Don’t believe the Zika hype

Author: Robin Browne

After the Rio Olympics, what’s the first thing you think of when you think of Brazil? I bet it’s the Zika virus.

If you believe the media reports, you’d think there are swarms of Zika laden mosquitos roaming the streets of Rio looking for pregnant women to feast on. And if you’re not a pregnant woman you’d still be nervous.

Well, what if I told you that no one has screens on their windows in Rio? Oh, and there are no mosquitos now anyway because it’s  winter. And, even if it was summer, there’s almost no chance of getting Zika in the city…

Well, that’s what our Brazilian contacts in Rio are telling us (two independent contacts).

Could this be part of the reason why study after study shows people trust “people like them” more than the media? And why the mainstream media continues to struggle? (Maybe if they stop blaming the Internet and return to the good old days of reporting actual facts, people might give them another try).

Now I’m starting to question the other big stories coming out of Brazil via mainstream media, like the shitty water story. This literally means “water full of shit” because Rio pumps its raw sewage into the water like many places do. However, on this one, one of our contacts confirmed that the bay next to where we’re staying in a part of Rio called Flamengo, is one of the places mentioned in the shitty water stories and he says, “You don’t want that water to even touch your skin.”

So, it seems the media got that one right.

It’s said that travel is one of the best forms of education. I agree and that’s part of the reason I’m taking my family to the Rio Olympics.

However, travel brings with it risks that most classroom education does not: the chance of personal injury. This is especially true in Rio. From the Zika virus to violent daytime muggings (see “Security”) to advanced cyber crime, there are many ways to get hurt in Rio – physically or financially. Add to this, the fact that an African American contact from Brooklyn, now living in Rio, says the treatment and status of blacks in Brazil is worse than in the US, and you’ve got a place where we’ll have to watch our black behinds.

So what does all this have to do with social ed? Well, it turns out that doing what we normally do when we travel internationally – putting our phones in Airplane mode the whole trip to avoid unintentional roaming fees – won’t work in Brazil. Here’s why:


Wazup Whatsapp? We’ve been told the best way to communicate in Rio is with the super popular, free instant messaging app, Whatsapp. We’ve already been using it to get invaluable intel from our contacts there in text, photo, audio and video form.

Desculpa. Nós não falam Português! We don’t speak Portuguese and most Brazilians don’t speak English (in fact, 3/4 of Brazilians are functionally illiterate according to our Rio contact). However, there will be no little phrase book with dog eared pages for us. We’ll use Google Translate! We’ll type in our question then show the translation on our phone to the person we’re asking – or play them the audio if they can’t read. (We’ll have to be as discreet as possible with this as showing our phones off in public is likely to attract banditos).


Ubertouristos – We’re staying a little ways outside Rio because it’s cheaper – and we thought: no problem, we’ll just rent a car. Well, it is a problem. Our contact strongly advised against it saying that, in all the years he’s been in Rio, he’s rented a car twice – and they were two of the most stressful things he has ever done in his life. He told us to use Uber instead. So, Uber it is, right from when we arrive.


To Air is Human – We’ll be using Airb&b for the first time and our phones will be the main way we connect with our hosts, whether it’s with Whatsapp, the Airb&b app, or just regular old email and phone calls.

So, I have one more thing to add to our Brazil “To Buy” list: cell phone covers that make our phones look as ugly as possible.

Today, as I went to Google something, I was met with the Google Doodle below. It honours Emmy Noether who, I learned with one click, “was an influential German mathematician known for her groundbreaking contributions to abstract algebra and theoretical physics.”

Google doodle Emmy Noether.

So like millions of others today, I learned about another great white, European contribution to modern Western society. More broadly, I had the idea that white, Europeans are accomplished and valuable, reinforced.

This got me thinking about the digital divide and how few Doodles, if any, I’ve ever seen about non-white folks.

To check my assumption, I typed a query under Ms. Noether and found I wasn’t the only one thinking about this.

A February 2014, MailOnline article, Are Google’s doodles racist and sexist? discussed the campaign by the women’s group Spark to get Google to diversify its Doodles.

The team analysed Google Doodles from 2010-2013, and found that Google celebrated 445 individuals on its various homepages throughout the world. Nine were women of color, 54 were white women, 82 were men of color, and 275 were white men.

It called for Google to include all races and genders in its Doodles, “demanding that Google make a concerted effort to change such a blatant imbalance.”

“Google Doodles may seem lighthearted, especially when accompanied by quirky games and animation, but in reality they have emerged as a new manifestation of who we value as a society, a sign of who “matters.” Just like statues, stamps, and national holidays, you know that if someone is featured on Google’s homepage, they’ve done something important.”

Now, although I like Spark’s goal, I have a different reason to offer Google why they should take action: because the world needs all the diversity it can get to deal with the challenges facing it. We need people to think broadly about solutions to today’s complex problems. However, if Google reinforces the idea that only people who look like Emmy Noether and Albert Einstein are the sources of valuable insights, they are limiting the abilities of people, including their own employees, to think out of the white box.

I use Hootsuite to manage Twitter because I can create columns that only have the tweets I want to see. This week I created a column with only tweets using the #digitaldivide hashtag. I found some amazing stuff I’d like to share. But first, I’d like to point out that I found all this amazing stuff because people took the time, and had the awareness, to do take one simple, powerful action: tag it (in this case using #digitaldivide). Tagging enables us all to collaborate globally to help organize the ever-increasing volume of information. This is an incredibly important role because it makes it easier for search engines like Google to find stuff. And finding stuff on the net is like finding a needle in a haystack – with one key difference: the haystack grows exponentially each day. So tagging helps makes things findable. However, the flip side – that untagged information is harder to find – is just as important. What affects what gets tagged? Clearly, information that’s more interesting to people inclined to tag will rise to the surface. This raises the questions: who tags content, how many people, how often and what?

Facebook: still a walled garden?

I post most of my content to my blog, Twitter and Facebook but I only tag things in the first two because, as far as I can tell, Google still doesn’t take everything on Facebook into account for its search results. This means that massive amounts of data that are untagged or on Facebook remain buried under the other stuff unless you’re looking really hard – or searching within Facebook.

I told two friends to tag, and they told two friends, and so on and so on… 

We need a global tagging awareness campaign to get more people helping to organize all that content out there. But this raises the question: which tags should you use?

A quick Google search surprisingly (to me at least) didn’t turn up a site that let you search by keyword for popular hashtags associated with a particular subject. If there’s one out there, please let me know about it.

So with that intro out of the way, let me share some of the great stuff I found thanks to some great taggers out there:

A Liter of Light – helps people in developing countries light their homes and save money by teaching them how to make cheap, powerful light bulbs with just chlorine, water and discarded plastic water bottles.

Embrace – provides low cost, baby warmer to mothers in developing countries to help way more babies live to see the light of day – and their mothers’ smiles.

Black Girls Code – teaches black girls in San Francisco the power of coding.

Braille smart phone for blind people – designer and filmmaker, Sumit Dagar, created an amazing phone with a changeable braille surface.

Happy tagging. 🙂


I took my first Uber ride last weekend and am now an Uber convert.

My conversion started with the ease with which I installed the Uber app and signed up for the service on my phone while on a bus ride home from Toronto. It continued when the app opened a Google map showing nearby Uber cars, in real time, that looked like a cross between the morning traffic report and Harry Potter’s Marauder’s Map. Next was how easy it was to request a driver and the app giving me his picture, car model/make and license plate to find him outside the bus station. The fact he turned up less than five minutes after I requested a lift was great but that was topped by him telling me my trip was free because I was a first time user.

At the end of the trip he asked me to rate him using the app and told me he would do the same for me. He said if they get three bad ratings Uber kicks them out. In response to my comment about security concerns with Uber, he said that all potential drivers in Canada had to pass a global RCMP, criminal record check. This is backed up by Uber’s site that says their safety system in the US “includes a three-step criminal background screening for the U.S. — with county, federal and multi-state checks that go back as far as the law allows — and ongoing reviews of drivers’ motor vehicle records throughout their time on Uber.”

And that’s just what I liked about my trip.

I admit being biased towards Uber because it’s a disrupter. It’s disrupting the established taxi industry that has needed a shake up for a long time. Uber disrupts the model that has taxi monopolies charging drivers large up front licensing, and monthly, fees regardless of how much money they make (the last cabbie I asked paid the company $800/month). Uber’s barrier to entry is much lower. Uber drivers are self-employed and pay Uber a 20% commission on what they make. (At least this is what I found out from Google. I couldn’t find this info on Uber’s site and got no answer from the normally speedy replying Ottawa Community Manager when I asked).

Uber also has one, very good goal that gets little media attention: being an alternative to owning a car at all. In a June 2014 CNBC article, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said, “If you can make the economics work so that it’s actually more economical to push a button and get a ride than it is to own a car, then a lot of people are going to do it.” Lastly, Uber is also having another good, probably unintentional, impact. A study co-commissioned by the US branch of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and Uber credited the ride dispatching app with helping reduce impaired driving in that country.

With all that goodness, what’s wrong with Uber? Not their marketing. That’s for sure.

When I opened my phone after my ride, I had an email from Uber’s Ottawa Community Manager congratulating me on my first Uber ride and adding:

We’d love for you to help us spread the word about Uber! Below is your custom Uber invite code. Each friend that signs up with your code will receive CA$20 off their first Uber ride. For each person you refer that takes a ride, we’ll add CA$20 in Uber credit to your account. It’s the ultimate Uber win-win, and there’s no limit to how much credit you can earn.

I had already been singing Uber’s praises on Facebook before I got this note so sharing it was a no brainer. What was interesting was the response I got when I did.

One commenter said she didn’t use Uber because, unlike many taxi drivers, Uber drivers aren’t unionized. She said many taxi drivers are racialized immigrants and the union helps protects them. This got me thinking… I said she had a point and shared that my Uber guy was a brown-skinned accountant making extra cash on the side as a self-employed Uber driver. As for taxi drivers being unionized, that seems necessary as 100% of the ones I’ve spoken with don’t have good things to say about the near monopolies they work for. Uber is 5 years old and worth $18.2 billion and I haven’t heard anything about the company abusing the power it has over its self-employed drivers. In fact, when the company cuts fares in January, it guaranteed it wouldn’t affect driver’s salaries. The company has been accused of questionable tactics in its fight against competitor, Lyft, but that’s more of a capitalism problem than an Uber problem. 

The one issue I do have is the confusingly named “Request uberX” button” used to request a ride. After checking Uber’s website I found out that UberX is used to request a regular car while UberBlack gets you a professional chauffeur.

Uber and other disrupters are here to stay so the only real question is: are you coming along for the ride?

[Update: March 7, 2015. For a great Uber critique, see Irene Jansen’s post “Uber Xploitation?“]

One of the many parental lectures I give my kids has to do with defining terms.
(I often think of just giving each of my lectures a number so when the kids are doing something out of line, I can just yell, “Lecture # 59 A!”, but that’s for another post). In this lecture, I tell them communication is a two way street. And I’m not talking just since the advent of fancy, interactive social media. I’m talking since the dawn of time. Communication is two way because it requires a sender and a receiver. And since the sender can’t open his or her head to let the receiver peer in, they have to use the next best thing to get their point across: symbols. Those symbols might be cave drawings or Morse code or smoke signals – or language. The thing is, the symbols aren’t the thing – whether the thing is an idea or a cat. The symbols are a representation of the thing – and everyone can have very different ideas of what the symbols mean. Now, if everyone understood this, things would be better. But the problem is that too many people think everyone has the same idea of what symbols mean and it doesn’t occur to them to question this assumption. This is a particular problem with complex terms like “the digital divide”. If you ask 10 people what it means, you’ll probably get 10 different answers.
So who’s right?
Googling the term yields this definition first:
The Digital Divide is the gulf between those who have ready access to the internet and computers and those who don’t.
Seems simple enough – until you start asking some basic questions:
* What is “ready access”? Does that mean having a smart phone or having access to a computer at your local library?
* What kind of “computers”? Desktops or laptops? PC’s or smart phones? Are video game consoles computers?
* What is “ready access to the internet“? Is that access to private WiFi you or someone else pays for or public access? Is that high speed? Does it mean not having external barriers to access, like not being able to afford internet access or living somewhere where it’s not available, or internal barriers like lack of education?

When you start considering the complexity it becomes clear that the term “digital divide” may be too black and white. It’s more like a digital spectrum – or spectrums – with different groups,  or members, falling somewhere along them. For example, ask most North Americans which side of the digital divide Africa is on and 99% will say “the wrong side”. Yet Africa has one of the highest rates of mobile penetration in the world – and growing.
Or ask kids from the West Bank, brought up on images of the wired West, what side the US is on and they’re bound to say “the right side”. Yet kids in inner city schools struggle along with 10-year old desktops while kids in rich ones are downloading the latest iPad app.

We need to talk about digital spectrums and get more people closer to the good end of more of them. Our future on this planet depends on it.

January 28-29, I attended the Institute on Governance’s Digital Governance Forum in Ottawa and it’s a good thing I did because the event had a lot of great things but there was one big thing it didn’t have: diversity. Let’s just say, I was one of seven specs of pepper in a sea of salty participants (OK, maybe a little over 100 grains isn’t a sea but you get my point). However, compared to the speakers, the participants looked like the United Nations as, of the more than 30 speakers, not one was non-white.

And that was just cultural diversity. Several speakers and participants noted the lack of young people and there were scant, if any references, from the stage or the floor, to the potential impact of these crucial, global issues on people with disabilities, gay people, or aboriginal people (there were lots of women attending, and some speaking, but the podium was heavy on testosterone).

I asked one of the organisers why all the speakers were white and he said it came down to availability. Really? Not one brown person qualified to speak on digital governance was available for a conference that was months in the planning? I then asked how his team had chosen speakers and he said they discussed it among themselves. Finally, I asked how they got out of their own bubble since they’re all white…

Now let me be clear: I’m not implying the organisers purposely chose all white folks. In fact, I’d be happy if that was the answer because then the solution would be easy: replace them. No, the reasons are more complex – and systemic. It’s about how the networks we use to do things, whether finding a good movie to see or finding speakers for a conference, are often too homogeneous. It’s about staff being too homogeneous – and too busy – to take the time needed to find out how to get outside their networks (and let diverse groups know about their events far in advance). And it’s about how social networks are making this all worse, not better.

However, it’s also about underrepresented groups advocating for themselves, getting the word out to their communities about learning opportunities so people can attend, and letting organizers know they have great people who can speak on a variety of issues.

Smart organisations don’t pursue diversity out of guilt. They do it because they know it’s crucial to achieving their objectives faster than their competitors. Just ask the Montreal Canadians. 😉

So here are 3 ways you can help narrow the digital divide – and help your organisation’s bottom line in the process:

1) Diversify your networks – and your perspective. At conferences, seek out folks who look, walk and talk different than you and connect with them. Set up Google Alerts for things the dominant ways of thinking in your field (i.e if you’re conservative, have things with progressive points of view sent to you daily and vice versa).

2) Diversify your organization – when hiring, seek out great people who look, walk and talk different than you – and hire them.

3) Diversify your outreach – get the word out to underrepresented groups about your events and job offerings via the online channels they frequent (start by simply Googling the name of the group and your city).

I did my part. After the conference, I congratulated the organisers on a great event then sent them the name of a brown friend of mine, a Harvard lecturer on globalization, social change and technology, as a possible speaker.


The Good

Canada’s Open Government initiative has already delivered some good things and promises many more. One of the good things is the government’s second Canada’s Action Plan on Open Government 2014-16, which was drafted after consultations with Canadians. The plan’s intro states the aim of open government:

“As part of the global open government movement, governments seek to broaden access to data and information, ensure transparency and accountability, and strengthen citizen engagement in the activities of government and in the democratic process.”

The government’s initiative has achieved some of this already, in addition to launching the new plan.

In June 2013, it launched an open data portal that now has over 200,000 publicly available government data sets in machine readable format. In late 2014, it introduced its new government-wide website,, that is supposed to provide intuitive navigation features to help Canadians find the information they need more quickly and easily. Based on a short experiment I did, information is, in fact, easy to find – which is due to the very smart choice to use Google as the internal search engine. Using the site’s search engine, I easily found mobile-friendly information on various topics, quickly and easily.

In the spirit of transparency, the government posted the public consultation report and the complete transcripts from the Open Government Twitter town halls Treasury Board President Tony Clement did as part of the consultations.

The Action Plan makes commitments (12 of them) that, if all kept, will give the government a shot at delivering on the ideals in its intro.

The Bad

However, the Open Government initiative in general, and the Action Plan in particular, have some issues, with the biggest being the little attention it gives the uneven distribution of digital opportunity, known commonly as the “digital divide”.

The Action Plan doesn’t mention the term “digital divide” despite Open Government consultation participants specifically calling for it (see Inclusiveness and the Digital Divide). Interestingly, the government posted comments on the Open Government Action Plan below the plan itself and one from Ottawa’s Susan Hall, from November 2014, says “Really pleased about the digital divide entry; does not go far enough”.  I responded to this comment asking where the entry was and got this reply from “”:

The Open Government Action Plan on Open Government 2014-16 includes some deliverables addressing digital divide by committing to the following deliverables :

Deliverables to be completed in 2014-16:

– Sponsor projects to increase understanding of the relationship between digital skills and relevant labour market and social outcomes, including building a profile of Canadians’ digital skills competencies by region and by demographic group.
– Develop online tools, training materials, and other resources to enable individual Canadians to assess and improve their digital skills.
– Fund private sector and civil society initiatives aimed at improving the digital skills of Canadians (e.g., digital skills in rural small business, essential skills for Northern youth, business technology management accreditation).

You can find more information in the plan under the digital litteracy section.


open-ouvert team

I then asked what has been accomplished on this and what specific demographic groups they are looking at.

As of posting this, I had received no response to my second comment.

The other key issue is that, although the government posted comments from the Open Government consultations, it gives no clear indication whether any were incorporated in the final document. This does little to respond to critics like Michael Geist, holder of University of Ottawa’s Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law, who critiqued the Open Government initiative “for what it hides.”

The Promises

Part IV of the Action Plan on Open Government, titled Canada’s Action Plan 2.0 Commitments, says, “Canada’s second Action Plan on Open Government consists of 12 commitments that will advance open government principles in Canada over the next two years and beyond.”

However, there’s no clear list of 12 commitments. There is a list with lettered and numbered entries – but they don’t add up to 12 no matter how you count them. Assuming what the commitments are, in the absence of a clear list, the next big issue is how solid each of them really is.

One commitment related to transparency in particular, about making mining companies report how much money they give governments, seems great at face value. However, it loses its luster quickly when one digs below the surface. As Canada’s open government guru David Eaves wrote in his March 4, 2014 blog post, Canada’s Opaque Transparency – An Open Data Failure, instead of creating one public report database, the government will only require companies to post the reports somewhere on their own websites. Eaves also points out that although Canada boasts of the $12.7 million it gave to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, as of this posting Canada had not adopted the transparency standards on which the initiative is built.

Last of the big issues is that, for a two-year old, major government initiative driven by the powerful Treasury Board – anecdotal evidence suggests Canada’s Open Government program isn’t well known (although, I concede my evidence is simply asking my fellow government communicators, none of whom had heard of it).

The devil is in the details (if we could only find them)

So that’s it for the big stuff. The small stuff is easier to fix.

The Open Government initiative has three streams: Open Data, Open Information and Open Dialogue, which is confusing right of the bat because it begs the question: what’s the difference between data and information? Open Data is about making government raw data sets available for download in machine readable format. Open Information is about making government information like completed Access to Information Requests and contracts accessible and easily searchable online.

But if people get that clear, the Open Government website confuses them all over again with this search box:

Conflicting titles

The site has some good content that is, unfortunately, badly organized and therefore hard to find – or discover. For example, the headings for the three streams, Open Data, Open Information and Open Dialogue, are in a group of seven headings making it unclear they’re the three pillars of the program.

 3 hidden streams

The result is that key items, like the Open Government Blog, are buried (I had to email the Open Government team to find out where it was, after I read about it on another part of the site.)

Then there’s the issue of some content not delivering what it promises. This is particularly true with the “Communities” section. It doesn’t have communities. It has collections of data picked by “the Open Government team with input from our users”, with little ability for users to connect with the Open Government team or each other.

The new website claims to provide “better use of social media”, which would seem to indicate it will allow more dialogue with Canadians which social media channels enable. However, if that’s what it means, then there’s an issue. Yes, the site provides links to all Government of Canada social media sites but does so in one of the least user-friendly ways possible: what I’ll call The Multi-page Frustrator. The list of government social media sites is presented like a list of Google results, so if what you’re looking for isn’t on the front page, it’s a pain in the butt to find it. (Thankfully, there’s a Google-powered search engine which, of course, works well.)

The bottom line is, if Canadians hold the government to its transparency commitment, all other issues can be resolved by being dragged in to the light of day.

This is a story about why it’s so important to take action on ideas: because it’s not about the success of the idea. It’s about what you learn through trying to achieve that success.

People take interest when you take action

There are a couple of university radio stations in our town and one of them has a long-running show focussing on local people who are making things happen.

We know the hosts so I emailed them about SpellWizards and they asked to interview us. Now, neither of my boys had ever been interviewed on the radio before and were apprehensive at first. However, after explaining that the fear they were feeling was “good” fear, I convinced them to go for it.

Preparation is key to success

Next, the host emailed us questions to which we wrote answers, in plain language – just the way the boys talk. Then we practiced with mommy playing host. Then we practiced again – and again.
I’m still trying to get the audio file of the interview to post so you can judge the result for yourself, but we think they did pretty good! Although they had their answers in their hands (an advantage radio has over TV), they didn’t sound like they were reading and they even felt confident enough to ad lib bits!

Lessons learned

What the boys learned from this:
1) Take action and people will take interest.
2) Being well prepared is key to overcoming the fear of failure.
3) How radio interviews work.

Let the learning continue!

We’ve all heard the phrase over and over again (at least I have): we live in an amazing time where anyone can start a business in a fraction of the time, and for a fraction of the cost, of what it used to take. But I didn’t really understand it until I did it myself with my two boys, aged 12 and 9.

Now you may be asking, “What does this have to do with social ed?”. Well, firstly, it’s about alternative out-of-school learning, and secondly, it’s about all the amazing free tools and information available from people and for-profit companies (ever heard of “Google”?) that make it possible.

Here’s our story…

While looking for ways to help my boys master their times tables, I stumbled on the site The site uses, pictures, stories and rhyme to help kids learn their times tables and we were blown away by how well it worked. After many attempts at mastery, my guys had their tables down in a weekend!

And we weren’t the only ones who thought the idea was great. Alan Walker, the guy who created the site,  made a book that sold over 50,000 copies.

So, with the “it’s easier than ever to start a business” mantra in our head, me and the boys starting thinking how we could create a book, using Walker’s technique, to help people learn something.

After racking our brains to find something that people needed help learning, like times tables, we decided to focus on spelling. We would create a book with stories and pictures that helped people learn to spell some of the most commonly misspelled English words.

Now, here’s the neat part…

Using a combination of free and very cheap tools like Google Sites, Paypal and ProjectLibre open source project management software, we went from idea to a full website, from which people can purchase a slimmed down pilot version of our book – in two weeks. Total cash outlay: $300 to pay a young, local artist to draw our first set of pictures.

Now, there are a number of things about this experience that have blown me away but I want to highlight just three:

1) How simple it is to create  a website with Google Sites;
2) How simple it is to set up a way for people to pay you using PayPal; and
3) How easy it is for you to teach your kids the entire process of creating a business in under a month.

Our website will go live some time in the summer and even if the book is a complete bomb, we’ve already succeeded on so many levels.