Category Archives: politics

Represent Data

I recently received an NGO request for the House of Commons members’ contact information in Comma Separated Value (CSV) format. I quickly found the helpful Represent website by Open North. This small group who has scraped government websites and created machine-readable versions of MP contact information, plus a minimal maps interface layered on top.

However, the Represent effort leans a little too “techno-elite.” The results are provided in the JSON format, a hyper-current, versatile and Web-buzzword-compliant format. But most NGOs I know are still struggling to figure out Excel, never mind anything more recent; and Excel can’t handle much more than CSV files (if even that – modern web-friendly text encodings like UTF8 don’t even work properly).

So, I put together a quick bit of Javascript to convert the Represent JSON format to CSV format, ready for Excel to use. This should be “live” – pulling the latest version from Represent each time. Here are links to a few of the Represent datasets:

Federal

Provincial

Climate Change & Online Discussion

In the web world, the public conversation about climate change on mainstream discussion and media websites is quite distorted. The comments sections are filled with poorly informed opinions (on all sides of the debate), personal attacks and disinformation.  (It’s widely documented that the fossil fuel industries and other motivated groups are pouring significant amounts of money into propagating disinformation.)  There’s really no meaningful “conversation” happening on most sites, the comments usually shed little real light on the subject at hand, and I don’t think anyone changes their mind by reading the comments. See some examples here

I find it fascinating how real conversations are underway in some places on the web, though. Slashdot is a computer-science-geeks site I’ve been reading for 10+ years, with a very politically diverse spectrum of people on it. If you looked at most political articles there, the discussion is all over the place — left wing vs. right wing vs. libertarians vs. communists vs. anarchists vs. more libertarians.

But the forum is moderated, and well-moderated. And when it comes to climate change articles, the audience is technical, science-reading, and smart. Of the thousands of comments posted on each article, the readers vote the “best” ones up in a fairly effective manner using volunteer moderators and meta-moderators. Most heavily-debunked “denier” talking points are thoroughly rebutted and often voted right out of view. See for example

My recollection from reading Slashdot 5-6 years ago was the opposite — that the debate was much more vigorous, with denier talking points being moderated up equally with climate science talking points. But after scanning several 2004-07 posts, I don’t actually see that — Slashdot’s community and moderation system seems to have effectively rebutted the denier talking points for quite a while. See for example

It speaks to me about the value of websites with a real defined “community” and good moderation systems. It’s possible to learn a lot about the subject by reading Slashdot’s comment sections today, even though the site’s articles alone are minimal or poor. It’s also possible to take an interest in the subject without being repulsed by the constant name-calling, YELLING and bad writing in most newspapers’ comment sections…

This also makes me wonder if our political system can gauge the public opinion effectively. Is the “public’s opinion” the raw, unmoderated comments of a newspaper — or is it what would emerge if online newspapers with a fairly democratic / meritocratic moderation system like Slashdot’s?  (Sure, political offices rely primarily on polling; but they still learn the nuances of public opinion from letters to the editor and other such sources.)

Food for thought.

Anti-Human Day

Reading week came and went and I sadly spent most of it reading. There was enough time for one cross-country ski trip up at Hardwood Hills, a worthwhile sortie.

This past weekend, I ploughed through nine papers on transport/land use connections and sustainability. Two papers stuck out: a U.C. Berkeley paper by Robert Cervero with a very cool path model, which I won’t bore you with here. The other more blogworthy paper covered a bit of the history of the American reaction to the 1992 Rio conference on sustainability, where the Kyoto targets were first floated. There are a few famous quotes scattered through the paper, and some very entertaining ones:

  • “The American lifestyle is not up for negotiation.” – George Bush Sr.
  • “America’s position on the environmental protection is second to none, so I did not come here to apologize.” – George Bush Sr.
  • Earth Day should actually be called ‘Anti-Human Day,’ because the environmentalists behind such events believe nature ought to be revered “for its own sake, irrespective of any benefit to man”… “Housing, commerce and jobs are sacrificed to spotted owls and snail darters. Medical research is sacrified to the ‘rights’ of mice. Logging is sacrificed to the ‘rights’ of trees.” – Michael S. Berliner, director of Ayn Rand Institute

Anti-Human Day. That captures the spirit.

I don’t agree with some of the portrayals of the right wing, particularly gratuitous quotes from Pat Buchanan etc., but I thought the article made some interesting points about the midwestern mistrust of both the free trade and environmental élites, linking globalisation with environmentalism – rather like the decisively élite-targeted agenda in the Economist.