Taking the escalator down MaRS at ChangeCamp. Photo by Duarte Da Silva.
Last night, hours after the budget was announced and the day before a confidence vote could throw Canadians back into an election, over a dozen people gathered at Idée in the city’s east end to change the way citizens communicated with their government, whether it be at a municipal, provincial, or federal level. Frustrated by the slow adoption of technology in collecting and tracking street-level issues, the group of developers, entrepreneurs, and communicators set out to develop an easy-to-use site for citizens to alert needs to the government and to each other. Inspired by the British site Fix My Street.com, the project, code-named Shamen, could help report problems that often get shoved to the backburner, such as a growing pothole in a decaying road or an unclear or misdirecting sign that confuses elderly citizens. (While small, these everyday problems accumulate and can create a nagging perception that the government is unable to—or unwilling to—respond to immediate issues.)
For two hours, around a long ovular table, the group argued the scope, purpose, and novelty of the project. Would Shamen be on a national or local level? Or a hyper-local level? How could citizens use it to interact with both the government and other citizens? (For example, could this site be used to organize a Block Watch or a block party?) Who might use it and what would get them to try it? And, worst of all, could someone already have come up with it?
Project Shamen came out of a brainstorming last Saturday at an event called ChangeCamp, where a vibrant mix of 140—politicians, bureaucrats, technorati, communicators, entrepreneurs, and activists—met at MaRS to talk politics, technology, and, well, change. The timing, days after the Obama inauguration, and days before the resumption of the Canadian Parliament, was intentional.
Mark Kuznicki launched ChangeCamp as a response to the recent differences in Canadian and American politics: “ChangeCamp addresses the need for a renewed relationship among citizens and government. It’s partly in response to the disappointment Canadians feels when they look around and ask ‘Where is my Obama?'” Kuznicki believed that the parliamentary drama late last fall forced Canadians to evaluate the state of politics and realize how lacking it was. “Instead of tackling our very real problems at a time of crisis, our politics had descended into a short-sighted game,” he says.
Project Shamen meeting. Photo by Photojunkie.
At ChangeCamp, participants set their own agenda with topics like how government can deal with perceived risk to openness, how social media can help municipalities during a crisis (with echoes of DarkTO), and how to build communities in suburbia, before breaking off into small groups to discuss them. There were some notable attendees: Brad Ross of the TTC asked how social media could be used to improve transit (he was also still digesting the attention given by Now and Eye over his Twittering); Toronto MP Olivia Chow held a session on what a coalition government could do, and got a lesson on how to use Twitter on her BlackBerry; and David Wallace, the city’s Chief Information Officer, was quoted as saying “We’re here to help.”
Kuznicki sees technology as the tool to engage people, but not in a partisan way. “I’m not interested in a particular political ideology or party,” he notes. “The change we seek isn’t about a change in party, but a change at a deeper level of culture and the political system.” Part of the need for post-partisan interaction stems from what he calls “extremely difficult environmental, economic, and social crises that are complex, inter-related, and entrenched.” He will face a struggle from a federal government uninterested in openly sharing data, preferring instead a selective, strategic release of information. However, Kuznicki is unfazed: “There are projects already underway in Canada around transparency and openness in government, such as VisibleGovernment.ca, that are advancing that agenda. We want to ignite a national movement.”
Mark Kuznicki, creator of ChangeCamp. Photo by kk+.
It may have launched in this city, but it won’t create visible change if the torch isn’t taken up by the rest of Canada. Already ChangeCamps are being set up in Vancouver, Ottawa, Montreal, and Sault Ste. Marie—the lattermost being especially important as smaller communities must opt-in and feel solidarity as part of a larger fabric. Wouldn’t a ChangeCamp Kenora or a ChangeCamp Moose Jaw be great? “This country needs a bold new policy and strategy around technology access,” says Kuznicki. “There are far too many Canadians in rural and remote areas that are on dialup and unable to engage in a lot of the excitement that is going on using technology right now.”
Allowing all Canadians to have access means, for Kuznicki, an opportunity for an increase in education, a richer understanding of citizenship, and a route to more economic development. Still, he concedes that technology is only a tool and not a cure-all. “Technology can break down distance,” he notes, “but it doesn’t remove the need people have to meet face-to-face in local community settings.”
In the meantime, Toronto can’t rest on its laurels. Actions are more persuasive than words, and that makes Shamen an interesting—and load-bearing—keystone to ChangeCamp. While event participants were passionate about creating change, could anything tangible come out of it? (While arguably congregating and discussing politics is a good thing, it won’t spawn a national movement without a product.) By night’s end, the team had created a wall of sticky notes—each one a short declaration of what Shamen should be about—to consolidate the idea (“a social community bug tracker” was thrown around). A prototype had been completed and the group committed to playing around with it before convening again. There was a deadline against them: a DemoCamp is being planned as a followup to ChangeCamp to show any progress that has been made. The Shamen group was fairly confident though and expected to have some City civil servants in to test the prototype within a month.
The path is still long and winding before we see the effect of ChangeCamp and the Shamen project, but enthusiasm and spirits are high. (Midway through, people begin raising their hands to speak to be heard over the roar of ideas and thoughts.) Sometime during the Shamen meeting, a member of the group posed the question, “When is our job done?” The lead for the meeting cocked his head and thought for a second. His response: “When all the world’s problems are solved.”