We’re planning to do some email interviews about citizen access to government data and related projects with academics, hackers, web project instigators, statisticians, activists, politicians, bureaucrats, writers and the like.
Our first interview is with Rami Tabello, of IllegalSigns.ca – Tracking Torontoâ€™s Outdoor Advertising Industry, a Toronto-based, grassroots project set up to fight illegal billboards. Says the about:
Our Streets are where civic capital is created. Illegal billboards monetize our civic capital, under no colour of right, by treating citizens as consumers first. Illegal billboards commodify what is unique about our neighbourhoods by turning our Streets into pages of a mass-market magazine, without regard to the law. Join us as we fight to legalize and democratize Torontoâ€™s visual environment. Join us as we fight to Reclaim the Streets.
And here is the interview:
1. What do you think of the state of democracy in Canada?
I donÂ’’t much think about it. I think the British Parliamentary system tends towards stability.
2. What do you think of the state of democracy in Toronto?
The problem in Toronto is not lack of democracy, it’Â’s a public service that doesnÂ’’t work and doesn’t hire the right people.
3. How do you think the mechanisms of democracy can be improved?
I have no idea. David Meslin is working on a project to bring instant runoff voting to Toronto: Whorunsthistown.to.
4. Are you optimistic? Why?
IÂ’’m optimistic because city councilors want to do something about illegal billboards.
5. Why did you start illegalsigns.ca?
More of a challenge than anything. An easy way to make a big difference to the visual environment.
6. What tools do you use in illegalsigns.ca?
Our main tools are freedom of information inquiries. We have been barred from that process. Please see: The City Clerk Tries to Shut Down Our Research Team [ed: well worth a read * see below]. We are currently appealing this to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.
7. What has been the public reaction to your project?
Nothing but positive feedback from the public, the media and city councilors.
8. What has been the reaction from the City?
On the other hand, the bureaucracy has reacted negatively, mainly because we are a source of criticism. See above.
9. What other similar projects would you like to see in Toronto or Canada?
WeÂ’’d like to see a site that tracks illegal parking lots. Illegalparkinglots.ca. half the lots in Toronto are illegal.
*Illegalsigns.ca has filed hundreds of freedom of information claims to get the information on hundreds of signs they claim, and indeed have proved to be illegal. The reaction of Toronto’s City Clerk, is to ban them from the process (see review here, and the Clerk’s letter here-pdf). The Clerk claims the requests are “frivolous and/or vexations,” which means the City might not have to respond. Here’s the key summary about dealings with Toronto’s City Clerk:
The Clerk claims: â€œthe high volume of your requests appears to be for the sole purpose of revisiting enforcement policy matters that City enforcement staff have already addressed with you.â€ In fact, the high volume of our requests is due to the high volume of properties in Toronto that have illegal billboards on them; this high volume was created because the bureaucracy was operating without scrutiny. The Clerkâ€™s decision, if upheld, would shut down that scrutiny.