CommunicationsDebatesLab NotesLiving between the linesNotes

Democracy in the Age of Digital Regulation

Many start our digital age with the invention of the computer. The device materializes Alan Turing’s concept of universal machine capable of executing any finite sequence of unambiguous instructions on any data.

Such “universal” capability has political implications each time some digital application supports human interactions.

We know that with words we can compose a near-infinite number of legislative texts from the most emancipating to the most subjugating. The very same is possible with digital devices. We can think up countless algorithms, standards and designs to manage relations between human and legal persons.

Thus, any set of design, data and programming for such purpose involves decisions of social, ethical and political nature.

And once imparted to machines, digital rules and instructions are automatically implemented with remarkable efficiency. Definitely more than legislative texts, regulations and contracts which can easily remain symbolic, gathering dust on shelves.

From the intimate…

Recently, U.K. and U.S. health authorities approved commercial pilots of wireless microchip pills. Those tablets transmit the time we take them or live results of the medical tests they carry out.

We can imagine beneficial uses: helping patients to manage multiple medications, or physicians to fine-tune diagnostics and prescriptions.

Conversely, we can envision contentious scenarios: doctors trailing patients who adjust medication on their own; or insurers suspending coverage for non-compliance to prescriptions.

Who then decides which automatic interactions between whom are permitted or prohibited through such devices? We the patients, with or without our physicians? Health professional corporations through standardized protocols? Pharmaceutical companies? The digital device’s manufacturers? The government agency approving their commercialization? Public or private insurers reimbursing their costs? Our elected representatives through legislation?

It is the highly adaptable effectual communications offered by digital devices that unavoidably opens such unfamiliar questions and issues.

To the global…

Internet has become a key societal infrastructure. However, Edward Snowden’s revelations proved how much it facilitates mass surveillance.

Yet, it is possible to redesign the Internet with default end-to-end encryption and “onion” rerouting of our communications and uses. Such features would still allow targeted surveillance of suspected individuals or organizations. But they would make mass surveillance of entire populations economically impracticable.

But again, who decides? Is it, for instance, the few thousand self-appointed members of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), an international group with no legal status, nor formal membership procedure? If so, where are we, billions of Internet users, in those deliberations that directly concern us all?

We barely are even spectators of these decisions since such arcane stories often escape mass media’s attention.

Indeed, democratic governance of digital infrastructures such as the Internet remains to be devised.

To everywhere

Digital applications work best in integrated standardized settings.

Thus, future “smart” pills’ standards set in U.S. and U.K. could impose themselves as global medical norms.

As much as India’s controversial biometric standards for identification of its 1.3 billion citizens could become worldwide citizens/customers relationships management norms.

We already saw how cottage start-ups such as Google and Facebook rapidly got their undisclosed algorithms to custom-filter contents and relationships of the billions of users we are.

Soon, manufacturers might well leave us no choice but to use “smart” light bulbs that automatically link up to the Internet and our digital appliances and devices. Exactly as we recently discovered that some “smart” TV sets were built to spy on us.

As the “Internet of Everything” emerges, social norms under technical guises will be imposed upon us. Or not. It depends on who decide among all the possibilities offered by technology.

The new legislators

Currently, such digital decision making is increasingly exercised by technocrats, engineers and entrepreneurs outside traditional democratic institutions. All the more easily since they use formal languages incomprehensible by most citizens, processes largely imperceptible by human senses and standards applicable across jurisdictions.

I was a direct witness of one troubling instance: the development of the Quebec Health Record (QHR). Over a decade, the provincial government conducted several public consultations which confirmed a consensus on the long-standing principle of patients’ consent over communication of their medical information. Except that once QHR’s deployment begun, it became obvious that the device did not allow workable exercise of this right.

Hence in 2012, the adoption of a bill abolishing consent when information goes through QHR. It’s now all or nothing: either all care facilities and professionals have access to all your QHR contents; or nobody has.

They were existing or conceivable health records systems that maintain, even enhance, patients’ control over such communications. Unfortunately, once a large infrastructure such as QHR is in place, overhaul becomes quite expensive.

Recently, the Quebec Minister of Health admitted that the 1.6 billion dollars system is a failure, even from a strictly clinical standpoint, and that fixing it would cost at least another billion.

Design, standards and algorithms picked years before by a handful of technocrats, once embedded in costly circuitries and systems can force an entire society to give up on an undisputed fundamental right or principle. Or even on basic public service efficiency.

The democratic challenge

In order that democracy does not wane, but reinforces itself through the digitization of human interactions, we must collectively:

  • learn torecognize whichIT innovationsinvolve some exerciseofsocial power;
  • compel their designersto document such features in understandable and verifiable ways; and
  • democratizetheinnovation processes by deliberating them, eitherinexisting democratic venues or in new, often transnational, ones to be developed.

This requires:

  • better understandingby populations of the social and political dimensionsof IT;
  • internationally networked citizenry from local to global levels;
  • publicly availableexpertise on key technologies and issues; and
  • preferencefor open sources technologies permitting :
    • examination of which social interactions they actually permit,require orprohibit; as well as
    • their modification to democraticallydefined – and changing – needs.

Digitization of our societies has barely begun. Being able to decide about their future among all the many possible ones requires us to renew our democratic culture, practices and institutions.

DebatesLiving between the linesShorts

Je participe au premier GouvCamp à Québec, ce mercredi 22 février. Mon intérêt est double.

Je participe au premier GouvCamp à Québec, ce mercredi 22 février.
Mon intérêt est double.
1. Il serait grand temps qu’on mette en place des conditions assurant, minimalement, que les investissements en systèmes et applications numériques des services de l’État aux citoyens soient les plus pertinents, adéquats, économiques, souples et durables que possibles.
2. Lorsque designs et codes font loi s’imposant aux citoyens, les décisions relatives à ces dispositifs publics doivent être prises selon une logique démocratique impliquant les populations et citoyens concernés plutôt que des logiques technocratique, marchande ou partisane.
En pratique, ces deux questions sont indissociables l’une de l’autre. Pour toutes deux, la solution passe par des démarches ouvertes et participatives de conception de systèmes et d’applications.
Leur solution passe aussi par un même accès à une expertise publique indépendante, qu’elle soit gouvernementale (par exemple, l’Institut national d’excellence en santé et en services sociaux (INESSS) qui évalue les technologies et modes d’intervention), universitaire ou citoyenne (comme le projet d’observatoire citoyen Monde numérique et démocratie).On s’en reparle.

Le site GouvCamp.org sert d’organe de diffusion de l’activité, le GouvCamp, organisé à Québec. Il permet aux organisateurs et aux participants d’échanger en dehors de l’événement. C&#3…
DebatesField RemarksInformation & LawLab NotesLiving between the linesNotesObservations

“Lawful access” bill: journalists discovering being targeted

Débats - DebatesA sudden tug of war between the Charest government and journalists caused a shock wave the echoes of which have rippled through throughout the Canadian journalistic profession. A jolt that could help realize how the “lawful access” bill introduced this Monday, Feb. 13 also concerns journalists and media organizations.

A threat

Last week, the Charest government announced that the Director of Criminal and Penal Prosecutions and the Sureté du Québec (provincial police force) would investigate on leaks to media related to the Ian Davidson case, a retired Montreal police officer suspected of attempting to sell lists of police informants to organized crime. Neither the Minister of Public Safety Robert Dutil, nor Premier Jean Charest have agreed to guarantee that journalists would not be investigated or wiretap. (more…)

DebatesInformation & LawLiving between the linesNotesObservations

Winning against the “lawful access” bills: Two strategic intuitions

Débats - DebatesAre there actions we could start today in a decisive campaign against the adoption of so called “lawful access” bills by Canada? I came to answer “yes” while listening to a presentation by Antoine Beaupré, system administrator at Koumbit. It was during a public meeting entitled ” ‘Illegal access’ and the attack of internet freedoms”, on February 3, 2012, in Montreal.

Let’s remind us that the “lawful access” bills that already died three times because of dissolution of Parliament have not been tabled again yet. However, it is expected that the Harper government will go ahead. The latest versions of the legislation gave the police new powers to access data held by Internet services providers (ISPs). They allowed the mandatory disclosure of customer information without judicial oversight, as well as real-time monitoring across ISPs’ networks. All measures deemed unnecessary and dangerous, not only by civil libertarians, but by many police forces also. A detailed legal analysis was published recently by the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association.

The meeting was organized by Koumbit an IT workers coop that offers several services including web hosting: thus, it has already had its share of searches for information and of servers. Like many other businesses it that field, Koumbit fears the effects of the “lawful access” initiatives on the civil liberties of its customers and of all the citizens who use the Internet from anywhere in the world. Indeed, the opening presentation of Antoine Beaupré dealt with less the legal aspects of the bills as of their technical and political dimensions. (more…)

CommunicationsDebatesInformation & LawLab NotesLiving between the linesNotesReflections

Autonomy, Surveillance and Democracy: A Few Ideas for the Twenty-First Century

Text derived from my presentation

to the Citizen Forum on surveillance of communications

organized by the Quebec caucus of the New Democratic Party

Montreal, Notman House, Thursday, November 3, 2011

Regardless of the fate of the bill named “Lawful Access”, the information society will continue to develop. Then again, an information society is necessarily a surveillance society. Hence the question: what role the parliaments, governments and civil society should play to not only preserve freedoms and democracy, but to enhance them?

Here I propose – in quick rough strokes due to the short time available – some ideas for reference in regard to challenges the twenty-first century presents to us.

Social Life and Surveillance

Idea # 1: Surveillance is an integral component of all social life.

This is true of all human societies, likewise of many animal societies, and even vegetal ones.

Idea # 2: Surveillance takes many forms with very different, even opposite consequences.

I am a grandfather. Obviously I watched my children and grandchild. However, the forms that such surveillance takes can lead children to more and more autonomy, or, conversely, to dependence and submission.

That is why, idea # 3: The concepts proposed by author Ivan Illich of autonomy versus heteronomy, conviviality and counterproductivity are useful to this discussion.

These concepts can be applied, for example, to a convivial urban neighborhood that combines the functions of housing, labor, commerce and recreation. Such an area appears safe because its residents, workers, passersby and idle bystanders spontaneously and freely offer themselves mutual, continuous, autonomous surveillance.

Conversely, an unconvivial single function neighborhood that is deserted during the night or day appears to generate insecurity. No expensive police, guards or electronic surveillance will succeed to produce real security. And such surveillance is likely to increase heteronomous forms of power over individuals and community.

Hence, idea # 4: It is important to consider the complex interrelationships between environmental, physical, social and technical structures and conditions, on the one hand, and the forms of surveillance that these structures permit or not as well as their effects, on the other hand.

Assessment Criteria

And therefore, idea # 5: Respect for freedom is a necessary, but totally insufficient assessment criteria (thus ineffective alone).

In addition, idea # 6 (stated earlier): The information society is necessarily a society where surveillance is becoming widespread, increasing in power and scope, and is being democratized.

Let us illustrate this with a surveillance activity which, unlike the “Lawful Access” bill on the State’s power over private communications, is conducted by private actors on public communications, namely: the high-frequency stock transactions which constitute some 60% of the volume of North American exchanges. This surveillance involves the use of computers that, each microsecond, monitor and analyze all transactions around the planet. This surveillance allows the same computer to purchase securities at one instant and resale them a few seconds later at a profit. The speeds of surveillance, analysis and decision making are so great that human operators can only control possible failure occurrences. Such as those that caused the Flash Crash of May 6, 2010 when these automatic systems suddenly made the Dow Jones Index to plunge several hundred points within a few minutes.

Such capabilities are becoming more democratic. Let’s remember that today a lower end smartphone is already more powerful than these big central computer that, in the sixties, most thought only States could afford. That the customers of data mining software, indispensable to produce results from digital surveillance, are roughly divided into four areas: academic (teaching and research), business (marketing, R & D), police and military intelligence, and we call civil society (various organizations and individuals). That information items on the behavior of individuals and organizations have never been produced in such large numbers or have never been more accessible (just take all the wealth of personal information items disseminated via social media).

Some surveillance activities can easily be described as harmful, such as surveillance of the private communications of citizens or of their legitimate political activities. Other surveillance activities can easily be described as beneficial, such as those about who funds political parties and about who does what lobbying with which decision makers.

However, idea # 7: The majority of the surveillance activities that will emerge will not be so easily assessed: understanding their nature and their effects will require deliberations.

So idea # 8: Drawing on a proposition from economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, we could state that: all surveillance should be subjected to the application of the principles of freedom, but that any surveillance involving some exercise of social power should also be subjected to the principles of democracy.

These principles are to be applied, no matter the public or private nature of the actions being monitored; or the state, commercial or civilian identity of those conducting the surveillance.

Logically, the same principles should also apply to the decision making on environmental, physical, social and technical structures and conditions that determine the forms surveillance may or may not take. Indeed, various social movements express the same demand, whether about shale gas extraction or high finance business: one’s obligation to subject to the action of another called for one’s right to know and right to have one’s say.

As a Preliminary Conclusion

Idea # 9: Such radical democratization calls for deep legal, parliamentary and political transformations from the local to the international levels.

Such changes could indeed be facilitated by possible information societies’ developments.

However, idea # 10: The exact forms that these changes should take remains yet to be defined.

Here, our situation is similar to those of different protests movements (such as Occupy Wall Street) that clearly identifies how current practices are unacceptable without being able to define what should be the alternatives. However, it is as equally urgent to conceive concrete solutions. Let us illustrate with two cases.

Electronic payment

The first case is about privatization of a decision of a public nature. It is the introduction in North America of smart banking cards that raise issues of individual and societal surveillance. Electronic payment is a “radical monopoly” to use another concept from Ivan Illich: if citizens retain the choice of the financial institution that will provide the banking card, there is only one electronic payment system that is imposed on all financial institutions and to all their customers on a given territory.

However, the choice of a new microprocessor based payment system is not trivial. This is because there are dozens of concepts for implementing this technology that are quite different in terms of individual surveillance. Some concepts can make electronic payments as anonymous as the use of paper money. For example, the financial institution knows by the end of the day that it should debit the account of such customer to such total amount, but remains unable to connect this with the various suppliers where the customer has spent money. At the other end of the spectrum, there are concepts that provide the financial institution with a wealth of information about who has purchased what from whom precisely at what time and how much. The choice between one type of concept and another has little to do with technical or budgetary constraints. It is in practice a political decision on the level of surveillance that financial institutions may or may not carry on the activities of their clients. But it is not elected parliaments that decide. Rather, parliaments have left the decision to private clubs of financial institutions (in Canada, to the Canadian Payments Association).

But it’s not just the surveillance of individual clients that is at issue. The generalization of electronic payments offers financial institutions a breathtaking real-time view of economic activities and situations of entire societies. This truly represents a strategic advantage in times of economic turmoil. Especially when compared to the situation of governments, media and civil society who discuss measures that will have some impact only several months into the future on the basis of statistics reflecting situations often four months old in the past. Why only financial institutions could have as up to date data?

In one individual surveillance as in societal surveillance, the democratic principle should apply – in addition to that of freedom – with respect to decisions about social powers of such magnitude. Should parliaments recover the power to legislate publically on these matters? Or should we try to democratize the work of clubs such as the Canadian Association of payment? Or follow a different model of democratic decision making?

Passports

The second case is about internationalization of a public decision. This is about passports used to monitor border crossings of citizens, and often their movements within these boundaries. Design standards of electronic and biometric components of passports are taken in international forums, such as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), by senior public servants of the Member States surrounded by lobbyists of the airline and surveillance technologies industries. National parliaments often only have the choice to endorse or not the standards already established elsewhere.

Again, we must find a way to preserve the principle of democracy against such technocratic fait accompli through international bodies. Should parliaments or governments publicly pre-debate options to be offered in international forums? Should we engage a democratization of discussions in international forums to allow a real voice to citizens to be affected by decisions? Or a combination of both? Or another model?

These are the types of changes, needing to be outlined, that I propose to explore with you during the following discussion.

CommunicationsDebatesLab NotesLiving between the linesNotes

Public conversation: Autonomy, Surveillance and Democracy: Who will benefit from the digital traces generated by our every move?

On Thursday, October 6, 2011 (7 to 9 pm), I will be the guest of an University of the Streets Café‘s conversation moderated by Sophie Ambrosi on the theme: Autonomy, Surveillance and Democracy: Who will benefit from the digital traces generated by our every move?

Computers, automatic tellers, phones and other electronic gadgets. Today, our relations with our close ones, other people and organizations go through machines processing thousands of information items about us. These texts, sounds and images become communications, transactions, records, decisions. They can be transformed into statistics and knowledge about individuals, groups and societies, even about the nature of the human animals (e.g., conditions of their health). Knowledge that can base decisions, trivial or major. The information society is necessarily a surveillance society. So what kinds of surveillance are reprehensible in a free and democratic society? And which ones are desirable? Under what conditions?

The conversation will take place at Café l’Artère, 7000, Avenue du Parc (near Jean-Talon) in Montreal. Everyone is invited and admission is free. The event is organized by the Institute for Community Development, Concordia University.

CommunicationsDebatesLab NotesLiving between the linesNotesObservationsReflections

For a Comprehensive Citizen Appropriation of Information and its Technologies

Written adaptation of a lecture given at a dinner for the 10th anniversary of Communautique on January 26, 2010 in Montreal.

Video of the conference (in French)

tablette cuneiformeI was asked to address the importance that information and communications technologies have taken over the last decade and will have in the foreseeable future. This from the point of view of citizens. I will do this exercise through the use of the concept of social appropriation, which is the process by which people integrate innovations into their lives to empower themselves, adapting and even hijacking them from their initial control or purposes to fit their needs and interests.

History shows that literacy can be a necessary condition for democracy. However, the fact that population is highly literate does not necessarily mean that it will live in a free and democratic society. Many well educated populations have lived at one time or another, under authoritarian or dictatorial, even totalitarian regime.

Similarly, one could argue that the fact that a population knows how to use technical devices does not mean that it control how technologies organize the relationships between citizens. Access to tools and skill development are necessary but not sufficient conditions for such mastery.

Let’s illustrate this assertion with some examples of devices currently deployed.

Body scanners
Earlier this January, the Federal Transport Minister, John Baird, announced the acquisition and installation of 44 body scanners in Canadian airports with a price tag of a quarter of a million piece. Let’s put aside for a moment the legitimate debates about the effectiveness, real or symbolic, of these devices or about their potential health harmfulness. In less than two months, we, Canadian citizens, will have the freedom to choose: either to be patted down with hands or to be patted down with eyes.

But is this the only choice offered by information technologies and digital imaging?

A colleague forwarded me the press file of all articles published following the announcement. There is hardly anyone who mentioned the fact that this purchase had been ordered without bidding, nor that we could have acquire software, to avoid full naked exposure: either by only signaling dubious spots or by projecting the exact image of the surface of the body of the person on a standard dummy (using morphing technique). The result of such an acquisition would have offered a very different choice between: either to be patted down with hands, or, simply to let electronically detection of the presence of objects on us.

Different types of body scanners

Apparently, no Member of Parliament has spoken of these alternatives. No journalist. No organization of citizens, consumers or human rights advocacy. Not even the official comment of the Commissioner of Canada’s privacy.

Maybe Minister Baird himself is unaware of the existence of these alternatives!

Yet as good digital citizens, many of us know how to use a digital camera and image processing software, how to find the minister’s press release on the Web, how to see his press briefing on our computer or telephone, and how to discuss that news in blogs or on Twitter. We do know technology!

Smart bank cards
Second example: Since 2008, Canadian financial institutions deploy their smart banking cards. No minister or MP, no consumer association or other organization of civil society, no media has provoked public debate on the model of payment system that could be supported by the addition of a microprocessor in customers, debit and credit cards.

Yet, since the invention of the so-called “smart” microprocessor card, hundreds of different ways to use it were devised. The range of available applications for banking goes from very talkative systems about every action taken by the user to other ultra-quiet ones, producing as little personal information as the use of paper money.

Different designs of smart banking cards

However, there can be only one system configuration, which de facto legislates the relationships between consumers, merchants and financial institutions.

We had choices! For example, between allowing banks to produce but very little information or, conversely, permit them to produce a lot, but by forcing them to share this valuable source of knowledge about in real time evolution of our economy.

For example, the government of Ms. Dominique Vien (Quebec’s Minister of Government Services, also a speaker at this luncheon meeting) must make difficult decisions about whether the State should keep its foot on the accelerator pedal of the economy, release that pedal a bit or rather put it on the brakes. However, several of the figures available to the government often can only describe a situation that is already four months old! That complicates decision making. Even more so because due to the same delays in production of information, we will be not able to know what have been the effects of today’s decisions before many months.

But the continued production by banks of detailed and real-time information about electronic payments (that you and I pay directly the production through our bank fees), combined with the power of today’s computers could reduce this gap for some key figures to something as short as in weeks, even days!

Yet, this public debate on the democratic choice of the quantity of information generated or not by the electronic payment systems and their possible use for the benefit not only banks but also the entire society has never been place.

But as good digital citizens, we do know how to use an ATM and how to donate to Haiti by Web transactions or by text message. We do know technology!
Which social appropriation?
This brings us back to the topic of social appropriation. Generally, we define “appropriation” as the process by which an individuals and groups incorporate an innovation in their practice and adapt it, even hijack it to fit their needs.

For 10 years, Communautique, its partners and many other organizations work for the appropriation of digital tools by citizens. They work and campaign to ensure universal access to Internet and computer. They train in the use of software, the Web, social networks and collaborative tools.

Social appropriation of tools is not enough

However, we must recognize that training in the use of tools is not enough since digital devices increasingly insinuate themselves in any object. Even in our pills …

Pills with microchip
Pharmaceutical companies are testing the use of tablets with imbedded microchip. In one experiment, the device sends a text message reminder to patients on their cell phone if they do not follow properly the doctor’s prescription.

Such a device could be configured to link patients, physicians and pharmacists in a hundred of different ways. For example, to verify if we do take our medicines. To automatically ask for new doses of our medicines to be delivered to us when our bottles are emptying. Even to call an ambulance, if we have swallowed the whole bottle at once.

The question is obviously about: who will decide on a configuration rather than another? Thus, to determine how will the relationships between patients, doctors and pharmacists be organized. And why not other relationships including also pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies and the world of biomedical research.

Did not we have our say? Especially if these devices are gradually being forced into the lives of us all?

Citizen appropriation
Democracy requires that appropriation by citizens goes beyond the mere handling of tools designed by others. It requires that citizens and the components of civil society can contribute to the development of tools that compel some organization of interpersonal relationships. Democracy requires a real possibility to participate in choices affecting the organization of these interactions.

This involves not only knowledge about tools and their handling, but also (as for the scanners, bank cards and pills examples), knowledge of different information that can be produced or not and the various ways they can be used or not.

Comprehensive appropriation of information and its technologies

So, real citizen appropriation must apply to as much to information and interpersonal relationships as to the computerized tools.

Let us step further. Not only would such an appropriation would be necessary to ensure some democratic nature to the information society, but it is also necessary to the very success of the computerization of its activities!

Already, online businesses can make substantial profits and government services online be meaningful only if the largest possible number of citizens have access to the internet and knows how to use them with confidence.

Ensuring adequacy of applications
Indeed, the success of many computer products and services will also increasingly depend on the ability of citizens to discuss information, tools and interpersonal relationships. In a research I conducted on online government services, I exchanged a lot with designers about what could make a system to be dysfunctional, thus engulfing citizens in some Kafkaesque bureaucratic purgatory rather than help them. My aim obviously was to understand, conversely, how to ensure that computerized service works well. The conclusion is summarized in this diagram that lists the factors to be considered.

Pragmatics of information in computerized interaction

I cannot discuss here with you all these factors in detail. Suffice to state for now that, in practice, it is required not only that the organization understands very well all the dimensions of its own processes (which is already a demanding job), but it must also understand as well why and how different people – users or consumers – use differently its service. How certain categories of people appropriate themselves the service differently for what different purposes. Conversely, it is also important that citizens understand well what the ends of the service and the information they exchange with the organization so they get the results they want and provide the right useful information for this purpose.

First, a very small example. In an application as simple as a change of address service, I asked the designer: “What address the Régie d’Assurance-maladie (Medicare Board) holds on the citizens insured? The designer replied: “Clearly, the address of domicile.” This is indeed what the law says, but I rose: “Are you sure?” The designer then starts to laugh: “Actually, we have no idea.” And from there, we explored all the cases where the citizen has delivered an address other than that of their domicile: such as students who give their parents’ address as a mailing address knowing that they might often change place of residence.

Whatever laws, forms and data models, it remains that the citizens are the ones who decide whether in the “address” box, they give a home address, mailing address, an address for service or otherwise.

Now, among the range of effective means to know and understand the uses, expectations, needs and constraints of citizens is public consultation. Who better than the citizens themselves or organizations who work daily with them may indicate their different uses and understandings of a particular service?

My second example is in the the very large and complex end of the spectrum. It is the huge project for computerization of medical records that, in the foreseeable future, will cost well over a billion dollars in Quebec, beyond five billion in Canada. We have already lost tens of millions of our taxes in inadequate solutions. And in the current situation, we will still lose tens of millions more along the way. And one of the causes of these inadequacies is precisely a lack of digital literacy in our society.

Senior government officials told me they can barely match the strategic vision with the real practical needs in the field. Yet meanwhile, we develop and we implement technical solutions. The approach is ultimately a costly process of trials and errors. Often I was asked the question: “It’s clear that he should consult directly with patients and the public, but how do we do that? Already among us, professionals who work daily on this, it is difficult for us to share a common understanding of the systems.”

The democratic challenge
To develop of our ability to discuss complicated technical devices among ourselves is indeed a significant cultural challenge. A challenge that must imperatively be met. Because otherwise we will face much more serious inefficiencies in number, importance and increasing costs (just think about the dramatic deterioration experienced in the customer services of several large companies, for example). Indeed, democracy itself is at risk if we progressively abandon the decisions about the organization of relationships between citizens to engineers, technocrats or lowest bidding suppliers. Decisions more often taken abroad because of the universalization of technical products or standards to ensure international interoperability of systems.

We’re still early in the long process of computerization of societies which will gradually creep into every corner of our lives, including even under our clothes, in our wallets and in our pills. Much of the information handlings in question bear interpersonal relationships while shaping them in detail in a way that will bind all parties. The democratic mastery of this form of effective legislation makes it necessary that all of us – private citizens, community organizations, governments and companies – do develop the idea of appropriation and its practice at a more comprehensive level that encompasses the social dimensions, including the downright political ones, of technical choices.

This is, of course, far more than the challenge of a decade, or even of a generation. This is the challenge posed by a true revolution that will likely extend throughout this century. While a considerable challenge, an exciting one for sure!

DebatesLiving between the linesNotes

Manifesto: A Digital Framework for Quebec

Débats - Debates

“We have already reached the second decade of the twenty-first century and yet, Quebec still does not have a digital strategy!”

This sentence opens the Manifesto: A Digital Framework for Quebec that Communautique has just put online. This declaration is the result of a collective effort that began two years ago by stakeholders from different entrepreneurial, academic and community backgrounds in the wake of the last provincial election campaign.

Declaration of interest: I was one of the participants in its drafting.

After an unflattering diagnostic about an ever increasing and worrisome delay of Quebec society in this area, the text argues that:

“If we, Quebecers, are unable, individually and collectively, to master these developments and new applications according to our needs, our values and aspirations, not only do we risk missing out on some remarkable opportunities, but we also risk having to deal with inadequacies and social and economic divisions that will result if decisions are not our own.”

Much of the manifesto is in this ambitious declaration: (more…)

Critique of CensusDebatesLiving between the linesNotesObservations

Questions for Statisticians and Specialists in Quantitative Methods regarding the Reliability of a Voluntary Census

In the wake of the decision on a application for judicial review form the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada

ObservationsFederal Court’s Justice Richard Boivin heard evidence and testimonies presented in support of and in opposition to the National Household Survey (NHS) which, being voluntary, replaces the old census long form, which was mandatory under fine and even imprisonment. The judge ruled this week that “there is uncertainty about the reliability of the data that will come from the NHS” … except that the Court is “not convinced that the data of the NHS will be so unreliable as to be unusable.”

Let’s recall that the Conservative government decided to remove the long form from the mandatory status of the Canadian census to make it voluntary instead. To offset a possible decline in participation, it provided an increase of around 50% of the number of long questionnaires (from 3 to 4.5 million households at an additional cost of $ 30 million) plus an advertising campaign to spur participation.

Many statisticians, demographers and researchers have criticized this decision. According to them, a voluntary survey would lead to a significant decrease in participation, particularly in certain portions of the population (the poorest, the least educated, of certain ethnic backgrounds). The result would be less representative and thus biased data which would distort the demographic profiles of country, regions and local communities. However, beyond these general statements, public interventions in the media so far have provided no statistical demonstration in support to this claim. Justice Boivin’s finding seems to confirm this perception.

So I make an appeal to statisticians and specialists in quantitative methods in order to clarify certain key elements of the debate. (more…)

DebatesLiving between the linesNotesObservations

New column: Critique of Canadian census

The Conservative government decided that for the 2011 Canadian census, answer to the long form would no longer be mandatory, but voluntary instead. This decision provoked a sharp polarization between those determinedly for or against it.

Critique of Census observation book offers a critical exploration of the many technical, social, legal and ethical issues raised by such an information production operation about a country and its population.

Other resources:

The Datalibre.ca site maintains a media watch on the 2011Census :

DebatesLiving between the linesNotes

Facebook remains a black box

Débats - DebatesYes, Facebook changed its publication of content controls (which may be improperly called confidentiality or privacy controls).

But as rightly points out the tweet of Privacy International signalling its response to this announcement, is the real question not elsewhere? Namely: how Facebook itself uses the information that members place on their pages? “The Real question: How Does Facebook Process Information?

No matter how you change publication controls or make them more user-friendly, the processing and uses that Facebook makes of the information continues to remain in the dark, poorly explained.

It’s quite like the classic black box. Facebook members know the information they themselves put on their page (inputs). They might better understand what information is published or not toward whom (outputs). However, they do not know exactly all of what happens between the two, especially everything about what Facebook exchanges with its trading partners.

This is where is the core of the processes that constitutes Facebook and its market value.

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