Tag Archives: canadian politics

What do I think of the Canadian Senate?

Read Jennifer Ditchburn in the Globe and Mail – Senate stubborn on making information about chamber more accessible.

It is laughable about how hard the Canadian Senate makes it to access information about it. The lower house – which has made good progress in the last few years on this front – shares tons of information online. But the Senate? Attendance records, voting records and well, pretty much any record, is nigh high impossible to get online. Indeed, as Jennifer points out, for many requests you have to make an appointment and go in, in person, in Ottawa(!!!) to get them.

What year is it? 1823? It’s not like we haven’t had the mail, the telephone, the fax machine, and of course, the internet come along to make accessing all this information a little easier. I love that if you want to get certain documents about the operation of the senate you have to go to Ottawa.

Given the Senate is not even elected in Canada and has, shall we say, a poor reputation for accountability and accessibility, you’d think this would be a priority. Sadly, it is not. Having spoken with some of the relevant parties I can say, Senators are not interested in letting you see or know anything.

I understand the desire of the senate to be above the political fray, to not be bent by the fickle swings in electoral politics, to be a true house of “second sober thought.” And yet I see no reason why it can’t still be all that, while still making all the information that it must make public about itself, available online in a machine readable format. It is hard to see how voting records or attendance records will sway how the Senate operates, other than maybe prompt some Senators to show up for work more often.

But let’s not hold our breath for change. Consider my favourite part of the article:

“A spokeswoman for government Senate leader Marjory LeBreton said she was unavailable and her office had no comment. Ms. LeBreton has asked a Senate committee to review the rules around Senate attendance, but it’s unclear if the review includes the accessibility of the register.”

No comment? For a story on the Senate’s lack of accessibility? Oh vey! File it under: #youredoingitwrong

 

 

Why Does Election Canada Hate Young People?

This weekend the New York Times had an interesting article about how the BBC and other major media organizations are increasingly broadcasting new television episodes simultaneously around the world. The reason? The internet. Fans in the UK aren’t willing to wait months to watch episodes broadcast in the United States and vice versa. Here a multi-billion dollar industry, backed by copyright legislation, law enforcement agencies, and the world’s most powerful governments and trade organizations is recognizing a simple fact: people want information, and it is increasingly impossible to stop them from sharing and getting it.

Someone at Elections Canada should read the article.

Last week Elections Canada took special care to warn Canadian citizens that they risked $25,000 fines if they posted about election results on social network sites before all the polls are closed. Sadly, Election Canada’s approach to the rise of new internet driven technologies speaks volumes about its poor strategy for engaging young voters.

The controversy centers around Section 329 of the Canada Elections Act which prohibits transmitting election results before polling stations have closed. The purpose of the law is to prevent voters on the west coast from being influenced by outcomes on the east coast (or worse, choosing not to vote at all if the election has essentially be decided). Today however, with twitter, facebook and blogs, everybody is a potential “broadcaster.”

Westerner may have a hard time sympathizing with Election Canada’s quandary. It could simply do the equivalent to what the BBC is doing with its new TV shows: not post any results until after all the voting booths had closed. This is a much simpler approach then trying to police and limit the free speech of 10 million Canadian social media users (and to say nothing of the 100s of millions of users outside of Canada who do not fall under its jurisdiction).

More awkwardly, it is hard to feel that the missive wasn’t directed at the very cohort of Election’s Canada is trying to get engaged in elections: young people. Sadly, chastising and scaring the few young people who want to talk about the election with threats of fines seems like a pretty poor way to increase this engagement. If voting and politics is a social behaviour – and the evidence suggests that it is – then you are more likely to vote and engage in politics if you know that your friends vote and engage in politics. Ironically, this might make social media might be the best thing to happen to voting since the secret ballot. So not only is fighting this technology a lost cause, it may also be counter productive from a voter turnout perspective.

Of course, based on the experience many young voters I talk to have around trying to vote, none of this comes as a surprise.

In my first two Canadian elections I lived out of the country. Both times my mail in ballot arrived after the election and were thus ineligible. During the last election I tried to vote at an advanced poll. It was a nightmare. It was hard to locate on the website and the station ended up being a solid 15 minute walk away any of the three nearest bus routes. Totally commute time? For someone without a car? Well over an hour and a half.

This are not acceptable outcomes. Perhaps you think I’m lazy? Maybe. I prefer to believe that if you want people to vote – especially in the age of a service economy – you can’t make it inconvenient. Otherwise the only people who will vote will be those with means and time. That’s hardly democratic.

Besides, it often feels our voting infrastructure was essentially built by and for our grandparents. Try this out. In the 1960’s if you were a “young person” (e.g 20-30) you were almost certainly married and had two kids. You probably also didn’t move every 2 years. In the 60’s the average marriage age was 24 for men, 20 for women. Thinking in terms of the 1950s and 60s: What were the 3 institutions you probably visited on a daily basis? How about A) the local community centre, B) the local elementary school, and C) the local church.

Now, if you are between the age of 20 and 35 or under, name me three institutions you probably haven’t visited in over a decade.

Do young people not vote because they are lazy? Maybe. But they also didn’t have a voting system designed around them like their grandparents did. Why aren’t their voting booths in subway stations? The lobbies of office towers? The local shopping mall? How about Starbucks and Tim Hortons (for both conservatives and liberals)? Somewhere, anywhere, where people actually congregate. Heaven forbid that voting booths be where the voters are.

The fact is our entire voting structure is anti-young people. It’s designed for another era. It needs a full scale upgrade. Call it voting 2.0 or something, I don’t care. Want young people to vote? Then build a voting system that meets their needs, stop trying to force them into a system over a half century old.

We need voting that embraces the internet, social networks, voters without cars and voters that are transient.  These changes alone won’t solve the low voter turn out problem overnight, but if even 5% more young people vote in this election, the parties will take notice and adapt their platforms accordingly. Maybe, just maybe, it could end up creating a virtuous circle.

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.

The problem with the UBB debate

I reley dont wan to say this, but I have to now.

This debate isso esey!

– Axman13

Really, it is.

The back and forth for and against UBB has – for me – sadly so missed the mark on the real issue it is beyond frustrating. It’s been nice to see a voice or two like Michael Geist begin to note the real issue – lack of competition – but by and large, we continue to have the wrong debate and, more importantly, blame the wrong people.

This really struck home with me while reading David Beers’s piece in the Globe. The first half is fantastic, demanding greater transparency into the cost of delivering bandwidth and of developing a network; this is indeed needed. Sadly, the second half completely lost me, as it makes no argument, notably doesn’t call for foreign investment (though he wants the telcos’ oligarchy broken up – so it’s unclear where he thinks that competition is going to come from) and worse, the CRTC is blamed for the crisis.

It all prompted me – reluctantly – to outline what I think are the three problems with the debate we’ve been having, from least to most important.

1. It’s not about UBB; it’s about cost.

Are people mad about UBB? Maybe. However, I’m willing to wager that most people who have signed the petition about UBB don’t know what UBB is, or what it means. What they do know is that their Internet Service Provider has been charging a lot for internet access. Too much. And they are tired of it.

A more basic question is: do people hate the telcos? And the answer is yes. I know I dislike them all. Intensely. (You should see my cell phone bill; my American friends laugh at me as it is 4x theirs). The recent decision has simply allowed for that frustration to boil over. It has become yet another example of how a telecommunication oligarchy is allowed to charge whatever it wants for service that is substandard to what is often found elsewhere in the world. Of course Canadians are angry. But I suspect they were angry before UBB.

So, if getting gouged is the issue the problem of making the debate about UBB is we risk taking our eye off the real issue – the cost of getting online. Even if the CRTC reverses its decision, we will still be stuck with some of the highest rates in for internet access in the world. This is the real issue and should be the focus of the debate.

2. If the real issue is about price, the real solution is competition.

Here Geist’s piece, along with the Globe editorial, is worth reading. Geist states clearly that the root of the problem is a lack of competition. It may be that UBB – especially in a world of WiMax or other highspeed wireless solutions – could become the most effective way to charge for access and encourage investment. Why would we want to forestall such a business model from emerging?

I’m hoping, and am seeing hints, that that this part of the debate is beginning to come to the fore, but so long as the focus is on banning UBB, and not increasing competition, we’ll be stuck having the wrong conversation.

3. The real enemy is not the CRTC; it’s the Minister of Industry Canada.

This, of course, is both the most problematic part of this debate and the most ironic. The opponents to UBB have made the wrong people the enemy. While people may not agree with the CRTC’s decision, the real problem is not of their making. They can only act within the regulatory regime they have been given.

The truth of the matter is, after 40 years of the internet, Canada has no digital economy strategy. Given it is 2011 this is a stunning fact. Of course, we’ve been promised one but we’ve heard next to nothing about it since the consultation has been closed. Indeed – and I hope that I’ll be corrected here – we haven’t even heard when it will land.

The point, to make it clear, is that this is not a crisis or regulatory oversight. This is a crisis of policy mismanagement. So the real people to blame are the politicians – and in particular the Industry Minister who is in charge of this file. But since those in opposition to UBB have made it their goal to scream at the CRTC, the government has been all too happy to play along and scream at them as well. Indeed, the biggest irony of this all is that it has allowed the government to take a populist approach and look responsive to a crises that they are ultimately responsible for.

P.S. Left-wing bonus reason

So if you are a left leaning anti-UBB advocate – particularly one who publishes opinion pieces – the most ironic part about this debate is that you are the PMO’s favourite person. Not only have you deflected blame over this crisis away from the government and onto the CRTC you’ve created the perfect conditions for the government to demand an overhaul (or simply just the resignation) of key people on the CRTC board.

The only reson this is ironic is beacuase Konrad W. von Finckenstein (head of the CRTC) may be the main reason why Sun Media’s Category 1 application for its “Fox News North” channel was denied. There is probably nothing the PMO would like more than to brush Kinchenstein aside and be to reshape the CRTC so as to make this plan a reality.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if a left-leaning coalition enabled the Harper PMO and Sun Media to create their Fox News North?

And who said Canadian politics was boring?

P.P.S. If you haven’t figured out the spelling mistake easter eggs, I’ll make it more obvious: click here. It’s an example of why internet bandwidth consumption is climbing at double digits.

Canada's Secret Open Data Strategy?

Be prepared for the most boring sentence to an intriguing blog post.

The other night, I was, as one is wont to do, reading through a random Organization for Economic Coordination and Development report entitled Towards Recovery and Partnership with Citizens: The Call for Innovative and Open Government. The report was, in fact, a summary of its recent Ministerial Meeting of the OECD’s Public Governance Committee.

Naturally, I flipped to the section authored by Canada and, imagine the interest with which I read the following:

The Government of Canada currently makes a significant amount of open data available through various departmental websites. Fall 2010 will see the launch of a new portal to provide one-stop access to federal data sets by providing a “single-window” to government data. In addition to providing a common “front door” to government data, a searchable catalogue of available data, and one-touch data downloading, it will also encourage users to develop applications that re-use and combine government data to make it useful in new and unanticipated ways, creating new value for Canadians. Canada is also exploring the development of open data policies to regularise the publication of open data across government. The Government of Canada is also working on a strategy, with engagement and input from across the public service, developing short and longer-term strategies to fully incorporate Web 2.0 across the government.

In addition, Canada’s proactive disclosure initiatives represent an ongoing contribution to open and transparent government. These initiatives include the posting of travel and hospitality expenses, government contracts, and grants and contribution funding exceeding pre-set thresholds. Subsequent phases will involve the alignment of proactive disclosure activities with those of the Access to Information Act, which gives citizens the right to access information in federal government records.

Lots of interesting things packed into these two paragraphs, something I’m sure readers concerned with open data, open government and proactive, would agree with. So let’s look at the good, the bad and the ugly, of all of this, in that order.

The Good

So naturally the first sentence is debatable. I don’t think Canada makes a significant amount of its data available at all. Indeed, across every government website there is probably no more than 400 data sets available in machine readable format. That’s less that the city of Washington DC. It’s about (less than) 1% of what Britain or the United States disclose. But, okay,let’s put that unfortunate fact aside.

The good and really interesting thing here is that the Government is stating that it was going to launch an open data portal. This means the government is thinking seriously about open data. This means – in all likelihood – policies are being written, people are being consulted (internally), processes are being thought through. This is good news.

It is equally good news that the government is developing a strategy for deploying Web 2.0 technologies across the government. I hope this will be happening quickly as I’m hearing that in many departments this is still not embraced and, quite often, is banned outright. Of course, using social media tools to talk with the public is actually the wrong focus (Since the communications groups will own it all and likely not get it right for quite a while), the real hope is being allowed to use the tools internally.

The Bad

On the open data front, the bad is that the portal has not launched. We are now definitely passed the fall of 2010 and, as for whatever reason, there is no Canadian federal open data portal. This may mean that the policy (despite being announced publicly in the above document) is in peril or that it is simply delayed. Innumerable things can delay a project like this (especially on the open data front). Hopefully whatever the problem is, it can be overcome. More importantly, let us hope the government does something sensible around licensing and uses the PDDL and not some other license.

The Ugly

Possibly the heart stopping moment in this brief comes in the last paragraph where the government talks about posting travel and hospitality expenses. While these are often posted (such as here) they are almost never published in machine readable format and so have to be scrapped in order to be organized, mashed up or compared to other departments. Worse still, these files are scattered across literally hundreds of government websites and so are virtually impossible to track down. This guy has done just that, but of course now he has the data, it is more easily navigable but no more open then before. In addition, it takes him weeks (if not months) to do it, something the government could fix rather simply.

The government should be lauded for trying to make this information public. But if this is their notion of proactive disclosure and open data, then we are in for a bumpy, ugly ride.

Census Update: It's the Economy, Stupid

Yesterday during a press conference newly minted House leader John Baird announced “The next few months will be sharply focused on Canadians’ No. 1 priority: jobs and the economy… The economic recovery remains fragile and it is increasingly clear that we are not out of the woods yet.”

Fantastic news.

I just hope someone sends Industry Minister Tony Clement the memo.

The effects and impacts of ending the mandatory long form census continues to spill out with a number of Canada’s most senior business and economic leaders pointing out how the decision will negatively impact the economy and… job growth.

First, there was Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney (voted one of the most influential people in the world by Time Magazine) noting that the bank relies on data found in the mandatory long form to assess the economy and, presumably, to inform decisions on interest rates and other issues. The bank’s capacity to make informed decisions has now been compromised – not exactly a win for jobs or the economy.

As an interesting side note, Carney goes on to say that this may cause the bank to have to supplement StatsCan’s research with its own. Expect to hear more and more statements like this from Government agencies (which are still allowed to talk to the press) as more and more ministries and agencies get plunged into the dark regarding what is going on in the country and are no longer able to assess programs and issues they’ve been tasked to monitor. Various arms of the government (and thus you, taxpayer) will be spending 10s if not 100s of millions to pay for Industry Minister Clement’s mistake.

Then, in the same Globe article in which Carney makes these statements, Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management notes that ending the long form census hampers Canadian companies capacity to both compete globally and boost productivity. More damning, and further echoing arguments I’ve been making here, he states it will prevent Canadians from having “a sophisticated economy that uses information to its best.” Unkind words from one of the world’s recognized business leaders.

Sadly, it doesn’t end there. The always excellent Stephen Gordon lists the emerging academic literature chronicling the havoc the demise of the long form census is about to wreck. Especially relevant is “The Importance of the Long-Form Census to Canada” by UBC economists David Green and Kevin Milligan. Interestingly, it turns out that the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation uses long form data to fulfill its legislative mandate, and also by local governments and private sector actors to learn about trends in housing. Something that might be of interest to those concerned about the economy and jobs given Canada is rumored to possible have a housing bubble.

Still more damning is how Green and Milligan show the mandatory long form serves as the foundation for the Labour Force Survey (LFS) from which we derive unemployment levels. Compromising the long form survey has, in short, compromised our ability to assess how many Canadians actually have jobs, something that, if you really believed Canadians felt the economy and jobs were the number 1 priority, your government should care about measuring accurately.

Maybe John Baird will sit down with Tony Clement and the Prime Minister and explain to them how, if the economy and jobs are priority 1 then perhaps the government should rethink its decision on the long form census.

Just don’t hold your breath. Instead, do write another email or letter to your local MP. Our country’s economic recovery and competitiveness is being eroded by a government either too dumb to understand the implications of its decision and too stubborn to admit a mistake. Those of us who will be paying the price should remind them of how they can best serve their own priorities.

Twitter, Criminal Investigations & Fox News North

Today, in a headline that came as somewhat of a shock (that, of course, I first saw on twitter) Kory Teneycke, the Quebecor Media vice-president and main advocate for the proposed Sun TV News Channel, announced his resignation. As backgrounder for those not familiar with this story, the proposed Sun TV News Channel is seeking to bring a conservative, Fox styled cable news channel to Canada. There has been a little bit of a battle over what type of license they should get which is covered very well in this blog post. What’s important is that Avaaz launched a petition against the proposed channel which subsequently had a number of false names added to it (adding someone else’s name to a petition is, I’m told, illegal in Canada).

What makes Teneycke’s resignation so interesting is that it comes on the heels of Avaaz asking the police to investigate the additions. It appears that, thanks to technology, figuring out who was illegally adding the names may not be that hard:

On September 2, 2010, Avaaz became aware that an individual operating from an Ottawa IP address was adding both fictional and actual names and email addresses to a petition to stop Prime Minister Harper from pushing biased crony media onto Canadian airwaves. The next morning, Quebecor executive and Sun TV front man Kory Teneycke published several pieces in Quebecor owned newspapers attacking Avaaz and accusing them of running a fraudulent petition – even quoting actual names added by the fraudster. Teneycke later admitted to insider knowledge of both the perpetrator and crimes committed.

Days later, Quebecor threatened to sue Avaaz for the content of its petition site.

In short, it appears that either Teneycke or someone he knew was adding false names to the petition so that a) Teneycke could write a story to discredit the petition and b) prompt Quebeccor to launch a lawsuit to have it taken down. This is serious stuff. Especially from someone who intends to run a news channel. (although, to be fair, it is consistent with the type of thing one might expect from Fox News).

Perhaps Teneycke’s resignation has nothing to do with the false names on the petition? But it is also worth noting that Teneycke’s twitter account is no longer active. This also means that the original offending tweet where he admits that he knew the person adding the false names can no longer be seen. Fortunately, on a lark, I took a screen shot of it the day it went up since, after reading CBC reporter Kady O’malley’s excellent coverage of the back and forth, since given her coverage something seemed very odd about the whole affair.

So what are some key lesson here?

a) Things on twitter don’t disappear

b) Manipulating the press in a world of social media is not as easy as you think it is, even for a former Prime Minister spokes person

c) It appears that Sun TV executives are every bit as slimy as the counterparts feared they would be. If even 10% of this is true then this is shocking behaviour from a proposed News television executive.

d) This may yet lead to Canada’s first high-profile criminal investigation involving twitter

Interesting stuff indeed.