Tag Archives: government

The Surveillance State – No Warrant Required

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This, thankfully is a sensible statement.

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

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

 

Public Servants Self-Organizing for Efficiency (and sanity) – Collaborative Management Day

Most of the time, when I engage with or speak to federal public servants, they are among the most eager to find ways to work around the bureaucracy in which they find themselves. They want to make stuff happen, and ideally, to make it happen right and more quickly. This is particularly true of younger public servants and those below middle management in general (I also find it is often the case of those at the senior levels, who often can’t pierce the fog of middle management to see what is actually happening).

I’m sure this dynamic is not new. In large bureaucracies around the world the self-organizing capacity of public servants have forever been in a low level guerrilla conflict against the hierarchies that both protect but also restrain them. What makes all this more interesting today however, is never before have public servants had more independent capacity to self-organize and never before have the tools at their disposal been more powerful.

So, for those who live in work in Ottawa who’d like to learn some of the tools public servants are using to better network and get work done across groups and ministries, let me point you to “Collaborative Management Day 2012.” (For those of us who aren’t public servants, that link, which directs into GCPEDIA won’t work – but I’m confident it will work for insiders). To be clear, it’s the ideas that are batted around at events like this that I believe will shape how the government will work in the coming decades. Much like the boomers created the public service of today in the 1960’s, millennials are starting to figure out how to remake it in a world of networks, and diminished resources.

Good luck guys. We are counting on you.

Details:

When: Wednesday, January 25, 2012 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Where: Canada Aviation and Space Museum, 11 Aviation Parkway, Ottawa, ON or via Webcast

Cost: Free! Seats are limited; registration is required for attendance.

The GCPedia community defines collaboration as being “a recursive process where two or more people or organizations work together in an intersection of common goals—for example, an intellectual endeavour that is creative in nature—by sharing knowledge, learning and building consensus.” And this is exactly what the Collaborative Culture Camp (GOC3) will teach you to achieve at the next Collaborative Management Day on January 25, 2012.

This free event will offer you a day of workshops and learning sessions that will help you:

  • Expand your knowledge and use of collaborative tools and culture
  • Develop an awareness of alternative processes that deliver results
  • Understand how to foster an environment of openness and transparency
  • Develop networks to support the application of new tools

At the end of the day you will be able to bring a collaborative toolkit back to your organization to share with your employees and colleagues!

Keep up to date on the event by keeping an eye on our GCPedia pages and by following us on Twitter (@GOC_3) and watching the #goc3 conversation (no account needed to check out the conversation!).

Questions? Concerns? Feedback? Feel free to email the event organizers or leave a message on our Discussion page on GCPedia.

What I'm Digesting: Good Reads from the First Week of January

Government Procurement is Broken: Example #5,294,702 or “The Government’s $200,000 Useless Android Application” by Rich Jones

This post is actually a few months old, but I stumbled on it again the other day and could help but laugh and cry at the same time. Written by a freelance computer developer, the post traces the discovery of a simply iphone/android app the government paid $200,000 to develop that is both unusable from a user interface perspective and does not actually work.

It’s a classic example of how government procurement is deeply, deeply broken (a subject I promise to write more about soon). Many governments – and the bigger they are, the worse it gets – are incapable of spending small sums of money. Any project, in order to work in their system, must be of a minimum size, and so everything scales up. Indeed simply things are encouraged to become more expensive so that the system can process them. There is another wonderful (by which I mean terrifying) example of this in one of the first couple of chapter of Open Government.

How Governments Try to Block Tor by Roger Dingledine

For those who don’t know what Tor is, it’s “free software and an open network that helps you defend against a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security known as traffic analysis.” Basically, if you are someone who doesn’t want anyone – particularly the government – seeing what websites you visit, you need Tor. I don’t think I need to say how essential this service is, if say, you live China, Iran or Syria or obviously Egypt, Libya, Tunisia or any of the other states still convulsing from the Arab Spring.

The hour and 10 minute long speech is a rip roaring romp through the world of government surveillance. It’s scary than you want to know and very, very real. People die. It’s not pretty but it is incredible. For those of you not technically inclined, don’t be afraid, there is techno-babble you won’t understand but don’t worry, it won’t diminish the experience.

The Coming War on General Computation by Cory Doctorow

Another video, also from the Chaos Communication Conference in Berlin (how did I not know about this conference? pretty much everything I’ve seen out of it has been phenomenal – big congrats to the organizers).

This video is Cory Doctorow basically giving everybody in the Tech World a solid reality check the state of politics and technology. If you are a policy wonk who cares about freedom of choice, industrial policy, copyright, the economy or individual liberty, this strikes video is a must view.

For those who don’t know Cory Doctorow (go follow him on Twitter right now) he is the guy who made Minister Moore look like a complete idiot on copyright reform (I also captured their twitter debate here).

Sadly, the lunacy of the copyright bill is only going to be the beginning of our problems. Watch it here:

Why is Finding a Post Box so Hard?

Sometimes it is the small things that show how government just gets it all so wrong.

Last Thursday The Daily Show’s Wyatt Cenac has a little bit on the US Post Office and its declining fortunes as people move away from mail. There is no doubt that the post offices days are numbered, but that doesn’t mean the decline has to be as steep as it is. Besides there are things they could be doing to make life a little easier to use them (and god knows they should be doing anything they can, to be more appealing).

Take, for example, the humble post office box. They can be frustratingly hard to locate. Consider Broadway and Cambie – one of the busiest intersections in Vancouver – and yet there is no post box at the intersection. (I eventually found it one block east on broadway) but I carried around a letter for 3 weeks before I eventually found one.

In short why is there not digital map (or for techies, and API) for post box locations? I could imagine all sorts of people that might make use of it. Would it be nice to just find out – where is the closest post box to where I’m standing? More importantly, it might actually help the post office attract a few extra customers. It certainly wouldn’t hurt customer service. I’ve wondered for a couple of years why it doesn’t publish this data set.

Turns out I’m not the only with this frustration. My friend Steven Tannock has channeled his frustration into a simple app called Wherepost.ca. It’s a simple website – optimized for mobile phone use – that allows users to add post boxes as well as find the one nearest to them. In short, Steven’s trying to create a public data set of post box locations by crowd sourcing the problem. If Canada Post won’t be helpful… we’ll help one another.

Launched on Thursday with 20 post office box locations, there are now over 400 boxes mapped (mostly in the Vancouver area) with several dozen users contributing. In addition, Steven tells me users in at least 2 other countries have asked for new icons so they can add post boxes where they live. It seems Canadians aren’t the only ones frustrated about not knowing where the nearest post box is.

The ideal, of course, would be for Canada Post to publish an API of all post box locations. I suspect however, that they either don’t actually know where they all are in a digital form (at which point they should really help Steven as he is doing them a huge service) or revealing their location will be seeing as sacrificing some important IP that people should pay for. Remember, this is an organization that refuses to make Postal Code data open, a critical data set for companies, non-profits and governments.

This isn’t the worlds fanciest app but its simplicity is what makes it so great, and so useful. Check it out at WherePost.ca and… of course, add a post box if you see one.

 

 

The State of Open Data 2011

What is the state of the open data movement? Yesterday, during my opening keynote at the Open Government Data Camp (held this year in Warsaw, Poland) I sought to follow up on my talk from last year’s conference. Here’s my take of where we are today (I’ll post/link to a video of the talk as soon as the Open Knowledge Foundation makes it available).

Successes of the Past Year: Crossing the Chasm

1. More Open Data Portals

One of the things that has been amazing to witness in 2011 is the veritable explosion of Open Data portals around the world. Today there are well over 50 government data catalogs with more and more being added. The most notable of these was probably the Kenyan Open Data catalog which shows how far, and wide, the open data movement has grown.

2. Better Understanding and More Demand

The things about all these portals is that they are the result of a larger shift. Specifically, more and more government officials are curious about what open data is. This is not to say that understanding has radically shifted, but many people in government (and in politics) now know the term, believe there is something interesting going on in this space, and want to learn more. Consequently, in a growing number of places there is less and less headwind against us. Rather than screaming from the rooftops, we are increasingly being invited in the front door.

3. More Experimentation

Finally, what’s also exciting is the increased experimentation in the open data space. The number of companies and organizations trying to engage open data users is growing. ScraperWiki, the DataHub, BuzzData, Socrata, Visua.ly, are some of the products and resources that have emerged out of the open data space. And the types of research and projects that are emerging – the tracking of the Icelandic volcano eruptions, the emergence of hacks and hackers, micro projects (like my own Recollect.net) and the research showing that open data could be generating savings of £8.5 million a year to governments in the Greater Manchester area, is deeply encouraging.

The Current State: An Inflection Point

The exciting thing about open data is that increasingly we are helping people – public servants, politicians, business owners and citizens imagine a different future, one that is more open, efficient and engaging. Our impact is still limited, but the journey is still in its early days. More importantly, thanks to success (number 2 above) our role is changing. So what does this mean for the movement right now?

Externally to the movement, the work we are doing is only getting more relevant. We are in an era of institution failure. From the Tea Party to Occupy Wall St. there is a recognition that our institutions no longer sufficiently serve us. Open data can’t solve this problem, but it is part of the solution. The challenge of the old order and the institutions it fostered is that its organizing principle is built around the management (control) of processes, it’s been about the application of the industrial production model to government services. This means it can only move so fast, and because of its strong control orientation, can only allow for so much creativity (and adaption). Open data is about putting the free flow of information at the heart of government – both internally and externally – with the goal of increasing government’s metabolism and decentralizing societies’ capacity to respond to problems. Our role is not obvious to the people in those movements, and we should make it clearer.

Internally to the movement, we have another big challenge. We are at a critical inflection point. For years we have been on the outside, yelling that open data matters. But now we are being invited inside. Some of us want to rush in, keen to make advances, others want to hold back, worried about being co-opted. To succeed, it is essential we must become more skilled at walking this difficult line: engaging with governments and helping them make the right decisions, while not being co-opted or sacrificing our principles. Choosing to not engage would, in my opinion, be to abscond from our responsibility as citizens and open data activists. This is a difficult transition, but it will be made easier if we at least acknowledge it, and support one another in it.

Our Core Challenges: What’s next

Looking across the open data space, my own feeling is that there are three core challenges that are facing the open data movement that threaten to compromise all the successes we’ve currently enjoyed.

1. The Compliance Trap

One key risk for open data is that all our work ends up being framed as a transparency initiative and thus making data available is reduced to being a compliance issue for government departments. If this is how our universe is framed I suspect in 5-10 years governments, eager to save money and cut some services, will choose to cut open data portals as a cost saving initiative.

Our goal is not to become a compliance issue. Our goal is to make governments understand that they are data management organizations and that they need to manage their data assets with the same rigour with which they manage physical assets like roads and bridges. We are as much about data governance as we are open data. This means we need to have a vision for government, one where data becomes a layer of the government architecture. Our goal is to make data platform one that not only citizens outside of government can build on, but one that government reconstructs its policy apparatus as well as its IT systems at top of. Achieving this will ensure that open data gets hardwired right into government and so cannot be easily shut down.

2. Data Schemas

This year, in the lead up to the Open Data Camp, the Open Knowledge Foundation created a map of open data portals from around the world. This was fun to look at, and I think should be the last time we do it.

We are getting to a point where the number of data portals is becoming less and less relevant. Getting more portals isn’t going to enable open data to scale more. What is going to allow us to scale is establishing common schemas for data sets that enable them to work across jurisdictions. The single most widely used open government data set is transit data, which because it has been standardized by the GTFS is available across hundreds of jurisdictions. This standardization has not only put the data into google maps (generating millions of uses everyday) but has also led to an explosion of transit apps around the world. Common standards will let us scale. We cannot forget this.

So let’s stop mapping open data portals, and start mapping datasets that adhere to common schemas. Given that open data is increasingly looked upon favourably by governments, creating these schemas is, I believe, now the central challenge to the open data movement.

3. Broadening the Movement

I’m impressed by the hundreds and hundreds of people here at the Open Data Camp in Warsaw. It is fun to be able to recognize so many of the faces here, the problem is that I can recognize too many of them. We need to grow this movement. There is a risk that we will become complacent, that we’ll enjoy the movement we’ve created and, more importantly, our roles within it. If that happens we are in trouble. Despite our successes we are far from reaching critical mass.

The simple question I have for us is: Where is the United Way, Google, Microsoft, the Salvation Army, Oxfam, and Greenpeace? We’ll know were are making progress when companies – large and small – as well as non-profits – start understanding how open government data can change their world for the better and so want to help us advance the cause.

Each of us needs to go out and start engaging these types of organizations and helping them see this new world and the potential it creates for them to make money or advance their own issues. The more we can embed ourselves into other’s networks, the more allies we will recruit and the stronger we will be.

 

Brain Candy – Great Quotes from Yesterday

I’m in San Francisco to co-chair the Code for America Summit this week, so lots going on, and some deep blog posts in the works. But first. Fun! Here are some of my favourite quotes I stumbled upon or heard in the last 24 hours.

“The 4-Hour Body” reads as if The New England Journal of Medicine had been hijacked by the editors of the SkyMall catalog.

Dwight Garner, in the New York Times review of the Four Hour Body by Timothy Ferriss

The entire review is pure genius. Definitely worth reading.

But more quotes await!

“Micro-managing isn’t that third thing that Amazon does better than us, by the way. I mean, yeah, they micro-manage really well, but I wouldn’t list it as a strength or anything. I’m just trying to set the context here, to help you understand what happened. We’re talking about a guy [Jeff Bezos] who in all seriousness has said on many public occasions that people should be paying him to work at Amazon. He hands out little yellow stickies with his name on them, reminding people “who runs the company” when they disagree with him. The guy is a regular… well, Steve Jobs, I guess. Except without the fashion or design sense. Bezos is super smart; don’t get me wrong. He just makes ordinary control freaks look like stoned hippies.”

Steve Yegge in a now no longer public but still accessible assessment of why Google doesn’t get platforms.

The broader read is fantastic, but this quote – mentioned to me by a friend – I thought was both fun and insightful. There is something to be said for super obsessive bosses. They care about their business. It is worth noting that both Jobs and Bezos founded their companies. A lot of other companies could do with this kind of love and attention – even if, in high doses, it can be totally toxic. It’s a fascinating tension.

So yes, tech and the four hour work week? I must be proximity to the valley… so let’s get away from that.

How about #occupywallst? There is a very interesting analysis of the data behind the We are the 99% tumblr feed over at rortybomb, definitely worth a read. But I was really struck by this quote about the nature of the demands:

The people in the tumblr aren’t demanding to bring democracy into the workplace via large-scale unionization, much less shorter work days and more pay.  They aren’t talking the language of mid-twentieth century liberalism, where everyone puts on blindfolds and cuts slices of pie to share.  The 99% looks too beaten down to demand anything as grand as “fairness” in their distribution of the economy.  There’s no calls for some sort of post-industrial personal fulfillment in their labor – very few even invoke the idea that a job should “mean something.”  It’s straight out of antiquity – free us from the bondage of our debts and give us a basic ability to survive.

Ooph. Now that is depressing. But check out his concluding remark.

We have piecemeal, leaky versions of each of these in our current liberal social safety net.  Having collated all these responses, I think completing these projects should be the ultimate goal of the 99%

This is what really strikes me. Here you have a welfare state that isn’t even that big by Western standards but is still not trivial in the resources it consumes, and yet it delivers a pretty crappy outcome to a huge number of citizens. It may be that enough funding from the wealthy restores that system and makes it work. But the financial crises in Europe would seem to suggest otherwise. For many, especially in America, the status quo is unacceptable, and the ability to go back may no longer exist. So until we start thinking about what the future looks like, one free of the systems of the past, we’re probably in trouble.

But any effort here is going to run into a pretty serious brick wall when it comes to coalition building. Consider this amazing line from this Change.org petition:

Rhee uses Change.org to post deceptively worded petitions with such titles as: “Join the Fight to Save Great Teachers” and “Pay Effective Teachers What They Deserve.” When you delve into it, she’s working to weaken unions and institute merit pay for teachers. These are insidious, corporate, anti-progressive reforms. Change.org should not be participating in Rhee’s union busting.

Merit pay is an insidious, corporate, anti-progressive reform? You have to be pretty far out on the left to believe that. Indeed, the notion of merit sat at the heart of the progressive revolution. Now I’m no fan of Rhee, but I’m also a believer that good work should be rewarded and, well, bad work should be punished. That isn’t saying your pay should be linked to test scores, but it also doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be linked to nothing other than tenure. If that is union busting, then the progressive movement it totally dead. This is why I think progressive reform is stopped dead in its tracks. The traditional left wants to defend the status quo of government (while happily attacking the equally problematic status quo of wall st.) while I suspect others, many of whom are sympathetic to the #occupywallst message, are actually equally uncomfortable with the status quo in both the public and private sphere.

This is bad news for those of us who don’t want to return to the Gilded Age. There may not be a coalition that can counter the conservatives on the left and the right. Maybe there needs to be a collapse of this complex system before there can be a rebuilding. It’s a pretty depressing and sobering thought.

Okay. so, you got suckered in by a few fun quotes only to find yourself in the serious world of protest politics. Sorry about that, but that’s the kind of technology fueled, politically driven 24 hours its been.

Hope to see you tomorrow…

Neo-Progressive Watch: Rahm Emanuel vs. Teachers Union

Anyone who read Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope will have been struck with the amount of time the then aspiring presidential candidate spent writing about public education policy. More notably, he seemed to acknowledge that any effort at education reform was, at some point, going to butt heads with teachers unions and that new approaches were either going to have to be negotiated or imposed. It was a point of tension that wasn’t much talked about in the reviews I read. But it always struck me as interesting that here was Obama, a next generation progressive, railing against the conservatism of what is possible the original pillar of the progressive movement: public education.

All of this has, of course, been decidedly forgotten given both the bigger problems the president has faced and by the fact that he’s been basically disinterested in monkeying around in public education policy since taking office. That’s why it is still more fascinating to see what his disciples are doing as they get involved in levels of government that are in more direct contact with this policy area. Here, none is more interesting to watch than Rahm Emanuel.

This Saturday my friend Amy L. pointed me to a New York Times article outlining the most recent battle between Rahm Emanuel and the teacher’s union. My own take is that the specifics of the article are irrelevant, what matters is the broad theme. In short, Rahm Emanuel is on a short timeline. He needs to produce results immediately since local elections both happen more frequently and one is much, much closer to the citizen. That said, he doesn’t have to deliver uniform results, progress, in of itself may be sufficient. Indeed, a little experimentation is profoundly good given it can tease out faster and cheaper ways to deliver said results.

In contrast, the teacher’s union faces few of the pressures experienced by Rahm. It can afford to move at a slower pace and, more importantly, wants a uniform level of treatment across the entire system. Indeed, its entire structure is built around the guarantee of uniform treatment for its members. This uniformity is a value that evolved parallel to but not of progressive thinking. It is an artifact of industrial production that gets confused with progressive thought because of the common temporal lineage.

This skirmish offers a window into the major battle that is going to dominate the our politics in about a decade. I increasingly suspect we are moving into a world where the possibilities for education, thanks to the web and social networks, is going to be completely altered. What we deem is possible, what parents demand, and the skills that are seen as essential, are all going to shift. Our educational system, its schools, the school boards and, of course, the unions, are still bound in a world of mass production – shifting students from room to room to prepare them for the labour and production jobs of the 20th century. No matter how gifted the teachers (and there are many who are exceedingly gifted) they remain bound by the structure of the system the education system, the school boards, and the unions, have built and enforce.

Of course, what is going to be in demand are students that can thrive in the world of mass collaboration and peer production in the 21st century -behaviours that are generally viewed as “cheating” in the current model. And parents who are successful in 21st century jobs are going to be the first to ensure their children get the “right” kind of education. Which is going to put them at odds with the current education system.

This is all this is to say that the real question crisis is: how quickly will educational systems be able to adapt? Here both the school boards and the unions play an enormous role, but it is the unions that, it would appear, may be a constraining factor. If they find that having Rahm engage schools directly feels like a threat, I suspect they are going to find the next 20 years a rough, rough ride. Something akin to how the newspapers have felt regarding the arrival of the internet and craigslist.

What terrifies me most, is that unless we can devise a system where teachers are measured and so good results can be both rewarded and shared… and where parents and students have more choices around education, then families (that can afford to) are going to vote with their feet. In fact, you already see it in my home town.

The myth in Vancouver is that high property values are driving families – and thus children – out of the city. But this is patently not true. The fantastic guys over at Bing Thom Architects wrote a report on student populations in Vancouver. According to their research, in the last 10 years the estimated number of elementary and secondary aged children in Vancouver has risen by 3% (around 2,513 new students). And yet, the number of students enrolled in public education facilities has declined by 5.46%. (around 3,092 students). In fact, the Vancouver School Boards numbers seem to indicate the decline may be more pronounced.

In the meantime the number of private/independent schools has exploded by 43% going from 39 to 68 with enrollment increases of 13.8%. (Yes that does leave a surplus of students unaccounted for, I suspect they are also in private/independent schools, but outside of the City of Vancouver’s boundaries). As a public school graduate myself, one who had truly fantastic teachers but who also benefited from enormous choice (IB, French Immersion) the numbers of the past decade are very interesting to immerse oneself in.

Correct or incorrect, it would seem parents are opting for schools that offer a range of choices around education. Of course, it is only the parents who can afford to do this that are doing it. But that makes the outcome worse, not better. With or without the unions, education is going to get radically rethought. It would be nice if it was the public sector that lead that revolution, or at least was on the vanguard of it. But if our public sector managers and teachers are caught arguing over how to adjust the status quo by increments, it is hard to see how our education policy is going to make a quantum leap into the 21st century.