Category: Politics

Fun with maps: BC Smart meters and the 2013 election

SmartMeterVotingMapI have been MOOC’ing this summer and learning how to do maps. Geography as an adult is much more fun than my 10th grade geography class.

Chad Skelton over at the Vancouver Sun intrigued me with his data retrieval and mapping of British Columbia’s Smart Meter uptake. if you’re not from BC, here’s a short intro (#BCpoli-aware feel free to skip the next two paragraphs).

BC Hydro is the government owned (Crown Corporation) utility that produces and distributes electricity for the province of British Colombia in Canada. In 2011, BC Hydro announced its intention to spend $$$ upgrading all its electricity meters to “smart meters”. These meters are capable of being read via wifi by meter readers, and potentially also give BC residents the ability to monitor their electricity usage in near-real time.

Many concerns were raised about the smart meters. One was about the costs of the program vs. perceived benefits. The others, which gained traction were around an emerging movement in BC connecting wifi, cell signals and wifi-enabled smart meters with a whole variety of health effects. While few, if any of these health concerns have been actually causally linked to smart meters, or even to the amorphous descriptor “wifi radiation”, these health concerns have gained traction even among official bodies such as the Union of BC Municipalities, municipal councils and school boards. The BC provincial election in 2013 was a chance for people to voice their concerns. The opposition parties all brought the issue up during canvassing.

For my peer assessment mapping project, I wanted to see if areas of relatively high smart meter refusal were correlated or co-located in any way with voting against the ruling BC Liberals.

This is the map I made, my first ever map not scrawled on paper.

View Larger Map

Reading the Map

The electoral districts are colour-coded by BC Liberal Party percentage, darker means higher vote for the BC Liberals. I chose this rather than “who won” because I was looking more for an anti-BC Liberal effect. I will, at some point in time, try to overlay “who won” as well. The smart meter refusal data is in three different coloured and sized circles. Large and red means higher refusal, and small and green means low refusal. This is a hybrid of a graduated circle symbol scheme and a diverging colour scheme. Clearly, using points to represent areas is a big limitation, but it is sufficient for a quick peek.

Anything to See?

  • An overwhelming majority of people had smart meters installed, > 90% in most places. So, BC Hydro’s brute force, no options, default installation plan was mostly successful
  • Places of higher than normal refusal tended to vote against the BC Liberals. I believe this had more to do with existing anti-BC-Lib tendencies influencing smart meter refusal rather than the other way around.
  • Urban centres like Victoria and Vancouver had relatively low rates of refusal. Is this because of higher apartment proportions, or because smart meter refusal was restricted to a small number of high information, highly motivated individuals whose number varied by location and whose numbers in places like Victoria were muted by larger populations?. Note that my home area of Victoria had the most (7300) rejected smart meters, even though the percentage is small. The ageing white (l)iberal enclave of Saltspring Island (Ganges), aka hippieville, Canada had by far the highest refusal percentage. So, is this smart meter refusal map mostly a hippie population distribution map?

The take home message for me was that the anti-smartmeter movement had little influence on the election, which was most likely won on the usual and mundane issues of the economy, trust and corruption.


  1. I downloaded data on smart meter refusal from the Chad Skelton’s post and Tableau public
  2. The data from BC Hydro is categorized using their division of BC into distinct geographical billing areas. I used billing area names to geotag the information. The site has a feature where addresses can be uploaded in bulk via a text interface, and the site returns the place, and latitude longitude. I added province and country to the place names, and edited ambiguous names to make the search more effective.
  3. I uploaded this table to arcgis to form one layer. Arcgis is a big and expensive GIS software, with a limited free online playpen where this map is displayed. I used graduated circles and natural breaks to represent the different levels of smart meter refusal. A big limitation to this approach is that the BC Hydro billing areas are just that, areas, not points on a map. However, the area boundaries are not available as a shape file, and geographical areas vary widely. So, the points correspond to the centre of the nearest big population area mentioned in the BC Hydro billing area description
  4. I downloaded BC electoral district shape files from Paul Ramsey of Open Geo. These shape files are an improved version of those available from Elections BC, again, thanks to Chad Skelton for pointing me in this direction
  5. Elections BC lists 2013 provincial election results information by party by district. However, there is no publicly downloadable mapped source for the election data results. I used the open source GIS desktop software QGIS to open the shape file and add the attribute of BC Liberal percentage to the shape file. I uploaded this shape file to arcgis and layered it with the smart meter refusal rate graduated circles to look for patterns.

Maps are fun to play with, and I know very very little about them, which is a great combination. Every minute I spent making this map was a learning experience. Comments and feedback, please. I think I will slowly incorporate mapping into my skill set. But I think I will use open source/free solutions in the future.

It’s not the policy, it’s the racism

Articles on people of colour and voting patterns in the recent US election don’t touch on the racist rhetoric that the right has used for years. People of colour are frequent recipients of racist actions against them and the right’s use of racist language is completely internalized into their discourse and worldview. Just look at what Bill O’Reilly said post election:

“Obama wins because it’s not a traditional America anymore. The white establishment is the minority. People want things.”

The republican party thinks hispanics are not part of a traditional America. People of colour tend to notice these things. Obama has deported way more hispanic people than Bush ever did, and has not used his executive discretion to slow down enforcement till the DREAM act deferrals. But the democratic party has not been captured by the ugly racism that pervades  anti-immigrant rhetoric in the US.

So, change positions all you want, and help pass real immigration legislation that helps the millions of Americans living a difficult undocumented life get documented. But, the right needs more than that. It needs to convince its supporters that racism is unacceptable and to punish, not reward people for saying racist things and acting in racist ways.

The attorney general of Utah, Mark Shurtleff, a conservative Republican, said he was part of an “education campaign” to persuade Republican officials that “they need to reject the run-’em-out, deport-’em, enforcement-only approach that people think is the only voice of the Republican Party.”

Republicans Reconsider Positions on Immigration

Update: Mitt Romney’s post election statements where he labels everyone other than White people “special interest groups” are yet more evidence.

Photo courtesy Lorenzolambertino photostream used under a creative commons licence.

Dear Mulcair: Connect your short term oil goals with energy transformation

NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has finally listened to the legions of Globe and Mail comment thread participants (and some other people, of course!) who repeatedly urge policy makers and oil companies to build a pipeline West -> East. I believe Bob Rae has talked about this idea approvingly as well. Why? Because Western Canada exports oil at a “discount”, and Eastern Canada pays “full price” from non-Canadian sources.

In a speech to the Canadian Club of Toronto at the Royal York Hotel, the federal NDP leader gave his clearest sign of support yet for the notion of a West to East pipeline that would allow producers to receive higher prices for their crude oil.

The NDP leader’s speech also repeated his concern that western energy developers are not paying the full cost of the environmental consequences of their projects. He said this is leading to an artificially high Canadian dollar, which hurts other sectors of the economy.

Mulcair wants East-West Pipeline

The full text of his comments can be seen at iPolitics and has much more than Globe and Mail Report (it wouldn’t have fanned the flames otherwise).

Mulcair spoke about this pipeline, he also talked a lot about income inequality, robust government, and making polluters pay. He talked about strengthening environmental safeguards, ending fossil fuel subsidies and more.

What he didn’t say: That tackling climate change requires a fundamental transformation of our system.

Sometimes, what is not said is more important than what is said.

If this proposal to use Canadian oil more “judiciously” by building a short-term closed supply chain is just part of a clear plan to go to a renewables and demand-reduction based energy transformation, propose away. We do need to hold both these truths in our heads at once: The tarsands are a big source of short-term revenue feeding our fossil fuel based culture, and unchecked climate change will kill many. It isn’t possible to cut fossil fuel use to zero next year, but it is imperative to cut emissions from fossil fuel use to near zero in the medium-term. Any policy that makes sense within that main objective should be looked at on its merits, but ending fossil fuel emissions soon HAS to be a cornerstone of any progressive energy policy, the crisis demands no less.

So Mr Mulcair, propose oil pipelines if you wish, it may make for good short-term politics (read comments below the article), and who knows, maybe even tolerable policy. But remember to frame it as part of the necessary energy transformation. Politics is messy, and lasting change requires a broad coalition, don’t alienate progressive supporters right away.


Best way to pick legislators? At random.

While discussing options for Canada’s broken senate, I advocated for making senate selection random, an idea near and dear to many science fiction acolytes.  I believe this to be a superior alternative to the current lot of retired civil servants, failed politicians, washed up broadcasters, privileged elite, and a few decent people that currently make up the Canadian Senate. Here’s a study (pdf) that says a mix of random legislators makes for good policy.

The Abstract

We study a prototypical model of a Parliament with two Parties or two Political Coalitions and we show how the introduction of a variable percentage of randomly selected independent legislators can increase the global efficiency of a Legislature, in terms of both the number of laws passed and the average social welfare obtained. We also analytically find an ”efficiency golden rule” which allows to fix the optimal number of legislators to be selected at random after that regular elections have established the relative proportion of the two Parties or Coalitions. These results are in line with both the ancient Greek democratic system and the recent discovery that the adoption of random strategies can improve the efficiency of hierarchical organizations.

Need to move those people from the bottom left to the top right

Good policy is supposed to maximize social gain. It is difficult for legislators to make good policy in the absence of personal gain, so everyone needs to be in the upper-right quadrant of the figure. The simulation works by denying any party a majority unless they can appeal to a number of independent, random actors. Since these legislators can’t be re-elected and have little to gain personally, they will make decisions based more on social gain than personal gain, and move things upward and right. The simulation also found that having no parties and complete independence conferred little advantage. The optimum was a little more than half of the legislature to be “independent” and “random”.

This is only a simulation. In practice, few people are independent and promises of future positions and future prestige will presumably influence independents to vote to preserve privilege rather than maximize “social good”. But the current system of a very small minority (1-2% of Canadians belong to a party) of people of a very specific kind passing policy based on diktats from the prime minister is not a good system anyway.

So, a senate that is part “elected” and part random would presumably provide the best outcome. A completely lottery senate would be a great, great improvement to the Canadian senate as it exists today. I am glad there’s some research to back my pet proposal.

via Washington Post – Study Says Pick some Legislators Randomly

Murray Langdon and the Role of Government

Murray Langdon of Victoria area radio and news outfit CFAX talks about municipal golf courses and tries to connect the Municipality of Saanich’s role in running a golf course with a much larger question around government, and “money”.

I’ve already been inundated with a ream of people who have stated that rec centres, garbage pick-up, landscaping, etc, has always been done by the municipality. That may be true. What I’m asking is should cities and towns be doing that. For example, we know that rec centres lose money each and every year…

via Murray Langdons Comment

The role of government, whatever level it might be, is to maximise the welfare of the people it serves, not some of its people, but most of them. So, looking at government “costs” alone in deciding the role of government is dangerously incomplete. What you actually have to do is to total up the costs for government and the people being served by the government, and judge whether there is an overall benefit to a municipality providing a service. Trying to be pragmatic about it, here are some of the things I look at:

  1. Is the good/service provided discretionary? Meaning, would I be able to live a reasonably satisfactory life without the service?
  2. If the good/service is non-discretionary ( I need it for a satisfactory life), then does it show characteristics of moral hazard (if some people don’t participate, it affects everyone), and would the provision of the service benefit from risk pooling (it works better if we’re all in it together) and mitigate issues of adverse selection (people who need services most are least able to afford them)?
  3. Is the good/service market amenable? (despite what free market fundamentalists may have you believe, Adam Smith did not think that every good/service could fit into a free market paradigm). If market worthy, is there any additional benefit to having a “public option”?
  4. What parts of a good/service are a natural monopoly, and what parts are amenable to market based competition (highways vs. cars)?
  5. When looking at costs and benefits, it’s not enough just look at direct costs like construction, salaries, etc, but also at more intangible measures like decision fatigue,(after a certain threshold, every decision you take degrades the next one) social capital (community relations, cooperation and confidence), creative capital (the ability to attract people to your community), environmental capital and so much more.

Immediately, dumping golf, recreation, and water and sewage services into the same pot makes no sense.

Let’s look at golf, it’s discretionary, and given the proliferation of golf courses in the area, a reasonably competitive good/service (disclaimer: I don’t golf). If Saanich stopped providing golf services, some people would end up paying more, but this would not affect a vast majority of people in the area. So, I wouldn’t shed a tear if Saanich’s golf course was privatised (I would be happier if it became a park, but that’s a different argument!).

Let’s look at recreation centres – Murray Langdon says this:

For example, we know that rec centres lose money each and every year. But we have examples of private recreation facilities, (in Langford for example) that are not only affordable but actually make money. For some reason, people assume that if it’s not run by a municipality, it will be expensive. Well, I have news for you. It is expensive and it may be because it’s run by a municipality.

I am confused, what Langford recreation centre is he talking about? (I don’t live in Langford, or hardly ever visit) The Westshore Parks and Rec Society runs the recreation centres, and it appears to be a joint effort by Westshore communities.

West Shore Park & Recreation is governed by the West Shore Parks & Recreation Society’s Board of Directors  Each municipalities contribution, through tax requisition, assists in the operation of the parks and recreation facilities.

Putting Langford aside, clearly, the public health benefits of increased physical activity make exercise a non-discretionary item (some may disagree!) Community based (whether run by the municipality or not) recreation centres have many benefits that are not measured just by their profit-loss statements. They are often the only option for family-centric, community centric (as opposed to individual centric) recreation. I can’t go to a private gym with my partner (real) and kids (hypothetical), and have all of us participate in  activities at the same time. My partner and I would have to schedule different workouts, then enrol the progeny in a separate swimming or soccer class, find/take turns in baby sitting, etc. So, not having community based recreation increases costs to society + government, while possibly (and not always) reducing government “costs”. The social capital of having community recreation centres, the public health benefits of encouraging exercise, I could go on, the intangible benefits are high. The YMCA, which I am a member of, is a non-profit community run recreation centre, and this model works as well.

Water and Sewer – These are non-discretionary, monopoly driven services not really market based. Construction, some maintenance, value added services, may be amenable to competition, but not the management, oversight and long-term stewardship. While the BC provincial government and various Federal governments have been trying to privatise various commons resources, third-party evidence points to no cost savings.

Here’s a test: Talk about BC Liquor!

The job of a public policy analyst is to consider the costs/benefits of the society as a whole. One does not read government balance sheets the same way one would read a corporation’s balance sheet.

Photo from GibsonGolfer Flickr photostream used under a Creative Commons License.

Hey Young Woman! Canada’s Senate needs you!

Canada’s Senate, that life-tenured repository of appointed political loyalists, ex-journalists and random washed up celebrities, got in the news recently after Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed three failed conservative MP candidates, including two who had resigned from their life time senate appointments to run. While all this is unethical and just serves to perpetuate the plutocracy and the welfare state Canadian politicians have set up for themselves, it is clearly the PM’s sole prerogative to do this. He would have done these appointments regardless of majority/minority. The PM knows that the median voter will only turf him in the event of obvious corruption, or a recession, not for riding roughshod over parliamentary procedures, or being divisive, or any such “subtle” issues.

There are calls to reform the senate to make it more relevant, and Stephen Harper has made noises about introducing legislation that will limit senators’ terms and provide for an elected model. The article is short on detail on exactly what the election process will look like.  But let’s look around for some examples, of course rule out the UK House of Lords, sorry, no point discussing hereditary peers!

  1. The American Model: Good god, no. The US Senate is unrepresentative and broken. It assigns two senators to each state regardless of population, and has procedures like the filibuster, anonymous secret holds, etc that are severely undemocratic. Just read George Packer’s devastating report in the New Yorker and you’ll run screaming from this option. Anyway, they have too much power, that’s the last thing we need. The Australian model is somewhat similar (though it uses the single transferable vote or STV for voting).  and is unrepresentative.
  2. The Indian Model. India’s Rajya Sabha. It is elected by the State’s MLAs through a regionally population weighted formula using a Single Transferable Vote multi-member list. Members are voted to 6 year terms. It has has a small percentage of appointed members meant for prominent scientists, artists, etc. The Rajya Sabha does not have equal powers, it cannot initiate appropriations bills, or reject them (only send them back). Also, in the event that the Rajya Sabha (assembly of “rulers”) disagrees with the Lok Sabha (the assembly of the people), there is a joint session, in which the Rajya Sabha, limited by number to 250, is always outnumbered by the Lok Sabha (not more than 552), and would generally lose. This has only happened three times, so in general, the Rajya Sabha serves as a rubber stamp body, and a place for politicians who aren’t up for an election campaign. However, members of the Rajya Sabha can be part of the cabinet, or even be PM. Most famously, India’s current PM Manmohan Singh is from the Rajya Sabha and has been there since 1991. The only time he ran for the Lok Sabha in 1999, he lost.  The Indian model is better than the US model, but I am not too keen on having PMs that have never been directly elected, there’s something wrong about that.

It appears that the original intent of Canada’s senate was to be an unelected body of people which provided sober, non-partisan review of House of Commons legislation. Given that the Canadian senate recently rejected climate change legislation Bill C-311 (with much rancour and little debate) after it had been passed by the House of Commons, this premise is dead. The voting was entirely on party lines, rejected democratically passed legislation, and debate was anything but sober. The current political system will only serve to make any Canadian Senate increasingly partisan (not always a bad thing, partisanship is honest). Voting will not change this much, even if the voting is based on proportional representation, which appears to not be too popular with the status quo. Why have a senate that once again prioritizes the voices of the elite, especially if we don’t intend the senate to have equal power? What to do?

Lottery Democracy, that’s what! Let’s randomly pick, based on provincial weighting, a certain number of people out of the elector pool, to serve in the senate for a fixed term, say 4 years or so. Also, since the current system biases towards age, let’s put an age restriction as well, younger than 35! Obviously, the pay has to be good enough, and the work has to be part time. The current senate sits for anywhere between 50-90 days in a year. Let’s pick a small enough senate, say a total of 50-100 senators, one minimum per province/territory,  then weighted by population. Let’s make most of the senate proceedings online friendly, so most voting, discussion, etc can happen by video conferencing, with 2-3 weeks per year face time in Ottawa. This way, the work is part time, and can be worked around jobs/children, etc. The pay will have to be good enough for the senators to afford good day care, etc.

What powers would we give this senate? The power of a second voice, nothing more. If the senate does not like a legislation, it sends the bill back for discussion. If the Commons chooses to pass it unchanged, have a joint vote. The number disparity between the Commons and the Senate would ensure that the Commons gets primacy, unless the bill is so egregiously divisive, and voting so close that a joint session produces a different result.

What are the advantages of having a randomly picked “young” senate?

  1. Age – Provides valuable policy experience and job training to someone just starting their career, not a sinecure and pension to someone finishing theirs off. At the end of 4-5 years, you get someone who has lived public policy. Obviously, a lot of training and civil service help will be needed, just like for MPs currently.
  2. Elitism – Since we will get a randomly selected senate, there are fewer White male middle aged lawyers.
  3. Representativeness – This provides a direct democracy element to our governance.
  4. Orthogonality – The senate is picked using rules completely different from the Commons, so we will get a different set of people.
  5. Ego and power – Being a politician means wanting to be one, and all the compromises that come with it. I am not a politician basher, many of them want to do good. But having a vote for people who did not have to raise money, or are not beholden to any special interest groups (in theory) provides a good complementary view.

I am under no illusion that this senate will be less “partisan”, whatever that means. We have strong biases whether we acknowledge them or not, and the senators will vote with these biases. That’s okay, politics is about making choices. But we can design senate rules to mitigate party affiliation and conflict of interests.

Obviously, just like jury duty, people could have an option to refuse for the right reasons, but there should be no other restrictions. If you’re eligible to vote, you’re eligible to be picked regardless of your past history. Will there be a few slackers, yes, but look at the current senate/house of commons, there are some who make you wonder… We also have people in the Senate appointed in 1979, clearly time to leave after 30 years!

So, hey young woman, you sitting in the corner pondering your next move, would you like to be a senator?

Image courtesy – Flickr – Andresrueda used under a creative commons license.

Canada now has no legitimate government

Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean has granted a request from Stephen Harper to suspend Parliament until late next month, the prime minister announced on Thursday, a move that avoids a confidence vote set for Monday that could have toppled his minority government.

Following my advice, the Governor General has agreed to prorogue Parliament," Harper said outside Rideau Hall after a two-hour meeting with Jean. When Parliament resumes Jan. 26, the first order of business will be the presentation of a federal budget.

via GG agrees to suspend Parliament: Harper

Funny, when a PM loses the confidence of parliament, it seems patently undemocratic to let him shut down parliament (the only mechanism of governance) for two months so he can pretend to still be a legitimate PM. Holy cow, I can’t imagine something like that happening in India, our president would laugh the PM out of the building if he/she wanted him to suspend parliament for 2 months, then ask him to hold a confidence vote.

Sad, whatever country I move to eventually becomes a banana republic.

The Big O

And so, it goes, the US shows the western world how to elect a minority candidate. Amazing, and truly transformational. There will be plenty of time for politics and what will happen next, but tonight, amazing. The US, after a few years, finally has a better president than Canada!

Dole Begone

Facing a close re-election race in North Carolina, Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R) recently released an ad attacking her opponent Kay Hagan, falsely accusing her of being “Godless.” The end of the ad shows a photo of Hagan while a woman yells, “There is no God!” Watch it:

via Think Progress » Elizabeth Dole ad falsely suggests opponent Kay Hagan is ‘Godless.’

Dear fellow Tar Heels:

Please give this inept, ineffectual, incompetent excuse for a senator the retirement she so richly deserves.


The Olive Ridley Crawl

Of course, she yelled “Godless” in my face, I’d say, “Yeah”!! But as we know, atheists are not very popular…

DMK blinks on Sri Lankan Tamils, LTTE

Signalling the end of a major crisis that threatened the continuance of the United Progressive Alliance government, Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi assured External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee that he would not precipitate any crisis over the issue of a ceasefire in the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict, even as the island nation assured India that the safety of Tamils in that country was being taken care of.

via The Hindu : Front Page : As DMK relents, crisis for Centre ends

So, what happened? The Indian government reacted to Tamil MPs’ ultimatums and issued a statement expressing “concern”. The Sri Lankan government responded by issuing a statement “reassuring” that Tamils would be taken care of. In the end, nothing appears to have changed, except the rather subtle new perception that there could be an increased Indian involvement in possible negotiations.

We shall see, having been here before.