Deepening the Discourse Beyond That Which Is Shiny

"In the age of Gov 2.0, the public served by a government program expects to see “alignment” between the policy presented by their elected leaders, the architecture of the program, and, most importantly, the user experience.

The citizens of 2011 Canada who access a government program have the same expectations for quality service as they have come to expect from their favourite shopping outlet, bank, or service provider. Today’s “consumers” don’t think consciously about these expectations — it’s what they have been trained to expect.

It should be obvious to the political and public service leaders that this is the case. But scanning the newspaper, one can quickly identify any number of current events that highlight a “misalignment” within some government service."

-- Alcide DeGagné, in Strategic & Operational Reviews: We Can't Agree to Disagree

Bowling For Green Dollars [Teleseminar]

09/15/2011 13:00
Canada/Eastern

While the current state of the economy has led some to wonder if we should bother defining "jobs" at all, others remain bullish on the traditional employment opportunities afforded by environmental sustainability, and the ambitions associated with colour green.

Government backing on this new frontier remain the subject of uncertainty, though. The cost of stimulus programs for clean energy businesses has been the subject of much recent political wrangling in the U.S. The recent bankruptcy of Solyndra, a solar panel manufacturer supported with $535 million in funding, is being pointed to as opponents as reason enough to drive Barack Obama out of office.

Meanwhile, efforts by Premier Dalton McGuinty to lure Samsung's solar panel plants to Ontario have become a target for his Conservative opponents in the provincial election.

The ambitions related to green tech might start with personal technology, though. Companies like Apple are increasingly being asked to step up their game with solar power — even if that's a technically tricky thing to do. But as enthusiasm for saving the planet has been eclipsed by enthusiasm for mobile devices, proponents of sustainability have to find a new hook to rouse public passion, and turn environmental gloom into hope.

Google just recently disclosed details about its energy consumption, as it increases investment in green projects and technologies, in the effort to reassure the world that all the daily clicks aren't contributing to the expiration of the planet.

Don’t F*** With Toronto’s Ladies Who Lunch

This has been an eventful few weeks: Jack Layton’s death, Steve Jobs’ resignation, Hurricane Irene, the overwhelming resurgence of speculation and replaying of the September 11, 2011 attacks in the days leading up to its tenth anniversary, the deaths of George Kuchar (experimental filmmaker) and Jeanette Ingberman (founder of Exit Art, a long-running experimental curatorial project) and on and on…. so the following is purely escapism.

The ‘tanorexic-narcissist’ syndicate The Real Housewives of Wherever is not going to happen in Toronto, but for a brief moment, there were talks of this reality series coming to town. Perhaps it was too soon after the disastrous release of the webisodes for Lake Shore, the utterly despicable Jersey Shore knock off that some Torontonians foolishly allowed to happen. As an expat, there’s some empathy for Gawker’s perspective on this series as “the least important sociological experiment of our time.” This is old news at this point.

Snow's Better Than Nothing

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I was sitting in the parking lot of IKEA the first time I heard the Government of Canada’s digital television transition advisory on my AM radio. Scripted to a bristling player piano score (perhaps the agency that produced the radio ad thought Canada was transitioning from silent pictures to talkies?), the spot advised listeners that over-the-air (OTA) television “snow” (aka analogue signals) would be “cleared” from Canada’s airwaves by August 31, 2011 so as to make way for digital television signals.

While last week’s switch from analogue to digital television could have been a welcomed change for OTA viewers (conservatively estimated to represent one million households) if it had been equitably executed, the benefits to be realized by the analogue television shut-off hasn't been shared with all Canadians. MP Charlie Angus said it best when he described Canada’s digital television transition as a “hodgepodge” effort.

Under Canada’s new two-tier OTA television broadcast system, viewers residing in cities of 300,000 or more (with some exceptions) are now able to pull in a dozen or so free to air Canadian digital television signals using a roof top antenna or a set of “rabbit ears” (provided they have a newer TV or a digital-to-analogue converter box).

'The Netflix Canada Effect': Consumer Rebellion Against Territorial Rights

Backyard satellite dishes used to be the biggest symbol of sedition in Canada. Sticking it to The Man, by receiving HBO and MTV signals blocked at the border, was a pricey proposition. But also a status symbol.

Since that time, the dishes got smaller, to the point of being disposable. Canadian companies eventually caught up to offering their own and the grey market ones smuggled across the border became illegal.

The fact that both copyright ownership and Canadian Content regulations stand in the way of program options being mirrored on both sides of the border, though, continues to grate on the same level that led someone who owned a parabolic antenna to be seen as a freedom fighter.

Subscription packages in Canada might now include brand names like HBO and MTV, but the offerings aren't identical, and the regulations that require popular channels to be offered in packages with less popular ones have contributed to a consumer backlash.

Netflix Canada drew immediate criticism upon its launch last year, because its menu was largely tantamount to a dusty VHS bargain bin, rather than the dream of having unlimited access to every motion picture ever made for a couple bucks a week.

The launch of short-term virtual movie rentals on YouTube throughout Canada might allow for broader choice, but they are priced at the same level as videos from the bankrupt Blockbuster, albeit with a viewing time limit rather than a late charge. And asking $4.99 for an online look isn't going to lead to much spontaneous selection. Reports of the death of the video store ritual are probably exaggerated.

Just like the underground market that emerged for dishes, though, all these geo-targeted tactics has created more incentive to find an IP address-spoofing plug-in.

Encountering 4chan and Anonymous: Cole Stryker's book 'Epic Win for Anonymous'

So, I finished Cole Stryker's book, Epic Win For Anonymous: How 4chan's Army Conquered the Web. Can't say that I really learned anything, but I doubt that academics who've been studying 4chan for the past two years are his target audience.

The book makes good on its promise to peer into 4chan without succumbing to the "fear, condescension, and hand-waving that dominate mainstream coverage of internet culture", and it's certainly one of the few accounts -- along with Julian Dibbell's work -- of 4chan by someone who "gets" it.

High-Tech Grilled Cheese Raises the Stakes for Tim Hortons Journalism

No matter how much Apple, Facebook or Google are credited for transforming the planet, their recognition factor is still dwarfed by the fast-food brands that have managed to infiltrate every neighbourhood.

Jonathan Kaplan, the founder of the Flip Video camcorder, raised his share of eyebrows when he announced plans for a chain of grilled cheese restaurants whose orders could be placed via smartphone. But a determined attempt has been made to explain the parallels between the two ventures.

The marketing of The Melt has involved making a case for the nostalgic power of simple meals that mom used to make — or at least the preparation process that she could teach her latchkey kids.

Kaplan opened his first location in San Francisco with pronouncements of how Americans have craved an eatery that does one thing well, not unlike the Flip. Plus, backing from Sequoia Capital was used to get Swedish company Electrolux to create a machine that ensured a consistent grilled constitution.

Curiosity over the concept will have to stretch beyond gadget bloggers, though. And, it will happen, if only because quick-service restaurants represent the final frontier of the monoculture. You don't need to eat in them to know that they are there.

Canadians have seen this phenomenon take shape over the past decade, as everything related to Tim Hortons has become worthy of attention — like the recent trial coffee cup sizing change in two smaller markets. The story proved more tantalizing for media outlets because it wasn't formally announced.

Internet Security is a Myth

Recently a "wildcard" SSL (secure socket layer) certificate for Google (ie *.google.com) was found in the wild being presented by a non-google site from an Iranian IP address. This means that that server could impersonate any google website that has "google.com" in the name. In this way malicious operators could collect login information for many services, including email, and then scan email for more personal details to assist in identity theft, or direct login credentials theft to other sites, such as Paypal. (Many sites require you to receive email at a known email address to reset your password - this makes having control of someone's email an easy route to accessing accounts on other sites, perhaps even web banking.)

  The Economist, The Register articles on Google Certificate in the wild

Noted security researcher Moxie Marlinspike talks at the yearly hacker conference "BlackHat 2011" about recent issues with SSL, the secure socket layer, which protects most electronic communications on the internet and in some banking networks. In the second half of his talk he discusses the complexity of the designs of security for the internet, and some possible solutions to the current situation.

SSL and the Future of Authenticity: Marlinspike @ BlackHat 2011

Four out of Five Social Media Surveys Say Whatever You Want To Say

When it has come to the adoption of online platforms, and the adjustment to the current information age, there is presumably no worse sin than not "getting it."

Most companies are still presumed by default to be out of touch. And mainstream media outlets continue to be similarly pilloried.

Yet, no one is going to sacrifice profit for the illusion of progress, just because a critic heckled them.

A safer tactic, then, has involved trumpeting a survey that doesn't name any names. SAS Canada, the analytics company seeking new customers for its software and services, has all but perfected this game.

The latest online survey of 1,000 "senior level business decision makers," conducted by Leger Marketing back in January, asserted that less than a fifth of companies are "getting it" when it comes to social media. Statistics showed that some of those executives have sloughed the job off to communications and marketing departments. And some just don't care.

Of course, it didn't take seven months to count up the multiple-choice clicks, given how SAS released numbers from the same survey in mid-May. The press release back then was "Information overload still dragging Canadian execs down."

Without fail, these numbers were promptly spun into a feature report for the Financial Post, then syndicated to local Postmedia Network affiliates across the country.

Last summer, though, the picture was different. SAS boasted that 90 per cent of organizations in the country were using the new tools — just sluggish about applying them.

Still, the statistics actually budged in a positive direction, since 10 per cent of respondents asserted social media was a waste of time in 2010, compared to 5 per cent this year.

Sarah Thomson: Toronto's Queen of All Vanity Media

No matter how many citizen journalism startups, free blogging tools and social media platforms are out there, the internet still lacks the power of a printing press.

Sarah Thomson, publisher of Women's Post, certainly understands the clout of her little-known magazine over online outlet. Why would she leverage its cover for her second annual election bid? Because the tactic worked when she used the forum to proclaim herself "Toronto's next mayor."

Running for the provincial Liberals in the NDP stronghold of Trinity-Spadina, where she has a slightly greater chance of winning — which may not be saying much — the distribution of her latest issue to homes around the riding has led bigger outlets to speculate whether the tactic is ethical.

None of this attention would've emerged if Thomson's alleged dream diary, about the choice between "Stability or Risk" at the helm of Ontario, been a blog post or Facebook note. The perception that comes with the front page of something (it's "The Post!") is still more valuable for the voters she wants to reach.

The Toronto Star has concurrently backed a community blogger project for the provincial election, Speak Your Mind, on the premise that every one of 107 ridings could use a volunteer correspondent to herd the online discussion. But the website commissioned to coordinate the contributions, The Mark News, has struggled to establish influence by providing a wider forum for professional pontification. Websites built on telling people what they should think simply aren't worth very much on their own.

Single Click Government

I've spent the better part of the last five years working at the confluence of public policy, people, and technology and can say with certainty that the experts in the field agree: the proliferation of digital communication technologies is fundamentally reshaping all sectors of society. While this may be most apparent in the newspaper, music, or television industries, to think that governments are somehow immune to the changing environment is irresponsible. Thus far governments have managed to operate under the radar, espousing collaboration as the new modus operandi of the public service while hiding in the murky rhetoric of ‘doing more with less'; but frankly it’s no longer a viable option for dealing with the coming change.

Digital is different, so let's do things differently

If you don't believe me, look at what is happening across the pond in the United Kingdom where budgets are being slashed on average of 20% but up to 35% in some cases. The harsh reality, as the Brits are learning, is that they can't even afford to do more with less. Being more collaborative isn't the same thing as being innovative. Similarly, all the collaboration in the world doesn't break you out of old mental models or help you re-imagine your role in a rapidly and ever changing society. We need to cut through the noise of ‘greater efficiency through greater collaboration’ and the rhetoric of ‘doing more with less’ and focus instead on doing things fundamentally differently. Given the profound impact of digital communication technologies on our society, I think that doing things differently starts with cultivating a better understanding of how digital is reshaping what citizens expect from their public institutions and how public institutions can best respond to those needs.

Guggenheim BMW Lab NYC: “Confronting Comfort”

I visited the recently launched Guggenheim BMW Lab space in NYC last weekend. Designed as a hybrid “urban think tank, community center and gallery space” it is temporarily housed (from August 3 to October 16, 2011) in a lot formerly occupied by an architectural salvage place that partially collapsed in 2000 and soon after, was condemned and summarily demolished. To my recollection, the lot has been abandoned ever since and the architectural relics the place used to be filled with haunt the corner. Also attached to the project are an organic, local café and Urbanology (Wed-Sun 1-5), an interactive role-playing game for urban explorers.

During my visit, I noticed Mars Bar, the landmark East Village dive that for many years was located just across Second Avenue from the Guggenheim BMW Lab, was gone. Apparently, it was shut down by the Department of Health, and the owner—sensing a long and losing battle with twenty-plus years of accumulated bug corpses, rodent feces, safety pins, needles, cigarette butts, blood, semen, vomit, saliva, urine and etc.—decided to close up shop.

The Guggenheim BMW Lab is an open-concept structure designed by Tokyo architecture firm Atelier Bow-Wow, with plastic chairs and mesh walls attached to a collapsible infrastructure. Its design clearly reflects its mobility. The Lab is open and free to the public—access from both Houston and 1st Streets—and the hours are amenable to most people’s work hours (Wed-Thurs 1-9, Fri 1-10, Sat-Sun 10-10). Public events—mediation, yoga, performances, lectures, interactive debates, talks, screenings—are scheduled throughout the day.

Canadian Recording Industry Wants To Turn Its Frown Upside Down

Can the music business lobby shift from being a purveyor of doom and gloom to one with hope and change?

Music Canada must think so, as its long-beleaguered president Graham Henderson looks eager to return to the media spotlight this fall, as a hero behind brokering deals between song-based startups and the major record labels.

The shift in attitude has been accompanied by a rebranding, too. After all, it was all over but the pouting for what was drearily known as Canadian Recording Industry Association.

So, when Galaxie Mobile was announced last week as the first homegrown streaming service in the country, the CRIA acronym was nowhere to be found. And, with the likes of Last.fm, Pandora and Spotify similarly expected to overcome their geo-blocked status, the future is considered to be as bright as possible under the circumstances.

Previously, high licensing rates inhibited such services in Canada, due to a regulatory process that created an adversarial relationship between music startups and record companies. Of course, both sides wanted the Copyright Board to set licensing rates in their favour.

The optimism has forced Henderson to stop lamenting the economic hardship created by dead or dying business models. A few short years ago, the message from CRIA was that legalized digital music was a total failure compared to the U.S., which necessitated a federal crackdown on file-swappers.

Today, the recently reincarnated Music Canada is gloating about good news: a mobile social music networking platform launched by Research In Motion.

Professional Sports and Subversion-Free Social Media

The search to make a few bucks in hyperlocal online journalism has turned out fruitless for most would-be contenders.

When it comes to sports coverage, though, seizing control of the message across all possible platforms has been paying huge dividends — one market at a time.

A recent feature from The New York Times highlighted just how much money is being made from media rights, to the point where they are now worth more than the teams.

The squad formerly known as the Expos, in fact, may have never gotten official assent to leave Montreal to become the Washington Nationals if not for the creation of a regional network that allowed the neighbouring Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos to reap the majority of the TV-related rewards.

When it came to the acquisition of the Toronto Blue Jays in 2000, the late Ted Rogers was motivated by the emerging realization that sporting events were predicted to be the last type of long-form programming that was always watched live, rather than on-demand. The regional Rogers Sportsnet channels have prospered ever since.

We Built This City by Blocking Trolls

Calgary.ca earned some attention this week for being transformed into what a press release deigned to claim is the "first search-based website in Canada."

The venture is powered by Google Search Appliance, even though the home page looks more like rival engine Bing, with the search bar augmented with large photos of the resurgent city.

Indeed, the effort combined Microsoft Share Point software with other Google tools, and was highlighted on the promotional blog for the Search Appliance. Predictably, the new format was motivated by complaints that would be familiar to anyone who ever wrestled with a government website.

While the launch fit into the outreach narrative threaded by Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, his Toronto counterpart was exposed for being trigger-happy on Facebook — even if Rob Ford has delegated social media management to others in his office.

Questioning the fact that Ford showed up to dance in his dress pants at the Caribbean Carnival, while steering clear of anything to do with Pride week, was not welcome on the wall. Asking for answers about his behaviour is apparently enough to have your "like" undone.

Amidst the other communication-related shenanigans surrounding Toronto City Hall, though — including a Ford administration support group on Facebook where the administrator, city councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, promised to block the input of any communist he could smell — the idea that the elected leader of the city would stifle discussion from citizens couldn't stir up any new outrage.