An argument for wired city council

As little as a hundred years ago, North Americans lived (generally) in towns and (much smaller) cities, where it was possible to know your elected representatives personally, meet with them, and have a person-to-person chat. In the years following, our representatives have been accused more and more of being “disconnected” and “out of touch” from their constituents, as the towns and cities grow, and the number of people in a given district rise well past the point of “manageable” by a single person.

The biggest problem is not really the number of people — it’s the time councillors need to connect with them all, while still doing the job for which they were elected. In a physical sense, it’s nearly impossible. Some have turned to the internet to help bridge the gap, using technology to connect.

Allow me to show you an example, which I experienced today…

While waiting for one of my software commits to complete, I took a few minutes to read my news feeds. One article, which caught me more than a little off-guard, was a note about radioactive particles from the Japanese Fukushima reactor appearing in Vancouver’s water supply. It was surprising as no-one had really expected that to happen, and moreso because the levels were a lot higher than I would have imagined.

My first thought was how that would affect the water supply in Vancouver, especially towards children (it’s already an issue in parts of Japan, and BC has already had a scare that led to a run on iodine tablets). My second thought was: the rain on this side of the Rocky Mountains often comes in from the Vancouver area.

Now I — as a regular, ordinary citizen of Canada’s fourth largest city — would likely have to spend quite some time to find out where to start to see if that problem had arrived here. But I’m not “regular” — I’m highly connected. And not in the “I know people way”, I mean by the internet. And I follow my ward’s alderman, John Mar, on Twitter. Who better to find out if Calgary’s at risk than one of Calgary’s tooth-and-nail fighters?

I started with the simple question:

@aldjohnmar I know you’re not the right person…

Knowing that John’s a busy guy (he regularly tweets his activities; which I gotta say, it’s a very handy way of knowing what your elected representative is up to without having to call them on a regular basis), I didn’t expect an immediate response. Heck, I’d have been happy with a simple “yes/no” answer. I got John’s response just a few minutes later:

@sowrey I don’t know but I will ask…

Okay, first off, in any service-based organisation — public or private — immediate (or at least near-immediate) response — even if it’s “we’ll get back to you” — is necessary to instill confidence. Lack of response breeds doubt, and especially with government, makes people think things are being done behind closed doors. In an era where we demand transparency, acknowledgement of a request is the killer app.

It took a little while — still less time than it would have taken me, I’m sure — but I got my answer:

@sowrey Pleased to report, we checked…

There you go — we were safe. And you feel a lot more secure with an answer from a public figure than you do from a city bureaucrat. But John’s answer got me to thinking: a) Iodine 131 is probably not regularly tested for in water supplies (why would it be?), and b) that’s a fairly recent test. Which led me to wonder if it might be an ongoing test for the foreseeable future:

@aldjohnmar That’s a relief…

John’s response, interestingly enough, I mostly expected:

@sowrey As I understand it, yes…

Now, it’s very easy to dismiss that as “well, that’s not answer” … and you’d be right, especially if you’re concerned about this sort of thing (which I am). But, where John does not fail, he followed up (unprompted) with this:

@sowrey Jsut heard back from Water Services…

So, net result, at least so far as Calgary’s water is concerned: we’re okay. But that’s actually the lesser part of the story. The more important, I think, is that I got an answer to a pressing question over Twitter (not waiting on phones), and directly from my elected official.

As an interesting aside, John actually left Twitter early last December, after he received a fair amount of abuse from people who didn’t think he was tweeting enough. It was a loss for us who followed, since he had been a valuable source of information on the regular goings-on in city council. Thankfully, John returned to Twitter about two months later.

It’s a tough gig, being a public figure on Twitter. There are a lot of demands from the informed and uninformed alike, and people’s patience online is about a tenth of what it is in person (and politeness can sink to a hundredth or less). Somehow, people seem to forget that Twitter is an outlet, not a full-time job. John, so far, has done an admirable job of balancing the act, and remains (in my view) the best of Calgary’s city council in using Twitter is a communications tool.

So go on, ask me if I feel my councillor is out of touch. I dare ya.