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.


 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).


 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.


 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 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.


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.


Anyone have other things to add here?