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Show Your Work – On the Alberta Legislature, open legislation and debate

As you may have gathered..and as I may have mentioned one or two times, I’m a fan of municipal government. I respect greatly, its importance in our day-to-day lives. I value its accessibility to residents, whether it’s an interested citizen or a community group looking to be engaged in policy, and in operation of their city, town, hamlet, summer village, etc. And I appreciate the ability of my councillor, and the small group of decision-makers next to them, to engage in debate and discussion in an intimate setting that allows my representative, and everyone’s representatives to ask numerous questions, to engage one-on-one and have an indepth say. An advantage of a smaller group that also isn’t encumbered by party lines.

Being a good politico I do of course closely follow provincial politics. Their federal cousins however, I tend to consider far out of reach of the average citizen; operating from a place where the concept of “all politics is local” tends to take a back-seat, not so much to national discussion, but party ambition and the ability to fall back upon party name rather than a personal connection with constituents come election time. Yes of course, provincial politics could well be accused of having the same flaws. But 80+ MLAs doesn’t quite match the bustle of 300+ MPs or the sound volume of national campaigns.

Anyways, where am I going with this? Debate, the development of legislation, the consideration of amendments, and consultation with the public throughout.

It’s budget time for municipalities. Aside from a few in camera sessions, the process is open for all to drop into Council chambers and view the proceedings. You can/could attend a public hearing, watch civic departments and agencies make their budget requests, see the Mayor lay into the province and feds over municipal funding and next week, see Councillors debate various motions before arriving at a final product. It’s a far cry from the traditionally behind the scenes provincial budget process with an often rhetorical public discussion.

Not that budgets or even municipal funding were a prime topic for MLA’s yesterday. This past evening I tuned into the proceedings in the Leg, and kept the live stream going mostly out of curiosity as to whether any opposition amendments to the topic at hand, the elections accountability act, would actually pass. I believe the final tally was 2 accepted amendments out of 100+ proposed.

I suppose if you swing heavily to the government side, the process doesn’t particularly bother you. But to this observer, there’s something aggravating about watching, what seemed to be some quality proposals, falling under the wheels of a party bus. Isn’t it supposed to be province first, not party first? Opposition MLA’s are generally strong when it comes to articulating their proposals (I say this regardless of whether or not I agree with their politics). But it’s from the chorus of “NOs” which shot down so many of these amendments, that I’d like to hear some articulation of their viewpoint. The reason for their vote.

Perhaps I’m missing something here and have just spent too much time listening to Councillors speak to their reasons for voting yay or nay, one by one, prior to a vote. Maybe I’m just irked by the differences in accessibility by the general public to the policy development process between provincial and municipal politics. Or maybe I’m just plain annoyed that my elected provincial representative can propose an amendment – good, bad, or in between – and see it shot down by dozens of members on the other side, seemingly along party lines with limited explanation justifying their votes.

With the tools of the 21st century, and with a laptop, a smartphone, and/or an iPad sitting in front of almost every MLA and member of the public, there’s a better way to do this; it’s in the development of legislation and amendments using the open source model. A model that inherently creates public consultation and transparency by starting with a blank page and drafting public policy with many eyes upon it.

 

OpenLegislation – It’s a tool developed for the New York State Senate and Assembly

OpenLegislation is a web service that delivers legislative information from the New York State Senate and Assembly to the public in near-real time.

The platform allows bills and their various versions to be published as they’re drafted and as the legislative process moves on. It shows, in an easily accessible manner, how various members voted and even provides the public with the ability to comment and engage in discussion along the way.

The size and bustle of the Legislature may not allow for that intimate debate that can take place in municipal Council chambers. This is however the era of Twitter, of Facebook, of blogs and online forums. There is absolutely no shortage of tools for provincial politicians to post their thoughts on policy, to elaborate on how they vote and make decisions – or for the government to only reveal a bill when it’s reached what they consider to be a final, or near final product. The only hindrance is laziness, a lack of desire for transparency and the failure of the public to provide any political hit for being aloof and disconnected.

Yes, the government does have some public surveys and consultation processes. And sure, many members of the Provincial Assembly and many politicians in fact do utilize social media. But a public meeting with no follow-up, a survey whose results are only revealed through an MLA/minister and social media broadcasts – “Proud to be…”, “Great day at…” “Thrilled to be…” – aren’t engagement. They add little or nothing to the public debate, and as a citizen, I’m not particularly interested in giving up an evening to attend a public meeting, the feedback from which I’ll never have any insights into how it’s actually considered. Nor am I interested in a politician’s events schedule and how productive and great their day was. Although, if they wanted to announce what interest groups they’ve met with and who’s set up meetings to lobby them, that wouldn’t be a bad thing ;).

Yes, we live in a representative democracy. We elect people to make decisions on our behalf. But it shouldn’t mean that we aren’t provided a window into the process, from the drafting of policy to its passing, or the ability to open that window and engage in discussion. It shouldn’t mean that we don’t closely follow the progress of our representatives through the term – asking to see why they’ve voted as they have – what their thoughts are on proposals and ideas from all corners of the assembly. When the process is dominated by party politics, much of which takes place outside the view of the general public or with media at a party AGM crammed into a little room – in failing to do so, we probably deserve what poor policy and debate comes down the pipe as a result.

Not sure when the plows are coming? There could be a couple apps for that.

Residents unhappy with snow removal as windrows block in their vehicles – Global TV

“There was no notice at all that this was going to happen,” said Allan Garber, who lives in the Westmount neighbourhood.

From the video – “If they could have a policy that everyone knows, one side of the street then other, east-side then west-side..so people know what to expect.”

 

Now admittedly, nothing here is going to solve the problem of reaching out to residents without internet connectivity, although it could, if future temporary signage for neighbourhood announcements is of the cellular-based digital variety.

On the city’s open data website, you’ll find the new ‘citizen dashboard’. Launched this week, it pulls from the growing open data catalog to present info in an accessible, easy to use, easy to read format. And behind it is that catalog, with a mass of raw data in various formats. Including the static, snow-clearing schedule that still lists my neighbourhood as having been completed, two days before it actually was.

Not something particularly useful for those folks in Westmount.

So, on to those apps. Let’s start with the open source, web-based, Shareabouts. A crowd-sourced mapping tool. It’s perhaps more well known for it’s use in bikeshare programs, but for a few examples of it in action:

 

Make Brooklyn Safer – Mapping dangerous intersections

City of Portland – Potential bike share locations

And demos:

Describing community assets

City park usage data

 

The usage here is to create an interactive, neighbourhood by neighbourhood breakdown of actions following a snowfall event. Accurate and detailed timelines for clearing can be maintained. Plow drivers can post updates, on the road and as they enter neighbourhoods. And as per the gentleman’s comment in the news report, the city can even go so far as to let residents know when equipment in entering the neighbourhood, which sides of the street are being done first, and update their progress as it’s happening. And residents can respond by pointing out trouble spots and areas in need of attention, or even commending a driver on a job well done.

And of course, other applications such as Google Maps could be utilized in the same way. With the usage and implementation of these apps, definitely not being limited to snow removal.

The city is on the way with open data, now it’s time to embrace interactivity and grow the Edmonton’s digital presence with us as residents, accordingly.

The Netbook Experience

I’ve been considering a new laptop for awhile now, my older dell 700m is still trucking along, but with it replacing an out-of-commission desktop pc at home,  I was looking for something lighter to take to on the road.  After a fair bit of time with Google, and some more time in store actually handling the units, I finally settled on a Sony Vaio Netbook.

I would have preferred having 2gb of ram out of the box, but I’ve been impressed with what this little guy can do with 1gb.  So far I’ve done everything from light 3d gaming to tone mapping HDR images without any issues.  I have a Linux license plate on my car for a reason, and I quickly set about replacing the default Windows 7 Starter Edition with something far more useful.

My Linux Distros of choice these days are openSUSE and Kubuntu.  Not having a cd-rom drive, I used a USB key to test out both distro’s on the machine.   Both ran well off of the USB key, however wi-fi was an issue for both.  SUSE wasn’t able to stay connected to my wireless router and Kubuntu wasn’t able to shutdown with the wireless adapter’s “rt2800pci” kernel module loaded.  I solved the issue in Kubuntu fairly quickly by blacklisting the module.  Installing Kubuntu was simple enough, I used the Windows disk management console to shrink the default NTFS partition as much as I could, and during installation created three partitions in the free space for the root partition, my home directory, and swap space.   The system is quite speedy, and all the hardware was functional right after installation without much tweaking needed.

While bluetooth works fine under Linux, the KDE desktop’s bluetooth application doesn’t yet provide support for tethering to a mobile device.  The GNOME bluetooth manager does provide this functionality, however a disappointing bug with the latest version of Kubuntu causes the application to crash if using the default theme for the gtk-qt-engine.  I’m working around this at the moment by using a separate user account with a different theme configuration for tethering, as I want to maintain the same look and feel between qt and gtk applications in my primary user account.

The real test will be how this little guy holds up over time.

KDE4 Desktop with Weather and Calendar Plasma Widgets