Monday, December 27, 2010

Data Visualization video

I watched a very cool (and relevant to local open data efforts) video on web-based data visualizations. It’s from Apple’s developer conference earlier this year and covers recent (and some experimental) web standards for doing dynamic, interactive, data visualizations, including on arbitrary shapes like maps.

Unfortunately, you have to login with a (free) Apple ID (and possibly register for a free developer account) on Apple’s Developer portal, and then get linked in to iTunes (which is free, but you need it installed and I don’t think they have a version available for open source platforms) to get access to this video. But, for data geeks — especially those interested in the possibilities of Open Data — this is probably worth it.

The license restriction on the video doesn’t seem to restrict me showing it to others on my laptop, so maybe we can get folks together for a group viewing some time (it’s about 45 minutes).

Technologies Covered

  • Javascript and dynamic loading of data from XML and JSON sources.
  • CSS effects (including touching on the newer animation effects).
  • HTML5.
  • HTML5 Canvas: Dynamic graphical drawing in HTML.
  • SVG: Scalable Vector Graphics.
  • Inkscape: Open source vector drawing tool (generates SVG).
  • Raphaël: Javascript library for dynamic vector graphic handling.
  • WebGL: Experimental dynamic 3D rendering in web code.

Getting the Video

If you are keen to see it now, and willing to jump through a bunch of hoops, here’s how you get to the video. This is all free, but a bit of a pain if you’re not already registered with Apple’s developer programs:

At every step of this, login, or create a login, if you need to:
  1. Go to Apple’s Developer videos page for WWDC 2010.
  2. Choose between the HD (big) or SD (small) video format, and select the appropriate “View in iTunes” link.
  3. Once the “WWDC 2010 Sessions” page is open in iTunes, select the “Internet and Web” section (last one in the list)
  4. The video is for “Session 509 - Creating Info Graphics with Standard Web Technologies”. Click the “Get” button to download it.
  5. Once it’s done downloading, you can watch it in iTunes (it’ll probably be in the “iTunes U” section in your iTunes player), or open it with another video player.

If someone figures out an easier way to get at the video, please let me know!

.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Don’t just vote — engage

Just getting yourself out to vote, while necessary, isn’t going to be enough to get a better city council and school boards for our city. If we are to achieve that, we all need to get out on the last few days of the campaign to engage our friends, neighbours, colleagues, etc., in getting them out to vote. The more people who vote, the greater the odds of getting a more representative result from the election.

Please tell everyone you know that you are voting (or have voted if you did the advance vote). Nothing encourages behaviour in people more than seeing others engaging in that behaviour. “Primate see, primate do.”

However, I strongly recommend against saying things like “you should vote” — nobody likes being told what they “should” do (and it often triggers a rebellious response leading to the opposite behaviour out of spite). Far more effective, in my experience, has been things like “I’m voting on Monday, have you thought about your vote?”

If that hook catches them, I then say something like “there is a website with links to all the candidate information if you want to know more about what the choices are,” and then give them the link to Calgary Democracy.

Support your candidates

If you have a candidate you really like, please try to volunteer a couple hours with their campaign over the next few days. They really need to make a big final push to get their name out as much as possible. With so many of the races being very close this year, it genuinely could make the difference in determining who wins.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Those who choose not to vote still have the right to complain

I’ll start off by saying that I’m an avid voter. Not only do I vote in every government election I can, but I’ve voted in a school board by-election, for my credit union board, and more. If I had had the chance, I would have voted before I was 18 (I’ve been politically conscious for most of my life). I can not, in any way, be considered a non-voter. Further, I actively engage people with resources intended to support their voting, have moderated candidate forums, been an election station worker, and run workshops to help people better understand the voting process.

Please keep that in mind as you read the rest of this.

I’ve often heard people say around election time “If you don’t vote, you don’t have the right to complain.” That’s wrong on more than one level.

On a basic freedom of speech principle, people have the right to complain no matter what they have or haven’t done.

There are more than just a few non-voters who see voting as an endorsement of a system they object to (I object to the current system, too, I just think that voting can help reduce some of its harm). Not voting in a system they disagree with should in no way limit their right to complain about that system and its actions and consequences. In fact, those people are often the ones with the most to say in complaint of the system.

There’s a quote on a button someone gave me years ago: “If 10 minutes every 4 years is all you put into democracy, that’s all the democracy you’re going to get.”

Voting is not democracy. Voting is a tool which can be applied in some contexts in support of certain aspects of democracy. However, democracy itself is a much, much, bigger pie. Just because someone doesn’t participate in one aspect of our society does not mean they must give up any right to participate in the rest of it.

So, to all the non-voters out there: Please keep bringing your voices to the democratic dialogue we need to be having as a society.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Who gets to decide who the “legitimate” candidates are?

There is a lot of talk online and in the media about the “front-runners” in the election. Various individuals and media are pushing for a “front-runners-only” mayoral debate.

What the gosh-darned heck (to be honest, the words I’m actually thinking are much more graphic and vile) gives anyone other than the voters at the voting booth the right to narrow the choices of the voting public?

If a candidate is on the ballot, they should be able to be a full part of every candidate forum (applicable to the office they are running for) and have fair opportunity for equal coverage in the public media. Anything less is a taking away of access from the voters and is a violation of democratic principles.

Yes, it can make things tedious and messy, but democracy is worth every single bit of effort it demands.

Yes, it is often painful to have to sit through the speeches of some of the more “interesting” candidates, but the alternative in our present setup is to shut out the diverse voices in our society from full meaningful participation. That is not democratic.

The problem is not too many candidates, or “fringe” candidates. The problem is our archaic electoral system.

Workable alternatives

Our current electoral system doesn’t provide a fair way to narrow down the selection from a field of many candidates. The way our ballots are set up (“first past the post”) really only works well if you have no more than 2 choices. The solution to the problem comes in getting rid of our current system and putting in place something that actually allows for more refined selection processes.

Some good possibilities include things like alternative balloting systems, or multiple run-offs in the lead-up to the final vote, or something like the primaries held in the U.S.

So, rather than damaging what little semblance of democracy we have in this society by cutting out candidates from full participation in the public dialogue, let’s all step up our efforts to transform the system to allow for a more refined process than the archaic single “X” on a ballot.

Polls are not an expression of democratic will

The main thing used to excuse the exclusion of candidates are the polls that have been made public. Election-time polls typically show strong leads for just a few of the candidates on a given ballot. This is then used to justify excluding the non-leaders from further attention (thereby ensuring they are eliminated from having a chance of winning).

Published polls end up pushing public opinion in favour of those already in the lead. That’s the main reason I’m opposed to polls being made public.

Some try to present the poll measurements as something we can use in place of actual votes (such as in run-offs). That is not legitimate. The only way you could have a poll that truly represented the will of all eligible voters would be to poll every eligible voter. Otherwise, you’ve always got a margin of error greater than zero.

Some argue that our voting would also not be considered legitimate on those terms because so many eligible voters don’t vote. That argument is wrong. Those who choose to not vote have a fair opportunity to participate and choose not to. They are saying “this is not important enough to me to expend any effort on, so I’ll just accept what everyone else decides.” That is still an expression of their opinion, so fulfils (although quite poorly) the requirement that their voice have an opportunity to be expressed within the democratic system.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Inching closer to democracy

I am very excited by the tangible increase in accessibility, accountability and openness in this election which is countering, at least a bit of, the traditional biases that traditionally serve to diminish our efforts at democracy. Some encouraging examples from the current election:

We have seen multiple lists of candidates in commercial media, and on advocacy group websites, reordered from biased ordering to alphabetical or random in direct response to complaints raised on Twitter.

We’ve seen ads for one candidate removed from CTV’s page listing their interviews with all the candidates, again in response to complaints on Twitter.

Due to a mix of citizen-led pressure, peer-pressure, and media awareness, we have many candidates pre-disclosing their donor lists — for the first time ever (that I’m aware of) in Calgary politics. This has made for some interesting, and sometimes quite telling, reading.

We have increased awareness of, and some tentative early actions for, accessibility for people with varying needs (such as disabilities and English as a second language). Many event organizers are becoming aware of the need to have wheelchair access. Some online videos are being subtitled for the hearing impaired and translated into other languages. There certainly remains much still to be done to ensure equal access for all, though.

We’ve had much increased — although still far from perfect — awareness of rules restricting campaign signs on public land.

We’ve had (or are having) public all-candidate forums for every ballot in the election — thanks in large part to significantly increased civic engagement with groups like (and especially) CivicCamp. We’ve got more people aware of and attending those forums thanks to the calendar on Calgary Democracy (shameless plug), increased social media “word of mouth”, and increased coverage from traditional media (increased relative to previous elections). And we’ve got more people exposed to the content of those forums through online distribution of videos, along with what seems to be more broadcast of forums on radio (thank-you CJSW) and television.

We have quite a few candidates engaging in previously unheard of levels of accessible dialogue with citizens. A significant portion I’ve seen of this has been through online tools such as Twitter, but also through what seems (at least to me) to be a higher quantity of accessible public events than usual.

It’s still far from “enough” in my view, but these are very encouraging developments and do bring us closer to democracy.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Alberta soldiers excluded from voting

The Calgary Sun reported today that many Canadian soldiers from Alberta who are stationed overseas (such as in Afghanistan) will not be able to vote in this month’s municipal elections throughout the province.

Now, those who know me know that I am no fan of the military, but I am somewhat of an extremist when it comes to including everybody in the democratic process. It is a travesty that these citizens are being left out of the process because of an inability of the various levels of government and the Canadian military to find a way to enable the soldiers to vote.

The problem stems from these factors: Typical mail delivery time for overseas military is apparently at least 5 weeks. There are just 4 weeks from nomination day until election day in our municipal elections. The Provincial legislation governing municipal elections only allows for traditional voting station balloting and “Special Ballots” which must be physical paper (not electronic), but which can be mailed or otherwise transported from outside the province.

In discussions on Twitter today, we talked about what I consider to be three very doable possibilities:
  1. Provide “Special Ballots” (that’s the legal term under Alberta Provincial election regulations) that allow for candidate names to be written in by the voter. A supply of these fill-in-the-name ballots could be made available to the remote military operations (with various authentication measures) and, with the cooperation of the military, could be filled out by the voters and rush-delivered back to Canada for inclusion in the election day counting.
  2. Change the provincial legislation to make a special exception for overseas military operations to allow for electronic voting. This would require collaboration (and legal wrangling) between the Province and the military, as well as imposing a blanket policy to include this voting method for all Alberta municipalities (who currently have some leeway in defining their own paper balloting procedures).
  3. Provision for establishing remote special polling stations at military bases overseas. From a municipal elections offices stand-point, this would not require much variation from existing procedures for setting up special polling stations at hospitals and such. The big difference would be in allowing for remote reporting of results, to be verified by the later delivery of the actual ballots. This, like the previous option, would require some coordination with military officials.

So, 3 very viable options to address this failure of democracy. None of which can feasibly (or legally, without unprecedented rapid intervention by probably at least 2 levels of our governments) be done in time for this election.

Here’s what I want Albertans to do: Call, and write to, your MLA telling them you want them to ensure that Alberta soldiers who are stationed overseas are never again excluded from the democratic process at any level of our governments. This afternoon I telephoned my MLA’s office, and then sent a more detailed email to him (and Cc’d the four in-Legislature party leaders).

Someone on Twitter asked about trying to lobby the federal Conservative government to improve on the 5+ weeks delivery time so that the soldiers would be able to just use the mail-in ballots that other citizens can use. That would be great, but I don’t see it as realistic. It would require a radical shift in thinking on the part of the feds toward actually supporting our troops instead of just spouting patriotic platitudes.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Politicians threaten public health

This year, I have been sick twice with bugs presumably caught from shaking hands with politicians (I won’t go into the gory details, but there is a high likelihood of the source, given my hand-shaking activities in the days preceding the development of symptoms). I’ve also heard that a number of candidates in the current election have come down with illness, too.

So, I’m putting a call-out to politicians, political hacks like myself, and the public at large, to try to practice safer politicking. Let’s try to reduce the social pressure to always shake hands and instead accept alternatives that are less likely to spread contagion. A couple I can think of are the “fist-bump” and the Japanese-inspired head-nod.

This is going to need to be led by those of us not running for office since a politician who won’t shake hands in the current social environment could be seen negatively — potentially hurting their campaign. It’s up to us to offer a head-nod or fist for bumping to any politicians we meet on the campaign trail, instead of the usual proffering of a hand to be shaken. The politicians, in turn, can be encouraged to thank the hand-shake-avoiding person for taking public health into consideration.

That doesn’t leave the politicians without responsibility — you can be more pro-active in applying hand-sanitizer, washing your hands frequently, or other measures at your disposal. Braver politicians might also consider being not quite so quick to offer a hand-shake — leaving an opportunity for safer approaches.

(A special note of thanks to candidate Gian-Carlo Carra for taking the initiative to offer me a fist-bump instead of hand-shake at a recent political event.)

Together, we can all curtail the spread of biological contagion!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Airport tunnel? Why have an airport at all?

I realize what I’m going to say here will likely be disagreed with by at least 99% of people following the municipal election in Calgary, but I believe in openness and honesty, so here goes:

The question of whether to build a tunnel under the new airport runway that is going to be built has turned into one of the biggest focuses of this election. There are now petitions for and against, as well as some unpleasant words being exchanged online and various accusations being made.

I’m neither for nor against the tunnel because I think it shouldn’t even be an issue — I don’t want the airport to expand. In fact, I’d like us to start moving toward shutting down the airport. Granted, relative to the vast majority of people in this city, that’s a very extreme opinion.

For me, it comes down to a very fundamental ethical question: Do we have the right to harm others.

Air travel does harm. It does massive harm. It has been identified as the single-most environmentally damaging form of transportation (short of space travel) per passenger mile. Every plane trip is effectively a form of assault and even murder in that it directly contributes to measurable harm to individual humans (especially asthmatics and others with respiratory issues) and contributes to environmental damage that results in humans dying. That’s not even getting into the massive destruction being wrought against non-human life.

What are the vast majority of plane trips for? “Business or pleasure.” Another ethical question: Does anyone have the right to harm others for their own profit or pleasure? I don’t think so.

When I learned a few years ago just how destructive air travel actually is, I stopped using it. Since then, I haven’t travelled as far, or as often, as I used to. I’ve also turned down offers to have plane tickets bought for me (such as for family events, or political meetings), taking long bus trips instead. I would take passenger trains if they existed here (and I’m contributing to lobbying efforts to get our governments and industries to focus on building rail infrastructure to replace the much more destructive forms of transportation that currently dominate our society).

Am I perfect and without harm in this? Certainly not. But I have managed to significantly reduce (probably by at least an order of magnitude or two) the harm caused by my transportation choices.

But, but, but… What about the economy???

There are many who argue that our economy depends on air travel, so cutting it off is not viable.

Well, I seem to recall another economy that was dependent on an immoral practice: The U.S. slave-based economy. People were so adamant that it was critical to their survival, that there was even a war fought to try to maintain that immoral practice. In the end, it was banned. Look at how ending the immoral practice of slavery completely wrecked the U.S. economy. Oh, wait. They went on to become, for a time, the biggest economic power in the world.

Funny, that.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

More online campaigning tips: Your Website

Here are some more things to expand on yesterday’s list of tips for online campaigning. Most of today’s tips involve tinkering with the HTML or other parts of your website’s code, so you may need to find a suitable geek to help you on these.

Keeping people up to date

 Have an RSS feed that includes when you make blog posts, add videos, policy documents, new events, etc. This will allow some of the people interested in your campaign to keep up to date without having to check back with your website (which the vast majority of potentially interested people simply won’t do).

You will also want to post a summary of what’s new to the front page of your website.

Google

 There are a number of things you can do to make your website’s listings on Google clearer (and more likely to be found and clicked on).

Your pages’ titles are what Google use to provide links to your website. So, make sure you have clear titles (found in the <title> element in the <head> of your website html). Ideally, each page on your website should have a distinct, clear, title. E.g., “Candidate X Campaign for Ward 15”, “Candidate X Biography”, “Contact Candidate X”, etc.

Use the description meta-tag (“<meta name="description" content="A short description of what this web page is about." />”) to give Google listings a clear and concise summary for each page on your website. (This is the text Google displays right under the link.)

Provide Google (and other search engines) with a Sitemap which helps them know the structure of your website, and find the various pages you have.

See Google’s Webmaster Tools for a bunch more you can do.

Mobile devices

 Test how your website looks on common devices such as iPhones and BlackBerries. There are ways to set up your website’s stylesheets (the “.css” files) to do special formatting for those platforms (here’s a ton of info for the Safari web browser used on iPhones, etc.). Given how many people in Calgary are using these devices these days, it’s worth your while to make your website accessible to them.

You can also pick up a bit of attention by having your campaign produce a custom application for these devices. Note that this is only worth doing if you can get a high quality application produced. An ugly, or uninteresting application will reflect poorly.

Make your campaign information computer-readable

Make your calendar of events available as an up-to-date iCalendar (“.ics”) format file. People can then load that into their personal calendar applications (iCal, Outlook, iPhone Calendar, etc.) allowing them to have automatically updated reminders of your events right in their calendars. Having an iCalendar file available for your campaign will also be usable by other websites like Calgary Democracy to keep an up-to-date list of your events.

If your website admin doesn’t have the facility to generate the iCalendar file for your site, you can use something like the Google Calendar tool to generate a calendar people can subscribe to (including the iCalendar format).

Have your campaign contact information available as a vCard (“.vcf”) file. This makes it easy for people to add you to their address books to stay more readily connected to your campaign. Be sure to include at least your phone number, email and website in the vCard file.

 If you want to be particularly data-friendly, you can also apply the appropriate microformats right into your existing web pages. There’s a growing range of software that understands microformats, making it easier for users to copy things like events and contact information from your web pages.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Online campaigning tips for candidates and their campaigns

In running the Calgary Democracy project, I end up seeing a very wide variety of things candidates and their campaigns do online. Seeing some very painful (to me, anyway) choices being made, I feel obliged to offer some recommendations for less painful approaches.

Be Contactable

 It may be annoying, a hassle, and open you up to hearing from people who are hostile to you, but you need to provide a phone number and email address (not just a web form). No exceptions.

Put your campaign contact info on every page of your website. Your ideal situation, when a potential voter comes to your site, is for them to be interested enough by what they see to want to connect with you. Make that as easy for them to do as possible.

97% of people will not use a web contact form — so provide an email address they can use instead, if they choose. (Keeping in mind that 76% of statistics are made up.)

Website Content

The purpose of a campaign website is not to convey what you want to say.

Go back and read the previous statement again.

The purpose of a campaign website is to make it as easy as possible for potential voters to learn about why you are their best choice to vote for. Turn your ego off and instead focus on providing answers to what their questions may be. (E.g., “Why are you running?” “How do you propose to deal with the issues in our community(ies)?” “Why should I vote for you instead of the other candidates?”)

Use plain language wherever possible. You’re not talking to lawyers, academics or bureaucrats — you’re trying to reach people who aren’t immersed in political jargon.

Have a “Media” page where you provide access to your campaign press releases, a link to the candidate bio, and a large-size (high resolution) head-shot photo of the candidate. (As well as repeating your contact information, again, including any special contact info for media to use.) If you want any media coverage (which you do if you want any chance of winning) then this is essential.

Website Design

Read up on web accessibility to understand how to make your website accessible to users who may have visual or hearing impairments.

If you decide to use Flash (which I recommend against), always, always, always, offer users a convenient way to bypass Flash and still be able to access all your content (except maybe video — but see below for more on that).

Some problems with depending on Flash:
  • Can’t be used by people with visual impairments.
  • Can’t be used on common devices like iPhones.
  • Won’t be used by users like me who run Flash blocking software.
  • Reduces or eliminates the ability of search engines to index your site (reducing the ability of people to find you).
  • Makes it hard to copy text information from your site (like when I want to copy a candidate’s phone number into my list of candidate contacts).

Video

 YouTube is far and away the most familiar video site for people, so make sure your campaign videos are up there. You can also post your videos on other video services (such as Vimeo, Viddler and Facebook). It doesn’t hurt to post the same video to multiple sites (just don’t post the same video multiple times to the same site).

For any video you post, you should also make a transcript available for people who can’t access or hear the video. Once you have a transcript, YouTube makes it easy to add the transcript as subtitles or, with a little extra work, as Closed Captions for hearing impaired.

Further, if you get your transcript translated to another language, you can add multi-lingual subtitles to videos on YouTube, making your videos accessible to an even wider audience. Keep in mind that many Calgarians have English as a second language learned as an adult, so may not be fluent in political English.

One other benefit of providing a transcript for your video is that it then becomes searchable — making it easier for sites like Google to find your videos for people.

Twitter

 When choosing a username on Twitter, just go with your name. Leave out the office you’re running for, or things that are about your campaign. E.g., for a candidate named “Leia Organa”, suboptimal names would include: @VoteForLeia @OrganaForWard15 @LeiaIn2010 @VoteWard15; good names: @LeiaOrgana @leia_organa

Why? Because a Twitter account is about the person, not the very temporary thing of an election campaign. Besides, if you’re serious about this politics stuff, you’ll still be around for more elections, that might not be for the same office. If you want to build an ongoing connection with your community and supporters (something useful when in office and for future elections) you’ll want to not lose that because you had a short-term name.

Another point: Please don’t change your name once you’ve set it. Seriously. That breaks all past references to you in tweets from others — wrecking the connections that show the dialogue online (and losing potential future connections from the archive of the past).

Please also go with just one account for the candidate/campaign. More than that is a hassle for people to follow (so most won’t).

Facebook

 Facebook is evil. But, people are using it and you need to go where the people are.

Your public campaign presence on Facebook should be a Facebook Page (not your personal profile). If users can “like” you, then you’ve got a Page. If they can “friend” you, then you’re using your personal profile.

Don’t count all your Facebook “fans” or “likes” as supporters. Facebook doesn’t offer a way to follow a page without being a “fan” (there’s no “just interested” option). So, many people who are interested in following candidates add them, even though they aren’t actually supporters. Also, some people who oppose a candidate will sign up for the page just to post opposing comments.

Photos

As an absolute bare minimum, you need to provide an easily downloadable high-resolution head shot. Put a clear license for reuse on it (ideally a Creative Commons license that allows for commercial use and derivative works). Media and bloggers will use this in talking about your campaign. Not having a photo will diminish the impact of that (and also diminish the media and bloggers’ interest in you).

 You can set up a Flickr photo account (the free ones are usually enough for a campaign) and share photos from the campaign. Do the same with your Facebook page. Accept submissions from campaign volunteers and fans, but always credit the photographer if you reuse or upload a photo.

I’ve set up a Calgary Municipal Election 2010 group on Flickr for sharing photos from this campaign.

Calgary Democracy Candidate Listings

 Of course, as you add a campaign website, contact information, and social networking resources, you should update that information in your campaign listing on the Calgary Democracy website. Currently, you can do that by email to open@calgarydemocracy.ca. Hopefully soon, campaigns will be able to register on the site to directly update their information.

More?

Anyone have other things to add here?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Information early and incomplete

At the end of the last century, when I was still working in a corporate job, the president of the company had a couple of cheesy (but useful) catch-phrases he used at almost every one of our monthly all-staff meetings. The first was “Know your business by the numbers” which led us to all review the various numbers for the company every month (budgets, sales, call-centre stats, email issue stats, etc.).

The second catch-phrase was “Information early and incomplete.” This one, in particular, has really stuck with me over the years. It means, even if you don’t have all the details or it’s otherwise incomplete, you share what you know as soon as you know it. It’s not a complex idea, but practicing it can have very significant impacts (and failing to practice it can also have massive impacts).

This came to mind again today as a major scheduling conflict emerged in the municipal election here. A couple of organizations are putting together mayoral candidate forums and scheduled them for exactly the same time (I got an email from one yesterday, and a Twitter announcement from the other today). Oops!

I contacted both organizers to point out the problem, and they are discussing how to fix it now. But, I hope we can avoid a repeat in future.

So, I’m strongly encouraging (practically begging) all the groups in town who want to schedule election events to do a couple things.
  1. Check the calendar of election-related events on Calgary Democracy.
  2. Send event “information early and incomplete” to me at open@calgarydemocracy.ca so I can keep a list of tentative/proposed events to help avoid further conflicts.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

“Never erase the past”

The very first issue of 2600 magazine I ever saw had the following quote displayed on an illustration of a computer monitor on the cover:
Never erase the past

Today, local newscaster Barb Higgins entered the race for Mayor in Calgary. Unfortunately, she or her campaign team have chosen to hide her old Twitter feed.

Now, admittedly, there was nothing particularly interesting in the feed (not very many tweets on there — I had read through it a few days earlier when rumours of her candidacy started cropping up again). I doubt there was any “sinister intent” in this action. They may very well have just been trying to prevent people from confusing her old Twitter account with the new one for the campaign.

But, for me, that’s not the issue. The issue is transparency and accountability of those in, or vying for, public office.

Rather than leaving up an inconsequential record of some things she had previously said publicly, she has chosen to try to wipe the slate clean. If this is how she treats the record of the past on things that wouldn’t have any negative impact for her, what could we then expect of her in future if there is something consequential she does or says that she later wants hidden from the public memory?

I believe strongly in the value of putting everything on the table “warts and all.” I think it’s a critical practice on the part of everyone, especially politicians, if we are to have any chance at a well-functioning democracy.

(This motivates one of my core long-term plans for the Calgary Democracy project. I hope to develop it into an ongoing archive of all public information about our politicians — both candidates and those actually elected.)

Monday, July 5, 2010

A symbol for openness and transparency?

On the Calgary Democracy project website, I’m building in detailed accountability details for every bit of information posted. This tracks who added a given piece of information to the website, who edited it, which moderator confirmed it, and when all that happened. All that information will be made available in a way similar to the “History” on Wikipedia articles.

In working on the visual design for the website it occurred to me that it could be useful to have an icon/symbol for “transparency and openness” that could be used to link to the accountability details wherever they are available.

My question to you:

What would an icon for openness and transparency (especially regarding government) look like? Is there one already?

What visual element(s) might it incorporate? Some possibilities I can think of off the top of my head include: Locks, window, open book, hands with palms up, magnifying glass, ledger, … Many of those are already used for other things (especially magnifying glass for search) so would probably not be appropriate.

Please share your thoughts (or leads on existing icons). Thanks!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Calgary Democracy Tech Day

I’m getting a lot busier with the Calgary Democracy project. The CivicCamp folks are showing a lot of support, it’s getting attention on the #yycvote discussions on Twitter, I even have candidates calling me up directly to talk about it.

I need a lot of help!

Democracy Tech Day

I want to put together a tech day sometime in the next month or so. This would be a get together of a bunch of ideas people, testers, data junkies, computer geeks (Ruby on Rails, SQL, mobile apps, mapping, mashups, etc.), interface designers, graphic designers, G.I.S. folks, sys-admins, project leads, etc. All of whom would be ready to get down to work on this stuff.

We’d get a space with some tables for group work, whiteboards, projector for presentations, good internet connectivity, piles of big paper, stickies, Lego bricks, and other idea and design exploration tools. (I’m guessing most people would be able to bring their own computers—although we could arrange for some extras.)

I’d probably have the day start with some short intro presentations on current projects, where they are at and some of the ideas yet to be implemented. Then we could do a short group brain-storming session to explore some ideas and possibilities. Then much of the rest of the day would be centred around actually working on stuff—design sessions, project planning, usability development, actual coding, data-mining, … Depending on the number of participants, we might split into groups on different projects.

Finally, wrapping up the day with short presentations on what people came up with, and deciding on next steps.

With all that, my goals would be to get more people engaged and connected on this work, get some work done on the current projects and get some new projects started.

What do you think?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Racism puts Canada at risk

Having just read about the deeply offensive actions of Canada’s Immigration Ministry (Note: Really the “Ministry Against Immigration”), I take the anonymous comments on the National Post website as clear evidence that Canada is not immune from possibility of descending into racist nationalism and all the evils that come with it.

“Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.”

Canadians: We are not being vigilant enough.

, , , , .

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Looking for nominations for Calgary’s “Most Dedicated Activist”

FFWD Weekly is putting together the ballot for their annual “Best of Calgary” readers’ choice awards.

I'm helping to gather a list of names of individual people (not groups) to be nominated for the “Most Dedicated Activist” category.

Please post your suggested nominations in the comments here (or contact me privately if you don’t want to comment here) along with a brief explanation of why you’re nominating them.

Please note, I got FFWD to change the category from “Most Active Activist” to “Most Dedicated Activist” last year so we could have a chance to recognize the contributions of more than just privileged white guys like me with lots of spare time on our hands. :-) The nominees don't need to have done the most, and they don't need to have garnered the most attention; they just need to have shown real dedication — within their capacities — to working for social change.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Calgary’s Mayoral Race 2010: What I don’t want to see

As everyone who pays any attention whatsoever to politics in this city will already be aware, Calgary’s 3-term mayor, Dave Bronconnier, announced last week that he will not be running for re-election this fall. This makes for the first “open” mayoral election here since 2001.

With candidates just starting to announce their intentions, I don’t have anything resembling a preference yet. I do have some notions of what I don’t want to see, though.

Misrepresentation in the media

In 2001, somewhere between a dozen and twenty candidates were on the ballot for mayor (I really cant remember the actual number and couldn’t easily find a reference online). You wouldn’t have known that, though, if your only source of info on the election was the mainstream (primarily corporate) media. They decided that there were only four “legitimate” candidates who merited any substantive coverage. The media gave effectively no attention to any of the other candidates.

I consider that to be viciously anti-democratic. All citizens should have an equal opportunity to learn about every candidate, regardless of how “serious” or “fringe” they may be considered to be by those in power (which includes the media who are currently very much part of the structures of power in our society).

Power = Opportunity = Responsibility.

The current dominant media have lots of power (although that does seem to be diminishing a little), therefore lots of opportunity. That creates significant responsibility — responsibility they are failing terribly.

In deliberately excluding the majority of candidates from the dialogue, the media denied the core principles of democracy. I hope we can avoid, or at least reduce, the same problem this time around by making all candidates part of the dialogue with fairness and openness.

Oppositional Politics

Ever since Ald. McIver decided, over a year ago, that he wanted to become mayor of Calgary, he seems to have been taking every opportunity to move us toward intensely divisive oppositional politics. He has manufactured “controversy” to create the very false impression of a war between two sides on council. He and his supporters have engaged in attacks on other members of council in an apparent strategy aimed at eliminating the possibility of anyone else being able to take a successful run at the mayor’s seat.

This is self-centred political ugliness that in no way serves the interest of our city and communities.

We don’t need elected representatives who are bent on tearing down their colleagues on council, who move the dialogue from looking at the complexities of the issues our city faces to unrealistic simplifications of “us vs. them.”

I do, actually, believe that all voices, including those I vehemently disagree with, should be at the democratic table — except for one. I see no place for those who want to destroy the opportunities we have for dialogue in favour of their own selfish political games.

With that, I truly hope that McIver and his ilk will be removed from council and replaced with people who can bring those “right-wing” perspectives McIver appears to represent to our city without diminishing the quality of the democratic dialogue.

“Your Worship”

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’d like to see whomever gets elected as our next mayor take action to end the practice of referring to that office holder as “your worship.” (ick!) I’m not counting on it, but I can dream, can’t I?

New local political blog

This post is the first of mine that will be cross-posted to a new political blog going by the tongue-in-cheek name of “The Best Political Team in the Blogosphere™”. The blog aggregates a few, not especially representative (so far), local political bloggers with some very divergent viewpoints. I totally disagree with some of the stuff posted there so far, but that’s all to the good in democratic dialogue.

, , , , , .

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Freedom of speech is not a simple issue

A couple of Calgary city councillors have posted on Twitter that they are “fighting” for freedom of speech/expression (Mar, McIver). This is a polarizing over-simplification of the issue before the committee at City Hall today (a bylaw proposal that would put some restrictions on the use of the public space around City Hall).

Statements like that speak as if this were a world of absolutes — as the extremists on all sides would have us believe — rather than the complex and complicated reality we actually live in.

Freedom of speech is an essential part of democracy, but, as with everything, there are necessary limits. It comes down to the old saying that “the rights of my fist end where the rights of your nose begin.” This is the reason why we have laws prohibiting “hate speech.”

Our “fighting” city councillors seem to be portraying the issue of a policy to govern the use of the public plaza at Calgary City Hall as a polarized one of either being completely for freedom of speech, or being on the slippery slope to totalitarianism. To me, that simplistic polarization is a shameful degradation of, and barrier to, a meaningful democratic dialogue.

Because there is speech that does harm (with recent concrete examples in the rallying of white supremacists on the steps of City Hall), we need to find ways as a society to prevent those harms.

It is impossible to have total freedom of speech because there are some forms of speech that end up impairing the freedom of speech of others. Hate speech is the most obvious of these in that it threatens the freedom of speech of those it seeks to victimize.

So, the main question that I think needs to be addressed is not the falsely polarizing “are you for or against freedom of speech?” but, rather: How can we maximize the broadest opportunities for freedom of speech for all in our society, while protecting each other from harm?

I have heard concerns raised questioning “who gets to decide what is unacceptable speech?” There isn’t a simple answer to that, either. I do think we have a pretty clear way to figure it out in each situation: Speech promoting harm of others. In Canadian law, we have the entrenched principle of speech advocating harm to a group of people on the basis of ethnicity, gender, religion, etc.

Yes, the line is often fuzzy. Remember, this is not a world of absolutes. Sometimes we’ll just have to put in the hard work of meaningful and deep questioning and dialogue to figure these things out as we go. We won’t always get it right. But, if we stay away from absolutism, and remain open to questioning and dialogue, we stand what seems to be the best chance of learning and doing things better.

Absolutism is for the lazy — democracy is hard work (and totally worth it).

, , , , , , , , .

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Calgary Election 2010 - Gathering Data

I’m trying to get an early start to gathering candidate information for the Calgary municipal election coming up in October this year. If you are planning to run, or have information about anyone who is going to run, please share. You can use the comments here, or contact me directly.

In particular, I’m looking for any public contact information (phone, email, office) and web-links (campaign website, Twitter, Facebook, videos, etc.).

All of this is to be compiled and made freely available online through the next iteration of the Calgary Democracy Project.

Candidate Videos

I’m also open to starting on the candidate videos, if any candidates would like to have one done. The format is pretty straight-forward. The candidate sits in front of the camera, standard interview style, and is asked 3 questions:
  1. Why are you running?
  2. What do you consider to be key issues and how do you propose to address those issues?
  3. Why should people vote for you?
The videos are kept to under 10 minutes (arbitrary YouTube time limit, but also the typical limit for how long people can attentively listen to one person talking).

The only editing done is to cut out the interviewer’s comments and asking of the questions (unless the candidate’s responses total more than 10 minutes, then the focus is on cutting it down to fit minimizing any impact to the content of what the candidate says).

These videos are an attempt to bypass the superficial and generally content-free view of candidates we get in the corporate media, hopefully making the candidates a bit more accessible to the public. By providing more than just a 30-second, out-of-context, sound-byte, the videos can hopefully help contribute to a better informed electorate.

, , , , , , .