Mary Agnes Welch's Gripe Juice

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  • City of pointless secrecy

    04/7/2014 3:03 PM

    Let me preface this rather long and nerdy post by saying I have rarely had a more head-explodingly frustrating experience with any government in my 15 years of journalism. To illustrate my feelings, please enjoy the short animated GIF at the end of this blog.

    Also let me preface this with one important definition: Open data refers to the idea that government information ought to be, to the fullest extent possible, available to the public. Data - everything from mosquito trap counts to oil well licenses - should be downloadable for free in an easy-to-use format that allows citizens to sort and search and map. Data don't lie. Open data is how citizens hold their government to account. Open data is how entrepreneurs create cool apps like this and this.

    The city of Winnipeg (and the province, for that matter) is years behind other governments, even the uber-controlling Harperites, on open data. Very, very little information is available for download.

    What we do get is only available after months and months of FOIs. I've been arguing for the last seven months with the city, for example, over a bit of harmless info nearly every other municipality in Canada released years ago.

    To illustrate my point, let me tell you about my Kafkaesque experience trying to get what are called boundary shapefiles for data available on the Now Winnipeg site. This site is kinda nifty. It appears to be the start of some kind of public service portal based on Winnipeg's 236 neighbourhoods. It includes an  export tool that supposedly allows the public to "download your own datasets based on your current slice-and-dice settings, made available in a variety of machine-readable formats."

    Holy moly! When we read those words, my online boss, Wendy Sawatzky and I nearly raced down the street for a celebratory beer at the Lincoln. Those words are music to a data nerd's ears.

    Wendy and I then immediately tried to download some data, specifically the boundary files that would allow us to recreate maps of each of the city's 236 neighbourhoods and then overlay other cool data on top.

    We hoped to, for example, match the neighbourhood shapefiles to the city's regular list of vacant buildings to create a map that shows which neighbourhoods are hotspots, or which neighbourhoods improved. Or, we could map census data, to get a really clear visual portrait of poverty.

    With those shapefiles, we could map so much cool stuff, and uncover so many cool stories that illustrate otherwise invisible trends.

    The trouble with the Now Winnipeg site, we soon found, was twofold.

    First, the data was downloadable in obscure formats (irJSON? SPARQL?) that even our smartest geeks downstairs could not parse into a format useable by our industry-standard mapping program. That breaks one of the cardinal rules of open data: stuff has to be user-friendly.

    Second, the ever-skeptical eye of my boss fell on this long and unwelcoming list of rules about how the data can be used.

    Basically, the rules say the data can't be used. You can download it. But you can't modify or distribute it. You can't republish it. You can't even give it to a buddy. It is entirely useless to anyone, and, again, at odds with all modern open data principals, unless you get written permission.

    So, we asked the city for two things. Would it waive the conditions of use, and could we have the data in usable formats such as ArcGIS or Excel?

    We thought the answer to both questions would be a quick and cheerful yes. That's because, over a year ago, the city passed a policy on open data that mandates the city do exactly what we asked:  allow the public free and unfettered access to the biggest number of databases possible in easy-to-use formats.

    Here's the text of our questions and the replies from the city's top communications boss, Steve West:

    Q: We want permission to export all the datasets on the Now Winnipeg site. And we want to be able to use, disseminate and display that data with no restrictions.

    A. We are pleased to approve access to the data on the NOW site under its terms of use.

    Q: As per the Open Data plan, we request the data in "prevailing open standards" for machine-readable formats. For databases, we request standard formats such as: tab- or comma-delimited text (.txt or .csv), or other standard spreadsheet formats (.xml, .xls, .accdb, etc) For geographic data we request standard formats such as: ArcGIS (.shp), MapInfo (.tab), Geography Markup Language (.gml) or Keyhole Markup Language (.kml).

    A. As the Open Data initiative has not yet been launched, we are not in the position to provide this data. An announcement would be made when the site is available.

    Okay, I said to my boss, we'll have to have another crack at deciphering those obscure Borg formats, but at least the conditions of use have been waived.

    Not so fast, said Wendy. West said "we're pleased to approve access," but also "under its terms of use," and those are the very restrictions we're trying to have waived.

    Jeez, that's true, I said. So, I went back to the city and asked for clarification, even though my repeated questions seemed pretty simple to me. In response I got this:

    The NOW site is currently governed by the overall City of Winnipeg terms of use. If the requested data is for personal use there is no concern or restriction; if being used for other than personal use, we require an explanation of the intended use.

    And that's when I did this:


    After wasting weeks on this, we still have data Steve Jobs himself wouldn't be able to decipher, and we aren't allowed to use it for anything, anyway.

    This is a system entirely focused on thwarting all modern methods of government accountability and transparency.

    You'll find me and Wendy at the Linc, drowning our sorrows.


  • Everyone's in Israel

    01/21/2014 2:38 PM

    A dozen Winnipeggers, nearly all Tories, are travelling with Prime Minister Stephen Harper on his mission to Israel. This is quite inconvenient for us because many also happen to be in the centre of the latest round of political speculation. It's tough to ask someone whether he's running in River Heights when he's a little busy gladhanding in the Knesset. The Winnipeggers in Israel include:

    • Michael Kowalson, the rambunctious River Heights Tory. Is he thinking about another run for city council now that John Orlikow is stepping down to run for mayor? Or, might Kowalson be interested in provincial or federal politics, perhaps doing the kind of backroom work he did in the area during the last provincial election? 
    • Ian Rabb, the property manager and addictions expert. His next political move is being watched closely. Will he challenge Jenny Gerbasi again for the Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry city council seat, or will he run provincially against Education Minister James Allum down the line?
    • Joyce Bateman, the Winnipeg South Centre MP. What's her take on the rumours swirling about who the Liberals will run against her in 2015? 
    • Marty Morantz, the cerebral Tory candidate in River Heights in the 2011 provincial election. Will he run again in 2016? Kowalson was his campaign manager, which might make for some interesting chatter during the long flight home.
    • Shindico's Robert and Sandy Shindleman. They've most recently been embroiled in city hall's land swap debacle.
    • David Asper, chair of the Asper Foundation. 
    • Several Winnipeg lawyers, including David Kroft and Howard Morry.


  • Jury Duty, 1876

    11/4/2013 4:20 PM

    I was part of last week's jury duty cattle call and spent two days with about 200 other Winnipeggers waiting to see if we'd get picked for one of four trials - three murders and a sexual assault.

    The experience was an eye-opener. It's one part raffle as we all waited for our numbers to be drawn, one part nerves when we finally came before the judge, and five parts boredom. Here are a few observations:

    Everyone had an excuse. Not long ago, Mike McIntyre wrote about the growing frustration among judges with the sometimes-dubious reasons people give to duck jury duty. That was on full display last week.

    When called, at least three quarters of the people offered the judge an excuse - everything from epilepsy and anxiety to poor English skills to the loss of sales commissions. The judge offered some pushback, and occasionally rejected excuses, but mostly people were released.

    Some of the medical excuses were so marginal that folks in the separate jury pool room watching on a video feed openly guffawed.

    When my number was finally called, I expected the judge to raise concerns about a journalist serving on a jury. Instead, she told me she'd take what she could get.

    The rules are silly and officious, and staff sometimes were, too. In this case, we spent two days cloistered in two large courtrooms with little to do but stare at the lovely neo-classical décor, snooze in between raffles or line up for the one bathroom before cranky court staff ordered us back to our seats, including an older gent.

    Few, including me, realized this was a two-day affair, so it wasn't until Friday that people wised up and brought their Dean Koontz novels or their university textbooks with them. Those, like me, who brought work laptops had to turn off the wifi. There's only so much you can get done before you need your email or Google or your office network.

    I got so bored the first day that I disabled the wifi and data on my iPhone so I could play Tetris. Bad move. No phones allowed either, the sheriff told me. (That rule seemed to relax a little on the second day, maybe after court staff realized people were too comatose to take any commemorative selfies).

    At one point Friday morning, folks were chatting lightly with their now-familiar seat-mates when one staffer told us to pipe down. When she shushed us a second time, several people back-talked and grumbled. And, later, when the final jury was chosen, those of left over erupted in applause, which again earned a rebuke from court staff.

    It was like being in high school again, except high school students aren't asked to judge murder cases.

    The must be a more modern, efficient way of doing this. Jury duty struck me as very much like the rest of our court system - mired in the 19th century. Perhaps some elements of selection could be done electronically to speed things up? Perhaps it should be mandated that employers pay jury members their full salary during a trial so fewer people claim financial hardship? Perhaps the old gents could be allowed to use the bathroom?

    For the record, there is no automatic exemption for journalists. And I can think of no good reason a journalist shouldn't serve on a jury if, as in my case, they haven't written about the crime and don't know any of the participants.

    When my number was called, I was challenged out by defence counsel, as I knew I would be. But, my number was returned to mix, so I had to return Friday in case I was called for the remaining two trials. I wasn't.


  • NDP bait and switch

    10/28/2013 11:15 AM

    The NDP has just launched what it's calling its Fairer Deal for Renters campaign. Flyers and emails (like the one below) are appearing in people's mailboxes directing them to a website where citizens can fill out a brief survey on how to fix the province's rental crisis.

    How great is that!? Finally, the NDP is taking action on what's arguably the city's most pressing poverty problem -- our complete lack of decent, affordable rental units. Maybe the NDP is planning to tackle some of the recommendations smart people have made in recent years to fix this! Hallelujah!

    Except the campaign is the most offensive kind of bogus. It's just a bait-and-switch push poll designed to pad the NDP's list of supporters. The website does nothing but promote the small tweaks the NDP already made to landlord-tenant rules, and then it asks which of the party's well-established and totally unrelated campaign promises you like best, including several meant as backhanded attempts to demonize the Conservatives.

    It's one thing not to care much about poor renters. It's another thing entirely to use their issues as a marketing strategy to build up your pre-election warchest. At best, cheesy. At worst, shameful.


    Hello XXX,

    You may have seen information in your mailbox recently about Manitoba's Fairer Deal for Renters.

    Most of us have rented at some point in our lives, which is why I'm proud to be part of a government that introduces new protections for tenants rather than cuts.

    Changes include investing in repairs and upgrades to social housing and introducing a new housing tax credit to stimulate construction in the private and non-profit sectors. On top of that, more apartment dwellers will now be protected from large rent increases.

    But even with these changes I know there is more we can do. I want to hear what you think our next steps should be.

    I'm inviting you to visit to give us your input and to learn more about our plan for Manitoba renters.

    You can fill in a brief survey and let me know how you think we can continue to protect tenants and keep life affordable for Manitoba families, while protecting the services we value most. I look forward to hearing from you.

    **PS - Feel free to forward this email on to any family and friends you think may be interested in providing us with feedback on this issue.

    Thank you,

    Jennifer Howard - MLA for Fort Rouge

    Constituency Office: #9-222 Osborne St. South, Winnipeg, MB R3L 1Z3
    Phone: (204) 946-0272  |   Fax: (204) 946-0550
    Website:  |   Email:         



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About Mary Agnes Welch

Mary Agnes Welch joined the Free Press in 2002, first as a general assignment reporter and then covering city hall and the Manitoba legislature before moving to her current post as public policy reporter.

Before Winnipeg, she worked at the Windsor Star and the Odessa American, a small daily newspaper in West Texas. There, in addition to covering more than 20 counties, she took high school football scores from coaches all over West Texas by phone every Friday night.

Mary Agnes is a graduate of Columbia University’s journalism school, has won several Western Ontario Newspaper Awards and has been part of two teams of reporters nominated for a Michener Award. In 2011, she was nominated for a National Newspaper Award in the beat category. She is also the former national president of the Canadian Association of Journalists.

She once misspelled "Shih Tzu" in the paper and received 37 emails from angry dog-owners.


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