Let’s Not Talk, Vancouver

The City of Vancouver (or City of Vision Vancouver as it is better known) has launched a new “community engagement” tool called TalkVancouver which claims to offer a way for Vancouverites to talk to City Hall and express their opinions on various subjects of interest.  It is, however, a scam that will operate purely for the benefit of the incumbents.

We all know that this City administration hasn’t a clue how to manage “community engagement” — the disasters of the major planning debacles, the non-engagement of the Mayor’s Task Force on Housing Affordability and the Regional Context Statement, the invisibility of the Mayor’s Task Force on Community Engagement are proof of this.  Perhaps TalkVancouver will be better — don’t hold your breath!

TalkVancouver is another “bread and circuses” exercise where Vision tries to show it is open to all views, but which actually serves only to allow them to brag about the numbers taking part.

This is a system where a great deal of demographic data is collected in order to allow the participant to respond to City-designed questions, questions that will, of course be skewed to produce the result they want.  There is no attempt to allow participants to speak their mind on what they want to talk about. Their responses will be carefully steered to meet previously determined outcomes.  You and I both know that trained experts can submit skewed questions far more subtly than a straightforward ask from a common sense citizen.

An employee of Vision Critical agrees that skewed questions and skewed interpretation “[w]ithout the appropriate oversight … can indeed be dangerous” but suggests we give them the benefit of the doubt.  Why, they haven’t earned it.  As another correspondent noted: “It is going to be impossible to create a statistically valid result from this kind of polling-of-volunteer-subjects. By definition, the sample is self-referencing rather than objective. However, prepare to hear a lot of “X% of Talk Vancouver Engaged City participants approve of __________”.

The very first survey (other than a throwaway about use of 311) is just another collection device for personal demographic data.  One sophisticated user went through the entire survey many times, giving different answers to each question in order to follow the flows each response directs the user through. He also notes that anyone over 100 or under 15 will get kicked out of the system (“This survey was designed by a robot who disrespects older and younger people.”)

And what of the privacy attached to this data?  The same employee of Vision Critical mentioned above notes that the “community is being run by the city – not Vision Vancouver – so data can not be transferred to the party.”  What guarantees are there for this assertion, given that Vision controls the City machinery at every level?  Is there a privacy contract? Can we see it?

Moreover, is there any chance Vision Critical collected data could fall under the Patriot Act? It is a Canadian company, but the issue is WHERE is the data stored. The company has offices everywhere.  Is there any guarantee about the data remaining only in Canada?
Finally, we have to question the company behind this and the choice that Vision Vancouver made in choosing them.   Just a few weeks before the Talk Vancouver deal with Vision Vancouver was made public, Vision Critical (no jokes about the name, please) announced that Ryan Merkeley had been appointed managing director of the company.  This is the same Ryan Merkeley who worked for the City pitching us Gregor Robertson’s Greenest City etc.  No conflict there, I’m sure.
But why did the City not move ahead with PlaceSpeak, a locally-based company that had already engaged with the City for similar activities?  I’m no pitchman for PS, and I haven’t even joined it, but I understand that (a) users can create their own surveys, i.e. surveys not controlled by the City; and (b) they have a strong privacy policy that would exclude demographic data being used by the client — the City of Vision Vancouver.  From what I am told, the PS technology is at least as good as Vision Critical’s.  Two-way surveys, deep privacy, local control, and equal technology — what was the problem?

Anyway, I would certainly not recommend anyone join TalkVancouver which, in my mind, is nothing more than a pre-election data-mining scheme for Vision Vancouver — and one that you and I are paying for!


2 Responses to Let’s Not Talk, Vancouver

  1. Shachi Kurl says:

    Hi Jak,

    To address your specific questions about how Vision Critical stores the data that is collected by the city through Talk Vancouver:

    All the data is stored on Canadian servers, and is not subject to the PATRIOT Act.

    For details, you can review the privacy posted on Talk Vancouver: https://www.talkvancouver.com/MediaServer/documents/privacy%20policy_CofV.pdf .

    Any personal information provided is collected, used and disclosed in accordance with the British Columbia Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

  2. […] Note: We are happy to see that it appears you don’t to need to be a member of “Talk Vancouver” to complete this survey. Due to serious concerns about political data mining we DO NOT encourage people to provide personal information to Talk Vancouver, and will write more on that separately. Until then, we encourage you to read Jak King’s “Let’s Not Talk, Vancouver.” […]

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