2015-02-05 00:36:21

YouTube and the Keystone XL Pipeline Controversy

Tags: | Comments (0) YouTube and the Keystone XL Pipeline Controversy
Yes. You should read the YouTube comments. (But maybe not all of them.)

I haven't been blogging much here or anywhere, unfortunately. That's mostly because I have been working on my dissertation and publishing a few papers.

If you have an interest in the role that the Internet plays in our democracies, I really hope you would consider reading my paper on YouTube comments and the Keystone XL Pipeline.

I have a few more things to say about it and other research on my other blog as well.

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2013-12-13 19:18:15

Public Libraries and the Difference Between Important and Urgent

Tags: public libraries, city pride, public policy, positive thinking, public administration | Comments (0) Public Libraries and the Difference Between Important and Urgent
Public Librarians have a way of being self-effacing. In general, they understand that unlike Engineers, Doctors and Lawyers, most of their daily interactions are not life or death scenarios. But there is another way to see things.

"Putting out fires" is among the most frequently used terms of speech in offices these days. It refers to the penchant by many managers to be caught up in minor disasters that generally distract people away from important work. This scenario sits in stark contrast to real "putting out fires" done by firefighters. It will be a rare occassion where someone will undervalue the work that the firefighter does in keeping us safe during an emergency. The same for police, doctors, lawyers, military, search and rescue teams and so on. These heros see us in our most desperate times, when a failure to act quickly, soberly, and with compassion often means disaster for us.

In the midst of these various services are the public librarians and library workers. They aren't running through disaster zones to save the day. Only rarely do they stand out in the public fora to defend people against social injustice. The scope of their work is usually confined to a small local area. The budgets they manage are not often enormous. While they do play a role in the economy, they do not bring in mass revenues for governments. As I argued before finding the "great" librarian is a pretty difficult task. For instance, try this experiment: think of your favorite librarian. If you can't think of one, try Melvil Dewey or Nancy Pearl. Then think of famous names from any other profession. Then do a search for each of them in Wikipedia. Cut-and-paste each article into your favorite wordprocessing program and compare the number of words. With only a few exceptions (eg. Casanova who is better known as a great lover than as a librarian), much, much more will be written about the non-librarian than the librarian. Librarians are not a focal point for public policy. For many non-users, they barely exist. Indeed, this uneviable trait makes libraries targets for budget cuts, and librarians a target for public derision and mockery.

In reality, librarians are essential _because_ they do not "put out fires." Even though I've moved out of the public library world and into the world of studing public policy, I am having more appreciation for the fact that libraries barely capture public attention. While other professions spend taxpayers dollars "putting out fires" once in a while, garnering mass public attention, libraries --when they are doing it well-- quietly do the important work of helping people build lives, through their communities, and by bring people together. 

So here's a shout-out to my colleagues out at the Halifax Public Libraries as they help the community spark new ideas through Podcamp Halifax.

What quiet, mundane, excellent things is your library doing to build lives?


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2013-12-05 16:42:00

Festivus is here, so Here am I Airing My Grievance

Tags: equality, positive thinking, restorative practices | Comments (0) Festivus is here, so Here am I Airing My Grievance
Yes yes yes I get it. Inequality, racism, sexism etc. But who really has the grievance? The privileged white person who tries and fails to make the world a better place, or the privileged white person sharing all things socially liberal and doing nothing?

I definitely go on too much about how great I think Podcamp Halifax is. But since 2009 there was always one thing that no matter how hard I tried, and no matter how good my intentions, I always seemed to fail: diversity. For these years, I have really never complained too much about it, but it's Festivus. I am going to use the privilege of the season to raise an issue.

After the first podcamp, we had some good friends of mine ask for feedback from the participants. There were a variety of comments, both critical and praising and I believe all the comments really helped build what podcamp became over the next five years. Even, perhaps, the one that I am going to complain about today. But anyway, a young woman came out from the audience and asked us who we invited to the podcamp. The response from the facilitators was "well, we basically promoted mostly from the Internet." And then the person came out with "well, you should look at your marketing. This place is pretty white."

Now, I suppose you want me to say that the comment hurt, or that I began to feel defensive, or maybe even that I had a revelation. But in reality, the reaction I actually had was annoyance. And I can hear a good many people in my Facebook and Twitter feed say "Good. The truth hurts. You needed to hear that, so get over it and move on. It's not like you have to live with racism/sexism/homophobia every day." And of course, they would be right. But this is my opportunity to air my grievances, so I will air them.

There are other truths -- my truths -- about this story. In fact, diversity at Podcamp was a personal goal of mine. I *did* send emails and make phonecalls to a variety of diverse community groups, inviting them to join in on Podcamp. It didn't work out.  The community groups for whatever reason -- possibly because of some clueless, racist behavior on my part -- chose not to show up. But the truth is that I *tried* to bring diversity to our program. Tried and failed.

I sold the Podcamp idea to my mentors and leaders -- most of whom were women. I could not promote the many women leaders who made podcamp a reality enough. But somehow, it was all a failure. The keystones of Podcamp for as many as five years have been women - but when I went to show them off for how great they are, they declined.

I used to sing at funerals, so I understand about the dynamics of a family tragedy. There is always one person involved we call the "California cousin." This is the person who had no time for the deceased while they were alive, but all of the sudden the funeral's on and they want to be involved. They criticise everything. They want to do the eulogy, or have some dramatic outburst of emotion while the casket is lowered into the ground. Meanwhile, the people who are hurting the most - who spent the long hours visiting the person while they were sick and dealt with the many annoying details involved in announcing, organizing, and planning a funeral - spend their time hearing how wrong they did everything. That's the source of my annoyance. The rude quip I could have said to the young woman was "oh yeah, and how many people of colour did YOU invite to the event?" But of course, that is offensive to people of colour, so I clammed up, accepted the criticism for what it was and tried better the next year.

And there's no doubt that I've effed up a number more times. For example, I was so enthusiastic about having an amazingly knowledgable and engaging speaker who-just-happened-to-be-black, that I ended up making him feel like he was the token black guy at Podcamp. He was in a way, because yet again, despite my efforts, diversity was not a thing you could attribute to podcamp. But he was (and is) an AWESOME token black guy. Which is an oxymoron of course.

Then I asked someone to do a podcamp talk in Arabic. The speaker was amazing, and I know the presentation was going to be amazing. I spent so much time engaging community groups to get an audience out for this, and I was sooooo excited about it. Then no one showed up. The presenter was really disappointed. I still owe him a coffee or lunch, but that's another story.

So the more I hear about sexism, racism, xenophobia and class struggle from predominantly white middle class men and women, the more I get annoyed. It's not because I deny that sexism and racism exist, but because I know there are many many many people of all colours, shapes and sizes, struggling yet failing to fight -- really fight -- these things without ever bothering to mention it. They live in a world of complexity - knowing that their activities, no matter how well intended, are more likely to fail than they are to succeed. But if they keep on trying, maybe -- just maybe -- the world will be a better place.

Compare this to the countless number of people engaged in diversity slacktism -- making all kinds of accusations of people they barely know, claiming that they are "fighting sexism/racism/patriarchy/whatever" simply because they stick it on their Facebook profile, refusing to hear other ways of seeing the problem, ignoring counterfactuals, not really thinking about how to bring about a non-racism/patriarchal/sexist/xenophobic society in a difficult, complex world, and not really accepting the possibility that policies to counteract a sexist/racist/patriarchal/whatever society could make things worse for the very people that are supposed to be helped. If it's the choice between appearing racist because I challenge these people to examine their assumptions more closely while doing my darndest to change the things I can change, or joining in on a slacktivist movement to create lots of drama while doing pretty much nothing, then I will appear racist/sexist/bull-headed/right-wing/whatever.

So, in the spirit of solutions, here's what I suggest. Next time to you see an Upworthy video on your favorite topic, consider instead:

  • Offering encouragement to someone who really needs it.
  • Take an action on behalf of your cause -- and risk looking like a jerk/ass because of it.
  • Remembering Hanlon's law -- "Never assume malice on anything that can easily be explained by incompetence." Most public gaffes occur because of incompetence and stupidity, not [insert favorite evil here].
  • Inverse the very common trend of "I am a ... [anti-racist, tea-partier, conservative, feminist, liberal, libertarian, environmentalist] therefore, I think [insert opinion here]" and work the other way around: "I think [insert opinion here] and therefore, that makes me a [anti-racist etc.]."
  • Invite someone different out for coffee for a change.
  • If you are a woman, person of colour etc. and someone offers you a compliment or an opportunity -- point out the inherent sexism/racism etc. if you wish -- but TAKE the opportunity and rock it. You earned it and deserve it. On the very tiny miniscule few times a door opens on the glass ceiling, this world needs to see people rush through them as if it were a Black Friday sale. There are no bigger tragedies than when doors open and no one walks through.

And with that, may everyone have a happy Festivus. I think I will now go move some furniture around as my feat of strength.  :)



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2013-09-17 17:24:00

The One Phrase Every Reginian Needs to Learn

Tags: public sector, government, economics, fiscal federalism, protests | Comments (2) The One Phrase Every Reginian Needs to Learn
Rent-seeking is something that everyone does. We all want more where we stand. But sometimes doing what's in our nature can mean poor results for everyone collectively. Like voting in referenda.

As we head towards voting in the Waste Water referendum, I think it's important to introduce Regina to a familiar term in economics: rent-seeking.

In economicky terms, rent-seeking means collecting value in excess of the opportunity costs associated with doing the next best alternative. In laymens terms, it means finding a way to get more earnings from where you are standing. If you are doing a business, you are doing it probably because all of your other ideas for making a profit (eg. getting a job in the public service) are less good than what you have now. But now you are doing the business, you want to find ways to grow that business and make more money. On the other hand, if you have and enjoy that job in the public service, you also want to find ways to earn money. Maybe it's through promotion or working with a union to increase your wages. Either way, it's rent-seeking.

Now, there's nothing wrong with rent-seeking per se. It depends on how it happens. If you find a way to take profit share away from your competitors, say by producing a less expensive widget, then everyone benefits. You make more money, and the public gets cheaper widgets. Same for the public employee. If you make kick-ass policy, or produce awesome public services, that brings people to the city which expands the city's tax base -- that'll have mayors begging to keep you on. That's all good. Everyone benefits - better services are better for everyone.

But when you talk about something like the Waste Water issue, there is a problem with rent-seeking, and if you want more details you could go to Robert Tollison . Tollison distinguishes between "natural" rent-seeking (the kind we discussed above) and "artificial" rent-seeking. The latter, for which the case of Regina's waste water plays a role, has a social cost. It makes us all worse off.

When governments offer monopolies to individual companies with tax payers dollars, rent-seeking behaviour begins to cost us all. This works for public, P3, and solely private monopolies. That's right, its not the "corporations" or the "unions" or anyone in particular - it's all of the above. But back to this later.

Looking at the P3 versus the public option, I can only come to the conclusion that "it depends." While both sides argue that their option will cost less, at the end of the day, most of the decisions around cost will depend on a variety of factors running from the size of the contract, the terms of the contract, the level of risk associated with the activity, the quality and availability of labor (private or public), the funding strategy, the structures of the organizations (the private and public), the city's ability to manage a contract, the degree to which a solid reputation matters to the private organization's brand and so on. All of these things are issues for which we cannot know all the details. We know the private partner in the P3 situation will _say_ that their reputation is important, but there is no way to know for sure.

On the other hand, the public side is also difficult to understand. Of course, company profits do increase the costs to the tax payer, but those profits have the potential to be applied to other business or consumption activities which in turn can create jobs and improve the lives of some people (not necessarily Reginians, but perhaps in the end, Reginians too), and this in turn could improve the tax base that would be used to improve public services. The question of whether money is better spent by government or private industry is one for the ages. At the end of the day, there is no clear way for the layperson to decide which way to go on this issue.

Waste water treatment is not a particularly good issue to host a referendum on. Only those who have a particular interest in the issue (I would suggest, unions and people tied to the private company set to manage the system) are likely to have a strong opinion one way or the other. The rest of us know that it barely matters which way Regina goes on this one. It only matters in the distribution of the pie sense. P3 will mean fewer public sector jobs. Public will mean fewer private sector jobs. The difference in cost between the two, if there is one, is not likely to matter, except in a "I told you so" sense. If climate change causes severe damage to the system, then the city will have done well to go P3. If not, we probably could have saved some money sticking private. But that's all just Nostrodamus kind of policy. We cannot predict the future. Even worse, we do not know what we do not know - there could be a factor that no one ever thought of. Maybe someone invents the 100% compostable toilet that's attractive enough to citizens that we stop using water to deal with our sewage.

But we do know that "artificial" rent-seeking has serious social costs. How? Well, it works like this. Rent-seekers want access to the taxpayers dollars, and having a monopoly on the development of waste-water treatment is an awesome cash-cow for rent-seekers of all political stripes. Let's just say that this monopoly is worth 1 million dollars to a business over 50 years of the contract. (These numbers are made up. It doesn't really matter what the profit is at this point.) Businesses lobby governments to have access to these monopoly contracts. It's not evil behaviour - it's what businesses must do to survive. But of course, these businesses have competitors. Those businesses want some access too, so they hire marketers and lobbyists and lawyers to gain access. If this was just a natural 1 million dollar market, the businesses would spend collectively up to 1 million dollars to have access to this market. In the case of a government "artificial" market, it's all or nothing. The businesses will spend much more collectively - up to 1 million dollars each - to access the monopoly. But that's not all. We will have people who will spend their time engaging in campaigns to prevent the monopoly whole hog. They will spend the money too. They will take time to get people to sign petitions. They will force referenda. This process will in turn have us spending even more time, energy and money just simply to make a decision that barely matters in the grand scheme of things.

Of course, all of this spending is not a problem if there is some overall benefit to society. If this was just a natural market, those groups competing for the money would provide a benefit to the public in terms of reduced costs, increased innovation and so on. But instead, all the money and time all of these people spend trying to get us to vote "yes" or "no" on a referendum that most of us will not bother attending is sunk into the ether. Don't get me wrong, I love democracy. But this is not democracy -- it's mass stupidity, caused by poor policy.

So who's at fault? Well, placing the blame on one side or the other is besides the point. Both sides are acting exactly as we should expect them to. The problem is simply poor policy on a wide number of levels. Here's what I think are the antecedents of this horribly wasteful behaviour.

  • - Referenda do not equal democracy: "It's your tax dollars." We hear. We should all take up our responsibility and be engaged in public issues. Yes, I agree. But part of the reason we pay tax dollars is that we do not want to have to manage these problems ourselves. Like we hire carpenters to fix our kitchen cupboards, because we sucked at wood shop, we hire public servants for a reason. That's to make decisions on our behalf in as fair, efficient and effective way as possible.
  • - The federal government should have read a little more about the history of public transfers in Canada before they introduced this funding to support P3 ventures. Using the federal spending power in this way encourages "artificial" rent-seeking and whatever you think about P3s, is the source of this waste. Working with the provinces to offer income tax breaks would be a much better approach to expand the private sector. Of course, that would mean showing up to first minister conferences and the like.
  • - Mandatory Referendum policies for petitions, though often seen as a way of engaging the population in their government are really bad ideas. In the end, the "taxpayer" only ends up spending their taxpayers dollars to have more say on their taxes. There are other ways to engage the government on tax spending. Elections are the most obvious one. But there are more.
  • - The City of Regina needs to examine its capacity for deliberation on issues of public interest. There are a wide number of ways to have meaningful discussions about controversial problems. Deliberative polling is but one example.
  • The level of mistrust I perceive in this city is outrageous and damaging. The horrible rhetoric I hear of people accusing the other side of all kinds of nonsense is off the scale compared to other cities I've been to. Seriously people, you need to get over yourselves. The world will not end if the other side gets what they want. Take a chill pill and run for the next election if you are so unhappy. My guess is that, if you are so lucky and skilled to become a member of council, you will learn the challenges of having to come to a decision on such things as waste water treatment. Most of the people I know on council are upstanding folks who want to do what's best for the chosen city.

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2013-06-05 18:41:11

Tedx Regina - Reflections and Other

Tags: | Comments (0) Tedx Regina - Reflections and Other

Yesterday was the wonder TedxRegina. I was provided with a great opportunity to speak on something I am passionate about (Social Networks and Public Policy), and for this I am very thankful. But more important, I got to hear a whole bunch of amazing ideas from other speakers.

Children seemed to be a theme this year, as June Zimmer spoke about engaging young women in sports, Corinne Miller spoke about teaching young people using strengths instead of structure, Meka Okochi talked about how to impress girls at school without electricity and Stephen Hall talked about doing less to encourage kids to be created. Even I seemed to want to do the kids things as I grabbed some tinker toys to help illustrate how social networks form.  :)

The other broad topic appeared to be about using what you have to make good in the world. Brent Watson showed how he used his amazing programming prowess and scientific know-how to wade through a health issue labyrinthe. Jacqueline Tisher offered a very touching and heartwarming story about how her daughter inspired so many people regardless of the many challenges she faced dealing with Spina Bifida. Finally there was David Oswell Mitchell, whose talk still sticks with me. Basically, it was a talk offering strategies on how to be an effective activist and protester without being a dick about it.

I am definitely not doing justice to all of these talk, so I encourage you to check them out when they are available on the tedxregina Website. I would love any feedback anyone has on my talk, especially since I am going to feel quite challenged watching the talk myself (too self-critical to dare). Overall it was a great time, and I was so happy to meet a whole bunch of very interesting and inspiring people during the networking break and after-party. To keep the fun coming, I hope to be able to attend the YQRBarcamp on Saturday June the 8th as well.

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2013-04-12 20:14:00

Judges Without the Burden of Judgement

Tags: rape culture, public policy, education policy, judgement, hypocracy, responsibility, crime, justice, equality, bullying, restorative practices | Comments (0) Judges Without the Burden of Judgement
A lesson in cowardice and justice.

Since Gandhi and Einstein get the credit for all great quotes, I am going to add one more: Judges who bear no burden for their decisions are cowards.

Before I go further into the philosophy behind that quote (now attributed posthumously to some great minds) let me tell you a story. The front page showed a young man walking into a court room after having committed probably one of the most horrific crimes I had ever heard of. I was working the front desk of a community library at that time, and had a number of circulation clerks working with me. We all talked about the usual things - what kind of parents did that boy have? why didn't his parents teach him right from wrong? He'll get it good in jail if the law works the way it should. We had all the answers we did.

Then a woman walked in looking for help to use the photocopier. She was pretty open about why: "Yeah, that's my kid on the front page. I am collecting as much information as I can to help his case." After a number of casual conversations over the course of a few months, I knew more about the media, perspectives and the law. This woman knew right from wrong. She didn't keep these values away from him, nor could I really suggest she was neglectful. We didn't need to tell her that her son did a bad thing. She didn't even disagree that he needed a punishment according to the law. She was merely doing her job as a parent. Taking responsibility for the actions of her child. Supporting him through the crime and punishment process, hoping to instill a sense of awareness about what went wrong, who was affected and what needs to happen to make things right. She couldn't force her son to be rehabilitated, but nor did she ignore her responsiblity to do everything in her power to try.

Now that I am a parent, I realize the wisdom in another quote to whom I will also attribute to Gandhi and Einstein (but promise to correct myself if someone can remind me who this was): "I was a great parent up until the point that I had kids." Having a child -- boy or girl -- is like training a tight-rope walker. You can do everything right, but that still does no remove all probability that he or she may fall.  Yes, you can greatly decrease the chances by doing your job as a trainer, but you can't remove all chances. And, well, doing everything right is not even a reasonable goal. We all have our vices and blindspots.

But the one thing I can say for that parent of a notorious torturer and murderer is that, unlike those of us who are quick to outrage and quick to judge and quick to cry "punish," she bore the burden of her judgements the best that she could. Crying for her son, but also for the victim and victims family. Crying for herself in shame at times. But standing with courage against those who would judge her without criticism or excuses.

Now when we consider the institutions of law in Canada and elsewhere, I urge people to consider how the judge never wins. Those for whom she judges in favor consider truth and justice to be on their side. Those who lose think the process is unfair, the judge has been biased and that justice is a sham. Few who think this way or that bear the burden of realizing that their judgement will adversely affect some while getting no credit from others. This is not a sob-story for judges. Instead, it means that the judge has an incentive to be as fair as she can, to look at evidence in detail despite her biases, and to take the time she needs to make the right decision. She has a responsibility to do that because the public good depends on her ability to do so fairly. Because, even if the perpetrator did it, and is a nefarious monster, justice requires that evidence decides this -- not conjecture, not opinion, not feminism or anti-feminism, not anarchy, or socialism or even democracy.

I just thought I'd bring that thought to the table. We all make judgements. But do we actually bear the weight of how those judgements affect others? This is a question I'd like to ask for every person that sent a photograph of Rataeah Parsons to their friends and called her a "slut." I'd also like to ask the same of those who, without any real knowledge of the story, scream "justice" without realizing what happened, who is affected and what, if anything, can be done to make things right.

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2013-01-29 19:30:00

Podcamp Halifax 2013 and in the past...

Tags: presentations, social media, public policy, community development, marketing, positive thinking | Comments (0) Podcamp Halifax 2013 and in the past...
After five years of Podcamp Halifax, you'd think we'd be out of things to say. Well, not so. Podcamp Halifax is going strong and yet again I've learned a tonne from a great group of community-minded techy folks.

Last Sunday, I went to one of my favorite events, podcamphalifax.ca. Every time I mention it, people say "What's a Podcamp?" To be honest, I'm a little tired of explaining it. How about:

  • It's something that has sold out in all five years it has been held.
  • You get tonnes of value for a very low price of absolutely nothing.
  • Every year we ask "how many people are new this year?" and 50% of the audience put their hands up.
  • It's a sort of conference on social media.
  • Anyone is allowed to present.
  • The "Law of Two Feet" ("If you are in a place where you are neither learning from nor contributing to a discussion, use your two feet and go somewhere where you can") guides the whole process.
  • Just look at the sessions, and judge for yourself if it is worthwhile.

I am going to talk about highlights, but now that it's gone on for 5-some years it's like some themes have emerged over time. It's funny because these are not themes that the organizers chose (for the first three years, I was an organizer), but instead these are what came out from the community.

Podcamp 2009 - "Social Media is here, what are we going to do about it?"

Andrew Baron creator of Rocketboom gave what I consider the perfect talk for the audience at that time. I've never seen a presenter read an audience so well - it was like he knew exactly where we were at as a city, and what we needed to know to make the city better. I still consider him a hero.

He spoke about the culture of the Internet and how important it is to understand that culture if you want to attempt to make an audience for yourself. I still take themes from what Andrew said and bring them to my own talks. So many people hear about the advantages of social media as if it were minerals in the ground waiting to be "mined." (Take the jargon of "data mining" as an example.) It's not. You do not "get something" from social media and make money from it. Not for long anyway. No, if you want to "get something" you have to give. Social media is about connection, conversations and culture.

Another highlight was Joel Kelly's "Unfriend Someone Today." Where he basically showed everyone how to unfriend people on facebook, sparking a discussion on privacy, online behavior, and so on. It was amazing to see business people, students, teenagers, and parents all discussing such a really important and wide-ranging topic. It really showed me that the podcamp idea was really going to work.

Podcamp 2010 -- "Ipad are going to change our lives."

It was so cool. McLean Greaves scooped the launch of the iPad for us, 3 days before Steven Jobs announced it. Rene Ross / Firecatkitty
talked about social media and its impact on sex work, opening our eyes to a variety of issues that maybe we hadn't thought of.  Online tools have impacted marginalized people too, although we are too often not as aware of it as we should be.

Podcamp 2011 -- "You can turn a social media negative into a positive with a single tweet."

Podcamp 2011 was the year when our "sell-out" timeframe went from 1-2 weeks to 1-24 hours. And the number of "tickets" made available went from 350 to 450 as well.

Probably the coolest thing about 2011 occurred when Bessy Nicholau, Kevin McCann, and Carman Pirie  talked about the impact of social media on business with a Twitter wall behind them. I can't remember who, but someone asked whether social media really worked for small business. Bessy told a story about not liking the pancakes at Cora's and someone in the audience who tweeted for Cora's tweeted "hey! our pancakes are awesome!" for everyone in the audience (and online) to see. It was about as poignant as you can get. The account quickly added that anyone who mentions podcamp halifax at the Cora's that year would get a free smoothie with their meal. In short, yes social media is good for small business. With the right opportunity and a quick 140-character draw, that account earned 300+ potential customers for her client.

Podcamp 2012 -- "The Year I Wasn't There."

As much as I considered podcamp to be my baby, it's pretty obvious that with great people like Craig Moore, the folks at the Halifax Hub and SayHiThere alumni now turned to MT&L web gurus like Ian, I am pretty much replaceable as a podcamp organizer. But they did have Julien Smith that year and all reports are that it went well.

Podcamp 2013 -- "Government is coming onside with social media."

I managed to make it to Halifax this year, and it seems like the big theme is that Government is coming onside with social media. We had the Halifax Regional Municipality involved this year, and both Giles Crouch and I reported that social media is becoming a very important tool to influence public opinion. As I spend the next years finishing a thesis that will look at the impact of social media in education policy social networks (online and off), I will be looking forward to what raises eyebrows online.

In short, podcamp is a great time - but as so many people continue to say it is successful simply because a large community of great minds continue to come, share and play around with the online tools. It's not about a bunch of presentations, but the idea that people can gather in real life and enjoy each others company without 140 character limits.




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2012-11-15 19:24:00

The Internet is a Big Bully

Tags: positive thinking, sharing, public policy, social networks, compromise, bullying, restorative practices | Comments (0) The Internet is a Big Bully
(Image by tnk_gm.)

Do we need a new terminology for what has recently been described as "bullying?" It seems to me that bullies are merely the battleground for much broader issues of policy -- namely human rights, freedom of speech, religion and the exercise of power.

On bullying awareness week, I want to start an appeal for humans everywhere to simply shut up about bullying.

Yes. Do not try and help anyone anywhere become more aware about bullying. Please. You will make the world a worse place by raising awareness. Instead, I ask you to read about bullying, what it is and what people have done to try and prevent it. Write a story in a notebook without judgement about a situation where people have been bullied. Carry in that story the perspectives of the so-called bullies. What is the story of the bystanders? I know we should never blame the victim, but is it really the case that victim(s) is/are 100% responsibility-free in this story?

Let's round out that story a little more. I know that drama is what sells a book, but in this case I don't want you to sell the story, I want you to tell the story to raise awareness. Your own awareness, not anyone elses. Turn your demon bullyman or 'mean girl' scenario into something more nuanced. Change the head smacker into something a little more subtle, like the guy who laughed that time you slipped on the ice and split your pants. Or who kept yelling "Let's GO" when you fell behind the pack in gym. Are these guys bullies or just jerks? Okay, then let's expand the scenario again. Find me the least bullying bully you can find. What is the lower limit of 'bully?'

What is the prescription for the lowest-limit bully? Is this still a case for the criminal justice system to be involved in? Should the person be suspended or removed from school? Is your lowest-limit bully rehabitable or absolutely incorrigible? Is he capable of seeing how his behavior effects his victim? How about how it effects others in the class? His community? How far up the bully scale do we need to go before it is absolutely impossible for someone to not know or care about how his behavior effects those around him.

Now your 'victim.' How has he behaved when others were being bullied? Was he just happy it wasn't him this time? Did he join in thinking that it might help him gain some acceptance for a change? Does he wish that maybe he was better at sports? Is that because he wants to fit in or because he thinks it would make him feel more healthy?

Now, given your bully, your victim, the buystanders and the community - what do you think needs to be done to make things right?

Now, I totally realize the hypocracy in my writing to the Internet to tell them not to tell other people to be more aware about bullying. But here's what I am getting at. In the end, the deep-seeded, needs to be incarcerated, completely 100% bully is the one who seems to have no awareness or concern whatsoever with the way his or her behavior affects his victims, associates and community. We know the dude who says "Let's GO!" would probably care quite a bit if he found out that his words made the 'victim' feel sad or depressed. If someone called him out on it, he'd probably find another way to encourage his victim to run faster -- maybe "come on, man - I know you can do this. let's cut 30 seconds off your mile together." The bully would get defensive -- "oh for godsake's - I was just kidding around" and do it again, maybe worse.

Now think about every single example of bullying awareness you see on the Internet. How about the Jennifer Livingston case? The slacktivism on that case was off the scale. The man simply suggested that a newscaster should be a certain weight. Maybe he was wrong, maybe right, but this is hardly 'bullying' given his apology. But his backing down most certainly asserts his awareness of who had the power in the situation and how the exertion of power by Livingston affected him. But, I don't see Livingston as the main culprit here. Let's look at the Internet itself. In this case, Livingston merely made a heartfelt appeal for people to become aware of bullying. Then the Internet tried to become aware - the accusations, hurtful comments, and innuendos flew like dandelion seeds all over the cybersphere.

But no one asked how the slactivism affected the victim. Even now, no one asks how this knee-jerk nonsense affects those around us, our communities, or the Internet itself. And certainly, no one apologizes. No one needs to - the apology will probably be lost in the sea of bullying that is the Internet itself.

In short, our vainglorious attempts at spreading awareness through the "like" button is, at its core, a kind of bullying, unless -- and this is unless is about as rare as an honest man -- we become fully aware ourselves about how our own behavior effects our targets, those around us, and the community. We don't deserve the attention we seek through re-tweets, likes, and page hits. 

So here is my opportunity to apologize for all of those comments I made that failed to take into account how people felt about themselves. I was trying to help. I thought I was being cool and witty. It turns out that it made you feel badly, and for this I am sorry. It made other people on the lists think twice about offering their valuable opinions out of fear of a wisecrack from me. And overall, it contributed to a vainglorious Internet that is more interested in attention-getting than developing relationships and building community.

To make things right, I will write a blog post about how I see bullying, not so other people will stop, but so that I myself will become aware of my actions. That said, I encourage anyone else to embark on that adventure with me. Not because I want other people to change, but because it will help me be a better person too.

And maybe, just maybe, I can feel like its okay to speak my opinions again.


Comments (0)

2012-09-13 08:00:00

New Horizons

Tags: open data, information policy, education policy, social networks, public policy, public sector, public administration, , social media | Comments (1) New Horizons
(Image by Hans Poldoja.)

What are social networks online, and what does it mean for decision making in governments. Does it matter to them? Ought it? I hope to find out.

So I've decided to take off my library hat and put on my policy biretum. Well, not yet, but I am aiming for it, as I have applied and successfully been approved for a PhD in Public Policy at the Johnson-Shoyama School of Public Policy.  

My first stop is the Prairie Political Science Association where I'll be presenting some initial findings on social media policies & guidelines for public servants and their respective government department Twitter accounts.

All of this doesn't mean I am forgetting all I know about librarianship. What I hope to do is study social networks and their influence on an area or areas of public policy. That's very librarianshipy. :)

What are Social Networks?

Often people say that success in life depends on "who you know." People who study networks would tend to agree. Except they would look at a number of members in a network and try to determine who is influential.

Common networks would be groups of small business, not-for-profits, parenting communities, people suffering from diseases and their families, public servants, politicians, and so on. Networks can be very closed, or very open. They can be random (all members have close-to-equal access to an approximately similar amount of others) or nodal (some members have many more connections than others).

According to Christopher Hood and Helen Margetts, to influence a network, governments apply four "tools." The first is nodality - or the process of developing contacts. For success, a government will want to be central to a network, meaning that a message they send to the network will reach as wide a group as possible. The second is authority - or the ability to pass laws. Governments can be extra-nodal and still influence the network through coercion. Third, governments can use money to influence the behavior of a network. Finally, Governments can use organizational capacity - or they can use their human or capital assets to support or block policy behavior. For example, they can use IT infrastructure to support government projects.

In particular, I expect to look at digital social networks. Why? There is evidence that digital networks are becoming more and more important in the policy field. For one, think tanks are using social media more and more to spread the word about their findings to the public. Regular citizens are also making opinions known on a wide range of issues from public transportation to health care. Even Public Servants are getting into the digital space to share information about government projects and overall decisions. I'd like to understand all of these connections. Is it worthwhile to tweet your opinion on social media, or can one tweet actually set a policy agenda? Does the online agenda get set by politicians, the media, lobby groups, regular citizens or some combination of all the above?


Comments (1)

2012-07-10 14:38:00

Calorie Golf - with a template!

Tags: health, calorie intake, body image, templates, sharing, positive thinking | Comments (1) Calorie Golf - with a template!
(Image by admiller.)

This is just a quick way to get a better idea of how many calories you should be consuming in a day. It uses a basic golf platform to assess your consumption in a day.

The more I sit on my computer, the more I age. And vice versa. I am not the high-flying physically active chasing, dancing and playing my way into physical health anymore. Back then, calorie counting happened on its own, because I was burning them faster than I was eating them.

Now that I am older, I consume more than I burn. It's just reality. I want to play and dance and chase pretty women around, but it's just not feasible. My body is just too creaky and, well, chasing women around is just creepy when you are old and married.

The reality is that like I need a budget to avoid over-spending, I need to count calories to avoid over-eating.

I hate this reality. Really, really hate it. I am the opposite of an accountant. I want creativity, not bean-counting. I want to play, not record.

So, here's my compromise - I call it "Calorie golf." Basically, it is an 18-day re-grounding exercise for portion control.

How does it work?

Basically, you just Google the phrase "how many calories should I eat in a day?" If you use the Harris-Benedict formula, you will discover how may calories you should eat to maintain your weight, to lose weight and what is the minimum you should eat. I then use these to play an 18-hold game of golf.  Weight-loss equals a birdie.  Maintenance equals a par.  Over maintenance equals bogey, double-bogey and etc. Simple and fun game.

So, now that I've played a little, it's kind of fun.  I've developed a template that I'd like to share with you. I've included a creative commons license (attribution-non commercial) so you can use it for yourself. It's in docx format for now, but I suppose I can add a pdf or whatever later.

Just to be clear, Calorie golf is not intended for weight-loss. It merely helps you get an idea of how much you should be eating in a given day over an 18-day period. I use calorie golf as a reality-check. It grounds me, and helps me be more familiar with the effect of various foods on my calorie intake. I also get to see my consumption habits over a period of time. It's all just a great way to reevaluate my personal habits.

After 18 days you should re-assess your calorie consumption levels anyway (in case you have gained or lost weight, resulting in a different suggested intake). Also, calorie intake is not everything. High-fat foods will tend to take longer to burn off, and high-fibre foods will tend to help your body process those calories as well. Also, you need to eat those veggies and fruit!

How do you give yourself a reality check, and get back to a healthy lifestyle?

Comments (1)

2012-06-27 16:57:00

Unfortunate Contradictions in Nude Art

Tags: equality, womens studies, nudity, body image, gender, pornography, marketing | Comments (0) Unfortunate Contradictions in Nude Art
(Image by Selective Focus Photography.)

Are nude calendars really a celebration of human bodies? A fun tongue-in-cheek way to request support a cause? Or just a trite way to get an organization into the news?

After discussing the Canadian Rugby Team calendar, I began to think about nude calendars in general. Once upon a time, nude calendars were the sort of thing that you'd only see in sailors' locker rooms and mechanic shops. These days we talk about them in terms of positive body image, "bringing down negative stereotypes," and public statements that align more with lady godiva than they do with Betty Page. However, the bottom line is that this sort of thing is a not-too-uncommon way to make money for various causes.

It does make me wonder if the ends still justifies the means. With all of the causes out there to support, increasing day by day, there is only so much money to go around. That means every cause needs to use more and more innovative ways to attract support, meaning that the boundaries of ethical behavior continue to be challenged day by day. In order to make sure that the behavior is framed in a positive way, we align what we do with the values we think people will accept, but in the end, let's face it -- these sorts of calendars use sexual imagery to 1) attract the attention of men or 2) model behavior for young women.

I mean, if this was all about health and fitness, we could have the rugby players fully clothed and eating celery instead, right? Or (god forbid) playing Rugby.

What do you think about these sort of calendars and the message they portray to both men and women?

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2012-06-26 17:05:00

Truth versus Equality: Does the "1 in 4 rapes" statistic help to promote equality?

Tags: Montreal, students, accessibility, social media, culture, community development, equality, womens studies, rape culture, rape, compromise | Comments (1) Truth versus Equality: Does the
(Image by RachelH.)

While a statistic for the number of women who have been raped in their lifetime is unknown, it is almost definitely not 1 in 4. But is such an exaggeration justified to prevent so-called 'rape culture'?

Advocacy groups of all types are known for choosing the "truths" that most suit their cause. This is part of their survival. Newspapers and radio shows need stories to attract their audiences and, through press releases, that is what advocacy groups provide them. In general, statistics that seem uncertain, ambiguous or relatively innocuous do not make good news stories. So, the stories about long-standing communities killing a full-grown seal for food are inevitably surrounded by a cute baby seal sitting in a pool of blood. That turns the seal hunt reality into a story "OMG! They are killing cute baby seals!"

And... already I feel the need to backtrack, because I know I will be criticized for treating feminism as "irrational and hysterical."

Let me be clear that this is pretty much the opposite of what I think. I will get to this later, but let's please start with the idea that in social situations, groups behaving in completely rational ways can ultimately end up in a scenario where the result is worse for all groups involved. The most famous simulation of this result is called the Prisoner's Dilemna. More on this later.

The 'truth' that I want to discuss right now is the oft-quoted "1 in 4 women are raped." An example of it's use is on Kate Beaton's tumblr. I don't want to get too much into why '1-in-4' are raped is simply not true, but besides two articles by Christina Hoff Sommers and Heather MacDonald, here are a few things to remember:

  • Most studies follow a trail of citations ultimately leading to a study sponsored promoted heavily by Ms. magazine in 1982 by Mary Koss. Besides being outdated, this study has been criticized for using a vague survey question that includes scenarios that are not, in fact, rape.
  • The Koss 1-in-4 statistic includes both attempted and completed rape (splitting hairs, but "have been raped" is what is most often quoted).
  • There is a cognitive dissonance between the public understanding of ('violent, stranger') rape and the legal definition (which would include various forms of sexual assault including 'date rape' and 'having sex with someone who was too drunk to consent.') Before I get criticized for taking rape too lightly, I think its important to state that the public reaction to what the public understands as 'rape' is 'emasculation' and/or possible death. The public reaction to so-called 'date rape' will run anywhere from financial restitution to jail time. The reason I point this out is only to emphasize how the 1-in-4 statistic is intended to evoke an emotional reaction to draw support for increased funding and public education on the issue.
  • Other studies (also inconclusive) have put the statistic closer to 1-in-22.
  • The reported rape statistic for Canada is 1.5 in 100,000 per year (the belief that only 6 in 100 rapes are ever reported needs to be considered here as well, bringing the number up to about 30 per 100,000 per year).

I want to explore the very real possibility that while the statistic is almost absolutely false in its representation when its quoted, spreading it in public campaigns may be justified. There are two main reasons for this:

  1. It is only through public awareness that women's groups can continue to get support for services that are needed but would otherwise be ignored. Since the 1-in-4 exaggeration keeps the proliferation of 'rape-culture' in the public consciousness, it is okay to continue it for the greater good (continued funding for women's advocacy).
  2. (The marxist view) Since 21st century society is structured to favor those in power (in this case "men"), those who are on the margins (in this case, "women") have to use whatever means at their disposal to ensure equality.

I favor argument #1. The counter-argument by people who are more socially conservative than I is that women's centres most often focus resources on privileged classes (ie. Universities) when areas with high reported rape cases are ignored and underfunded. While this may be true, I think it is fair to assert that this is a structural issue, and the reality is that without advocacy groups doing their thing, there would be no discourse on equality of women at all.

Argument #2 is more frustrating as it a challenge to truth itself. Truth in scenario #2 is unknowable and relative. Men (and therefore I) cannot possibly be able to have an opinion on the truth of the 1-in-4 statistic because inherently they (and therefore I) are beholden to an illusion based on my privileged position in society. Women who do not believe the 1-in-4 statistic are victims of the oppressive regime - their truth is only the truth of their oppressors, namely men.

This dichotomy brings to mind the famous essay by Harry D. Frankfurt called On Bullshit. In it, Frankfurt distinguishes between a lie -- where the truth is known and the knower chooses something else, often for self-interest -- and bullshit, where the bullshitter is indifferent to the truth. In the bullshit scenario, there really is no truth. I argue that scenario 1) follows Frankfurt's "lie" proposition and option 2 favors the bullshit proposal. 

There are really important ramifications (in my view) as to which scenario follows here. Whether or not there is a such thing as a "truth" that matters in issues of equality is important for policy. If there is a "truth" as in the 1st scenario, then at least we know that there is a point of agreement between those who do and do not support equality of women. If "truth" does not matter, then there is only conflict, and equality can only be achieved through a transfer of power through conflict.

From what I see in social media today, the "bullshit" scenario is becoming more and more favored over time. It means that students will revolt over a mere $500 increase in tuition, claiming that it has more to do with broader issues of inequality. Okay fine, but is overall inequality most properly dealt with by decreasing student tuition? I would ask the exact same question about the 1 in 4 rape question. Sure, maybe spreading the 1 in 4 statistic has a higher purpose to raise questions of equality, but does acting on a 1 in 4 "rape culture" scenario actually do anything to promote equality or prevent rapes (of all kinds)?

To me, it's clear that, even though culture and privilege exists, truth does matter. Truth: men need to rethink their privilege of treating women as the objects of their sexual behavior. They need to rethink why women continue to make less money for the same work. They need to put in their fair share of domestic labor. They need to understand that they have a responsibility to ensure that women feel safe in their neighbourhoods, even if it means crossing the street when it appears that a woman feels nervous that they are near.

But it's not a one-way street either. Women need to come to terms with violence against men, which is still more common than violence against women. Facing bullying, fights and violence is likely a 100% reality for men in their lifetime (this is not a real statistic and I would like to have anyone share what they know on this reality). Room needs to be made for men to hold an active role in the raising of children, and this includes more men in social work, teaching, healthcare services and other public sector environments. Men need support to ensure that they take care of their own health, which is something that is sorely neglected and almost certainly ignored. Male suicide needs to be acknowledged as the community and family destroying phenomenon that it is. And male life-expectancy needs to be looked at in a fair and respectful way. And finally, issues like "rape-culture" need the perspective of men -- so long as they are in search of the truth.

Or maybe I am just naive to think that truth and understanding is a primary purpose for our existence?  What do you think?

Comments (1)

2012-06-17 16:04:13

Doing a 15 Minute Presentation in Ten Easy Steps

Tags: presentations, higher education, accessibility, tutorials, sharing, positive thinking | Comments (0) Doing a 15 Minute Presentation in Ten Easy Steps
(Image by Imagine Cup.)

Once in a while, I think I will repost some of the highlights from The Other Librarian that are not specifically about librarianship. This piece has been by far my most popular post, so I decided to share.

My old blog, The Other Librarian, had some interesting posts on it, targetted largely at a librarian audience. A few posts had broader scope than that, so in the name of new content and sharing my best with a new audience, I've decided I will re-blog a few of those posts here. I promise that I will not fill my blog with re-posts though!


Presentations are not easy to do well even if you are a designer or professional speaker.   Understanding your audience, having a catchy topic, being loud enough to be heard are all things that require practice.    Designers and professional speakers have the bonus of experience (and pre-set slides) on their side – you probably do not have any of the above.

After the Computers in Libraries conference, I got to see all kinds of styles of presentation.   There is one style that always stands out, no matter what.   I like to call it the “Scatter-Drone.”   That is the presentation that has 50 bullet points scattered on every slide with a long-winded drone of a voice wavering in the air saying something, but nobody really knows what because catatonia has already taken over.

There are simple things you can do to prevent being a total bomb in your presentation, though.   Here is one step-by-step process you can use to create a half-decent 15 minute presentation out of your typical Scatter-Drone.

What Do You Have to Say?

  1. Create 12 blank slides using your favorite presentation software.   
  2. The last slide should say “questions” or have a nice question mark graphic on it.
  3. The second slide should provide an agenda consisting of three sections.   Nice if you can offer a “promise” – something that you can assure will be worth taking away from your presentation.
  4. The third slide will offer three “big picture” points — you will repeat these things three times throughout your presentation.
  5. Fill in the rest of the slides with as many bullet points as you want.

How Will Your Audience Understand You?


  1. Print off your presentation as is.   Yes, it does stink right now – now you must fix it for your audience.
  2. Think of a single word or phrase that describes each slide (remember, each probably has 5-6 bullet points).   Go to Flickr’s Creative Commons and use that word or phrase to find a picture that will suit the bullet points you have on your slide.   Replace the bullet points with your nice picture.   As you put your pictures onto the slides, take a look at how other people do their presentations and adapt accordingly.   I appreciate that you are not a designer – but grab some ideas from people who are.
  3. Use the original presentation print-off (the one with all the bullet points) as your notes and the slide show with the pictures is what your audience will see.   Now you can just “read your slides” without anyone ever knowing that that’s what you are doing.


Feeling Confident and Prepared


  1. Start by acquainting yourself with the audience somehow.   Poll them.   Ask them what they expect from you.   Crack a joke to test their level of seriousness.   Maybe even throw them a bit, by offering an alternative presentation style.
  2. Give yourself an idea of where you are going to repeat your three key messages.    You should do this somewhere in the middle (slide 7 or 8) and again near the end (10 or 11).


That’s it.   A generic procedure for creating a half-decent presenation if you are not a designer or professional speaker.    It’s not too difficult to get a passing grade from your audience.   Remember, the audience *wants* you to present well and share your ideas in a meaningful way.   It just takes a bit of preparation, and some way of getting feedback from your audience.

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2012-06-15 18:53:00

The Very Best Thing CRA Did Ever...

Tags: | Comments (0) The Very Best Thing CRA Did Ever...
(Red Tape Image by Preconcious Eye.)

Payroll remittance is a major barrier (of red tape) to accessing small business. Fortunately, CRA made it just a little easier.

As the father of two children, one of my daily realities is finding child care. Child care in Canada is in somewhat of a crisis. For whatever reason, parents are not willing to pay huge premiums for people to take care of their kids; the cost of that unwillingness to pay is that wages for Early Years educators are very low. That has an impact on the supply of healthcare. The 2006 election featured Child Care prominently. Paul Martin Jr. the incumbent Prime Minister at the time, promised increased subsidies to daycare agencies. Stephen Harper, the challenger, promised tax breaks with the logic that the increased income would let parents choose how best to care for their children.

In a non-deal breaker way (I actually voted for a popular local NDP candidate at the time), I supported Harper's policy -- this was primarily because we chose to hire someone to take care of our children in-house. This choice is not for the feint of heart. It is costly to pay a salary on your after-tax income. And you are the manager of your own employee. You are responsible for this person's well-being, quality of work, quantity of work and general happiness while on the job. If your employee is sick, you have to take over. We've been fortunate to have great people working for us over the years, but not every situation is going to work out for the very best. But managing our employees was never a thing of anxiety, most of my anxiety for hiring our own nanny comes down to one thing: payroll remittances.

I can't begin to tell you how much frustration payroll remittances has caused me. First of all, you may not know this, but to hire someone to come into your home, you have to open up a business. Yes, you have to open up a business to boost the economy with your hard earned money by paying someone and making zero profit doing it. With the quick decision to hire a nanny, I became a small-business owner. What a mess! Here's why : our nanny was working in our home using our resources and capital (ie. home, food etc.). That means she is not a consultant or contract person, but an employee.  And that means you have to pay Canadian Pension Plan (CPP) Payments, Employment Insurance (EI) and income tax on behalf of your employee.  And then there's your contribution. And you don't just pay it, but have to calculate it too -- either by doing complex maths, or reading through huge standard tables.

So, doing the right thing, calculating income tax, CPP and employment insurance based on the income of our employee, and making sure she was covered down the road. I got to learn more about tax law than I ever cared to, and how to file an Record of Employment when our people left for whatever reason. Other people might do this all under the table, but we have scruples. We made the choice to pay the money so we could have the special attention, so just pay up.

But "just pay up" was not really what happened. No, we had to get papers every 3 or 4 months, calculate remittances each time, fill out a paper form, go to the post office and with stamp and envelope each time to mail these remittances so they go there on time.  I know, I know -- 1st world problems, but it really ticked me off to think that in order to pay someone to take care of our kids, with no profit to show for our so-called "business" and there was no option to pay online. More than once I tried to ask people how to pay. Once I heard a CRA person say that we could pay online. Well, yes we could 1) IF we opened up a business account with a bank for an additional annual fee or 2) if we paid a third-party group like Ceridian to handle our remittances. WHAT???!?!?!?  Another charge just so the bank will take my money. Can't someone just take my credit card like everyone else does? I'll whip up the VISA/Mastercard payment form myself! JUST TAKE MY MONEY FOR GOODNESS SAKES. If you lose your remittance form that gets sent to you, no you cannot just find a new form online, you have to call people and get one sent to you. Hopefully it arrives on time before you are late and get a penalty. And, if for any reason your remittance form amounts do not equal the money you paid, you need to explain very carefully why in the hell you are trying to defraud the government out of the $10 you missed.

But see, CRA people can't help small businesses with their taxes. That would be a conflict of interest - they know too much and might help me reduce my taxes and that wouldn't be fair. In short, this is a crazy bureaucratic mess. But, now that both of my kids are finally in school, it appears that you no longer have to do this. The insanity is over. The Conservative Government has finally let you pay for your payroll remittances online. (Yes, I am going to call it Conservative Government instead of Government of Canada, because even though it took them freakin' 6 years to do it, it's finally done). It's pretty much too late for me, but I hope to god that anyone who decides to put a good chunk of their hard-earned cash directly into employing people will at least not have to deal with the crazy baloney that I had to deal with. Yes, please small businesses -- please read this message and rejoice!

Comments (0)

2012-06-07 21:09:00

Table Manipulation Using Sliders in Html5 and Jquery

Tags: jquery, html5, tutorial, sliders, table manipulation, data lab, open data, apis, web development | Comments (0) Table Manipulation Using Sliders in Html5 and Jquery
(Image by mRIO.)

Sliders are one of the great features of html5. I thought I would use them to increase and decrease the size of a table.


Creating a slider in html5 is as easy as doing any input.  Here's a quick example:

<input name="xaxis" type="range" value="30" id="xaxis" min="5" max="100" step="1" />

And here is the result:

As a quick description, I have created an input of type "range" (ie. a slider), given it a name and id called "xaxis", set default, minimum and maximum values, and finally created a step indicator. For a bit more fun, how about doing the same thing, except add a class and css to make it vertical?

The html:

<input class="vertical" name="yaxis" type="range" value="30" id="yaxis" min="5" max="100" step="1" />

The css:

input[type="range"]#yaxis {
-webkit-appearance: slider-vertical;
width: 20px;
height: 100px;

and the result:


There's so much fun to be had with these, so I thought I'd play a little with the idea of using sliders to increase and decrease the size of a table without refreshing the screen. Of course, that requires a big of javascript, or more particular, jquery. I am going to show a few things here, but you can play with the whole experiment over at this jsFiddle page. Obviously, you will need a html-5 supportive browser to make it work.

The first thing I wanted to do, was help the user know the value the slider has set for them. That's done with some pretty quick jquery.

Create some html in the template that looks something like this:

<span id="xaxis_val">30</span> columns<br />

And apply the following javascript:   

$('input#xaxis').change(function() {
var newValue = $('input#xaxis').val(); // capture the slider's value
$('#xaxis_val').html(newValue); // place the value inside id="#xaxis_val"

It might be nice later on to let the user input the value in a regular input and set the slider accordingly as well.

Now for a way to increase the number of columns:

First get the current number of rows and columns (we already have the value of the slider). If the # of columns is not the same as the value on the slider, we got a problem to fix. That problem will :

        var y = $('table#domain tr').length;
        var x = $('table#domain tr:first td').length;
        if (newValue != x) {  
            appendCol(newValue, x, y);

If the # of columns is not the same as the value on the slider, we got a problem to fix. That problem will be solved with the appendCol function here.:

    function appendCol(newValue, x, y) {
        var diff = newValue - x; // find the difference
        var cells = "", i, q;         
        for (i=0; i<diff; i++) {
          cells=cells + "<td></td>";  // the number of cells to add
        $('#diff').html(newValue+' '+diff+' '+y+' '+x);
        if (diff < 0) {
            for (q=0; q>diff; q--) {   // going backwards because diff is <0         
                $("table#domain tr td:last-child").remove();  // remove cells from every row based on diff
                else {
                $("table#domain tr").append(cells); // append var cells to the end of the table

Doing the same for the y-axis is a similar process, except you are adding rows (with a number of cells == x).

There's probably alot that could be cleaned up here, but I wanted to share anyway.  The final product is being developed in my Data Lab. And just in case you missed the link earlier, here is a shareable jsFiddle site as well so you can play with it and improve it.  There will be more coming on that later!

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2012-06-06 16:26:30

On Valuing Life

Tags: social policy, Syria, culture, positive thinking, policy | Comments (0) On Valuing Life
(Picture by Aaron)

With compassion at an apparent all-time low, maybe it's time to look at a 21st Century religion.

An inevitable development in the art of "gettting older" is that you get used to tragic losses of friends and family. Ethereal notions such as "cancer", "car accident", and "suicide" that as teens we consider either someone else's problem or so improbable as to be dramatic slowly develop into a mere part of life. This reduction in drama is not a signficant indicator for a lack of care or concern about tragic loss; the drama around death early in life was probably a means of gaining attention -- "look at me, so much death around, my world is such a mess."

The question of compassion and empathy in the face of such tragic loss is a hard nut to crack. Only the unapologetically heartless would want to admit that they do not care when someone acquires a serious illness or who has a family member pass away due to suicide. However, the more I read about these tragedies, the closer I come to the conclusion that compassion and empathy are missing in our society.

Make no mistake, people work hard to reduce cancer rates, prevent suicide, draw attention to wars and bring relief to the impoverished. But, what is this work if not an extension of our economy? Do the numbers associated with any of these actually matter? The killings in Syria for instance stem partly because a large group of people would rather die than live under what they consider oppressive conditions. Certainly, the media appears more focussed on the political implications of these deaths than they do on showing compassion for the injured and dead and their families and friends.

There is a conundrum here. Feeling compassion for someone certainly does not help to solve their particular problem, be it depression,  illness, being in an abusive relationship, disability, accident, or other family issues. Isn't it better to pull up the shirt sleeves and get to work than it is to heart-bleed over them? What good does so-called 'compassion' do?

Isn't it also possible that a society that has compassion and love fulfills needs in a way that action cannot? We cannot prevent people from getting a serious illness. Dying is something that we will all have to cope with at some level or other. If you are dying, it is no comfort that the cancer rate went down 10% over the past five years. What you need at such a time are friends and family who are attentive to your needs (including disappearing when  you want no company). While medication can keep a depressed person from falling into dispair, it is the community support that will make life meaningful, not suicide awareness programs.

The challenge here is that the political implications of saying that, as a society, we "value life" has a wide variety of political implications that on a society level effect how we govern ourselves. Abortion law is an immediate example that comes to mind. Although I would argue that a compassionate society should not ignore the rights of the mother as well. A compassionate society, however, also does not just give people what they want simply because they face hardship in life.

In the end, however, we cannot lose our sense of compassion and love for people on our way to solving the world's problems. Success is fleeting; love endures.   

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2012-05-29 17:06:00

One Easy Change to Make Regina A Better Place

Tags: Regina, community development, Halifax, urban planning, city pride, #yqr, culture, positive thinking, optimism | Comments (1) One Easy Change to Make Regina A Better Place
(Image by Rick McCharles.)

Positive thinking (and speaking) is not just putting a smile on your face. It changes the conversations you have, and prefers action over defensiveness.

I have lived in Regina, Saskatchewan, for over a year now, having moved here from Halifax, Nova Scotia. The first and most obvious difference is that Regina does not have the history of being a tourist town like Halifax has been for years.

Before I get into how I recognize that difference, let's be clear that Halifax (and indeed the province of Nova Scotia) was not always a tourist locale. Before confederation, Halifax was predominantly a port, a strategic naval location and trade location for the fisheries. Much of the development of Halifax as a tourist location came from the very popular governments of Angus Lewis MacDonald, who emphasized the "Scottishness" of the province (which is largely not true - most Nova Scotians are descended from U.S. Loyalists) and used it to build an identity for the province. From his marketing came the Nova Scotia Tartan (arrived a year after ALM died in office), and the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, which houses the famed Cabot Trail that is featured on pretty much any visit Nova Scotia ad. Note that: first identity (read Brand) is developed and then promotions and ads.  

So back to Regina. Whenever I say I am originally from Halifax, people from Regina ask "why did you come to Regina." The emphasis on Regina is often (but not always) accompanied with a sardonic tone as if to say "what accident brought you to this hole town?" After I explain why I came (for a job, wanted a change, I had an interest in the prairies, the people seem nice, people are politically engaged etc.), the conversation would turn to what's good about the city.

This is different from Halifax. Halifax has its own problems, but you are supposed to want to be there. No one would ever ask that question, or the wording would be different. "So, what brings you to Halifax?" We may be curious about why you came, but there's no question that you came because you wanted to be there.

But seriously, "Why did you come to Regina?", simply leaves me looking for what is wrong with the town. Is there something that people aren't telling me? Is beautiful Lake Wascana some kind of fraudulent dirt pond? Does the fact that I see diversity everywhere represent something other than the good will and welcoming attitude of the people of Regina? Does the accepting and supportive environment my child with Asperger's receives at school something other than it seems?

I also felt like I had to defend my motives for moving here. NO, I didn't just come here to get a good job, grab some money and leave. NO, I'm not going to change everything on you. NO, I am not going to try and sell you something. I came to contribute. I came to participate. I came to belong to your community. Sometimes I feel like I'm in a showing of Neil Simon's The Goodbye Girl.

Meanwhile, the conversations that I as a newcomer really want to have include: what is actually happening in the city? What should I be involved in? Where should I go to eat? What mailing lists should I get myself on? Who do I need to know? What history exists here? How in the heck do I get the prairie gumbo (aka the worst mud ever) off my #$@^! shoes?

So here's my modest proposal. Lots of new people are coming to this city. They are coming for the opportunity, yes. They are coming for the jobs. But there are jobs everywhere. People are choosing Regina over those other places for a reason. Possibly because they do not want to do the Alberta thing. More likely because they heard that Prairie folk are among the best in the world. They have Internet and can read all about crime rates and those other things and still picked Regina.

The solution is simple: Ask not why someone has come to Regina, ask how they want to get involved. It changes the conversation that you will have. All of the sudden, instead of convincing you that I want to pitch in to the city, I will have the opportunity to show you.

I'm willing to bet that 90% of your newcomers will get excited and find a way to help grow this city to the benefit of everyone, old and new.

For my part, I will say pay attention to the ROC, don't miss Mosaic, and check out Tourism Saskatchewan (the province isn't just a big prairie btw). Follow the #yqr tag to see what's going on in the city, and pay attention to when the #yqrtweetups are happening. Get into the conversation. Go to the Saskatchewan Science Centre and the Royal Saskatchewan Museum.  Regina is an awesome city. Welcome. I look forward to seeing you around (it's a small city, we will meet again...)!

What do you like about Regina? What are the best places for newcomers to get involved?

Comments (1)

2012-05-24 22:33:00

What's There to Like About Zombies?

Tags: zombies, Tom Savini, horror films, Zombie Walk, social satire | Comments (7) What's There to Like About Zombies?
(Picture by Michael R. Perry)

Think of your best idea for a Hallowe'en costume. Anything. Batman? Clown? Bride? Nurse? Now turn that into a zombie. This is the recipe for awesome and I am going to explain why.

I love zombies and make it public knowledge. I mentioned it at a leadership workshop, and it piqued curiousity in at least one person. I am a proud dad, concerned citizen and, well, general chicken shit when it comes to scary movies. I'm also the sort to read Ulysses and go to art galleries. The reasons I love zombies had to do with something other than the usual gore and violence...

Well, not really - the gore and violence is a big part of the zombie genre -- especially Tom Savini designed gore and violence, but more on that later, but besides the fun of violence and gore in a movie, there's alot to like about zombies.

  • Horror - zombies incorporate all of the best elements of horror into their films. 
    • Like The Terminator or Michael Myers from Halloween, zombies are the "unstoppable force." No matter how many zombies get wasted, they just keep on coming, making the non-zombies feel more and more desperate as the movies go along.
    • Like Jaws, or Predator, zombies take advantage of our most primal fear - being eaten by something higher in the food chain.
    • Like the Poseiden Adventure or Edgar Allen Poe's Cask of the Amontillado, zombie films take advantage of a claustrophobic atmosphere, making us feel gradually more anxious as the zombies close in on their hapless victims.
  • Lack of Suspense - the one element of horror that is not as prominent in zombie films is suspense. While suspense sometimes exists, it is not the main way that the films develop their plot. The audience usually knows what is going to happen and why.
  • Satire -- zombies represent humanity at their worst. They are mindless consumers, obsessed with the narrowest of passions. The Return of the Living Dead, brought heightened this to its extreme - the zombies are so single-focussed that not only do they eat only brains, but it's pretty much all they can say as well. George Romero played with this alot in his films - Night of the Living Dead focussing in on racial purity; Dawn of the Dead focussing in on consumerism; Day of the Dead on our sense of security.
  • They are a genre of their own. The conventions are modern, but as sticky as the trashiest romance or archetypal action novel. To kill a zombie you have to kill the brain. Once bitten, you are a zombie -- there is no cure. The rules of the genre are simple, but what can be done with these principals is amazing if the sheer volume of zombie films is any indication.
  • They are like us - you can take just about any zombie film and translate it into an allegory of the meeting of two completely unfamiliar cultures. By the end of many zombie films, you can find yourself cheering for the zombies, often because the representatives of "humanity" show themselves more monstrous than the zombies themselves.

I write this for a variety of reasons, but one thing I want to make sure people in Regina understand is that they should join in on the Zombie Walk that's being planned for later on in the summer. They have a Facebook page as well.

Incidentally, my favorite zombie films are:

What do you like about zombies?  Are you going to join in on zombie walk this year?

Comments (7)

2012-05-24 16:27:00

When All Is Done, Tuition Increases are the right thing to do

Tags: higher education, education policy, tuition, protests, Montreal, students, debt, fiscal federalism | Comments (0) When All Is Done, Tuition Increases are the right thing to do
(Picture by xddorox).

No doubt, tuition is the big red herring in a much larger ideological battle happening now in Quebec. But, tuition fees are a good thing for both students and residents.

I was going to write a post about zombies today, but then I realized that the real thing on my mind right now is tuition fees. The current student protests in Montreal, in my view, have as little to do with tuition fees as they do with what kind of cheese to put on poutine, but I would like to focus simply on the tuition itself.

Tuition, as most of my readers are likely familiar, is a fee that universities charge for the services they provide. In Canada, Universities are supported mostly by government dollars, secondarily by tuition fees, and through other expenses. Incidentally, the government percentages stated here are a little misleading because they only mention the percentage of revenue incurred through tuition and not other sources (books, residences, lab fees, library fines etc.) that represent a significant cost to students. But let's just say a rough outline of 60% government, 35% tuition/student fees and 5% through fundraising. I will not go into this too much, but anyone who claims that the issue of tuition fees is a "Quebec problem" forgets that significant federal money goes both directly into education and indirectly to the Quebec government through federal transfers such as equalization (for what it's worth, I think equalization is a good program).

What is a Fair Tuition Rate to pay?

But what should those percentages be? Let's start with the status quo first. We know that universities provide a benefit both to students and society at large. Some believe that this benefit is declining over time as the Internet and other technologies increase our access to knowledge over time, but let's ignore that for a little bit. Students who go to university and/or college receive opportunities that those who do not go to university or college do not. A university education is tied to higher pay, stronger networks, better health, longer life, and generally a more happy lifestyle. This is a privilege to which a vast number of Canadians do not have access. Let's be more frank: a university education is something that Aboriginal people, the disabled, the sick, the poor, the abused, the socially outcast, single-parent families etc etc etc often have less access to than those who are not in these categories. And these people pay into the taxes that support lower tuition fees. What crazy society would do such a thing?

Well, that crazy society recognizes the overall social benefit that universities provide even those who do not have access to them. Research benefits the sick, for instance. The opportunity of a university education provides is a great incentive for people to work hard, learn and imagine a better life, which in turn opens doors for people who others may not have them. Finally, university education supports a labor market that is increasingly knowledge-based over time.

Why Not Free?

Some, who recognize the social benefits of a university education represent a huge benefit to society pose the idea that post-secondary education should be free. I think there are times when free tuition can be a great policy, and a number of countries (mainly in Europe) do offer free tuition for their students. However, this is not the best policy for Canada.

At the risk of sounding patronizing, free tuition is never free. Free tuition merely means that the government pays most or all of the cost of education. Again stating the obvious, governments fund themselves through taxes, thus the taxpayer bears the overall burden of education in a free-tuition country. This would increase the level of access that all Canadians have to higher education and reduce the overall level of debt that student incur after they leave. In the current Canadian economy, a policy around debt reduction would definitely provide benefits to Canadians overall. So why not cut all tuition?

Well, there's a number of reasons why. For one, the increased access to education means an increase in the quantity of demand for education. Applications to attend university would increase and universities would be forced to either increase their costs (and therefore, the tax burden on the public) or refuse access to education on other terms (usually grades). But what if the job market needs something other than good grades to achieve their mandates? What if the education that students demand is not the same as what is demanded by the public overall?

Well, that leads us to another problem that appears to be left out of the equation. When tuition is free, what institutions hold the most control over what programs universities and colleges offer? If governments are paying for tuition, then they will create policies to ensure that they get the maximum public benefit from those dollars. In short, governments will have the control. This will mean that governments will close those programs they feel are not useful to their mandates, and open programs that are. One might think that in a Harper-controlled government, we would see lots of oil and gas programs, and hardly any environmental studies programs. That probably would mean students would need very high marks to study in the fields that interest them, or they would choose not to study those fields at all. 

Canadian citizens ought to realize that our system of government is not "for the people, by the people" as in the U.S. but a parliamentary democracy. Governments are not accountable to citizens; they are accountable to elected representatives in the House of Commons. Once it has a majority of seats in the House of Commons, a goverment can do plenty to control what policies are and are not approved. When we look for free stuff from the government, what we give away is a little bit of freedom. While I think there can be more done to reduce debt overall, I think students would not like a world where guys like Charest and Harper can control what and how we learn.

When Would Free Tuition Be A Good Idea?

Free tuition would be a great policy for a small country with a unitary government that wants to attract a large number of highly skilled immigrants to its population (ie. many European countries). The free tuition would have to be available throughout the entire population, and the schools would focus on those areas where the needs of the labor market are met. More than likely, there would also be for-pay education institutions that coincide with the free ones so that other demanded education is available and education is not so homogenous so to restrict innovation and the general pursuit of wisdom.

In Canada, free tuition would be a benefit that would be used to attract people to areas of the country where there may be no work available. The country is too big to be managing education needs without some indication of demand via the price mechanism. We need our students thinking about the true value of a university education, and the best way to understand that value is to have to pay for it. And if businesses want students to get into programs that benefit them, they ought to pay for it as well.


Tying the issue of tuition increases to the Quebec protests is a bit sketchy because I do not think that the protests have anything to do with tuition, although both sides seem to want to set the stage on that issue. My personal suspicion is that the government wants to fight on the tuition issue because it believes that it can convince regular people that it is right to increase tuition fees -- and, as I've discussed, it is.

On the other side of the issue, I believe that left-leaning institutions are using the issue of tuition to attract students to protests and then use the protests to bring up issues of labor solidarity, union rights, inequality, and freedom of assembly into the media. Like so many things, the discourse on tuition has just about nothing to do with what should be done. These sorts of discussions focus people on a single issue so that they can bring their anger, frustration and broader emotional concerns into the forum. 

I think it's all good. The protests are a great thing and a demonstration of action democracy. But so are the tuition increases. Charest has found himself in a trap - if he wants to do the right thing, he may have to pay for it with his job.

Incidentally, with this Bruce Mackinnon cartoon, I may have written about zombies after all. :)


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2012-05-23 16:28:00

The Culture of Accessibility

Tags: policy, #interplanetarymunchies, Nina Hagen, insanity, social media, culture, accessibility, pornography, economics | Comments (2) The Culture of Accessibility
(Picture by ell brown).

What makes us think we ought to have access to everything? Is this democracy or a tyranny of the crowd? The answer is 'yes.'

Yesterday, I was chatting with a few fellow Twitterians about whether professor X would be able to get stoned by reading the brains of a stoned X-man (it's a geek habit to think of such things), and out came what is now my favorite Twitter tag: #interplanetarymunchies. If that does not sound odd to you, then you have my permission to go out and reproduce many illustrious geek offspring. What will sound odd to you is what I thought next: "You know what? I bet Nina Hagen would love to know about the #interplanetarymunchies Twitter tag."

That moment when you realize that you have reached insanity.

That somehow I would think Nina Hagen -- the slightly crazy but absolutely wonderful, German punk icon with more octaves in her voice than, well, everything, and absolutely 100% does not know that I exist and, (except as seeing me as an appreciative fan) likely does not even care -- would want to know anything related to my geeky conversation with a bunch of comic nerds is a sign that I have gone crazy.

I have an inkling that anyone immersed in this thing we call the Internet has probably had a thought somewhat similar. There's tonnes of anecdotal evidence to confirm this. A celebrity who is not on twitter is definitely a lesser celebrity. Not only do these celebrities have to be on twitter, they have to acknowledge their Twitter followers at some level or other. And not only do they have to acknowledge us, we get to include them in our irrelevant conversations. Hey Kevin, what do you thinkAmber, do you agree? Felicia? Just how normal that desperate pleading seems to me is proof of the situation. Our expectations of celebrities have gone from polite acknowledgement to complete and total access. 

The social trends all align this way. Pornography is not sufficient to satisfy our appetites for nudity, now we need wardrobe malfunctions, celebrity sex tapes and unsimulated sexual activity in movies like The Brown Bunny and Short Bus. It's not enough that we get turned on, but we need to see the icons of our age turned on as well. While they are working no less.

To be clear, this post is not a rant. I do not think the Accessible Culture is necessarily wrong. It is just insane given my history of assuming that some things are completely out of my reach. When I was in high school, I thought that if I could learn to sing really well, I might get to hang out with all of the singers I admired. Or if I learned to act, I might date a movie star. These days, I'm not convinced that I have to bother with talent to have a shot at being a celebrity's BFF. 

There are more examples of the accessibility assumptions we make. Somewhere in your town there ought to be free wireless internet, or your town stinks. Contemporary art, moreso in the past, needs an interactive element -- something to touch or manipulate. My only art experience, this yarn bomb, reached success (in my mind) mostly because people attached lovely notes to it. Most designs we see these days much not only include a picture, but also a DIY explanation so we can duplicate it. The most evil countries -- Iran and North Korea for two examples-- are the ones that do not less us access them (yes, they are evil for other reasons as well, but their closed secretive nature is definitely a huge part of the discourse on how evil and dangerous they are). All services need an app. "No comment" is not an option if you want respect in this world. Billy Bob Thornton's attitude on the JIan Ghomeshi show Q shows a man trying to restrict access to certain parts of his life - his refusal to let us access him, cost him dearly.

There are (perhaps) some positives of this accessibility culture. As the protests in Montreal are suggesting, we no longer accept the usual channels (voting, letters to Ministers, organizing, lobbying etc.) for bringing change to government - we want to bring change in whatever way we so choose. In fact, the rather broad-stroke themes -- poverty, inequality, marginalization, worker solidarity -- that seem to underly the more specific "reasons" behind these protests (seriously, I do not believe these protests are about $1500 over 7 years) have me thinking of something beyond civil disobedience to something more like civil disdain. In this 21st century, you better be accessible, or I'll facebook a few friends and before you can say "proper channels" I'll have a flash mob doing the macarena in the nude just outside your office.

The Economics of An Accessibility Culture:

While there is a lot to like about the new level of access we not only expect, but more often than not, attain -- on the societal level, we need to think about what this means. Access to all of this information is dirt cheap, but it's also quite valuable if collected in the aggregate. Once upon a time, economists talked about how "perfect information" is one of the main assumptions that underly the supply-demand curve. If information is assymetrical (ie. only some people can access certain information), people get ripped off and overall, the model is inefficient. So, maybe the more access we have, the better.

But hold on here. The information that we share, create and consume also carries a value. Our collective generosity is admirable, but it is also making a very small group of people insanely rich. It's also costing us -- in privacy, opportunity, health (time spent on internets == time away from physical exercise), liability risk (if you defame someone on my newspaper, you bear the brunt of the risk, while potentially I could gain ad revenue) and so on. Slowly and surely, we will begin to realize the costs we bear, and slow down our development of free content, preferring to engage in activities that actually make us money. Except that the money-making content is made accessible by the very few people who have the capital to develop and maintain the systems to store that content. That's right -- Google and Facebook and the like. The value is not in our activity, but in who controls access to it.

Preparing for the Down-turn of Accessible Culture

As we start to get a reality check on things like Facebook's IPO (for what it's worth, give it a few months. Stock markets are not really a statement about a company's value, but about anticipating and manipulating investor expectations), governments, not-for-profits and policy wonks need to be preparing for the impacts of such decline on our markets.

The cost of a down-turn in social media is a reduction in innovation, happiness, and social networks. That means that governments need to be encouraging communities to fill in those gaps in other ways by encouraging community gatherings, open data, and open education. Meanwhile, we need better infrastructure to ensure that citizens understand the value of their data, time and attention that they give away. Social groups should consider ways in which they can work together to control access to the data they give away and receive. Instead of an aggregate of powerless individuals giving away their information for free or the tiniest of incentives, more collective movements should develop to assert the value of our personal activities. Governments should be supporting these kinds of movements.

In sum, the level of access we demand and provide to just about everything in our world needs mindfulness and wisdom to ensure that it works for and not against our societies. Of course, I am talking about the privileged world here. The ethical discussion on what our accessible culture means to people who live outside it is another thing. Maybe you have thoughts on this?

What are your thoughts on accessibility in the 21st century? What do you want to access? What are you willing to give away to get it?


Comments (2)

2012-05-17 20:05:00

Open Data in Holistic Terms

Tags: information policy, Dorothy Smith, government, open data, accessibility, economics, apis, licensing | Comments (0) Open Data in Holistic Terms
Open data is a great idea, but by no means is it a no-brainer.

The institutions that comprise our government departments are ultimately knowledge organizations. Throughout history, citizens relied on governments to collect, store, organize, analyze, and, depending on the context, either secure or share information. Among all of the the criticisms that people have about governments, one thing they do very well is collect data. In general, they do it by force. When you are born, you need to provide the government information. Go to the doctor, information goes to the government. Go to school? More information. Want a job? Still more. Lose your job? Again. Even when you die, your family has to collect information about you and pass it on to the government. If you want to believe Dorothy Smith (and likely even if you do not), the information that governments collect on us have serious implications on the way we live those lives. Try this experiment: try to go a whole day without receiving or submitting any information to an institution. Here are some things you will likely discover:

  • Driving is right out, or you will die attempting to ignore speed limits, stop signs and street lights.
  • You cannot take a bus, because that often requires submitting either a bus pass or a ticket.
  • You cannot purchase anything because governments force business to charge you sales taxes.
  • You cannot go to work because governments force your employer to collect information on the number of hours you work.
  • Your phone number, street address, postal code are all nil.
  • Also, if anyone calls you by your name, you have lost because that name is legal identification.

In short, your life is full of being ruled by data that the government collects on you. We think of ourselves as being relatively free, but paradoxically, that freedom depends somewhat on some kind of rulership by the many levels of government we have in our worlds. In a country like Canada, the payoff is pretty good however - in general, we get a lot of benefit from giving up our information.

 With all of this collection of data, some have rightly been asking questions about why this information is not available freely to its citizens. After all, in democratic countries, governments rule on behalf of the citizens. Citizens pay taxes to sustain this collection of data that commands so much power in our societies. And those that are economists are well aware of the benefits that freely available information provide to an economy. The more people know about the world that they live in, the more difficult it is for both consumers and producers to rip each other off and when there is less ripping off, there is an overall benefit to everyone in the economy. Moreover, the internet makes it easier than ever to make data accessible. To these people, there really is no excuse for the government not to let people see what they have collected. This movement calls itself the Open Data movement.

 How Can Governments Open Their Data?

Like many "open" movements, open data advocates often speak to ideals without explaining in basic terms to the public what they are asking government to do. Governments actually do "open" alot of their information. The issue is how the data is opened for the public. Here are a few ways in which governments make their information publically available:

  • Publications :  Governments definitely published a great lot of information both in print form and on the World Wide Web. The benefits of information in this format include the degree of analysis provided, the (relatively) understandability of the information and the level of trust that the data produced is displayed in a fair and honest way (government information is easily scrutinized by media, opposition parties, policy think tanks etc.). There are also a few downsides to this format. The data made available is often selective and intended to support some form of government policy, making it less useful for the private and not-for-profit sectors whose interests may be different. Usually, the published data is not in a format that can be re-organized and cross-referenced against other datasets. Because the data is processed and not raw, researchers have to rely on government-provided testing for reliability and validity, which may pose problems for more advance analysis. In general, published data is copyrighted and people who want to use the data must ask permission to use it in their own publications. Finally, published data usually does not provide as much flexibility in terms of how the data is presented compared to more raw forms like an excel spreadsheet.
  • Licensing:  Governments can offer licenses that outline the parameters through which ordinary people can use their information. A common example is Creative Commons licensing, but a license can have any number of parameters that permit people to use information for their own purposes. For instance, beyond attribution and non-commercial use, governments could require that all use of the data include the use of the Government Logo and a statement of disclaimer. The main benefit of such licensing is the reduced administrative costs associated with asking and permitting the use of information. On the other side, there are costs associated with deciding what information can and should be licensed. Governments are political institutions and debates about what should and should not be "open" can be lengthy and contentious.
  • Datasets in Standard Formats:  A recent phenomenon in government is to provide datasets on websites in a standard format such as .csv, xml, json or other format. A good example is the City of Regina's Open Data Catalogue. Open datasets in standard formats can be imported into spreadsheets or databases to be cross-referenced with other datasets and analysed. Developers can also use data to provide online services and "mashups". For instance, information about transit schedules can be integrated into an "app" that makes it easier for people to access schedules on their mobile device. The downside to this format is that data needs to be maintained as services change over time. This maintenance can be expensive depending on the size of the collection. Apps can go stale very quickly if information is consistently outdated as well.
  • Web Services: A web service uses an api or application programming interface to take the standard format methodology to the next level. In addition to the standard format, the data produced is dynamic and consistently up-to-date. Advanced apis can also permit users to add to or change the data themselves (within the parameters set by the service provider). In general, a web service requires that the institution be using an application that supports the outputting of data into a web-service, otherwise considerable cost can be incurred to set up an api using REST, SOAP or a SIP server. 

The Other Side of the Coin

Overall, open data has a pretty good argument. If the public is forced to give up all kinds of information about themselves all the time, it makes sense that the government should make the data available back to the public for free. After all, the government belongs to the people and therefore, so does the data.

This is where things get a little complicated. Canadians often have a better understanding of U.S. politics than they do their own, and assume that what the U.S. does Canada should do as well. In the U.S., Congress and the president are all directly accountable to the people, and therefore the whole sense that "data belongs to the people" makes absolute sense. Canada's constitution, based on responsible government, is a little different. The government is not accountable to the "people" per se; instead, the government is accountable to the elected representatives in the House of Commons. Anyone who wants to stay in power has to ensure that they keep the majority of the members of the House of Commons satisfied, otherwise parliament is dissolved and (most times) Canadians go to the polls. In short, Canadians have a tradition of trusting their governments to do the right thing and the Constitution pretty much affirms that. That means that open data is not a "no-brainer" in the Canadian context. It may be the right thing to do, but there is a lot of influencing behavior that also has to occur.

Confidentiality, copyright and public safety are other areas of obvious concern. We can say all we want that "privacy is dead," but the reality is that governments do not hold that luxury. Moreso than any institution, our government is constitutionally bound to protect the public, and even the smallest breach could have taxpayers reaching deep into their pockets to settle lawsuits and other disputes. International treaties and agreements can require that certain information not be distributed publically. Open data -- particularly web-based formats -- means open to everyone, including institutions that want to see a country like Canada or its allies suffer. While open data advocates are not espousing that we share sensitive information, determining what is or is not sensitive can be a very time consuming and thus a considerable barrier to making the data open.

Some may also argue that open data benefits only a few individuals -- namely developers and researchers -- at the expense of the public purse. As stated more than once, opening datasets up to the public is not free. Meanwhile, the few developers and researchers who have an understanding of data analysis and manipulation have a great opportunity to profit from governments that make their data available to the public. Even if there is no direct profit from creating products out of data, there can be indirect profits -- self-promotion, prestige, and publication can all come from looking at datasets that governments provide for free. Businesses and individuals in sectors that do not benefit from open data normally have to spend money and time to achieve the same outcomes. Why do developers get a free shake just because the Internet exists?

Finally, if people will create services using government data, there is a responsibility for the government to ensure that the maintenance and accuracy of the data meets user expectations. Opening data poses a risk that the data could be misunderstood, or worse, misrepresented.

What Do I Think? 

Overall, the time has come for governments and associated institutions to open up their datasets. While there may be some challenges, I am convinced that there are just as many opportunities that are low-risk, low-cost and high benefits to consumers. The reality is that information in the 21st century is a hot commodity and private sector companies have a high incentive to keep the public uninformed about free public services, health statistics, consumer rights, code violations and so on. Meanwhile, the public is increasingly interested in the world. Opening up the data can help citizens reach for their dreams, understand what issues should really hit the public agenda, and build their communities for the better. Finally, in a country where the public seems to vote less, open data initiatives can really help to improve the relationship between government departments and the citizens they serve.

So, what do you think?   What priorities should governments make in terms of making their data easily accessible to the public?

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2012-05-15 03:56:00

Proroguing Our Assumptions About Social Media in Canada

Tags: policy, social media, new blog, parliament, politics | Comments (0) Proroguing Our Assumptions About Social Media in Canada
Is social media really all about openess and transparency, or is it a way of deflecting blame towards someone else?

Welcome to my new blog. You may or may not know me as The Other Librarian where I talked about such things as Wikileaks, Professionalism, doing a presentation, and organizational structure. I loved working on that blog, but I started losing interest in writing on topics as a librarian. I still consider myself a librarian, but I am a little tired of writing as if that was an essential part of my identity. 

See, I really think of myself as an observer of interesting things. One of the most interesting things in my mind is how we govern ourselves in ways that prevent violence, corruption and all of those sorts of things that cause major turmoil in our world. Somehow, when push comes to shove, Canada seems to avoid such things, which is why I am so happy to live here. There's alot to be thankful for from the Canadian example, so, I expect to write about that. I am particularly interested in how people use social media to influence, design, inform, implement and evaluate public policy.

I've used the trope of the prorogue for this blog.  A prorogue is unique to parliamentary systems and means the adjournment of parliament without calling an election. In general, a prorogue occurs when the Prime Minister, with assent from the Governor-General, decides to stop debate for a while and take a break. This may seem pretty dictatorial, and you can count on me to suggest that it was self-serving and wrong when Steven Harper did it. On the other hand, I think it's good to prorogue debate from time to time - if only to stop and think about what the heck the debate is all about. Social media in my personal view has jumped the shark -- focussing humanity onto itself; affirming every opinion because it is an opinion; distracting people from their families and friends; channeling our vanities into profits for the very few. Paradoxically, social media has also gotten technologically boring.  It's no longer novel to be on Facebook or Twitter to the extent that many wonder who is doing actual work. It's not going to go away, so what do I personally, and communities in general need to do to channel social media for good. And, more importantly, how do government support our communities in this positive channeling?

As I work towards building and designing this little blog, I look forward to putting other thoughts down, hopefully to share some things are useful to someone out there in internet land.

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