City-owned fibre: new revenue stream?

I was reading this article on Ars Technica about the town of Monticello, MN, who had tried to build its own 50Mbs fibre network after TDS (the local cable monopoly I assume?) had done nothing. This story ends with (of course) TDS taking the city to court (incidentally, the city won at every level, all the way to the supreme court), and using that delay to place fibre itself. The citizens still won, however, as it was a free upgrade in speed for them.

Cities all over North America are struggling for new revenue streams. Vancouver itself has a huge shortfall, and is looking for new revenue sources. Additionally, Vancouver wants to be the “Green Capital” of the world. So why not run city-owned fibre throughout the city? Currently, people have a choice of Telus ADSL, or Shaw cable, and if you’re downtown, Novus. But the service is slow, it costs a fortune – and there’s no real incentive for either  Telus or Shaw to either lower prices or raise speeds, or generally, innovate – because they don’t really have any fear of competition (aside: Where Shaw does have competition from Novus, their price & service is great). So why doesn’t Vancouver roll out a super-high-speed fibre network itself across Vancouver? Revenue could then be handled one of 2 ways (there’s likely other models too – these are just the 2 that immediately come to mind): either lease the lines to private companies to resell (probably far easier to manage logistically), or sell directly to residents (or simply have residents pay a new annual levy on their taxes). Not only would this definitely make Vancouver an attractive city for business to come to (cheap high-speed internet, yes please!), it would also promote telecommuting, remote work, etc. I would argue this falls in line with the goal of being an “Open City” too – broadband for all makes information more easily accessible to end-users.

Would the initial investment be large? Yes. But I suspect it would pay for itself quite quickly – I certainly don’t, and I suspect that most of my fellow Vancouverites have zero loyalty to their internet-access provider (aside: everyone I know who uses Novus loves it – those who use either Shaw or Telus seem to tolerate it, viewing it as the least-bad option between the two). I also think that this sort of urban infrastructure development is exactly what federal stimulus money is good for (although clearly, this does not count as “shovel ready”).

Thoughts on Bill C-300

I was just listening to the debate on CBC’s The Current between John McKay, Liberal MP for Scarborough-Guildwood and Jon Baird, president of the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC).  The debate was regarding bill C-300, a private member’s bill put forward by John McKay that proposes a system of government oversight of overseas mining exploration & development by Canadian companies. John McKay’s website describes it thusly:

Bill C- 300, also cited as An Act Respecting Corporate Accountability for Mining, Oil and Gas Corporations in Developing Countries, will promote responsible environmental practices and international human rights standards on the part of Canadian mining, oil and gas corporations in developing countries.  The purpose of this Act is to ensure that corporations engaged on mining, oil or gas activities and receiving support from the Government of Canada act in a manner consistent with international environmental best practices and with Canada’s commitments to international human rights standards. The Act gives the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of International Trade the responsibility of holding corporations accountable for their practices by submitting annual reports to the House of Commons and the Senate for review.

So this, to me, seems to be quite a milquetoast bill, that does next to nothing. What it does, and which I fully support it, is that it demands companies act elsewhere in a manner acceptable within our own borders. Additionally, because so much of development is funded through Canadian taxpayers via CPP investment, or through Export Development Canada (EDC), it gives the government the ability to remove taxpayers’ complicity with the poor behaviour of these companies. I don’t like to think my taxes are in any way funding shady corporate practice, or potential human rights abuse abroad.

Jon Baird was arguing that this bill was unnecessary (if I understood him correctly), because there are so few problems (17 complaints a year was a number I heard), and that the industry would prefer to 1) self-regulate, 2) be led by carrot, not beaten by the stick and 3) represents meddling by the Canadian government on the sovereign affairs of other nations. So let’s break this down:

  1. Because the problem is a “small” one, it’s not worth correcting. Uh, why? Just because there’s only 17 complaints doesn’t mean that those 17 complaints a year don’t merit investigation. Given that attitude, it is clear that “self-regulation” simply will not work, because you’re worrying about the number of complaints to determine size an issue, not the severity of complaints.
  2. You should be rewarded, as an industry, for behaving well? What? Shouldn’t that be the default industry position. Further to that, I’d argue ongoing investment by CPP or EDC in your corporations is a carrot – not a right. It seems only reasonable to pull that investment if you’re not meeting some fairly minimum standards. The punitive measures of this bill are so mild as to be nearly laughable, apart from the ability to pull government investment dollars – nothing further.
  3. The final point, meddling in sovereign affairs is potentially a valid issue. But it too falls apart under scrutiny: These investigations are only undertaken if there are complaints filed against the company in a given nation. Which means, inherently, that they are perceived to be contravening some local standard or law.  Jon Baird’s counter-argument was how would Canada feel if Brazil started investigating the mining operations in Sudbury. You know what? I suspect we’d co-operate and demand full disclosure by the companies operating in Canada. For nations without strong “rule of law”, or poor internal human rights, we may *not* get government support. And there may be some tricky diplomacy around that. But I’d rather us try, and fail, to investigate Canadian companies operating in these regions than to just ignore any complaints.

I would humbly suggest an addendum to the bill to placate one of Jon Baird’s arguments about “frivolous” complaints from NGO’s that exist solely to do just this: Keep a record of who brings forward complaints. If they are brought forward by a legal entity (this bill should, and *must* support anonymous whistle-blowing to have teeth, I feel), it would be legitimate to use any records of previous complaints by the organization as evidence in the current one (I suppose a “boy-who-cried-wolf clause”).

One final aside – here’s another place where open data could be of use – if all EDC & CPP investment figures were easily available to anyone to analyze, break-down, review, etc, it could be matched up along international foreign-aid data, or human-rights abuse data, or who knows what else that could both help a company’s defence or the crown investigator to make decisions about the net effects of the company’s actions in a foreign country.

BC’s coming HST

I’ve been giving some thought about the upcoming HST, which will harmonize the 5% federal GST with our existing 7% PST into a single 12% tax. From what I understand, this is a boon to capital-heavy large business, particularly in manufacturing – the savings there can be immense. So I understand the point of it if you’re a BC Liberal – the remnants of BC’s heavy industry & forestry are core supporters of the party. But it strikes me as a move that will serve to alienate virtually every other sector. As a small business owner, the only impact I see for my business is that all my services are about to get more expensive – until now, I’ve only had to charge GST to my clients, because I do not deliver a physical product. However, I believe I’ll now have to charge (and collect) HST – so suddenly everything I do costs my clients 7% more. Not ideal when many clients are working with us to find ways to deliver services more cheaply, or are scaling back project ambitions due to cost, etc. For Jeff, who in sales entertains clients (both current & prospective) a fair bit, our acquisition costs will rise, because restaurants will also charge HST on meals. So I’m not a huge fan of the tax itself.

I’ve also been thinking about the timing of the introduction of this tax, and I think it is brilliant political maneuvering by the Liberals, although I suspect they miscalculated the response. The NDP just lost an election by campaigning on “Axe the tax” – certainly, a different tax – but a tax all the same. And that campaign by the BC NDP backfired hugely, and lost them support of many organizations & supporters. So, one would think, their willingness to oppose a proposed tax would be lessened. The Liberals also just won an election and are riding high, with the next election years away. The first year in office is definitely the time to do anything unpopular – we’ll all have either forgotten or grown used to whatever change is being made. Finally, because we are in a recession, the Liberals can spin this as being “economic stimulus” in the grand tradition of right-wing trickle-down economics: help BC’s “core” industries, and let the wealth trickle down from there. Never mind that increasingly, BC’s core industry appears to be service-based, as the Georgia Straight pointed out.

Third Annual Think City Citizen Budget Survey

Every year, the City of Vancouver goes through a public consultation on the annual budget. This process has left much to be desired in terms of the actual consultation process. Each year, for the past three years, Think City has run it’s own, parallel Citizen’s Budget survey, to provide an additional means of feedback to the public that would otherwise be missed. Once the Think City survey is complete, the Think City executive present the results to council on March 31st.

Please take three minutes to fill out this survey and let Mayor Gregor Robertson and the rest of City Council know what you want in this year’s budget.

Let’s make sure citizens’ voices are heard, when city council decides the priorities for this year’s budget.

Speaking of Media Image…

I, last week, was wondering aloud about Obama’s media image, and then today, I see that Errol Morris was thinking about media image too:

During the last week of the Bush administration, I asked the head photo editors of these news services — Vincent Amalvy (AFP), Santiago Lyon (AP) and Jim Bourg (Reuters) — to pick the photographs of the president that they believe captured the character of the man and of his administration.

This is a fascinating collection of photos & rationale to sum up a president. A great read. (via Daring Fireball)

Obama’s media image

Having seen an awful lot of images of President Obama in the media these past few days – both video and still, I’ve noticed a striking contrast between his appearance in the media and former president Bush’s: If Obama is in conversation, answering questions, or opining, the shots are often close up, often just framing his face & shoulders. Additionally, he’s sitting a lot, or being shot at eye-level, putting him on the same level as the viewer. When being filmed with other people, he is invariably leaning towards them, either listening to them or addressing them. There’s a sense that Obama is talking to you, rather than addressing you. The exception so far has been “official” announcement from podia, which tend to be filmed from a set distance. Perhaps what’s actually different is the amount of footage of Obama interacting with people, rather than announcing items from a podium.

Contrast this to how Bush was filmed – now, I cannot remember how he was filmed when he started his presidency, but in the last year or so, Bush was often shot from below, with him looking down on the viewer. Alternately, there were a lot of wide shots showing Bush in isolation – standing alone at a podium, or in front of a group of people, rather than in a group of a people. When there were close-ups on his face, they tended to be solely reaction shots, then pull back again for when he’d speak. Finally, when listening to someone else, Bush would often appear to lean back on his heels, rather than lean in towards the speaker.

Now, I’ve no idea how much of the angle of coverage is due to the media, how much is due to the President’s media advisors, how much stems from personality of the men, and how much is due to the fact that Obama’s ‘new’, but I do find it quite interesting. I wonder if one could gauge the relative popularity of a president (or prime minister) by the angles and distance from which he is filmed?

Vancouver Civic Election Polling Station Lookup

I don’t know if you’ve seen the City of Vancouver’s Polling Station Lookup Tool. It’s really, really terrible. And I figured that I could do something better. So I tooled around with the Google Maps API, drew up the regions, entered the polling stations into a DB, spent a couple hours coding and hey presto! I present to you: My Maps-based Polling station lookup tool!

Because I drew the voting division boundaries myself in Google maps, there’s a peculiar bug (It stems from the algorithm I use to determine whether a co-ordinate is within a particular polygon), which is if your address is right on the boundary line between two divisions, it is possible that the tool will push you into the wrong division. I suspect most of this stems from the lack of precision in the geocoding of the address lookup vs the precision of the boundaries – the divisions have a couple extra decimal points of precision, so the “dot” that is your address is pretty big on the map.

So, for 98% or so of all users, this will be accurate, but I do warn you – there’s the odd chance that this will return you the wrong polling station. If you think you might be on a boundary, I did include the map of the voting divisions, where you can view the divisions as I drew them on the map – and you can see that it’s not perfect….
I’d been wanting to do something with the Google Maps API for a while – this was a good project to wet my feet with, as I’ve got some upcoming work that will use this sort of stuff more more extensively. As a side note, while I prefer the Yahoo maps API (I tried out both), the actual maps in Google Maps are so much more pleasant that I ended up using Google Maps.

so again, here’s the link to my Polling Station Lookup Tool

The Think City/Dream Vancouver debate

Last night, I attended the Think City / Dream Vancouver city councillors debate at the Alice McKay room in Library Square (Full disclosure: I am a Dream Vancouver volunteer, and asked a pre-scripted question at last night’s debate. I was also an unsuccessful Vision Vancouver Park Board nominee).

The debate was, to me, surprisingly well attended – probably near 200 people, and a fantastic mixture of youth and …umm… older adults were present. The debate was moderated by Kera McArthur (of Dream Vancouver) and Charlie Smith (of the Georgia Straight). The participating candidates were Ellen Woodsworth of COPE, Michael Gellar of the NPA and Geoff Meggs of Vision Vancouver). The questions were divided into 3 sections: housing, civic engagement and transportation.

The housing section produced by far the most energetic debate between the 3, as there are some clear differences, mostly in approach as opposed to goals, between the 3 parties. Of note: The NPA (or at least Michael Gellar, as he seemed to contradict the NPA party line numerous times throughout the night, and indeed, took the time to distance himself from the current NPA to what he was calling the new NPA) oppose building shelter beds as, if I understood correctly, actually not being helpful in the long run. Vision supports building emergency shelter beds as a short term solution, but maybe not in Storyeum. COPE likewise wants to build emergency shelter beds, and wants to see if Little Mountain can be used while its waiting for redevelopment.

When it came to civic engagement, they all more or less agreed: there needs to be a change in how accessible councillors are and how the consultation process is handled. They all did not want an arm’s-length office of consultation, as it would add a layer between the public and council. I personally feel that they were missing the point of what this office’s role would be, but it seems there will not be one. The debate aboute finance and electoral reform was more interesting: COPE supports a wards system. Vision wants to investigate, and strike a comittee, but not until the next election, and if I recall correctly, the NPA are also willing to investigate, but note that reform has already been defeated in a referendum. All three spoke well of the Berger report, but were essentially non-committal.

Transportation was the least interesting, although notable in that Michael Gellar seems quite removed from the stated platform of the NPA on the issue of the Burrard Bridge. COPE & Vision oppose Gateway, NPA supports it. All support improved cycling infrastructure, and pilots on physically seperating cyclists and motor vehicles. Vision would support a rental-based city-wide bicycle program, COPE would like a free one.

Overall, here’s my feeling on how the individual councillors did:

  • Ellen Woodsworth seemed somewhat out of her league here. She was hesitant, and to be honest, seemed a little pie-in-the-sky to my tastes. However, she earns major brownie points (and probably my vote) for clearly and explicitly placing gender issues as a part of every single discussion, and it seems clear to me that she would be an eloquent champion for womens’ issues in council.
  • Michael Gellar is highly entertaining, and would be a good, hard-working councillor I believe. However, he comes across as a pompous, privileged white male who has no idea that he is indeed, that. His casual references to travel locals, meetings with various other players all reinforced this. He also took an inexcusable, unecessary dig at Vancouver’s city workers, which, were there any justice, would cost him any chance at being elected, despite his attempts to later back-pedal. I do believe, in his defence, that it sounded much worse than he meant given his expression just after speaking (he immediately blushed, looked down and was still – the only time of the night he was not highly animated).
  • Geoff Meggs is a policy wonk. He knows his stuff, he’s cautious about speaking to things he’s unsure of. He toes the Vision party line very well. I believe he’s passionate about what he believes in. That being said, he is a very dry speaker, and doesn’t communicate his excitement very well. He also, and this is the most important, I believe, clearly has a lot of experience in how the city works, how to interact with the media, and community consultation. He would make a highly effective, if possibly somewhat hidden-behind-the-scenes city councillor.

I’m hopeful that Think City will post either an audio or video of the debate up online sometime soon, so that you may all see it. As a last note, I think that the councillors are probably far more important to the running of the city than the mayor, given that, in reality, the mayor is just one more vote on council – so be sure to read  up on the council candidates, and if you can, attend other debates featuring them.

The Results are in…

… and I lost. Really, really, really lost. I came in last place in the voting.

However, I was so thrilled by the whole experience, I can say with some certainty that I’ll do this again in three years. And hopefully then, I’ll know a little more from this time, I’ll be a little more organized, and the results will be significantly better.

My many thanks to everyone who supported me, to everyone who voted for me, and for everyone’s encouragement during this.

I’m not entirely sure what’ll happen to this blog in the short term – I’ll probably revert to my domain as primary, and will redesign. But I suspect that local politics will remain a more common presence in the posts here.


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