Tag Archives: environmentalism

Launching Emitter.ca: Open Data, Pollution and Your Community

This week, I’m pleased to announce the beta launch of Emitter.ca – a website for locating, exploring and assessing pollution in your community.

Why Emitter?

A few weeks ago, Nik Garkusha, Microsoft’s Open Source Strategy Lead and an open data advocate asked me: “are there any cool apps you could imagine developing using Canadian federal government open data?”

Having looked over the slim pickings of open federal data sets – most of which I saw while linking to them datadotgc.ca – I remembered one: Environment Canada’s National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI) that had real potential.

Emitter-screen-shot

With NPRI I felt we could build an application that allowed people and communities to more clearly see who is polluting, and how much, in their communities could be quite powerful. A 220 chemicals that NPRI tracks isn’t, on its own, a helpful or useful to most Canadians.

We agreed to do something and set for ourselves three goals:

  1. Create a powerful demonstration of how Canadian Federal open data can be used
  2. Develop an application that makes data accessible and engaging to everyday Canadians and provides communities with a tool to better  understand their immediate region or city
  3. Be open

With the help of a crew of volunteers with knew and who joined us along the way – Matthew Dance (Edmonton), Aaron McGowan (London, ON), Barranger Ridler (Toronto) and Mark Arteaga (Oakville) – Emitter began to come together.

Why a Beta?

For a few reasons.

  1. There are still bugs, we’d love to hear about them. Let us know.
  2. We’d like to refine our methodology. It would be great to have a methodology that was more sensitive to chemical types, combinations and other factors… Indeed, I know Matt would love to work with ENGOs or academics who might be able to help provide us with better score cards that can helps Canadians understand what the pollution near them means.
  3. More features – I’d love to be able to include more datasets… like data on where tumours or asthama rates or even employment rates.
  4. I’d LOVE to do mobile, to be able to show pollution data on a mobile app and even in using augmented reality.
  5. Trends… once we get 2009 and/or earlier data we could begin to show trends in pollution rates by facility
  6. plus much, much more…

Build on our work

Finally, we have made everything we’ve done open, our methodology is transparent, and anyone can access the data we used through an API that we share. Also, you can learn more about Emitter and how it came to be reading blog posts by the various developers involved.

Thank yous

Obviously the amazing group of people who made Emitter possible deserve an enormous thank you. I’d also like to thank the Open Lab at Microsoft Canada for contributing the resources that made this possible. We should also thank those who allowed us to build on their work, including Cory Horner’s Howdtheyvote.ca API for Electoral District boundaries we were able to use (why Elections Canada doesn’t offer this is beyond me and, frankly, is an embarrassment). Finally, it is important to acknowledge and thank the good people at Environment Canada who not only collected this data, but have the foresight and wisdom to share make it open. I hope we’ll see more of this.

In Sum

Will Emitter change the world? It’s hard to imagine. But hopefully it is a powerful example of what can happen when governments make their data open. That people will take that data and make it accessible in new and engaging ways.

I hope you’ll give it a spin and I look forward to sharing new features as they come out.

Update!

Since Yesterday Emitter.ca has picked up some media. Here are some of the links so far…

Hanneke Brooymans of the Edmonton Journal wrote this piece which was in turn picked up by the Ottawa Citizen, Calgary Herald, Canada.com, Leader Post, The Province, Times Columnist and Windsor Star.

Nestor Arellano of ITBusiness.ca wrote this piece

Burke Campbell, a freelance writer, wrote this piece on his site.

Kate Dubinski of the London Free Press writes a piece titled It’s Easy to Dig up Dirt Online about emitter.ca

Clay Shirky, Connected and Yellow Pages

Yellow-pages-comicTwo weeks ago, after seeing Yellow Pages stacked, unused and unwanted in both my own and several friends apartment buildings, I started a Facebook Group entitled 100,000 Canadians who’ve opted out of yellow pages! In two weeks, with friends telling a friend here and there, we’ve grown to 1000 people. So where did this come from and where is it going?

Well, for a number of years there have been petitions against Yellow Pages but obviously they have had little impact and, frankly, I suspect they actually garner few sign-ups. In Connected: How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do Christakis and Fowler show how people are more likely to vote when their friends, and friends’, friends voted. This suggests there is a strong social component to behaviour. Given that many people I talk to want to opt-out, I thought maybe people will be more likely to opt-out if they knew their friends and their friends, friends opt out. And maybe we could help create that cycle. Facebook, because it allows us to connect with our friends and share some online actions we take, felt like a great platform to do this. Indeed, it seemed to me exactly the ingredient that many online petitions (Which don’t allow you to socialize your activity) seemed to be missing. Also, surprisingly, there wasn’t already a Facebook group dedicated to this.

yellow-pages-banIndeed, looking at Yellow Pages own research reaffirmed my belief that such a group could be successful. They claim 61% of Canadians aged 18+ use their directories at least once a month to look up a business. (Interestingly you can’t read the report on which the claim is made). But (a) this felt unlikely and (b) once a month? So people use the yellow pages 12 times a year…? That’s not delivering value, indeed the number is so unimpressive and underwhelming that if that is the best they can offer, I’m sure we can find lots of Canadians who’d prefer to just say no.

So how I have I structured this (admittedly) off the side of my computer and amateur-driven campaign? I’m trying to follow Clay Shirky’s three pieces of advice at the end of Here Comes Everybody. Make clear the promise, the tool and the bargain.

The Promise: the thing that convinces a potential user to become an actual user.

The promise of this Facebook group is: by taking a simple action and sharing it with our friends, we can save a lot of waste and not receive a large (and annoying) piece of spam in our mailbox. The goal here is to keep everything simple. Participating requires very little time, the impact is immediate (you stop receiving the yellow pages) but also can scale significantly (lots of yellow pages may never get printed). Indeed, an extreme possible outcome – should enough people join the group – is breaking the printed yellow pages business model. If a sufficient number of Canadians actually opted out of the yellow pages, it would be hard for advertisers to believe Yellow Pages marketing materials as probably several more million aren’t on facebook, haven’t joined the group, but also find it useless. But, I’m not holding my breath – for now, I’m happy even getting a few thousand people to opt out.

The Tool: what will enable people to do what they actually want to do.

In our case, it is opt out of receiving the yellow pages. So there are two key tools. The first, is Yellow Pages opt-out form. Indeed, this group exists because there’s failure in information distribution. In some ways the group is about socializing this tool that people find helpful. Most people I talk to think the Yellow Pages are a waste and wish they didn’t have to get them. The truth is, you can opt out of receiving them – it was just that nobody knows how. We are fixing that information gap.

The second tool is a way to share the good news with others. Here, thanks to facebook, we leverage their tools, such as invites, status updates, people even upload photos of Yellow Pages siting unwanted in their apartment lobbies, share videos or – as in the case of Rob above – draw cartoons!

An unanticipated tool has been people helping each other out with filling out the form, or giving feedback to Yellow Pages about their service.

The Bargain: Helps clarify what you expect of others and what they can expect of you.

The bargain for this group is possible most interesting. Since I believe the Yellow Pages is spam and that, frankly, no one likes getting unwanted emails here is the bargain I’ve crafted. Users will opt out of the yellow pages and, hopefully, tell a few friends about the group. As group owner, I promise to only reach out to the group 5 times. Once when the group size hits 1000, 5,000, 10,000, 25,000, and (if we are so lucky) 100,000! I don’t want people to feel burdened by this group – I want them to feel liberated, happy and rewarded. Moreover, people’s time is valuable… so not communicating with them is probably the best thing I can do – hence, the self-imposed limits that reflects milestones we can collectively feel proud of achieving.

Going forward

So without spamming our own networks we’ve gotten to 1000 people in two weeks. Fairly good growth. Will we hit 100,000? I don’t know. It is an ambitious goal. Will we break the Yellow Pages business model? Probably less likely. But can we save some trees and save ourselves the hassle of receiving some very bulky and unwanted mail. Yes. And maybe we can show that Canadians don’t use the Yellow Pages. Ultimately, though we can tell a company that the very people it claims to serve just think it is appalling that they spam an entire country with a 400 page book particularly in an era where, as far as I can tell, so few people actually use it.

Oh, and I hope you’ll consider joining the group and telling a few friends.

Yellow Pages (and White Pages) are Spam – You can block it

Yellow-pages-are-evilUpdate: I decided to create a facebook group to help people stop getting yellow pages. No pressure to join, just another way to share with others the good news and let Yellow Pages know how ridiculous you think they are. No idea if it will take off, but no harm in trying.

Great news! If you live in Canada you can stop the Yellow Pages from delivering their redundant, wasteful over-sized paper weight to your home. Simply fill out this form.

I was renewed in my hunt for such an option after I saw this pile in my friend’s condo. Pretty much everything about this photo makes me angry.

I have not used the Yellow Pages in over a decade and will never, ever, ever, ever use them (even their website which I am decidedly not linking to here) so long as they give them to virtually every Canadian address (I suspect that there are at least 20? 25? million, more? of these things printed every year?

In our world this is spam. It isn’t mail I want, I didn’t ask for it and if I receive it, I delete (recycle) it upon arrival. I only wish the damage done by these books was as limited as online spam.

At least now we can request that it not be delivered. Of course, this solution is far from perfect. Consider that:

1) the fact you have to hand over personal information to a private company to stop receiving a service you never asked for is beyond offensive.

2) this opt out is not permanent. As the Yellow Pages Group FAQ (which is weirdly a PDF and not HTML like the rest of the site) notes:

3. Is my registration permanment?

No. Your registration is valid for two directory deliveries. After that time, you must inform us that you would like to continue to opt-out by completing the same form at http://www.ypg.com/delivery or calling 1-800-268-5637.

3) better still, when, in two years, your opt out expires will Yellow Pages remind you? Or will they simply start sending you yellow pages again? Again their FAQ provides a sad answer:

5. Will Yellow Pages Group send me a notice when the registration period expires?

It will be your responsibility to register again to receive more directories or to be removed from the distribution list after two directory deliveries.

Everything about this company is broken. With luck it will either change or not be with us much longer (also check out its shrinking stock value and declining dividend here).

When a Citizen Dialogue is really just a Mob

Two years ago I wrote this piece outlining how Citizen Assemblies violate the conditions Surowiecki outline as necessary to create a wise crowd. My point was to show how there is a fine line between when a dialogue becomes a group monologue, or worse, just a mob. Those who engage in policy discussions need to be aware of where this line lies lest they accidentally confuse consensus and agreement with silent coercion.

I experienced this problem a few months ago while attending an Imagine BC Leaders’ Summit, A Dialogue on Habitat, Health and Livelihoods :10 Big Ideas to Shape a Resilient Future. The day long event included 180+ leaders and interested parties from different sectors and was supposed to cap off discussions that had been going on about the future of British Columbia. But rather than be an open dialogue, the discussion was intensely closed and, to be frank, bordered on fascist.

Things started off innocently enough. The conversation opened up with a number of participants strongly advocating that British Columbia, and the world, needed a zero growth economy. The term was never explained or explored, but it was made clear that continued economic growth was impossible and threatened the plant. I felt concerned that a group of people who could afford to take an entire workday off to talk about the future would suggest that a zero growth economy was necessary (as quickly as possible) especially in a world where over a billion people live under $1 a day. I suspect that the underlying interest in zero-growth had to do with environmental sustainability but nobody used an alternative term such as a sustainable economy, ecologically sensitive economy or carbon neutral economy. No, it had to be zero-growth. Such an outcome is great if you’ve already got wealth, but it necessarily marginalizes those that don’t. The topic however, was less important than the process. A few people (including me) voiced our concern over the zero growth term in a smaller breakout session but never in the plenary discussion. I asked some of the other concerned voices why they didn’t speak up: most had concluded within the first 30 minutes of the day that speaking out on environmental issue simply wasn’t safe. I had to agree – I wasn’t speaking up either.

Of course, once a group appears to have consensus – because alternative perspectives have censored themselves – it doesn’t take long for the conversation to move into some disturbing places. Back in the plenary discussion the group had concluded that imminent environmental catastrophe was the pressing issue of our time and all other issues were subordinate or secondary. The conversation then quickly shifted to assessing why people outside the room (the general public that is) didn’t feel the same sense of urgency. In a conversation that would have made the authors of The Death of Environmentalism shudder with familiarity, at no point was there any introspection about how the people in the room had failed t engage others effectively. Instead, exogenous factors were immediately cited. Specifically, two emerged as key problems. First, the educational system wasn’t advocating “the groups” point of view sufficiently and second, the political structures discriminated against their issue specifically. The conclusion, the school system needed to be taken over so as to appropriately educate people and the electoral system needed to be reformed so as to produce outcomes the group favoured.

If that doesn’t sound like a scary or fascist conversation, imagine the same conversation structure, but with this subject.

In a dialogue setting a group of evangelical Christians determine that most pressing issue is the fast approach day of rapture and, due to lack of awareness and concern, many souls would not be saved. They conclude that the reason people don’t care about the rapture isn’t because evangelicals haven’t been effective at reaching out and engaging people but because a) they don’t control the educational system, and b) the political system is structured to not favour their issue. They conclude that must take over the schools and so kids can be taught Christian values and that the electoral system needs rejigging to produce outcomes that favours “Christian” issues.

Same conclusions, different subject matter.

This is why dialogues have to so carefully facilitated. It isn’t hard for them to become a mob and for the discussion to get angry and totalitarian.

Oh, and a final note. During the afternoon, in a moment you couldn’t have scripted, the fascist subtext of the conversation became explicit. During the Q&A after Thomas Homer-Dixon’s presentation, one participant asked “Your data on ecological collapse is terrifying. But enough isn’t being done. Do we have to take a page out of history and get the jackboots and the brownshirts out and just mobilize aggressively?” (I really almost lost it when this question was asked). Homer-Dixon, to his credit, was clearly taken aback and ran the other direction outlining that such an approach was not an appropriate solution. Jackboots? Brownshirts? We weren’t a dialogue anymore, we were a mob. At least now it was explicit.

The Fraser Institute – a case study in how not to engage young people

This video is so shockingly bad, on so many levels, that it almost deserves a facebook group composed of its target audience dedicated to mocking it… Be warned: what you are about to watch will feel like a low-budget angry, mid-80’s government sponsored don’t do drugs commercial.

Well you can thank the Fraser Institute – publishers of an enormous amount of unthinking nonsense – for releasing this video.

I especially enjoyed the use of hip “SMS” styled messages that are guaranteed to alienate the very people it is designed to reach out to. However, what I loved best is the thing that ensures this video will fail: it does the very thing that young people hate most – it treats them like they are stupid. It makes no cogent argument, overstates the few facts it references, and fails to cite experts or personalities a young person could relate to.¬† For an organization that spends 80% (!!!) of its budget on advocacy and communicating its agenda one would have thought they’d have a more refined strategy.

Thankfully, they don’t.

friends of eaves.ca now online

A couple of friends and colleagues have recently made the transition online and I wanted to point readers in their direction:

For foreign policy fiends Daryl Copeland – who has always had a thoughtful and forwarding looking view of foreign policy – has a new blog up in anticipation of the release of his new book Guerrilla Diplomacy. I like Daryl cause he’s smart, outspoken and has been a supporter of anyone, like those of us who worked on From Middle to Model Power, who are trying to figure out what the future of diplomacy and the foreign ministry is. He and I agree that that the current model probably isn’t working.

On the environmental front Chris Hatch has launched his new blog – Zero Carbon. Part of the PowerUp Canada initiative, it serves as an outlet for the ideas and thoughts of several long time Canadian environmentalists as well as an aggregator for environment and climate change related news.

Finally, for the men out there who are looking to look good for less, my fiend Chris K. has recently launched his new company, Moniker. As Chris puts it on his site: “Moniker is a global group of friends who have cracked open the luxury supply chain.” And cracked it they have! Finally, I’ll get some french cuffed shirts for all the cuff-links I own…

I live on a green roof – and so should everyone

There has been an exploding interest in green roofs of late. During the recent Vision Vancouver fundraiser I was introduced to Erika Richmond who designed and built my friend Toby B.’s greenroof in the downtown east side. Walking away from the conversation I suddenly realized I may actually live on a green roof.

The building I live in has 4 floors of commercial real estate and a rooftop townhouse development built around a 20,000 sq ft garden and sidewalks. The “sidewalks” have ceders and trees planted along them, the main garden is a grass field and with over 14 decently sized wood garden plots.

Is it technically a green roof? I don’t know. But it does create a beautiful and relatively peaceful living space 25 meters above street in an increasingly busy part of town.

(I realize the photos do not look particularly green but you we are in the midst of what passes for winter here in Vancouver. I’ll try posting some new ones come spring/summer.)

But it turns out the beauty is the least important part of green roofs. For a policy geek like me there is a fascinating and increasing amount of research into the benefits of green roofs – some of the most interesting of which has been commissioned by the City of Toronto and available in a report it published in late 2005.

Savings to the city of Toronto, based the assumption that 100% of available green roof areas over 350 sq m. were retrofitted and that 75% of the roof area was made green, were:

Those are some large numbers.

What an enormous opportunity green roofs would have been for the federal budget. Buildings account for a significant amount of GHG emissions and the financial savings generated by such a plan are obviously enormous. Better still the greening of the aforementioned roofs would not require the equivalent planning of say building a highway, bridge or building and so could be undertaken relatively quickly. In short, they are shovel ready. Equally important, green roofs are probably more labour intensive (as opposed to capital intensive) than many of types of infrastructure projects. This means green roof projects might be better positioned to generate jobs and help lower our rising unemployment numbers. Massive year on year savings? Significant employment? Instant initial savings? An increase in property values? Sounds like a stimulus package winner to me.

Sadly, the trend appears to be catching on more in the United States than in Canada. A cursory exploration of the web reveals that New York City recently passed a city by-law that rewards building-owners who cover 50 percent of available rooftop space with a green roof with “a one-year property tax credit of up to $100,000. The credit would be equal to $4.50 per square-foot of roof area that is planted with vegetation, or approximately 25 percent of the typical costs associated with the materials, labor, installation and design of the green roof.” Philadelphia also has a tax credit (although it appears to be little used). Chicago however is an emerging capital of green roofs with over 200!

It is unclear whether Vancouver or Toronto have such a tax credit (it didn’t appear so, but please let me know if I’m wrong). That said, a growing number of Toronto public buildings now have green roofs and Vancouver will soon be host to Canada’s largest green roof. It’s a start, but given the size of the opportunity, we could be doing so much more.