Tag Archives: commentary

Til Debt Do Us Part: Reality Television and Poverty

I’m traveling for business and that means several things. Most predictably it means come the evening, I’m getting on a tread mill to exercise.

I’m in Edmonton. It’s cold. Like -24C (-11F) cold.

For whatever reason, while running the TV in front of me brings up Til Death Do Us Part a sort of reality TV show about a pleasant but tough financial advisor Gail Vaz-Oxlade who descends upon impoverished couples and families and puts them on a tough regime to get them out of debt. The show is essentially a modern day morality play in which the excesses of the guest couple of paraded before the public as a cautionary tale. It is also the kind of show that I’m sure is mandatory viewing for any loan approval officer at a bank – since the guests are always friendly, exceedingly middle class looking people, plucked, it feels right out of the 905.

And this is what kind of grated on me after watching the show for a while. On the one hand, it is great. These people really are in way over their head. Often carrying burdens they can definitely not afford (one couple with several 100,000s of debt had a time share unit). They need help. And if the show prompts other couples to get serious about their finances, that’s great too.

But this is also the problem with this – and other shows like this. Debt is always described in middle class terms, and one of personal responsibility. The the world of Til Debt Do Us Part debt is always a case of middle class spending gone wild! Cut up the credit cards!

And the implicit message, of course, is that people who get into debt are responsible for their situation. I’m a big believer in personal responsibility and recognize that this is often true. But it is certainly not always true. People can be poor because they were unlucky, because they failed at something, they have an addiction problem or because they were born into an environment of weak financial and social capital. But on Til Debt Do Us Part none of this is talked about. The comfortable narrative the audience is fed is… if you’re poor, you’re probably doing it to yourself.

You know what I’d love to see Gail Vaz-Oxlade do? I’d love her to find 5 couples, or even just individuals, of various ages, who are truly poor. Five people who really do have to little to nothing to live on. People with real barriers to not just to clawing themselves out of debt, by of crawling out of poverty. The sad fact is, that is a reality show you will never see – unless of course, you want to count the various clones of “Cops” or the occasionally story on the evening news.

I’d love to see this so that we, the audience, through Gail, can see all the barriers that exist between that person and even the most basic elements of success that most of us take for granted. Gail seems like a smart person – who also is unwilling to take much crap. I’d love to see her reactions to these struggles, the advice she’d offer, and the ways she try to motivate people.

This isn’t to harsh on Gail – I think she is doing a genuine public service, teaching the guests – and the audience – communication skills and some basic fiscal responsibility. But every once in a while it might be nice is she was given a case so hard she was virtually guaranteed to fail, mostly because it might expose us all to what real chronic poverty and debt looks like, not the kind that emerges from what apparently looks like a credit card spending spree at a sub-urban auto-mall.

At best, she might occasionally succeed and really pull someone up and into a better, more hopeful and stable place. At worst, such episodes could help her shatter the uncomfortable subtext of her show that implies poverty is always the fault of the poor.

Added Jan 11 10:08am PST: Gail Vaz-Oxlade has a blog post where she talks about the difference between being poor and broke.

Control Your Content: Why SurveyMonkey Should Add a "Download Your Answers" Button

Let me start by saying, I really like SurveyMonkey.

By this I mean, I like SurveyMonkey specifically, but I also like online surveys in general. They are easy to ignore if I’m uninterested in the topic but – when the topic is relevant –  it is a great, simple service that allows me to share feedback, comments and opinions with whomever wants to solicit them.

Increasingly however, I find people and organizations are putting up more demanding surveys – surveys that necessitate thoughtful, and even occasionally long form, responses.

Take for example the Canadian Government. It used an online survey tool during its consultation on open government and open data.  The experience was pretty good. Rather than a clunky government website, there was a relatively easy form to fill out. Better still, since the form was long, it was wonderful that you could save your answers and come back to it later! This mattered since some of the form’s questions prompted me to write lengthy (and hopefully) insightful responses.

But therein lies the rub. In the jargon of the social media world I was “creating content.” This wasn’t just about clicking boxes. I was writing. And surprisingly many of my answers were causing me to develop new ideas. I was excited! I wanted to take the content I had created and turn it into a blog post.

Sadly, most survey tools make it very, very hard for you to capture the content you’ve created. It feels like it would be relatively easy to have a “download my answers” button at the end of a survey. I mean, if I’ve taken 10-120 minutes to complete a survey or public consultation shouldn’t we make it easy for me to keep a record of my responses? Instead, I’ve got to copy and paste the questions, and my answers, into a text document as I go. And of course, I’d better decide that I want to do that before I start since some survey tools don’t allow you to go back and see previous answers.

I ultimately did convert my answers into a blog post (you can see it here), but there was about 20 minutes of cutting, pasting, figuring things out, and reformatting. And there was some content (like Semantic Differential questions – where you rate statements) which were simply to hard to replicate.

There are, of course, other uses too. I had a similar experience last week after being invited to complete a survey posted by the Open Government Partnership Steering Committee on its Independent Reporting Mechanism. About half way through filling it out some colleagues suggested we compare answers to better understand one another’s advice. A download your answer tool would have convert a 15 minute into a 10 second task. All to access content I created.

I’m not claiming this is the be all, end all of online survey features, but it is the kind of simple thing that I survey company can do that will cause some users to really fall in love with the service. To its credit SurveyMonkey was at least willing to acknowledge the feedback – just what you’d hope for from a company that specializes in soliciting opinion online! With luck, maybe the idea will go somewhere.

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Attack of the Drones – How Surveillance May Change our Culture

I’ve been following the rise of do it yourself (DIY) drones for a few years now, ever since Chris Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine, introduced me to the topic in a podcast. And yes, I’m talking about flying drones… Like those the US Air Force uses to monitor – and attack – enemy forces in Afghanistan. Except, in the case of DIY drones, they are smaller, cheaper, and are being built by a growing legion of hobbyists, companies and enthusiasts all around the world, many of whom are sharing open source UAV plans that can be downloaded off the internet.

You many not know it, but there could be drones in your neighborhood. And this has real implications.

Take, for example, a story that really grabbed my attention a few weeks ago. An animal rights group called SHARK chose to deploy a drone to monitor a live pigeon shoot taking place on private land.  It turns out the mere presence of their drone caused the shoot to be cancelled. To begin with, that says a lot of drone’s effectiveness. But what was really interesting was how, in frustration, one or some of the shooters then hid and shot the drone out of the sky.

Think about this.

Here you have a group using what is essentially a mini-helicopter to monitor an activity taking place on what is private property. Then, in response,  the other party fires live rounds at the drone and causes it to crash. And all of playing out near a US highway (not a major one, but still, a public road). This is a privacy, legal, and public safety nightmare. The policy and societal implications are significant.

And this is not an isolated use. As the Economist pointed out in its excellent write up on civilian drones in this week’s Quarterly Technology Review, drones are already being used by an environmental group to locate and track Japanese whalers. In the US several police forces already operate drones – including one in Texas which, frighteningly, has the capacity to launch grenades. George Clooney funds a non-profit that uses satellites to monitor Sudan in an effort to prevent atrocities through transparency. Can drones be far behind?

I share all this because, these days, people are often most frightened by the state’s growing interest to monitor what we do online. Here in Canada for example, the government has proposed a law that would require telecommunications firm have the ability to record, and save, everyone’s online activities. But technology to monitor people offline, in the physical world, is also evolving. More importantly, it is becoming available to ordinary citizens. This will have real impacts.

As my friend Luke C. pointed out the other day, it is entirely conceivable that, in 5-7 years, there could be drones that would follow your child as he walks to school. You can of course, already choose to monitor your child by giving them a cell phone and tracking the GPS device within it, but a drone would have several advantages. It would be harder for someone to destroy or “disconnect” from your child. It could also record and save remotely everything that is going on – in order to prevent anyone from harassing or bullying them. It might even remind them to look both ways before crossing the street, in case they forget. Or, because of its high vantage point, it could pick out and warn your child of cyclists and cars they failed to observe. Once your kid is safely at school the drone could whiz home and recharge in time to walk them home at the end of the day. This may all seem creepy to you, but if such a drone cost $100 dollars, how many parents do you think would feel like it was “the responsible thing to do.” I suspect a great deal. Even if it was only 5% of parents… that would be a lot of drones.

And of course there are thousands of other uses. Protestors might want a drone observing them, just so that any police brutality could be carefully recorded for later. Cautious adults may want one hovering over them, especially when going into an unfamiliar or unsafe neighborhoods. Or maybe you’ll want one for your elderly parents… just in case something happens to them? It’s be good to be able to pull them up on a live feed, from anywhere.

If you think back 20 years ago and told someone you were going to give them a device that would enable their government to locate them within a few feet at any given moment, they would likely have imagined some Orwellian future. But this is, functionally, what any smart phone can do. Looking forward 20 years, I ask myself: would my child feel monitored if he has a drone helping him get to school? Or maybe he will he feel unsafe without it? Or maybe it will feel like his Hogwart’s owl, a digital pet? Or maybe all of these outcomes? I’m not sure the answer is obvious.

My larger point is that the pressure to create the surveillance society isn’t going to come exclusively from the state. Indeed, we may find ourselves in a surveillance society not because the state demands it, but because we want the tools for our own useful and/or selfish ends. Some people may argue that this may level the playing field between citizens and the state or powerful organizations. I hope that is true. But maybe the mass adoption of such tools will simply normalize surveillance in our society and culture. That might, in turn, make it easier for the state, or other organizations, or just everyone else, to monitor us.

What I do know is that our government, our police forces, our neighborhoods are wholly unprepared for this. That’s okay, they have some time. But it is coming. At some point we will be living in a society where the technology will exist to enable anyone to deploy a drone that can observe anyone else in a public space, and maybe even in a private space. The challenges and complexities for policy makers are significant, and the implications for our communities, probably even more so. Either way it’s going to make many people’s lives a lot more complicated.

Note, I suspect there are typos in this, but it is 2 am and wordpress already deleted the first draft of this post killing a couple hours of work… so my capacity and patience is low. I hope you’ll forgive me a little.

 

 

 

The Surveillance State – No Warrant Required

Yesterday a number of police organizations came out in support of bill C-30 – the online surveillance bill proposed by Minister Vic Toews. You can read the Vancouver Police Department’s full press release here – I’m referencing theirs not because it is particularly good or bad, but simply because it is my home town.

For those short on time, the very last statement, at the bottom of the post, is by far the worst and is something every Canadian should know. The authors of these press releases would have been wise to read Michael Geist’s blog posts from yesterday before publishing. Geist’s analysis shows that, at best, the police are misinformed, at worst, they are misleading the public.

So let’s look at some of the details of the press release that are misleading:

Today I speak to you as the Deputy Chief of the VPD’s Investigation Division, but also as a member of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, and I’m pleased to be joined by Tom Stamatakis, President of both the Vancouver Police Union and Canadian Police Association.
The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) is asking Canadians to consider the views of law enforcement as they debate what we refer to as “lawful access,” or Bill C-30 – “An Act to enact the Investigating and Preventing Criminal Electronic Communications Act and to amend the Criminal Code and other Acts.”
This Bill was introduced by government last week and it has generated much controversy. There is no doubt that the Bill is complex and the technology it refers to can be complex as well.
I would, however, like to try to provide some understanding of the Bill from a police perspective. We believe new legislation will:
  • assist police with the necessary tools to investigate crimes while balancing, if not strengthening, the privacy rights for Canadians through the addition of oversight not currently in place

So first bullet point, first problem. While it is true the bill brings in some new process, to say it strengthens privacy rights is misleading. It has become easier, not harder, to gain access to people’s personal data. Before, when the police requested personal information from internet service providers (ISPs) the ISPs could say no. Now, we don’t even have that. Worse, the bill apparently puts a gag on order on these warrantless demands, so you can’t even find out if a government agency has requested information about you.

  • help law enforcement investigate and apprehend those who are involved in criminal activity while using new technologies to avoid apprehension due to outdated laws and technology
  • allow for timely and consistent access to basic information to assist in investigations of criminal activity and other police duties in serving the public (i.e. suicide prevention, notifying next of kin, etc.)

This, sadly, is a misleading statement. As Michael Geist notes in his blog post today “The mandatory disclosure of subscriber information without a warrant has been the hot button issue in Bill C-30, yet it too is subject to unknown regulations. These regulations include the time or deadline for providing the subscriber information (Bill C-30 does not set a time limit)…”

In other words, for the police to say the bill will get timely access to basic information – particularly timely enough to prevent a suicide, which would have to be virtually real time access – is flat out wrong. The bill makes no such promise.

Moreover, this underlying justification is itself fairly ridiculous while the opportunities for abuse are not trivial. It is interesting that none of the examples have anything to do with preventing crime. Suicides are tragic, but do not pose a risk to society. And speedily notifying next of kin is hardly such an urgent issue that it justifies warrantless access to Canadians private information. These examples speak volumes about the strength of their case.

Finally, it is worth noting that while the Police (and the Minister) refer to this as “basic” information, the judiciary disagrees. Earlier this month the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal concluded in R v Trapp, 2011 SKCA 143 that an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the IP address assigned to him or her by an internet service provider, a point which appeared not to have been considered previously by an appellate court in Canada

The global internet, cellular phones and social media have all been widely adopted and enjoyed by Canadians, young and old. Many of us have been affected by computer viruses, spam and increasingly, bank or credit card fraud.

This is just ridiculous and is designed to do nothing more than play on Canadians fears. I mean spam? Really? Google Mail has virtually eliminated spam for its users. No government surveillance infrastructure was required. Moreover, it is very, very hard to see how the surveillance bill will help with any of the problems cited about – viruses, spam or bank fraud.

Okay skipping ahead (again you can read the full press release here)

2. Secondly, the matter of basic subscriber information is particularly sensitive.
The information which companies would be compelled to release would be: name, address, phone number, email address, internet protocol address, and the name of the service provider to police who are in the lawful execution of their duties.
Actually to claim that these are going to police who are in the lawful execution of their duties is also misleading. This data would be made available to police who, at best, believe they are in the lawful execution of their duties. This is precisely why we have warrants so that an independent judiciary can assess whether or not the police are actually engaged in the lawful execution of their duties. Strip away that check and there will be abuses. Indeed, the Sun Newspaper phone hacking scandal in the UK serves as a perfect example of the type of abuse that is possible. In this case police officers were able to access “under extraordinary circumstances” without a warrant or oversight, the names and phone numbers of people whose phones they wanted to, or had already, hacked.
While this information is important to police in all types of investigations, it can be critical in cases where it is urgent that police locate a caller or originator of information that reasonably causes the police to suspect that someone’s safety is at risk.
Without this information the police may not be able to quickly locate and help the person who was in trouble or being victimized.
An example would be a message over the internet indicating someone was contemplating suicide where all we had was an email address.
Again, see above. The bill does not stipulate any timelines around sharing this data. This statement is designed to lead readers to believe readers that the bill will grant necessary and instant access so that a situation could be defused in the moment. The bill does nothing of the sort.
Currently, there is no audited process for law enforcement to gain access to basic subscriber information. In some cases, internet service providers (ISPs) provide the information to police voluntarily — others will not, or often there are lengthy delays. The problem is that there is no consistency in providing this information to police nationally.

This, thankfully is a sensible statement.

3. Lastly, and one of the most important things to remember, this bill does NOT allow the police to monitor emails, phone calls or internet surfing at will without a warrant, as has been implied or explicitly stated.
There is no doubt that those who are against the legislation want you to believe that it does. I have read the Bill and I cannot find that anywhere in it. There are no changes in this area from the current legislation.

This is the worst part of the press release as it is definitely not true. See Michael Geist’s – the Ottawa professor most on top of this story – blog post from yesterday, which was written before this press release went out. According to Geist, there is a provision in the law that “…opens the door to police approaching ISPs and asking them to retain data on specified subscribers or to turn over any subscriber information – including emails or web surfing activities – without a warrant. ISPs can refuse, but this provision is designed to remove any legal concerns the ISP might have in doing so, since it grants full criminal and civil immunity for the disclosures.” In other words the Police can conduct warantless surveillance. It just requires the permission of the ISPs. This flat out contradicts the press release.

 

Using Open Data to drive good policy outcomes – Vancouver’s Rental Database

One of the best signs for open data is when governments are starting to grasp its potential to achieve policy objectives. Rather than just being about compliance, it is seen as a tool that can support the growth and management of a jurisdiction.

This why I was excited to see Vision Vancouver (in which I’m involved in generally, but was not involved in the development of this policy proposal) announced the other day that, if elected, it intends to create a comprehensive online registry that will track work orders and property violations in Vancouver apartments, highlighting negligent landlords and giving a new tool to empower renters.

As the press release goes on to state, the database is “Modeled after a successful on-line watchlist created by New York City’s Public Advocate, the database will allow Vancouver residents to search out landlords and identify any building or safety violations issued by the City of Vancouver to specific rental buildings.”

Much like the pieces I’ve written around restaurant inspection and product recall data, this is a great example of a data set, that when shared the right way, can empower citizens to make better choices and foster better behaviour from landlords.

My main hope is that in the implementation of this proposal, the city does the right thing and doesn’t create a searchable database on its own website, but actually creates an API that software developers and others can tap into. If they do this, someone may develop a mobile app for renters that would show you the repair record of the building you are standing in front of, or in. This could be very helpful for renters, one could even imagine an app where you SMS the postal code of a rental building and it sends you back some basic information. Also exciting to me is the possibility that a university student might look for trends in the data over time, maybe there is an analysis that my yield and insight that could help landlords mitigate against problems, and reduce the number of repairs they have to make (and so help reduce their costs).

But if Vancouver and New York actually structured the data in the same way, it might create an incentive for other cities to do the same. That might entice some of the better known services to use the data to augment their offerings as well. Imagine if PadMapper, in addition to allowing a prospective renter to search for apartments based on rent costs and number of rooms, could also search based on number of infractions?

pad-mapper-rental

That might have a salutary effect on some (but sadly not all) landlords. All an all an exciting step forward from my friends at Vision who brought open data to Canada.

The Geopolitics of the Open Government Partnership: the beginning of Open vs. Closed

Aside from one or two notable exceptions, there hasn’t been a ton of press about the Open Government Partnership (OGP). This is hardly surprising. The press likes to talk about corruption and bad government, people getting together to talk about actually address these things in far less sexy.

But even where good coverage exists analysts and journalists are, I think, misunderstanding the nature of the partnership and its broader implications should it take hold. Presently it is generally seen as a do good project, one that will help fight corruption and hopefully lead to some better governance (both of which I hope will be true). However, the Open Government Partnership isn’t just about doing good, it has real strategic and geopolitical purposes.

In fact, the OGP is, in part, about a 21st century containment strategy.

For those unfamiliar with 20th century containment, a brief refresher. Containment refers to a strategy outlined by a US diplomat – George Kennan – who while posted in Moscow wrote the famous The Long Telegram in which he outlined the need for a more aggressive policy to deal with an expansionist post-WWII Soviet Union. He argued that such a policy would need to seek to isolate the USSR politically and strategically, in part by positioning the United States as a example in the world that other countries would want to work with. While discussions of “containment” often focus on its military aspects and the eventual arms race, it was equally influential in prompting the ideological battle between the USA and USSR as they sought to demonstrate whose “system” was superior.

So I repeat. The OGP is part of a 21st century containment policy. And I’d go further, it is a effort to forge a new axis around which America specifically, and a broader democratic camp more generally, may seek to organize allies and rally its camp. It abandons the now outdated free-market/democratic vs. state-controlled/communist axis in favour of a more subtle, but more appropriate, open vs. closed.

The former axis makes little sense in a world where authoritarian governments often embrace (quasi) free-market to reign, and even have some of the basic the trappings of a democracy. The Open Government Partnership is part of an effort to redefine and shift the goal posts around what makes for a free-market democracy. Elections and a market place clearly no longer suffice and the OGP essentially sets a new bar in which a state must (in theory) allow itself to be transparent enough to provide its citizens with information (and thus power), in short: it is a state can’t simple have some of the trappings of a democracy, it must be democratic and open.

But that also leaves the larger question. Who is being contained? To find out that answer take a look at the list of OGP participants. And then consider who isn’t, and likely never could be, invited to the party.

OGP members Notably Absent
Albania
Azerbaijan
Brazil
Bulgaria
Canada
Chile
Colombia
Croatia
Czech Republic
Dominican Republic
El Salvador
Estonia
Georgia
Ghana
Guatemala
Honduras
Indonesia
Israel
Italy
Jordon
Kenya
Korea
Latvia
Liberia
Lithuania
Macedonia
Malta
Mexico
Moldova
Mongolia
Montenegro
Netherlands
Norway
Peru
Philippines
Romania
Slovak Republic
South Africa
Spain
Sweden
Tanzania
Turkey
Ukraine
United Kingdom
United States
Uruguay
ChinaIran

Russia

Saudi Arabia

(Indeed much of the middle East)

Pakistan

*India is not part of the OGP but was involved in much of initial work and while it has withdrawn (for domestic political reasons) I suspect it will stay involved tangentially.

So first, what you have here is a group of countries that are broadly democratic. Indeed, if you were going to have a democratic caucus in the United Nations, it might look something like this (there are some players in that list that are struggling, but for them the OGP is another opportunity to consolidate and reinforce the gains they’ve made as well as push for new ones).

In this regards, the OGP should be seen as an effort by the United States and some allies to find some common ground as well as a philosophical touch point that not only separates them from rivals, but that makes their camp more attractive to deal with. It’s no trivial coincidence that on the day of the OGP launch the President announced the United States first fulfilled commitment would be its decision to join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). The EITI commits the American oil, gas and mining companies to disclose payments made to foreign governments, which would make corruption much more difficult.

This is America essentially signalling to African people and their leaders – do business with us, and we will help prevent corruption in your country. We will let you know if officials get paid off by our corporations. The obvious counter point to this is… the Chinese won’t.

It’s also why Brazil is a co-chair, and the idea was prompted during a meeting with India. This is an effort to bring the most important BRIC countries into the fold.

But even outside the BRICs, the second thing you’ll notice about the list is the number of Latin American, and in particular African countries included. Between the OGP, the fact that the UK is making government transparency a criteria for its foreign aid, and that World Bank is increasingly moving in the same direction, the forces for “open” are laying out one path for development and aid in Africa. One that rewards governance and – ideally – creates opportunities for African citizens. Again, the obvious counter point is… the Chinese won’t.

It may sounds hard to believe but the OGP is much more than a simple pact designed to make heads of state look good. I believe it has real geopolitical aims and may be the first overt, ideological salvo in the what I believe will be the geopolitical axis of Open versus Closed. This is about finding ways to compete for the hearts and minds of the world in a way that China, Russia, Iran and others simple cannot. And, while I agree we can debate the “openness” of the various the signing countries, I like the idea of world in which states compete to be more open. We could do worse.

Lazy Journalist Revealer. This. Is. Awesome.

Everybody keeps thinking that transparency and improved access to content is something that is only going to affect government, or, maybe some corporations.

I’ve tried to argue differently in places like this blog post and in Taylor and I’s chapter in The New Journalist.

Here’s a wonderful example of how new tools could start to lay more bare the poor performance of many newspapers in actually reporting news and not simple regurgiatating press releases.

Check out the site – called Churnalism.com – that allows you to compare any UK news story against a database of UK press releases. Brilliant!

Wish we had one of these here in North America.

Found this via the Future Journalism Project, which also links to a story on the Guardian website.