Activism

Connaught Movement Suggests Need for a Citizen Action Platform

By Ryan McGreal
Published September 16, 2009

As at this writing, there are now 300 posted comments across the two RTH articles and three blog entries on the Connaught redevelopment - and almost none of them are trolls!

The spontaneous nature, intense interest and broad-based agreement that have characterized this movement have been remarkable to witness, from the largely civil discussion to the letter-writing campaign to TV news coverage to the offline meetup planned for tomorrow evening.

It has suggested, at least to me, a role for RTH as not only a community resource for news and arguments, but also as a platform for civic action.

Much of the spontaneous organizing around the Connaught has taken place within the comments section on RTH - a pretty poor and ad hoc platform for organizing.

How much more comprehensive and effective would this have been with an actual organizing infrastructure?

Another question: if I were to establish an open source project to develop or adapt such a platform, would anyone be willing to help realize it and put it into operation?

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

26 Comments

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By Really? (registered) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 15:39:55

Can we call the Organization 'Raise The Hammer'?

I would be 100% involved; aslong as I'm not the Lone Protestor :s

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By frank (registered) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 15:40:33

I'm not sure what would be involved as I've never done something like that before but I may be up for it...

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted September 16, 2009 at 15:48:17

I just created an online repository called rth_organize on GitHub:

http://github.com/quandyfactory/rth_orga...

I'll whip up a shell in the next day or so and push it so people have something to work with.

My preference is to build it in Python (I'm in the midst of rewriting RTH to run on Python with web.py and SQLAlchemy and I'd like the two applications to be fairly closely integrated), but if someone with a passion for Rails and plenty of free time would rather take a crack at it, I'm game.

Frank,

Aside from programming nerds to write the actual code for this, we also need people to decide how it should work for users, what features it should have, how they should work, and so on. We'll also need people to try it out and see how well it works.

Alternately, I'm sure this would benefit from people searching for existing open source applications or frameworks that do something similar that we can use and adapt. No point in inventing wheels unnecessarily.

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By frank (registered) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 15:51:49

I'm not sure I have the knowledge then. I stopped programming a looong time ago lol. I will definitely try it out though and I can work with features and how it should work etc...

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By highwater (registered) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 16:08:30

I have no technical skills, but I have pretty good blabbing skills. I will help out whatever way I can, but am already spearheading a neighbourhood initiative so I can't really manage a leadership role. Happy to be a worker bee, though.

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By jason (registered) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 17:03:47

being the tech illiterate that I am, I just opened that website, clicked on something, had no clue what it meant and closed it.

What the heck is that? And what are we supposed to do with it? And how, if at all, is that going to help us organize more than ripping through wings at the Plucker??

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By beaslyfireworkstechnican (registered) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 18:26:57

Ryan

The intent of tomorrow's event is about drinking beer, disagreeing and hearing each other's thoughts/ideas. That's what citizenship is about.

Can you guys hold off on the politics / creating a platform till another night?

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By scorby (anonymous) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 18:41:25

I don't even live in Hamilton yet (moving in exactly 1 month) but have had my eyes wide open for a platform of this type.

What exactly is the intended function of this platform? Is the idea that discussion between like-minded individuals will give birth to action?

If so, it sounds like what is needed times infinity in Hamilton right now. I'd like to help as much as I can.

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 19:46:40

Is this event open to anyone?

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By Tammany (anonymous) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 20:05:02

I wish I could help but I'm woefully technologically illiterate.

Aside from the platform, which is a wonderful idea, people really need to organize into an effective civic advocacy group (easier said than done, I know).

It has to be realized that there are two basic factions tat matter in this town.

Firstly, there is the status quo faction, which is largely based around property developers and the remnants of the business establishment. These people (including most if not all of the council members, and all of staff members who matter) are content to watch Hamilton die as a city (but not as a tax base). The city as an entity is useful to them because it provides a source of free capital to fund their projects (in whole or in part). The Connaught deal is a case in point on how this faction operates.

Secondly, there are the people who want to see the city realize its obvious potential as a great place to live. They want to rectify the planning and policy mistakes of the past fifty years and return Hamilton to its rightful status as, to quote Trevor Cole, a "contender". There is enormous potential for lobbying pressure and political action here but it hasn't yet been realized.

The bulk of Hamilton's citizenry doesn't give a sh-t (which is true of just about every city, but I think in Hamilton's case citizen apathy is particularly deep and widespread).

It will always be a small group of people battling another small group, trying to take control of the agenda. This isn't about the people battling the elite (although I think a strong argument can be made that the people's best interests are more legitimately represented by the second group I describe above). It's about one agenda trying to trump the other. That other agenda is starting to get a voice, but it needs legs too.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted September 16, 2009 at 20:27:47

So, a bit more detail on what I'm thinking about: essentially, I'm proposing that we create some kind of web-based application that makes it easier for people to organize around a particular issue.

It seems that this would require at least the following:

  • An easy way for someone to establish an ad hoc organization around an issue. This is often the hardest part of organizing, since many people are usually willing to help out as long as someone else makes the first move. If we can make it a lot easier for a leader to get the ball rolling, that may encourage more people to start organizations.

  • An easy way for other people to join the group, either as active participants or simply to follow developments. This should include various ways to keep abreast of developments: the online discussion, an RSS feed, an email digest, etc. (Also, my personal belief is that community organizing should take place openly and in public; not only is that more inclusive, but also it's more transparent and accountable. People organizing in public tend to be more responsible.)

  • A permanent homepage where the organization is based which provides various tools of organizing, including ways to: share news and other information; discuss and debate the issue to decide how to interpret it and what to do about it; plan real-world meetings, events and actions; issue letters (e.g. to council) and press releases; establish contact information; and so on.

There are plenty of other possibilities, e.g. a way to integrate media sources - something like a Google Alerts-style keyword search of local media for articles related to the issue.

Again, the application should make these functions and tools easily available, so a prospective leader doesn't need to reinvent the wheel.

My hunch is that the end result will have some combination of various elements of a blog, a wiki, an egroup, and a social network.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted September 16, 2009 at 20:42:40

frank wrote:

I'm not sure I have the knowledge then. I stopped programming a looong time ago lol.

An essential part of making it work is using and testing it so you can discover what works, what's painful, and what's missing that would be nice to have.

jason wrote:

What the heck is that? And what are we supposed to do with it?

I just created a blank repository for the source code behind this. There's nothing there yet.

And how, if at all, is that going to help us organize more than ripping through wings at the Plucker??

See my comment before this one for an overview of what the tool might be able to accomplish.

beaslyfireworkstechnician wrote:

The intent of tomorrow's event is about drinking beer, disagreeing and hearing each other's thoughts/ideas. That's what citizenship is about.

Damn straight. This is by no means an attempt to replace or co-opt the meetup you've planned. If anything, I hope this will make it easier to plan more such events in the future.

scorby wrote:

I don't even live in Hamilton yet (moving in exactly 1 month) but have had my eyes wide open for a platform of this type.

Fantastic! See my comment above for one take on what this might look like. I hope we can create something that makes it easier for concerned citizens to turn knowledge -> outrage -> organization -> action.

Tammany wrote:

It's about one agenda trying to trump the other. That other agenda is starting to get a voice, but it needs legs too.

My experience organizing with Hamilton Light Rail - http://hamiltonlightrail.com - is that a small group of dedicated people with a focused agenda and a strong argument can transform the public framework by introducing and explaining a new initiative and building widespread public support.

There are two sources of power: 1) money and institutional connections; and 2) broad-based community organizing.

The only way to establish 2) is to organize, build relationships, reach out to neighbourhood associations, community councils, social/interest clubs and business groups, and make a strong, evidence-based case for your initiative that answers the challenges thrown at it and generates enough public interest and enthusiasm that the mainstream media have to cover it and politicians have to acknowledge it.

Do a good enough job promoting the initiative, and you reduce the political risk of getting behind it while raising the political risk of not getting behind it. :)

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By adrian (registered) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 22:10:28

Ryan, two quick thoughts:

1) Organizing that takes place in RTH comments is probably pretty effective, because RTH already has the killer feature that is the hardest to build: a community. RTH has active writers and a broad audience. Audiences are hard to build. There is no technological substitute for that.

2) I think there's a risk of falling prey to NIH syndrome with this idea, something I'm really prone to myself. One of my clients uses a tool called Clearspace (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clearspace) that "integrates the functionality of discussion forums, blogs, wikis, IM chat and VOIP under one unified user interface". It is proprietary, but the category of software it belongs to, collaborative software (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collaborative_software), probably has many members that are open-source.

I love web development, and I would love to be involved with something, if I thought that it met a need that is unmet with existing tools, and if it seemed obvious that once something got built it would actually get used. A lot could probably get done in the meantime with a combination of existing tools, like a wiki, a Google group, and a shared Google calendar. If there was a lot of participation and users started to outgrow the tools, it might be time to move to an integrated platform, whether it's one we build ourselves or not.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted September 16, 2009 at 22:16:41

This is a most excellent idea. I don't have the technical know-how but would love to be able to contribute in whatever way I can.

Let's raise this hammer!

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted September 16, 2009 at 22:48:47

Adrian,

Great points. I'm guilty as charged for NIH Syndrome (see: raisethehammer.org), and that's why I'm interested in looking to integrate and/or adapt whatever functionality already exists.

However, I don't think a mishmash of wiki software, egroups and Google calendars is the answer. For one thing, each tool would have its own location, interface and learning curve, increasing the complexity for the users.

On top of that, the components would be (at best) very loosely coupled, meaning information would not flow freely or automatically between them. That adds an additional layer of complexity for users, and increases the risk of errors and omissions.

Perhaps the solution is to focus on developing code that glues together existing components in a way that facilitates ad hoc organizing.

Of course, the chief advantage to NIH is that sometimes, sometimes, you end up building something that's much better than the existing tools you decided to eschew (see: git).

It ultimately comes down to a business of clearly identifying and listing our requirements, and then searching for an existing tool that meets them. If no such tool exists, the best course is to create it.

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted September 17, 2009 at 08:01:37

Sounds like a great idea Ryan, and though I won't be able to make it to the Plucker tonight, (Wednesdays would be better for me), I'd be happy to help with the framework. The majority of my programming experience is in C/C++ and Fortran, but if this comic http://xkcd.com/353/ is any indication then Python isn't that hard ;)

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted September 17, 2009 at 08:22:43

If you're used to programming in C/C++ and Fortran, switching to Python will feel like breathing again after being held underwater.

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted September 17, 2009 at 09:10:36

Hahaha, I have been told that very same thing by some of my colleagues.

I'm not sure how much free time I'll have since we have a project milestone coming up in a couple months and work is about to get crazy because of it, but let me know what you need done and I can do what I can.

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By frank (registered) | Posted September 17, 2009 at 15:26:07

LOL, I'm the same as UR there... C/C++ programming. I haven't even heard of Python

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted September 17, 2009 at 15:47:54

http://www.python.org/

Python is:

  • Dynamic - it's interpreted bytecode rather than compiled.

  • Multi-paradigmatic - you can write imperative, object oriented or functional code.

  • Dynamically typed - you can just assign a value to a variable without having to declare its type first.

  • Strongly typed - once you've implicitly assigned a type to a variable by assigning a value, you can't change the type without explicitly converting it (e.g. from an integer into a string).

  • Terse and expressive - it's easy to pack a lot of instructions into a small amount of code. List comprehensions and filters are particularly impressive.

  • Human-readable - unlike, say, Perl, Python is very easy to read - some people call it executable pseudocode.

  • Introspective - everything is an object, including modules, functions, methods and classes, and a program can dynamically access the properties and methods of objects at runtime.

  • Very powerful and well-supported, with an impressive standard library and a huge array of robust, stable third-party libraries and packages that do just about everything imaginable.

It's been around for nearly 20 years, is used extensively inside many innovative companies including Google - and is named after a certain British sketch comedy troupe.

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By pythonista (anonymous) | Posted September 17, 2009 at 15:54:27

Dont forget...

- self-documenting with docstrings
- significant whitespace (those indents matter!)
- cross platform
- garbage collection
- lambdas
- iterators and generators
- decorators
- closures
- with statement
- yield statement
- import antigravity

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By grassroots are the way forward (registered) | Posted September 17, 2009 at 16:27:28

I am amazed at those who can grasp computer programming. I had to take basic programming 101 just to get a pass and I just passed.

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By rase teh hamur (anonymous) | Posted September 17, 2009 at 23:32:16

lol i maek facebook group

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By UrbanRenaissance (registered) | Posted September 18, 2009 at 07:27:30

lol...executable pseudocode.

I played with it a bit last night and you're right its really easy, like they cherry-picked the best aspects of the other languages to make this one. How does it tie into web development though? Are you writing scripts with it.

Sorry if that's a n00bish question but my work is in realtime simulation, I haven't done anything close to web development since high school, even then that was just a crappy html page.

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By jason (registered) | Posted September 18, 2009 at 08:25:58

I thought Python was a snake.

I'll leave the fun stuff up to you guys and then I'll check out the final product. haha

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted September 18, 2009 at 09:00:19

UrbanRenaissance wrote:

How does it tie into web development though? Are you writing scripts with it.

It's a general-purpose programming language, so you can use it for anything. There's a standard in Python called the Web Services Gateway Interface (WSGI) that allows Python programs to interact with web servers. You get request and response objects and so on.

My personal blog runs on Python code. I've written a bit more detail about the application stack on my About page:

http://quandyfactory.com/about#technical

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