Tag Archives: globe and mail

Why not open flu data?

On Monday, Nov. 23 the Globe ran this piece I wrote as a Special to The Globe and Mail. I’m cross-posting it back here for those who may have missed it. Hope you enjoy!

An interesting thread keeps popping up in The Globe’s reporting on H1N1. As you examine the efforts of the federal and provincial governments to co-ordinate their response to the crisis only one thing appears to be more rare than the vaccine itself: information.

For example, on Nov. 11, Patrick Brethour reported that “The premiers resolved to press the federal government to give them more timely information on vaccine supplies during their own conference call last Friday. Health officials across Canada have expressed frustration that Ottawa has been slow to inform them about how much vaccine provinces and territories will get each week.”

And of course, it isn’t just the provinces complaining about the feds. The feds are similarly complaining about the vaccine suppliers. In response to an unforeseen and last-minute vaccine shortage by GlaxoSmithKline (a manufacturer of the vaccine), David Butler-Jones, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, acknowledged in The Globe on Oct. 31 that “what I know today is not what I knew yesterday morning. And tomorrow I may find out something new.”

For those of you who are wondering what this shortage of information reminds you of, the answer is simple: life before the Internet. Here, in the digital age, we continue to treat the Public Health Officer like a town crier, waiting for him to share how much vaccine the country is going to receive. And the government is treating GSK like a 20th century industrial manufacturer you would bill with a paper invoice.

This in an era of just-in-time delivery, radio-frequency identification chips and a FedEx website that lets me track packages from my home computer. We could resolve this information shortage quite simply by insisting the vaccine suppliers publish a website or data feed, updated hourly or daily, of the vaccine production pipeline, delivery schedule and inventory. That way, if there is a sudden change in the delivery amount the press, health officials or any average citizen could instantly know and plan accordingly. Conversely, the government of Canada could publish its inventory and the process it uses to allocate it to the provinces online for anyone to see. Using this data, local health authorities could calculate how much vaccine they can expect without having to talk to the feds at all. Time and energy would be saved by everyone.

Better still, no more conference calls with the premiers sitting around complaining to the Prime Minister about a lack of information. By insisting on open data – that is sharing the data and information relating to the vaccine supply publicly – the government could both improve transparency, reduce transaction costs and greatly facilitate co-ordination between the various ministries and levels of government. No more waiting for that next meeting or an email from the Chief Public Health Officer to get an update on how much vaccine to expect – just pop online and take a look for yourself.

As noted by Doug Bastien over at GC2.0, the federal government has done an excellent job informing the Canadian public about the need to get vaccinated, including using social media like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube videos. Indeed, they were so successful they helped contribute to the current vaccine shortage. To ensure we respond to the next crisis successfully, however, we need more than a citizen-centric social media strategy. We need a social media and open data strategy that ensures our governments communicate effectively with one another.

Rex Murphy: Sarah Palin's Strong Bond

So up until a few weeks ago I read Rex Murphy sporadically at best. Then the other week he published this questionable piece on climate change (in short: regionalism should trump action) which was neither inspired or thoughtful.

Wondering if the previous week had been an outlier I read him again this weekend and was even more dumbstruck. Here was Rex Murphy deriding Obama and praising Palin ability to “connect” with her supporters.

A  few thoughts here.

First, I’m willing to grant Rex Murphy that Sarah Palin may create “a more forceful bond with her supporters than [Obama does] with his.” Perhaps, but what a silly metric when used in isolation. David Koresh had a still more forceful bond with his supporters, and I’m not sure that worked out well for anyone. Obama’s oratory strength isn’t that he creates a powerful bond with his supporters (although he has, from time to time, done this). It’s that he connects with those who don’t always agree with him – he is able to reach and engage a broader audience. Sarah Palin has never done this. How often do you see an African American – or “heck” (as she would say it) anyone not white – at a Palin event?

Indeed, still more farcical is how Mr. Murphy argues Palin’s inaugural speech as a vice-presidential candidate was rhetorically equivalent to Obama’s speech on race (And that both were delivered under equal levels of pressure). Really? Sarah Palin’s speech succeeded in generating a spark yes, but among the conservative base that already loved her. It was a speech that was populist, said little, and began a process of persuading most Americans she didn’t belong in the White House. In contrast, Obama’s speech arrested a decline in the polls and engaged both his supporters and doubters. All this while addressing possibly the most volatile and politically sensitive issue in the United States. 100 years from now, Obama’s speech will likely be seen as an important moment in the history of race relations. Sarah Palin, to say nothing of her speech, will probably not be remembered at all. Rhetorically equivalent?

Finally, and perhaps most appalling was Rex Murphy’s characterization of Obama as someone who “offers a kind of self-flattery to his worshipers. They feel exalted that they have the intelligence or sensibility to see how remarkable their man is. But he remains remote.” I remember first being floored by Obama during a speech in which he did the exact opposite of this. It was January 20th and Obama walked into the heart of the African American religious community – Martin Luther King’s church – on Martin Luther King Jr Day and talked about how African Americans need to work harder to live up to MLK’s legacy. Specifically, he was particularly unflattering to his audience and argued that if African Americans wanted justice, freedom and equality, then the homophobia, antisemitism, and anti-immigrant resentment that sometimes exists in their community had to be acknowledged and confronted. Oh, to be flattered by Obama.

I’m a big fan of contrarian thinking which, between Wente and Murphy, seems to be all the rage at the Globe these days. But being a contrarian is difficult business and the most important rule is don’t over reach. Take an argument too far and it ceases being an interesting and clever experiment and is instead reduced to just being silly. Is Sarah Palin a compelling orator. Yes! But within some fairly strict bounds. Fail to acknowledge those bounds and pretty soon you end up like Palin herself, saying something that’s either foolish, or just plain wrong.

Articles I'm Digesting 16-11-2009

BC Budget Visualizations – DIY Transparency & Local Government by Jer (via David Ascher)

When I think of Open Data many ideas come to mind. Applications like Vantrash were an early success, but what Jer has done with the BC Government’s Budget is another piece I hope will emerge: data that is transformed into educative and compelling graphics that border on art. On the CBC Power & Politics last week (1:50:36) I made this my “blog of the week.” And as I said on the show, if the Globe and Mail wants to compete with the New York Times and its cool multimedia work (like this piece on the Berlin Wall), get a guy like Jer on contract,

The Bitch is Back by Andrew Corsello (via David Hume)

A scathing piece in GQ magazine (have I ever read a GQ magazine article before?) about Ayn Rand. It pretty much sums up everything you’ve ever thought about Ayn Rand but were too polite to say. Bonus points go to this piece for the great Hitchens quote:

“as a fiction writer, she’s absurd,” says author and Vanity Fair columnist Christopher Hitchens, who is arguably the most opinionated Homo sapiens since Rand herself. “But if you’re young and not particularly wanted and not particularly brilliant, reading Atlas Shrugged provides all the feelings of compensation one might need for any period of terrifying inadequacy.”

Oh, and just in case those on the left are starting to feel smug about the Right’s tautological hero and her prescribes a path to superiority, I caution you to pause. It is still early days but I’m beginning to feel like Ken Wilbur is the Left’s emerging Ayn Rand and Integral Theory is its Objectivism. The material cannot be tested or proven, its lengthy and inaccessible, its definitely uncompromising, and for more extreme adherents, both theories lay out a theory of hierarchical development that I fear allow those at the “top” to be, at best, paternalistic and at worst, contemptuous, to those below.

Can D.I.Y. Supplant the First-Person Shooter? by Joshuah Bearman (via Lauren Bacon)

For those who believe video games could be art. More interestingly, it hints at how the future of entertainment may either be flatter than we thought, or the long tail of the market could be richer than many supposed. Either way, the video game is going to play a bigger role in our fragmented culture. Bonus points in this one for money quotes, insights and positive role contributed to the discussion by local boy and video game superstar Clint Hocking.

It’s Time to Rethink Forest Management: More Subsidies Will Not Succeed by Susanne Ivey-Cook

I’m a policy wonk. And this piece is bang on. It’s long past due that rethink how we allocate and use our forests. These are public owned goods and we need to ensure that they get used in a way that maximizes their value to tax payers and meet our ecological/sustainability goals. Definitely worth the quick read.

Let's Turn up the heat on Rex Murphy's flawed logic

In his regular column the other week Rex Murphy published a piece entitled Don’t turn up the heat on the West, which also had the great sub title: By making Western provinces pay for adventures in global warming policy we will be playing with Confederation.

For a man that regularly rails against the lack of political imagination in this country it is odd to see him shut down debate and present us with a narrow (Bush-styled) choice he usually loathes: our planet or our country. As a red blooded Canadian the choice for Rex is easy. The costs of climate change can be ignored since they will be born by my children in some hard to quantify future. In contrast, the political costs of acting (which he will witness) are “real” and “reckless.”

What is sad is that we’ve been here before. One wonders what Rex would have said in the 30’s or 60’s about asbestos mining. Here is a mineral for which there was overwhelming evidence that there was a negative impact on miners especially, and citizens generally, that came into contact with it. Indeed as early as 1935 senior executives in two of the largest firms in the industry – Raybestos Manhattan and Johns-Manville – secretly agreed that “our interests are best served by having asbestosis receive the minimum of publicity.” But the growing scientific literature from the 30’s-60’s that suggested asbestos had serious negative side effects didn’t matter. For one there were asbestos deniers (those contrarian thinker-types Rex would love), such as J. Corbett McDonald, a McGill professor who received $500,000 in research funding from Quebec Asbestos Mining Association and determined that contaminants in the environment, not asbestos, cause lung tumours seen in Canadian workers. Phew!

Looking back, we can see now that Asbestos was massively damaging and deeply, deeply costly. Asbestos is so problematic and has created so much exposure to the insurance industry that much of it remains unresolved today. In many countries the government simply had to offer direct compensation packages since the liabilities were too great to be covered. This is to say nothing of site and building cleanups (like out parliament buildings which are currently spending 10s millions to have the asbestos removed from). In total, we are definitely talking about 100s of billions of dollars. Possibly over a trillion dollars in costs over the last two-three decades. And that’s just in Canada.

Of course, back in 1960s and 70s talking about shutting down the abestoes industry would have posed a threat to national unity too. Most of Canada’s asbestoes mines are located in Quebec and so confronting this future risk (that science strongly suggested was imminent) would have required political leadership and tackling regionalism.

Thank god we didn’t. Our inaction spared us having to address the political consequences. Instead we’ve only had to deal with billions of dollars in lawsuits, tens of thousands (likely many more) lives cut short by cancer and other illnesses, and locking parts of our economy into a dying industry which the world was less and less interested in.

What’s most sad? We haven’t stopped. Prime Minister Harper continues to try to block a UN environmental agreement (the Rotterdam Convention) that would list chrysotile asbestos as a hazardous substances. His political quote on the issue: The Liberals are being “duped and manipulated by extremist groups,” and that the other national parties are urban-focused and don’t understand regional issues like asbestos. Of course, by blocking the convention Canada can continue to sell asbestos without informing purchasers – especially those in developing countries (one of the few markets left) – that it is hazardous. Yeah us!

Rex flawed logic is summed up when, in his article, he says:

Should some global warming action plan attempt to put the oil sands and Western energy development at significant disadvantage, or draw taxes out of the economies of the Western provinces to pay for adventures in global warming policy, we will be playing with Confederation.

In short, it doesn’t matter how serious an issue is. If it the politics are too difficult – we shouldn’t act. Indeed, I can imagine him using the same logic back in the 70s writing about asbestos, saying something like:

Should some asbestos regulatory regime place Quebec asbestoes mining at significant disadvantage, or draw taxes out of the economy of Quebec to pay for adventures in health and safety policy, we will be playing with Confederation.

Yes, we would have. And it would have been the right call. That’s what political leadership is Rex. I’m sorry you’re not interested in it.

Eat the Young!

There was a fair amount of chatter among my friends last week as a result of  Lawrence Martin’s column If there’s an inspiration deficit in our politics, blame it on the young. My friend Alison Loat wrote an excellent, albeit polite, response, pointing out that blame could be spread across sectors and generations. She’s right. There is lots of blame to go around. And I don’t think Martin should get off so lightly. Here’s why:

The young reject the political status quo, as they should, but they are too lazy to do anything about it. Most of the under-25s don’t even bother to vote. Instead of fighting for change, they wallow in their vanities and entitlements. Not much turns them on except the Idol shows, movies with smut humour and the latest hand-held instruments. Their disillusionment with the political class is understood. Their complacency isn’t. It will soon be their country. You’d think they’d want to take the reins.

The problem with Martin’s piece is that he’s looking in the wrong place. He’s not looking at what young people are doing. He’s looking at what he thinks they should be doing… or more specifically, what he would have done when he was 25. To say an entire generation has given up because they don’t vote or participate in party politics is farcical.

Yes, young people reject the status quo, but it is deeper than that. They eschew the tools that Martin wants them to use – not just party politics but traditional media as well. They reject the whole system. But this isn’t out of juvenile laziness, but for the very opposite reason. In a world filled with choice, one that fragments our attention, they seek to focus their energy where they will be most effective and efficient – at the moment, that frequently means they are uninterested in the slow and byzantine machinations of politics (why engage when every party, even the NDP, are conservative?), the snobbishness of traditional media (when’s the last time a columnist on the Globe actually responded to a reader’s comment on the website?) or a hierarchical and risk-averse public service (held hostage by the country’s auditor general).

Indeed, Martin’s example around voting is perfect starting point. Here is a system that has not changed over 60 years. By and large one must still vote at the local church, community centre, or school, places that may or may not be near public transit and are not frequently visited by young people. In a world where shareholder proxy votes are regularly done over the web (not to mention credit card transactions), how are young people supposed to have confidence in a system that still cannot manage electronic voting? Complaining that an Elections Canada campaign targeting young people didn’t work is akin to wondering why a marketing campaign on Facebook didn’t generate a bigger youth audience for a cable TV Matlock marathon. Why didn’t young people watch TV any more? Can’t they see that Matlock is a classic?

Nor can they find much comfort in the media. If newspapers are the gathering places for political discussion, how inspiring might they be to young people? Since Martin writes for the Globe and Mail, let’s start there. Its opinion page’s most frequent columnists include Rick Salutin (68), Rex Murphy (62), Lawrence Martin (61), Roy McGregor (61), Jeffrey Simpson (60), Margaret Wente (59), Christie Blarchford (58), John Ibbitson (54) and the one young voice, Jim Stanford (43?). It’s not just political parties that have boring old guys (or BOGs, to use Martin’s term). I think it is safe to say that the hegemony of the boomers isn’t limited to the polling station. (No wonder so many of us prefer blogs – we at least get to hear what our peers think.) I wish the Globe would take a risk and hire some young and smart columnist for their opinion page – someone like Andrew Potter. The New York Times did; they replaced the relatively young William Kristol (56)with 29 year-old Ross Douthat. It would appear there’s an inspiration deficit in our newspaper too…

But above all, just because someone doesn’t vote, prefers blogs to the Globe, or doesn’t find Ottawa engaging doesn’t mean they are either inactive or a bad citizen.

Take my friends over at Mozilla (some who vote, some who don’t – but all of whom are young): they are part of a worldwide movement that broke Microsoft’s monopoly over control of the web (probably the single most important act to preserve freedom of speech and expression in the world as well as democratizing innovation online) and now, through a combination of technology (Firefox) and advocacy (the Mozilla Foundation) are continuing to innovate and find ways to preserve the freedom of the internet. This is something no political party or government initially cared to do or was willing to do something about. Should they have devoted their time and energy to get involved in politics? Should they have instead lobbied the government to regulate Microsoft (for all the good that ended up doing)?

Or take ForestEthics – another organizations started and staffed by young people. Canadians may consistently rank the environment as one of Canada’s top priorities and yet inaction consistently wins out. So ForestEthics bypasses government altogether and combines the power protesters with that of market forces to improve logging practices and save forests. It identifies corporations — such as Victoria’s Secret, with its vast catalogue distribution — whose consumption shapes the paper industry. It then offers these corporations a choice: cooperate and reform their practices or face painful protests and boycotts. For those that cooperate, ForestEthics works with the multinational’s procurement department to help it adopt more sustainable practices. This has given ForestEthics direct influence over the forestry industry practices, since logging companies pay attention to their largest customers. Would the staff of ForestEthics be more effective running for office or working for Environment Canada?

The key is, young people (and many Canadians in general) are engaged and more exciting still, are innovating in new and transformative ways. It just happens that most of it isn’t seen by today’s BOGs. Moreover, even when it is happening right in front of us it is hard to spot, such as within the Globe (where it feels like Mathew Ingram is almost singlehandedly fighting to save the newspaper), within political parties (where a community here in Vancouver has been excited and rewarded by our work with Vision Vancouver around Open Data) or within the public service (where a small and and amazing team within Treasury Board has been creating tools like GCPEDIA in an effort to pull the government into the 21st century).

But because the efforts are often invisible, herein lies the real dangers: not to young people — they are going to be just fine — but for the institutions Lawrence Martin and Alison Loat worry about. To many of my friends, today’s newspapers, political parties and public service look a lot more like General Motors than they do Google, Facebook, or better still, Mozilla, ForestEthics, or Teach For America. As they look at the institutions Martin assumes they should engage, they’re still evaluating: should we bail them out or should we just let them go bankrupt and start from scratch?

And that’s why Martin is looking in the wrong place. His misidentifies where the real innovation gap lies. The fact is that these institutions simply aren’t places where new thinking or experimentation can easily take place. They may have been at one point – perhaps when Martin was young, I don’t know – but they aren’t today. So those young people he believes are wallowing in their vanities and entitlements… they aren’t apathetic, they’ve simply opted to deploy their social capital elsewhere, places Martin chooses not look, or don’t know where to look.

So is there an innovation gap? Absolutely. Just not as Martin describes it. There is a gap between where it is actually taking place, and where he thinks it should be taking place. But let’s be clear, there’s plenty of innovation taking place, if you know where to look. Will it manifest itself in some political revolution? I don’t know. But more importantly, will it change Canada, or the world? Definitely. It already has.

As an aside, one friend suggested that Lawrence Martin and I should debate: “Be it resolved there is an inspiration deficit in our politics and young people are to blame.” If Martin is up for it, I’d accept the debate whenever and where ever he wishes. Perhaps we could rope Alison in to moderate.

Reforming Government on the Globe & Mail's Wiki

A few months ago John Ibbitson – the Globe and Mail columnist who used to cover Ottawa and now covers Washington, DC – asked me if I’d help edit the 3rd chapter of his new book, Open & Shut.

The chapter, entitled Yes, Mr. President; No, Prime Minister asks why is it that after 8 years of President Bush, President Obama is able to quickly change the direction of government whereas in Canada, newly elected parties often struggle to implement their agenda.

Last week the book was released. As part of the launch process the Globe and Mail created a wiki dedicated to the book’s themes where readers can critic or expand on its ideas and analysis. More interestingly, as readers post to the wiki John will respond to their  ideas, critics and thoughts on a blog hosted by the Globe.

To kick off the wiki on Open Government, John asked me if I would write a short essay answering the following the question:

Federal politicians, and federal public servants, seem increasingly remote and disconnected from the lives of Canadians. Open and Shut maintains that this is because the public service remains closed to outsiders, and because Ottawa has ceded so much power to the provinces. Do we want our federal government to matter more in our lives, and if so, what should we do to give it meaning?

You can see my response, and what I hope will eventually become a growing number of comments on the future of the public service, here.

As an aside, two other sections have been created. One is on Open Politics, which is teed up by John Duffy (political strategist). The other is on Canada/US integration, which is kicked off by Scotty Greenwood (executive Director of the Canadian-American Business Council).

who is going to cover city hall? we will…

More follow up on the future of democracy and the media. In the comments one reader – Karen – commented:

So….which of you brilliant Gen Y bloggers is going to sit at local park board meetings to find out how they are spending your tax money? Just wondering.

I don’t care whether newspapers live or die. It’s just a medium. (Yes, the singular of “media.”) It may well be it’s an outdated medium. It’s certainly a wasteful, expensive and environmentally harmful medium.

However, when newspapers die (so what? good riddance) the services that newspapers have traditionally supplied – such as serving as watchdogs for even the smallest municipalities, taxing bodies and so on – remain necessary to a functioning democracy. What happens when governments make decisions with no one watching?

And it’s tedious, people. Maybe some of you are experienced with this. Sitting through three-hour meeting of county commissioners, poring through stacks of facts and figures, following up to ask questions, finding alternate points of view – this is time consuming and not a whole lot of fun. When there are no reporters at these meetings, who will do this? Do you think it is no longer necessary? Will citizen journalists spend hours – unpaid – going line by line over the police board’s budget?

Well, according to Frances Bula, one of Vancouver’s finest journalist’s focused on local politics (she used to work at the Vancouver Sun, and now freelances for several publications, including the Globe and Mail) it is us who are covering this “small” stories. In a recent post entitled “When did civic politics get so interesting?” she states:

It’s hard to remember, but in those days, no one cared about city hall. It used to be me and a couple of Chinese-language-media reporters who would hang out in the pews at city council chambers on Tuesdays. When I went to the committee meetings on Thursday, I was usually the only reporter there. People coming to speak to council issues sometimes thought I was the recording secretary. And it was like that for quite a long time. Years and years, really, although Allen Garr started writing for the Courier after a while so then there was, thankfully, one more person.

This week in Vancouver, when city hall was stuffed like a turkey with news — the budget, cracking down on crummy SROs, whether to allow mixed martial arts events, police budgets being wrecked by gang investigations, Councillor Suzanne Anton grilling the mayor like he was a naughty boy about campaign financing — there were as many reporters and outlets covering the events as at any session of the provincial legislature…

…So, even though I now can’t get a seat at the media table these days if I come late to council, and it feels sometimes like everyone is falling over each other to get the latest little tidbit from the city, it’s okay — and even kind of fun — that it’s crowded.

But then this is what Shirly predicted would happen once the we understood the size of the cognitive surplus that is out there…

Journalism in an Open Era (follow up link)

Been getting a number of great comments and emails from people on the post on Journalism in an Open Era.

Another blogger I meant to link to he’s ideas on the future of organizations I find smart, edgy and thoughtful is Umair Haque, the Director of the Havas Media Lab who blogs for the Harvard Business Review.

In a piece entitled How to Build a Next-Generation Business Now, Haque’s concludes that the problem that dragged down wall street is in part, the same one that is killing (or transforming to be nicer) journalism. My journalism in an open era piece is set, in part, on the belief that the gut wrenching changes we are experiencing economically are part of a transition to a new rule-set, one that will favour, and possibility require, more “open” institutions and business models. This will require – in part – a new journalism but also real leadership in the private, public and non-profit sector (the type Henry Mintzberg raged about in his excellent oped in the Globe and Mail).

Here’s Haque (bold and italic text is mine) on the subject:

The first step in building next-generation businesses is to recognize the real problem boardrooms face – that we’ve moved beyond strategy decay. Building next-gen businesses depends on recognizing that they are not about new business models or even new strategies.

The stunningly total meltdown we just witnessed in the investment banking sector – the end of Wall St as we know it – was something far darker and more remarkable. It wasn’t simple business model obsolescence – an old business model being superseded by a more efficient or productive one. The problem the investment banks had wasn’t at the level of business models – it had little to do with revenue streams, customer segmentation, or value propositions.

And neither was it what Gary Hamel has termed “strategy decay” – imitation and commoditization eroding the returns to a once-defensible strategic position, scarce resource, or painstakingly built core competence.

It was something bigger and more vital: institutional decay. Investment banks failed not just as businesses, but as financial institutions that were supposedly built to last. It was ultimately how they were organized and managed as economic institutions – poor incentives, near-total opacity, zero responsibility, absolute myopia – that was the problem. The rot was in their DNA, in their institutional makeup, not in their strategies or business models.

The point is this: the central challenge 21st century boardrooms must face is not reinventing strategies, or business models, but reinventing businesses as institutions.

Old stuff is breaking fast. The rot is in the DNA – we may, in may circumstances, need a new institutional make up. And the new rule sets need to be understood quickly. Are we coming into an Open Era? I don’t know, but I think open and/or transparent organizations are going to have a leg up.

the misguided bottled water debate

The debate over bottled water continues… with those who dislike bottled water continuing to miss the point.

Just over a year ago I wrote this piece on why bottled water haters have it wrong. Today, anti-bottled water activists press on, trying to get municipalities to ban bottled water sales. This quote in the Globe and Mail by Joe Cressy, the Polaris Institute’s drinking-water campaign coordinator again shows the problematic thinking behind the campaign.

“(This) resolution is a resounding victory and the latest indication that bottled water’s 15 minutes are up and the tap is back.”

“In the same way that Coca-Cola doesn’t sell Pepsi in its buildings, we’re very pleased to see the FCM encouraging municipalities not to provide bottled water on city property.”

So three comments on this quote.

First, there are all sorts of other drinks that will continue to be sold on city properties: Coke, Orange Juice, Fruitopia all of which contain a lot more sugar and are generally less healthy for you than… water. Banning water may be seen as a victory, unless it means someone is going to buy something else, something that is less healthy and will increase health costs over the long term.

Second, the line about Coca-Cola not selling pepsi in their building reveals a lot about the flawed logic. Anti-bottle water activists will claim that people should be drinking tap water, not bottled water, because it is just as good. But this usually isn’t why people drink bottled water. People don’t just drink it for the flavour or safety (if they do at all) but because it is convenient. I always drink water from the tap if a restaurant provides me a glass, but what if I want to head out around town? Or am in my car? I’m now essentially being told I should make a less healthy choice – since I can’t buy water, I’ll have to buy pop or juice. Not everyone wants to, or will, carry around a water bottle everywhere they go and fill it up with tap water. Many (if not most) people simply prefer not to. If you try to force them, most will probably end up making a worse choice, like buying a Coke.

Finally, those opposed to bottled water are part of two distinct camps. The first are those who are opposed to someone charging for water under any circumstances. I’ve already noted that people aren’t buying the water, they are buying convenience. The second group of people are those who are concerned about the waste generated by bottled water. I am squarely in this camp – deeply concerned about the environmental impact of these containers. Here, however, we have lots of models that are less radical than an outright ban. Legislating, or simply encouraging, bottled water manufacturers to create a deposit system for their bottles would be a good first start. I suspect that if 100% of water bottles were recycled (as they should be) support for bottled water bans would dry up pretty fast.

Let’s hope a sensible solution for the challenge of bottled water waste emerges. One that doesn’t drive consumers to purchasing the diabetes-inducing sugar drinks that are the real competition.

Lessons from the Globe and Mail's Policy Wiki

I’ve been observing the Globe Policy Wiki with enormous interest. I’m broadly supportive of all of Mathew Ingram’s experiments and efforts to modernize the Globe. That said, my sense is that this project project faces a number of significant challenges. Some from the technology, others around how it is managed. Understanding and cataloging the ups and downs of such this effort is essential. At some point (I suspect in the not too distant future) wikis will make their way into the government’s policy development process – the more we understand the conditions under which they flourish, the more likely such experiments will be undertaken successfully.

Here are some lessons I’ve taken away:

1. The problem of purpose: accuracy vs. effectiveness

Wiki’s are clearly effective at spreading concrete, specific knowledge. Software manuals, best practice lists and Wikipedia works because – more often than not – they seek to share a concrete, objective truth. Indeed “the goal” of Wikipedia is to strive for verifiable accuracy. Consequently, a Wikipedia article on Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi can identify that he was born on October 2nd, 1869. We can argue whether or not this is true, but he was born on a specific day, and people will eventually align around the most accurate answer. Same with a software wiki – a software bug is caused by a specific, verifiable, set of circumstances.  Indeed, because the article is an assemblage of facts its contributors have an easier time pruning or adding to the article.

Indeed, it is where there is debate and subjective interpretation that things become more complicated in Wikipedia. Did George Bush authorize torture? I’ll bet Wikipedia has hosted a heady debate on the subject that, as yet, remains unresolved.

A policy wiki however, lives in this complicated space. This is because the goal of a policy wiki is not accuracy. Policies are are not an assemblage of facts whose accuracy can be debated. A policy is a proposal – an argument – informed by a combination of assumptions, evidence and values. How does one edit an argument? If we share different values, what do I edit? If I have contradictory evidence, what do I change? Can or should one edit a proposal they simply don’t agree with? In Wikipedia or in online software manual the response would be: “Does it make the piece more accurate?” If the answer is yes, the you should.

But with is the parallel guiding criteria for a policy wiki? “Does it make the policy more effective?” Such a question is significantly more open to interpretation. Who defines effective?

It may be that for a policy wiki will only work within communities that share a common goal, or that at least have a common metric for assessing effectiveness. More likely, Wikis in areas such as public policy may require an owner who ultimately acts as an arbiter deciding which edits stand and which edits will get deleted.

2. Combining voting with editing is problematic.

The goal of having people edit and improve a policy proposal runs counter to those of having them vote on a proposal. A wiki is, by definition, dynamic. Voting – or any preference system – implies that what is being voted on is static and unchanging; a final product that different people can assess.  How can a user vote in favour of something if, the next day, if it can be changed into something I may disagree with it? By allowing simultaneously for voting and editing I suspect the wiki discourages both. Voters are unsure if what they are voting for will stay the same, editors were likely wary of changing anything too radically because the voting option suggests proposals shouldn’t change too much – undermining the benefits of the wiki platform.

3. While problematic for editing, the Policy Wiki could be a great way to catalog briefs

One thing that is interesting about the wiki is that anyone can post their ideas. If the primary purpose were to create a catalogue of ideas the policy wiki could be a great success. Indeed, given that people are discouraged from radically altering policy notes this is effectively what the Policy Wiki is (is it still a wiki?). Presently the main obstacle to this success is the layout. The policy briefs currently appear in a linear order based on when they were submitted. This means a reader must scroll through them one by one. There is no categorization or filtering mechanism to help readers find policies they specifically care about. A search feature would enable readers to find briefs with key words. Also, enabling users to “tag” briefs would allow readers to filter the briefs in more useful ways. One could, for example, ask to see briefs tagged “environment,” or “defense” taking you to the content you want to see faster.

Such filtering approaches might distribute readers more accurately based on their interests. In a recent blog post Ingram notes that the Flat Tax briefing note received the most page views. But this should hardly come as a surprise (and probably should not be interpreted as latent interest in a flat tax). The flat tax brief was the first brief on the list. Consequently, casual observers showing up on the site to see what it was all about were probably just clicking on the first brief to get a taste.