Tag Archives: commentary

Saving Millions: Why Cities should Fork the Kuali Foundation

For those interested in my writing on open source, municipal issues and technology, I want to be blunt: I consider this to be one of the most important posts I’ll write this year.

A few months ago I wrote an article and blog post about “Muniforge,” an idea based on a speech I’d given at a conference in 2009 in which I advocated that cities with common needs should band together and co-develop software to reduce procurement costs and better meet requirements. I continued to believe in the idea, but have recognized that cultural barriers would likely mean it would be difficult to realize.

Last month that all changed. While at Northern Voice I ended up talking to Jens Haeusser an IT strategist at the University of British Columbia and confirmed something I’d long suspected: that some people much smarter than me had already had the same idea and had made it a reality… not among cities but among academic institutions.

The result? The Kuali foundation. “…A growing community of universities, colleges, businesses, and other organizations that have partnered to build and sustain open-source administrative software for higher education, by higher education.”

In other words for the past 5 years over 35 universities in the United States, Canada, Australia and South Africa have been successfully co-developing software.

For cities everywhere interested in controlling spending or reducing costs, this should be an earth shattering revelation – a wake up call – for several reasons:

  • First, a viable working model for muniforge has existed for 5 years and has been a demonstrable success, both in creating high quality software and in saving the participating institutions significant money. Devising a methodology to calculate how much a city could save by co-developing software with an open source license is probably very, very easy.
  • Second, what is also great about universities is that they suffer from many of the challenges of cities. Both have: conservative bureaucracies, limited budgets, and significant legacy systems. In addition, neither have IT as the core competency and both are frequently concerned with licenses, liability and the “owning” intellectual property.
  • Which thirdly, leads to possibly the best part. The Kuali Foundation has already addressed all the critical obstacles to such an endeavour and has developed licensing agreements, policies, decision-making structures, and work flows processes that address necessary for success. Moreover, all of this legal, policy and work infrastructure is itself available to be copied. For free. Right now.
  • Fourth, the Kuali foundation is not a bunch of free-software hippies that depend on the kindness of strangers to patch their software (a stereotype that really must end). Quite the opposite. The Kuali foundation has helped spawn 10 different companies that specialize in implementing and supporting (through SLAs) the software the foundation develops. In other words, the universities have created a group of competing firms dedicated to serving their niche market. Think about that. Rather than deal with vendors who specialize in serving large multinationals and who’ve tweaked their software to (somewhat) work for cities, the foundation has fostered competing service providers (to say it again) within the higher education niche.

As a result, I believe a group of forwarding thinking cities – perhaps starting with those in North America – should fork the Kuali Foundation. That is, they should copy Kuali’s bylaws, it structure, its licenses and pretty much everything else – possibly even the source code for some of its projects – and create a Kuali for cities. Call it Muniforge, or Communiforge or CivicHub or whatever… but create it.

We can radically reduce the costs of software to cities, improve support by creating the right market incentive to help foster companies whose interests are directly aligned with cities and create better software that meets cities unique needs. The question is… will we? All that is required is for CIO’s to being networking and for a few to discover some common needs. One I idea I have immediately is for the City of Nanaimo to apply the Kuali modified Apache license to its council monitoring software package it developed in house, and to upload it to GitHub. That would be a great start – one that could collectively save cities millions.

If you are a city CIO/CTO/Technology Director and are interested in this idea, please check out these links:

The Kuali Foundation homepage

Open Source Collaboration in Higher Education: Guidelines and Report of the Licensing and Policy Framework Summit for Software Sharing in Higher Education by Brad Wheeler and Daniel Greenstein (key architects behind Kuali)

Open Source 2010: Reflections on 2007 by Brad Wheeler (a must read, lots of great tips in here)

Heck, I suggest looking at all of Brad Wheeler’s articles and presentations.

Another overview article on Kuali by University Business

Phillip Ashlock of Open Plans has an overview article of where some cities are heading re open source.

And again, my original article on Muniforge.

If you aren’t already, consider reading the OpenSF blog – these guys are leaders and one way or another will be part of the mix.

Also, if you’re on twitter, consider following Jay Nath and Philip Ashlock.

Articles I'm digesting – 25/5/2010

Been a while since I’ve done one of these. A couple of good ones ranging from the last few months. Big thank you’s to those who sent me these pieces. Always enjoy.

The Meaning of Open by Jonathan Rosenberg, Senior Vice President, Product Management

Went back and re-read this. Every company makes mistakes and Google is no exception (privacy settings on Buzz being everyone’s favourite) but this statement, along with Google’s DataLiberartion.org (which unlike Facebook is designed to ensure you can extract your information from Google’s services) shows why Google enjoys greater confidence than Facebook, Apple or any number of its competitors. If you’re in government, the private or the non-profit sector, read this post. This is how successful 21st century organizations think.

Local Governments Offer Data to Software Tinkerers by Claire Cain Miller (via David Nauman & Andrew Medd)

Another oldie (December 2009 is old?) but a goodie. Describes a little bit of the emerging eco-system for open local government data along with some of the tensions it is creating. Best head in the sand line:

Paul J. Browne, a deputy commissioner of the New York City Police Department, said it releases information about individual accidents to journalists and others who request it, but would not provide software developers with a regularly updated feed. “We provide public information, not data flow for entrepreneurs,” he said.

So… if I understand correctly, the NYPD will only give data to people who ask and prefer to tie up valuable resources filling out individual requests rather than just provide a constant feed that anyone can use. Got it. Uh, and just for the record, those “entrepreneurs” are the next generation of journalists and the people who will make the public information useful. The NYPD’s “public information” is effectively useless, much like that my home town police department offers. Does anyone actually looks at PDF’s and pictures of crimes? That you can only get on a weekly basis? Really? In an era of spreadsheets and google maps… no.

Didacticism in Game Design by Clint Hocking (via Lauren Bacon)

eaves.ca readers meet Clint Hocking. My main sadness in introducing you is that you’ll discover how a truly fantastic, smart blog reads. The only good news for me us that you are hopefully more interested in public policy, open source and things I dwell on than video games, so Clint won’t steal you all away. Just many of you.

A dash of a long post post that is worth reading

As McLuhan says: the medium is the message. When canned, discrete moral choices are rendered in games with such simplicity and lack of humanity, the message we are sending is not the message specific to the content in question (the message in the canned content might be quite beautiful – but it’s not a ludic message) – it is the message inherent in the form in which we’ve presented it: it effectively says that ‘being moral is easy and only takes a moment out of each hour’. To me, this is almost the opposite of the deeper appreciation of humanity we might aim to engender in our audience.

Clint takes video games seriously. And so should you.

The Analytic Mode by David Brooks (via David Brock)

These four lines alone make this piece worth reading. Great lessons for students of policy and politics:

  • The first fiction was that government is a contest between truth and error. In reality, government is usually a contest between competing, unequal truths.
  • The second fiction was that to support a policy is to make it happen. In fact, in government power is exercised through other people. It is only by coaxing, prodding and compromise that presidents [or anyone!] actually get anything done.
  • The third fiction was that we can begin the world anew. In fact, all problems and policies have already been worked by a thousand hands and the clay is mostly dry. Presidents are compelled to work with the material they have before them.
  • The fourth fiction was that leaders know the path ahead. In fact, they have general goals, but the way ahead is pathless and everything is shrouded by uncertainty

The case against non-profit news sites by Bill Wyman (via Andrew Potter)

Yes, much better that news organizations be beholden to a rich elite than paying readers… Finally someone takes on the idea that a bunch of enlightened rich people or better, rich corporate donors, are going to save “the news.” Sometimes it feels like media organizations are willing to do anything they can to avoid actually having to deal with paying customers. Be it using advertisers and relying on rich people to subsidize them, anything appears to be better than actually fighting for customers.

That’s what I love about Demand Media. Some people decry them as creating tons of cheap content, but at least they looked at the market place and said: This is a business model that will work. Moreover, they are responding to a real customer demand – searches in google.

Wyman’s piece also serves as a good counterpoint to the recent Walrus advertising campaign which essentially boiled down to: Canada needs the Walrus and so you should support it. The danger here is that people at the Walrus believe this line: That they are of value and essential to Canada even if no one (or very few people) bought them or read them. I think people should buy The Walrus not because it would be good for the country but because it is engaging, informative and interesting to Canadians (or citizens of any country). I think the Walrus can have great stories (Gary Stephen Ross’s piece A Tale of Two Cities is a case in point), but if you have a 1 year lead time for an article, that’s going to hard to pull off in the internet era, foundation or no foundation. I hope the Walrus stays with us, but Wyman’s article serves up some arguments worth contemplating.

The Dangers of Being a Platform

Andrew P. sent me this article Apple vs. the Web: The Case for Staying Out of Steve Jobs’s Walled Garden that makes a strong case for your media company to not develop (or at least not bet the bank on) an iPhone App as the way out of trouble.

Few companies actually know how to manage being a platform for an ecosystem and Apple is definitely not one of them. Remember this is company that’s never played well with others and has a deeply disturbing control freakishness to it. Much like Canadians are willing to tolerate the annoying traits of the federal NDP, consumers and developers were willing to tolerate these annoying traits as long as Apple was merely influencing the marketplace but not shaping it. As Apple’s influence grows, so to do the rumblings about its behaviour. People say nice things about Apple’s products. I don’t hear people say nice things about Apple. This is stage one of any decline.

Here, history could be instructive. Look back at another, much more maligned company that has a reputation of not playing well with others: Microsoft. Last year, I wrote this piece about how their inability to partner helped contribute to their relative decline. In short, after kicked around and bullying those who succeeded on its platform, people caught the message and stopped. Today Apple thrives because people elect to innovate on their platform. Because it has been interesting, fun, and to a much, much lesser degree, profitable. Take away the “interesting” and “fun” and/or offer up even a relatively interesting competing platform… and that equation changes.

Heck, even from a end user’s perspective the deal Apple made with me is breaking. Their brand is around great design and fun (think of all those cute fun ads). They still have great design, but increasingly when I think of Apple and the letter F comes to mind the word “fun” isn’t what pops into my head… its “fascism.” Personally I’m fairly confident my next phone will not be an iPhone. I like the phone, but I find the idea of Steve Jobs controlling what I do and how I do it simply too freaky. And I don’t even own a multi-million dollar media empire.

So being a platform is hard. It isn’t license to just print money or run roughshod over whoever you want. It is about managing a social contract with all the developers and content creators as well as all the end users and consumers. That is an enormous responsibility. Indeed, it is one so great we rarely entrust it to a single organization that isn’t the government. Those seeking to create platforms, and Apple, and Facebook especially (and Google and Microsoft to a lesser extent) would all do well to remember that fact.

Oh, and if you’re part of a media companies, don’t expect to saved by some hot new gizmo. Check out this fantastic piece by John Yemma, the Editor of The Christian Science Monitor:

So here’s my position: There is no future in a paywall. No salvation in digital razzle dazzle.

There is, however, a bold future in relevant content.

That’s right. Apple won’t save you. Facebook doesn’t even want to save you. Indeed, there is only one place online where the social contract is clear. And that’s the one you can create with your readers by producing great content. On the web.

Parliament, Accountability and you

Yesterday was not a good day for accountability.

Yes, the speaker has spoken. It turns out that the government is accountable to parliament. Everyone seems to be happy. Everyone that is, except me.

While some are understandably happy about the decision the fact is, this is lowest common denominator democracy. Presently the executive – one that ran on the notion of accountability – believes it is accountable to no one. Indeed, it is not even embarrassed to openly argue the case. The good news is that, thankfully, the Speaker has intervened and signaled that, in fact, the government is accountable to at least one group of people, parliamentarians. On the surface, it is more than a little embarrassing to all Canadians that, to avoid accountability, the present government would attempt to break centuries of parliamentary tradition and violate the very rules the sustain our democracy. Again, yesterday is not a high water mark, it is a low water mark for all of us.

But there is something still more disturbing in yesterday’s events. If this government is unwilling to be accountable to elected officials who have the power of tradition and rule of law… How responsive will they be any one else?

And here in lies the bad news. While our government may yet be held accountable to parliament, there is group of people the government has demonstrated it isn’t accountable to. And that is you.

Let’s assume that, like me, you have no parliamentary privilege. No legal team on your side. No access to the speaker of the house to arbitrate your request. What is the likelihood your request for government information – even something not-secret – will be responded to in a timely manner? How accountable do you think your government will be to you?

Sadly, we know the answer. And it is not good. Indeed, what is playing out in the house is a metaphor for what has happened across much of the Canadian government. With each government it becomes harder and harder to know how decisions were made, what has happened, or even the results of a government activity. That is unless the government decides it wants you to know.

In fact, it is not out of the ordinary for citizens to wait months to get information they requested. Of course, this means that by the time they get the information they requested the discussion has moved on or new more relevant information needs to be requested. In short, journalists, academics, businesses and ordinary Canadians remains stuck forever in the dark, their government out of reach, and unwilling to be accountable to the very people who elect them.

Indeed the only thing that is extraordinary about what is happening in parliament is that it is a profoundly ordinary experience for ordinary Canadian who might ask a question of their government. As the Information Commissioner noted in her report to parliament “Seventeen of the 24 institutions completed their requests in 60 days or more.” (The law requires a response within 30 days). And that was if they decided to fulfill the request at all. So far parliament has had to wait 4 months, if the government decides it will hand over the documents at all. And of course, the government may next claim it doesn’t know where the documents are – since apparently they are using a highly sophisticated filing system to manage the war effort.

So, members of parliament, what you are experiencing is what is actually pretty normal for the rest of us. Which is, pretty depressing.

Why Old Media and Social Media Don't Get Along

Earlier today I did a brief drop in phone interview on CPAC’s Goldhawk Live. The topic was “Have social media and technology changed the way Canadians get news?” and Christoper Waddell, the Director of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Chris Dornan, Director of Carleton University’s Arthur Kroeger School of Public Affairs were Goldhawk’s panel of experts.

Watching the program prior to being brought in I couldn’t help but feel I live on a different planet from many who talk about the media. Ultimately, the debate was characterized by a reactive, negative view on the part of the mainstream media supporters. To them, threats are everywhere. The future is bleak, and everything, especially democratic institutions and civilization itself teeter on the edge. Meanwhile social media advocates such as myself are characterized as delusional techno-utopians. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. Indeed, both sides share a lot in common. What distinguishes though, is that while traditionalists are doom and gloom, we are almost defined by the sense of the possible. New things, new ideas, new approaches are becoming available every day. Yes, there will be new problems, but there will also be new possibilities and, at least, we can invent and innovate.

I’m just soooooo tired of the doom and gloom. It really makes one want to give up on the main stream media (like many, many, many people under 30 have). But, we can’t. We’ve got to save these guys from themselves – the institutions and the brands matter (I think). So, in that pursuit, let’s tackle the beast head on, again.

Last, night the worse offender was Goldhawk, who tapped into every myth that surrounds this debate. Let’s review them one by one.

Myth 1: The average blog is not very good – so how can we rely on blogs for media?

For this myth, I’m going to first pull a little from Missing the Link, now about to be published as a chapter in a journalism textbook called “The New Journalist”:

The qualitative error made by print journalists is to assume that they are competing against the average quality of online content. There may be 1.5 million posts a day, but as anyone whose read a friend’s blog knows, even the average quality of this content is poor. But this has lulled the industry into a false sense of confidence. As Paul Graham describes: “In the old world of ‘channels’ (e.g. newspapers) it meant something to talk about average quality, because that’s what everyone was getting whether they liked it or not. But now you can read any writer you want. Consequently, print media isn’t competing against the average quality of online writing, they’re competing against the best writing online…Those in the print media who dismiss online writing because of its low average quality are missing an important point. No one reads the average blog.”

You know what though, I’m going to build on that. Goldhawk keeps talking about the average blog or average twitterer (which of course, no one follows, we all follow big names, like Clay Shirky and Tim O’Reilly). But you know what? They keep comparing the average blog to the best newspapers. The fact is, even the average newspaper sucks. The Globe represents the apex of the newspaper industry in Canada, not the average, so stop using it as an example. To get the average, go into any mid-sized town and grab a newspaper. It won’t be interesting. Especially to you – an outsider. It will have stories that will appeal to a narrow audience, and even then, many of these will not be particularly well written. More importantly still, there will little, and likely no, investigative journalism – that thing that allegedly separates blogs from newspapers. Indeed, even here in Vancouver, a large city, it is frightening how many times press releases get marginally touched up and then released as “a story.” This is the system that we are afraid of losing?

Myth 2: How will people sort good from low quality news?

I always love this myth. In short, it presumes that the one thing the internet has been fantastic at developing – filters – simple won’t evolve in a part of the media ecosystem (news) where people desperately want them. At best, this is naive. At worse, it is insulting. Filters will develop. They already have. Twitter is my favourite news filter – I probably get more news via it than any other source. Google is another. Nothing gets you to a post or article about a subject you are interested in like a good (old-fashioned?) google search. And yes, there is also going to be a market for branded content – people will look for that as short cut for figuring out what to read. But please people are smarter than you think at finding news sources.

Myth 3: People lack media savvy to know good from low quality news.

I love the elitist contempt the media industry sometimes has towards its readers. But, okay, let’s say this is true. Then the newspapers and mainstream media have only themselves to blame. If people don’t know what good news is, it is because they’ve never seen it (and by and large, they haven’t). The most devastating critique on this myth is actually delivered by one of my favourite newspaper men: Kenneth Whyte is his must listen-to Dalton Camp Lecture on journalism. In it Whyte talks about how, in the late 19th and early 20th century NYC had dozens and dozens of newspapers that fought for readership and people were media savvy, shifting from paper to paper depending on quality and perspective. That all changed with consolidation and a shift from paying for content to advertising for content. Advertisers want staid, plain, boring newspapers with big audiences. This means newspapers play to the lowest common denominator and are market oriented to be boring. It also leaves them beholden to corporate interests (when was the last time the Vancouver Sun really did a critical analysis of the housing industry – it’s biggest advertisement source?). If people are not media savvy it is, in part, because the media ecosystem demands so little of them. I suspect that social media can and will change this. Big newspapers may be what we know, but they may not be good for citizenship or democracy.

Myth 4: There will be no good (and certainly no investigative) journalism with mainstream media.

Possible. I think the investigative journalism concern is legitimate. That said, I’m also not convinced there is a ton of investigative journalism going on. There may also be more going on in the blogs than we might know. It could be that these stories a) don’t get prominence and b) even when they do, often newspapers don’t cite blogs, and so a story first broken by a blog may not be attributed. But investigative journalism comes in different shapes and sizes. As I wrote in one of my more viewed posts, The Death of Journalism:

I suspect the ideal of good journalism will shift from being what Gladwell calls puzzle solving to mystery solving. In the former you must find a critical piece of the puzzle – one that is hidden to you – in order to explain an event. This is the Woodward and Bernstein model of journalism – the current ideal. But in a transparent landscape where huge amounts of information about most organizations is being generated and shared the critical role of the journalist will be that of mystery solving – figuring out how to analyze, synthesize and discover the mystery within the vast quantity of information. As Gladwell recounts this was ironically the very type of journalism that brought down Enron (an organization that was open, albeit deeply  flawed). All of the pieces of that lead to the story that “exposed” Enron were freely, voluntarily and happily given to reports by Enron. It’s just a pity it didn’t happen much, much sooner.

I for one would celebrate the rise of this mystery focused style of “journalism.” It has been sorely needed over the past few years. Indeed, the housing crises that lead to the current financial crises is a perfect example of case where we needed mystery solving not puzzle solving, journalism. The fact that sub-prime mortgages were being sold and re-packaged was not a secret, what was lacking was enough people willing to analyze and write about this complex mystery and its dangerous implications.

And finally, Myth 5: People only read stories that confirm their biases.

Rather than Goldhawk it was Christopher Waddell who kept bringing this point up. This problem, sometimes referred to as “the echo chamber” effect is often cited as a reason why online media is “bad.” I’d love to know Waddell’s sources (I’m confident he has some – he is very sharp). I’ve just not seen any myself. Indeed, Andrew Potter recently sent me a link to “Ideological Segregation Online and Offline.” What is it? A peer reviewed study that found no evidence the Internet is becoming more ideologically segregated. And the comparison is itself deeply flawed. How many conservatives read the Globe? How many liberals read the National Post? I love the idea that somehow main stream media doesn’t ideologically segregate an audience. Hasn’t any looked at Fox or MSNBC recently?

Ultimately, it is hard to watch (or participate) in these shows without attributing all sorts of motivations to those involved. I keep feeling like people are defending the status quo and trying to justify their role in the news ecosystem. To be fair, it is a frightening time to be in media.

When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

And I refuse to lie. It sucks to be a newscaster or a journalist or a columnist. Especially if you are older. Forget about the institutions (they’ve already been changing) but the culture of newsmedia, which many employed in the field cling strongly to, is evolving and changing. That is a painful process, especially to those who have dedicated their life to it. But that old world was far from perfect. Yes, the new world will have problems, but they will be new problems, and there may yet be solutions to them, what I do know is that there aren’t solutions to the old problems in the old system and frankly, I’m tired of those old problems. So let’s get on with it. Be critical, but please, stop spreading the myths and the fear mongering.

What April Fools' Says about the internet (and eaves.ca is not ending)

So yesterday, as an April Fools’ Day prank I announced that I was retiring my blog. Nothing could be further from the truth of course. I love blogging and, for the foreseeable future, find it hard to imagine not putting thoughts to words to posts. It’s also been heartwarming (and guilt inducing) to get dozens of emails and tweets from friends and readers I’ve never met expressing disappointment and congratulations.

But also interesting is how social media – and the internet generally – has revived April Fools’ Day, made it more widespread and protected us against it.

More sophisticated:

Now That's a Prank!

I’ll confess I have no data to support this argument, but I feel like there are more April Fools’ pranks these days. Part of this is because April Fools’ pranks have to be gentle and non-permanent (or at least the prankster should have both the responsibility and capacity to  reverse the prank). In the physical world this is harder to do. But in a virtual space a prank is easily undone. Unlike disassembling a car, creating a misleading and humorous story is a lot easier. It is also, most of the time, easy to correct.

More people:

Of course, creating stories is not new. Just look at the BBC’s famous 1957 April Fools’ prank in which the TV news show panorama featured a story about Swiss-Italian farmers harvesting their spagetti crop (pure genius). Huge numbers of viewers fell for the joke (and many were, apparently, not amused). But just as we are now all journalists, we are now all pranksters. It is also easier for more of us to do April Fools’ jokes since more of us tweet and blog. It also means that a joke or prank is likely to spread wider and faster.

Internet as protection:

But just as the internet makes it easier for everyone to engage in April Fools’ pranks, and for those pranks to disseminate more widely, it also provides us with new tools to assess their veracity. Just take a look at the comments on my own blog. Many of my readers new immediately that the post was a hoax, and said as much right below the story. Same was true on twitter and facebook. Indeed what was interesting is that most people who commented on facebook knew the post was a joke, whereas tweets were more likely to have taken the piece seriously. Not sure what that is… Possibly because facebook has more people who know me personally and were more likely to be skeptical of me… :) Either way, in a world where the audience speaks back our capacity to sniff out – and notify others – of problems in a story are there, and we use them. It was much harder to do this in 1957 with the BBC.

All this to say, I never meant for this to be a petri dish experiment around critical media skills but what a wonderful demonstration that the medium is the message. I love that the internet has renewed a great tradition but I’m even happier to see how it empowers us all to be skeptical and to warn others.

Hopefully, I haven’t lost too many readers in the process. Hope you had a good April Fools’ day yesterday.

What the Liberals needed to Learn in Montreal

There’s been a lot of ink shed about the Liberals and Montreal. Some seizes on the corporate tax freeze, others on Robert Fowler’s blistering critique of the party, still others on the age of the participants in the room. My sense is that, in the short term, the issues discussed at Montreal – on the surface – won’t matter. It is the deeper changes, to thinking, to culture and to processes that take time to manifest, that will determine if Montreal was a success.

Are these deeper shifts happening? Hard to say, but here are three lessons the party will need to take away from Montreal if it is to succeed in the long term:

Lighten up. The scariest thing about the images from Montreal is the uniformity. The participants were older. And white. And male. That is a problem easily (and repeatedly) identified. It also needs to be fixed. But there was another interesting challenge – one more subtle and less commented on.

Ignore the uniform demographics and count how many people are in suits. And a tie. On a Saturday.

Most Canadians I know don’t wear suits. Ever. Even when working with in Fortune 500 companies, or at the banks, people look professional, but suits? Increasingly less and less. So does the Liberal Party need a new dress code? No. But it speaks to the culture of the party elite. When people look at a party they want to see themselves – people they trust and believe in. Even if Canada were populated only by white, older men, most people would probably still look at the conference and not see themselves there. Moreover, many would imagine the event as unapproachable, or unwelcoming – teeming with operatives. If the Liberals are going to win again, they’ll need to be approachable, a group many people feel like they can belong to. Keep the suits if you must, but think about the culture.

Learn the right lesson about the internet. Many participants were amazed by how many people were participating and asking questions online through skype or twitter. This belies a lack of understanding of how the internet is reshaping the way people live, work and organize. Over the past few decades, before campaign finance reform, the party had become accustomed to relying on big donations and it so its capacity to reach out to party members diminished. The Reform/Conservatives were the opposite. Early on they were too scary for traditional big companies and cultivated a vast network of small donors. For them, the internet was a blessing – it enhanced their strategy – and campaign finance was a godsend – it meant their strategy was the only effective one. Today, the Conservative donor network keeps them well financed and effective.

The danger from all this is that the Liberals will walk away understanding the power of the network, but believing they can can control it, rather than simply harness it. You can’t. All those people online, they aren’t there to do the bidding of some communications director. They are there to share their story and engage with peers. Working with such a network requires a radically different skill set then dealing with the media or cultivating a big donor. It also means getting comfortable with the fact that you aren’t in control of the message (your just seeding it) or the medium (your just a platform for others to play on). If Montreal did anything it let the younger leaders show the old timers what social networks and a connective network can do. Will be interesting if the right lessons get drawn. But the Party had better figure it out soon – the Conservatives have a serious head start.

Be honest and clear. The weekends highlight moments occurred when speakers bluntly and firmly pushed back on basic ideas or assumptions. Janice Stein responding to a questions about women’s issues in Foreign Policy by saying she was much more concerned about the destabilizing effect of large groups of unemployed young men. Roger Martin talking about how Canada’s healthcare system is one of the most expensive and inefficient in the G7. Pierre Fortin (who gave a model speech) spoke bluntly about how little money there will be, for anything. Parties need to give people hope, but they also have to be honest.

Most Canadians still struggle to understand what the Liberal Party stands for.  The public knows what both the NDP stands and Conservatives stand for. Both parties have been happy to eschew certain voters in order to stay focused on what makes them who they are. It is sometimes hard to know who the Liberals will eschew. Injecting a little dose of honesty and clarity a la Janice Stein into the party’s communications might help. Sometimes you have to tell the public that their priority isn’t the number one and that there are bigger fish to fry. It isn’t easy. Especially for politicians. But being honest and clear about where the party stands and where it doesn’t may produce better results than the status quo. The Conservatives may have had a scandal rife year, but they aren’t going anywhere so long as people know who they are and don’t have a clue about their rivals.

Jane Taber noted that at the last “thinkers conference” in Aylmer the Liberal Party shed its protectionist past in favour of globalization. But that took some time to become clear. The impact – if any – of this conference will likewise take a few years to be fully realized. But maybe a similar transition will take place, with the famously centralist party favouring a more networked, open and engaging approach to both the party, and governing. It will be interesting to see what unfolds.

The Irony of Wente, Opinions, Blogs and Gender

Once again a Globe Columnist talks about technology in a manner that is not just factually completely incorrect but richly Ironic!

Earlier today Margaret Wente published a piece titled “Why are bloggers male?” (I suspect it is in print, but who knows…). The rich irony is that Wente says she doesn’t blog because she doesn’t have instant opinions. Readers of her column likely have their doubts. Indeed, I hate to inform Ms. Wente that she does have a blog. It’s called her column.

Reading her piece, one wonders if Wente has ever followed a blog. Her claim that women don’t like to emit opinions every 20 minutes struck me – as an incredibly active blogger – as odd. I post 4 times a week. Of course, as anyone who actually uses the internet knows, there is a blogging like medium where people are more predisposed to comment frequently (although not every 20 minutes). It’s called twitter. But if, as Wente claims, women are hardwired to not share opinions, why then – according to Harvard Business School – do women outnumber men on twitter 55% to 45%? Indeed, what is disturbing about the Harvard survey is that rather than some innate desire to have opinions, women suffer from the disadvantage of having their opinions marginalized for some other (social) reason. Both women and men tend to follow men on twitter rather than women.

But forget about the complete lack of thought in Wente’s analysis. Let’s just take a look at the facts.

Her piece starts off with the claim that men are more likely to blog than women. Of course Wente doesn’t cite (or hyperlink? the internet is 40 years old…) a source so it is hard to know if this is a fact or merely an opinion. Sadly, a quick google search shows Wente’s opinions don’t match up with the facts. According to a 2005 Pew Research Centre study (look! A hyperlink to a source!):

“Women and men have statistical parity in the blogosphere, with women representing 46% of bloggers and men 54%”

Awkward.

But it get’s worse. In The Blogging Iceberg by the now defunct Perseus’ Development Corporation claims that its research shows that that males were more likely than females to abandon blogs, with 46.4% of abandoned blogs created by males (versus 40.7% of active blogs created by males). That might even tilt the balance in favour of women… And of course, in France, that is what Médiamétrie has found, with over 50% French bloggers being female.

I do agree the men are potentially more likely to share their opinion than women. But there may be strong social reasons for this and it is clearly not that cut and dry. Many women have decided they want to share their opinions via twitter – indeed more women than men have. And of course, when it comes to being “quick to have opinions on subjects they know little or nothing about” men hardly have a monopoly. One need only look at Wente’s daily blog. Or, I meant to say, column.

Okay, that’s two blogs in one day. I’m taking tomorrow off.

Added March 19th: Nick C sent me a link to a fantastic post by Spydergrrl in which she points out that this was probably all a gimmick to get people to show up to an event Wente is putting on. It is a dark, unnerving perspective but one that sounds plausible. So, I say, boycott Wente’s event.

Today in the Globe: Facebook's Political Reach

I have the following piece published in the Globe and Mail today. It isn’t going to further endear me to Michael Valpy (who is already not impressed with me)… but felt another perspective on the issue was needed. He, like many traditional columnists, is not a fan of social – or digital – media. Indeed, he has argued it is destroying our country’s social cohesion and democracy. Those familiar with me know I feel differently . By allowing us to self-organize, connect to one another and to our politicians, social media is enabling a different and very powerful type kind of social cohesion and democratic expression.

I respect Valpy a lot and hope we get a chance to sit down and talk social media at some point. Given our collective interest in journalism and statements like this, it feels like it would be fruitful for both of us. Hopefully it will happen.

Facebook’s Political Reach

Yesterday, Michael Valpy posted an interesting piece about a Nanos poll showing Canadians – including younger Canadians – question how much influence political Facebook groups should have on any government.

The problem with the piece lies in the headline: “Facebook forums shouldn’t sway government, young Canadians say.” It suggests that online activism – or social media in general – isn’t credible with the public. This, however, isn’t what the poll showed. Indeed, the poll says little about the credibility of Facebook, particularly compared to other forms of political activity. It does, however, say a lot about social media’s dramatic growth in influence over the past five years.

Critically, the poll didn’t compare forms of political activity. If one had done a similar poll asking whether Canadians believe a demonstration should sway the government, or if direct action – such as when Greenpeace hung a banner from Parliament – should alter government policy, would the numbers have been dramatically different? I suspect not. Governments have electoral mandates – something Canadians broadly agree with. Most political activity, both on and offline, is designed to shape public opinion and ultimately, people’s decisions at the ballot box. That is a threat influences government.

Consequently, it may not be the medium that matters as much as the number of people involved. Do people believe the government should pay attention to a 1,000 person rally? Likely not. Should they pay attention to a 10,000 person Facebook group? Likely not as well. But at a certain point, with large enough numbers, almost any medium matters. Would people think that the government should reconsider a policy in the face of 10-million-person petition? Or a five-million-person Facebook group? Possibly. What about a 500,000-person march? Even this might prompt respondents to reconsider their response.

Ultimately, the Globe article jumps to a negative interpretation of Facebook too quickly. This is understandable in that traditional news organizations are still coming to grips with social – and digital – media. But by allowing us to self-organize, connect to one another and to our politicians, social media is enabling a different and very powerful type kind of social cohesion and democratic expression.

More interesting is how split Canadians appear to be over political groups using Facebook “to share ideas, information and to help mobilize their activities” (30 per cent have a positive view, 30 per cent have a negative view and an enormous 40 per cent are undecided). Here is a technology few Canadians knew existed five years ago, and it is already viewed favourably by a third of Canadians as a way to engage with political groups. As people become more familiar with these online activities I suspect comfort levels will rise, since many people often don’t initially understand or like new technologies. This survey shows us online political organizing is moving into the mainstream – perhaps even more mainstream than a protest or a petition.

So should Facebook influence the government? The prorogation debate shows it already can. But do people believe Facebook should be less influential than other (more traditional) forms of political activity? In this, the survey reveals very little. Indeed as Nik Nanos, the pollster who conducted the survey, adds at the end of the piece (and in contrast to the title): “we still haven’t come to grips with what [Facebook groups] really mean.”

Canadian Foreign Policy: The War on Independent Thought

Two stories this week highlight Canada’s rapidly decaying capacity to think, engage and act on foreign policy issues. The first was the Globe’s story Canadian Aid Groups Told to Keep Quiet on Policy Issues, the second is Paul Well’s detailed and devastating account of the implosion of Rights and Democracy, an NGO run by the Federal Government which has seen its entire staff revolt in the face of the political efforts by government to reset its policies.

Both stories hint at a common pattern – that through bullying, funding decisions, appointments and any other means at its disposal – the conservative government is seeking to ensure that any voice in Canada that engages international issues aligns itself with the government’s opinion. In short, this Conservative government is seeking to recentralize Canadian foreign policy. It is an effort that cannot succeed, but in which the attempt will devastate Canada’s influence in the world and negatively impact our capacity to act on the global stage.

Why is this?

Because in the 21st century a country’s foreign policy capacity – especially a small country like Canada – does not spring solely from the size of one’s military and the influence of one’s diplomats. Rather, influence springs from the capacity to tackle and address – increasingly complex – problems. Military might and diplomats can be deeply important but they are increasingly a smaller piece of the puzzle. The real question is, how does a state marshal all the resources and talents at its disposal and focus them on a problem.

In the 19th century the answer was easier. Military might and diplomats were the only tools and so control over these tools – the capacity of a single person (the PM) or group (cabinet) to focus the energy of the state on a problem – was the essence of international influence. But today this is no longer the case. Many of the critical relationships, expertise for addressing problems, volunteering capacity and even funding, lie beyond the control of the state. More importantly, public opinion has become an essential part of any effort. In this world, where the state is only one of many actors, and is one that is frequently looked upon with skepticism, how does one marshal this network or foreign policy ecosystem and attempt to focus it on a problem?

This is the great challenge facing government’s everywhere (especially those of smaller countries where resources outside of government are essential).

The conservative response – outlined above by the Globe and Paul Wells – describes an effort to assert control over these non-state actors and opinion shapers. To bully them into line and force them to not only cooperate with but mimic the government’s priorities.

This strategy will not work.

Over the short term the talent in Canada’s foreign policy network will simply balk. The best will leave for other countries which will seek to engage them on policy, not declare war on independent thought. Today we risk the great “hallowing out” of our foreign policy capacity (and thus international influence) not because the quality of our diplomats or military will decline, but because the quality of our NGO sector will decline.

Moreover, this sector’s international influence depends on independence. Other states and public opinion more generally will not respect Canadian organizations that are seen as merely puppets of the Canadian government. Indeed, expect these types of organizations to see their influence wain to a point where they become insignificant on the international stage. In short, there will be fewer Canadian voices and they will all carry less weight.

Finally however, the ecosystem will adjust. Already many Canadian organizations that work and engage in international issues find it cumbersome to work with Government. People I speak with often eschew CIDA grants since the reporting mechanisms they come with are often more expensive to implement than the value of the grant. Now that Government money is linked with political interference and meddling, an increasing number of organizations will avoid engaging the Canadian government altogether. The result? A NGO sector that is actively hostile – or at best indifferent – to the government and a diminished capacity to coordinate action, research and policy across the Canadian foreign policy ecosystem.  In short, the Canadian government will have no more control over internationally focused resources, but it will have shrunk the country’s collective influence.

In a networked world you can’t control the network, you can only seek to influence it. This government’s actions are a case study in how to lose credibility and sacrifice capacity. If, however, they don’t want a Canada that engages in the world, perhaps, in their mind, it is all worth it.