive, as you can see from most of the comments so far.” (found here)

While some comments were supportive of the articles, the majority have not been. Suggesting that at the minimum that the public does not share the media’s view that this new policy is a “controversial.”

This is not, of course, to say that BC Ferries implemented its policy because it sought to do the right thing. I’m sure it’s president would love for their to be fewer requests and impede the efforts of journalists. I just happen to think he will fail. Dismally. More concerning is the fact that FOI requests are not archived on the site and are removed after a few months. This is what should get the media, the public and yes, the Information and Privacy Commissioner, up in arms.

When Canada makes the US border thicker

Canadians spend a lot of time worrying about the “thickening” border with the United States. This is for good reason. Given the importance of the US market and the sheer number of exports between the two countries, issues that thicken the border – like the requirement to use a passport or more strict rules around shipping goods – have an enormous impact on Canada’s economy.

Usually, Canadian officials complain that it is hard to get Americans to engage on this issue. So it is exceedingly frustrating when the Canadian government takes actions that thicken the border and simultaneously discouraging and encouraging when it is senior American officials have to intervene to make it thinner.

Last week, despite lobbying from the Mayor of Vancouver, the Premier of British Columbia, a number of business and tourism representatives and even conservative party caucus members, the Federal Goverment looked set on killing a program that saw a set of Border Guards pre-clearing trains that run from Vancouver to Seattle. Without this pre-clearance the trains would run much, much slower and so Amtrak, who runs the trains, said it would end the service.

It now appears that the border service was saved only after U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and U.S. ambassador to Canada David Jacobson personally intervene. Yes, you read that right. US officials were racing trying to persuade Canadian officials to keep the border more open. The problematic nature of such a headline cannot be underscored. Yes, it is great that senior officials in the US care about ensure the Canada-US border remains as open as possible. But, as a country still dependent on an open and friction free border with the Unites States it is disturbing their intervention was necessary.

Indeed, as the country with the most to suffer when the border gets thicker (we feel the loss of exports and trade more than the Americans do) we need to model behaviour and be a leader in striving to make it as open and as accessible as possible. Secretary Janet Napolitano and U.S. ambassador to Canada David Jacobson intervention now means that two senior US officials may now believe that Canada’s commitment to friction free and accessible border is not as strong as we have claimed. If we aren’t concerned here, maybe we aren’t as concerned  on other, even greater areas of concern regarding the increased thickening of the Canada-US border.

And the damage has not been undone. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who is responsible for the decision, has only only preserved the service for one year. Indeed, in his statement he added “In this period of time, the residents of British Columbia and Washington State primarily will demonstrate whether, in fact, this is a necessary service.” Of course, the second train has already doubled the number of people traveling via rail between the two cities and, according to BC’s transportation minister, has injected $11.8 million into the BC economy.

Canadians should be thrilled that Public Safety Minister Vic Toews and the government ultimately made the right decision around keeping this service in place. But as a country still concerned about the weakened economy, the US border and our relationship with the United States, we should be concerned that the government took the most painful and costly route to arrive at this decision.