Mary Agnes Welch's Gripe Juice
with Mary Agnes Welch
01/15/2012 6:10 PM
Normally, I use this space to gripe about government types. This time, I am full of love.
Saturday’s feature story on baby names wouldn’t have happened without the speed and forthrightness of the data geeks at Vital Statistics, and the forbearance of provincial media guy Glen Cassie. Last year, on a whim inspired by this, I asked for the top baby names broken down by postal code prefix. Glen rolled his eyes, said he would check, and a day later I got an Excel spreadsheet with exactly what I asked for.
A day later. That’s service. That’s also transparency. Granted, we’re talking about baby names, not outstanding warrants or flood claims or the mess of other, more controversial data sets the province keeps. But still, that’s how open government is supposed to work.
This was, like, a year ago that I got the baby name data. I then sat on it for months because we needed to figure out how to map it, which meant buying forward sortation area boundary files for crap I don’t even understand. That’s when my own data geek (and boss), Free Press Online Editor Wendy Sawatzky, started to work, creating this interactive map. Unfairly, she doesn’t get a byline in the paper, so she gets no love, except from me. ‘Twas ever thus for nerds. The Vital Stats folks probably don’t get many public pats on the back, either. I don’t even know their names – maybe it’s just one dude? But, along with Glen, they responded quickly and carefully to my endless string of questions, requests for updated numbers, fiddly problems and "one more thing..." emails. I thank them.
This story was meant to be an experiment. We’re always trying to use databases to better guide our reporting and find trends we might have missed. This time, we wanted to practice overlaying data on postal code prefixes. Baby names were kind of a light-hearted test run in advance of the upcoming census release, which we can also map by postal code prefix (did you know there were 85 Japanese people living in West Broadway in 2006?). Those maps look easy. They are fussier than hell the first time. In a way, the process of creating the baby names story was more important to us than the actual product.
At least it started out that way. To find some babies named Olivia and Liam and Ava, we did something we don’t normally do – we alerted readers (and our competition) to the upcoming story and asked for feedback, stories, photos, the works. We did this with a blurb on our website and a little Tweeting and Facebooking by social media reporter Lindsey Wiebe.
The response was nuts. I received about 65 emails from readers, which shaped the story significantly. Instead of acres of text and data boxes – always the default plan of a data geek - we instead devoted most of the real estate to real parents with cute babies and good name stories. That made the feature way more fun and much more reflective of our readers. And it was so much easier than scrambling around for a "real Olivia" at the last minute like I normally do. I think we’ll do these kinds of shout-outs again, so keep your eyes peeled. And a huge thank you to all the proud parents who emailed us. You made the story miles better, and it was a total pleasure to read all your emails. I thank you.
10/23/2011 8:22 PM
Alice Taylor (http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/no-running-water/degrading-third-world-conditions-one-more-hurdle-for-disabled-man-on-reserve-132369633.html), who is quickly becoming my favourite Manitoban, had an unexpected visit the week before the provincial election.
Alice, who lives in remote St. Theresa Point, is battling to get running water for her home and proper services for her disabled son, Kevin. Alice and her husband Francis put a lie to the offensive idea that people on reserves don’t deserve the same stuff Winnipeggers take for granted, that somehow they don’t work hard enough or take enough responsibility for their lives. Alice is sprightly and outspoken and warm and determined. This province could use 1,000 more Alice Taylors, and any politician would be wise to make her house their first stop when they visit Island Lake.
That’s exactly what Premier Greg Selinger and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Eric Robinson did a couple of weeks ago when they flew in to St. Theresa Point to campaign. It sounds like they had trouble finding Alice. She was staying at her dad’s house, taking care of him. She and her sisters trade weeks, each taking turns looking after the elder in his house, which also doesn’t have running water. Kevin, who has cerebral palsy, comes with Alice because there’s not really anyone else to look after him.
Alice, who joked about the big entourage that arrived with the politicians, was pleased when Robinson asked her to itemize exactly what services she needed for Kevin. Those would include respite, physio and speech therapy and some kind of recreation or job skills program to get Kevin off the couch and doing something other than crosswords.
After the visit, Alice says Selinger gave her a big hug – rather uncharacteristic for the cerebral premier.
"I told them, ‘If I don’t hear from you guys, you’re going to hear from me’" she laughed.
10/12/2011 2:41 PM
The sexy speculation in political nerd circles seems to swirl around who might be finance minister and, like Dan, I’d put money on Theresa Oswald or Big Mac. Jennifer Howard used to be a health policy wonk, so she’s an obvious choice for health if Oswald moves.
For me, though, the more interesting spec is about Conservation – a department that’s been troubled for years. One source familiar with its inner workings said senior and mid-level staff are obstructionist and old-school, and progress on files is glacial. The department’s climate change initiative is a failure and has completely fallen off the radar. The east side governance process seems to have ground to a halt. I’m still not sure what’s a Water Stewardship thing, what’s an Energy and Mines thing and what’s a Conservation thing. And there is no department slower with FOI requests, which is a little inside baseball but speaks volumes. That’s not to say there aren’t excellent people working in Conservation, but, on the climate change file alone, it’s rudderless.
For much of the last few years, the department has had less-than-energetic ministers. The late Oscar Lathlin cared about many things, but I’m not sure septic field inspections was one of them. And, even admirers of Bill Blaikie say he was disengaged. Stan Struthers mucked in, worked hard and is among the best-liked MLAs at the legislature, but I don’t think he knocked heads much within the department. Kind of not his style.
Selinger needs to promote two people from the backbenches and it’s fairly slim pickings for a party with such a big majority. There’s a bunch of promising newbies who need time to set up their voicemail, some rogues like Elmwood’s Jim Maloway, and that’s basically it, except for Rossmere’s Erna Braun and Kirkfield Park’s Sharon Blady, assuming the recount comes out in her favour.
That brings us to Drew Caldwell. For years, he’s been seen as the disastrous former education minister, one of the few people former Premier Gary Doer ever demoted, a hippie lightweight. But he’s toiled in the backbenches and some say he’s matured a lot. He was willing to take on politically risky issues in education, and he’s apparently not scared to speak his mind.
Folks in Brandon are acutely aware they’re left out of cabinet – not that it made a difference last week. Caldwell still won by 1,000 votes. So it’s not like the NDP need to woo the Wheat City. But maybe some guys deserve a second chance, and maybe Conservation could benefit from a minister with something to prove.
09/29/2011 11:17 AM
Yeah, all you folks who live in Tuxedo, Heather Stefanson’s signs do look black.
No, she hasn’t turned into an anarchist goth, making a public protest against her party’s traditional royal blue. It was a printing glitch. The campaign’s original batch of signs are actually very, very dark blue and volunteers have been adding red "re-elect" stickers lately to bring out the blue a little more. It’s been a minor nightmare for the campaign.
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Teenage dirty tricks
The Grits recently got to the bottom of some online shenanigans that have been wasting their time and clogging up their website. The culprit might surprise you.
First, the back story. On the party’s website, you can sign up for a lawn sign. For a while someone was punking the party by using obviously fake names, like Joe Nincompoop. Then it evolved to names that sounded plausible but turned out to be fake when perky campaign workers called up Carlos Rodriguez to deliver his sign only to find Mr. Rodriguez never asked for one and was a little cranky about it. That happened over and over again.
So the Grits checked the IP address and found all the fake names were coming from the same computer. The Libs blocked that address. Then the fake names came again, this time from a different IP address, so the Liberal computer nerds tracked the server to the Manitoba Education Research and Learning Information Networks, a provincial agency run out of the Smart Park.
That sounded like it could be an overzealous NDPer, doing some dirty tricks. A little more digging found that wasn’t true, either. The server is also used by the Red River Valley School Division, which tracked the trouble to a high school and the high school pinpointed one computer lab. From there, the principal figured out which student was doing the punking and delivered the slapdown.
The Liberals were satisfied with that outcome. But it goes to show just how easy it is to trace online monkey business. So, best to stick with old-fashioned midnight signs raids.
Address the Issue
Every election, we hear some low-grade complaining about candidates who don’t live in their ridings, especially after Elections Manitoba publishes the official candidate list along with each candidate’s address. That ran in our paper two weeks ago (See the list - PDF, 1.89MB).
It’s easy to see just how many candidates live in River Heights instead of where they’re running. It’s always River Heights, don’t ask me why.
Using a very quick eyeball, I counted 35 candidates who don’t live where they’re running, especially in rural ridings where the Liberals and NDP have trouble getting people to put their names on the ballot.
Tory candidate Susan Auch lives in River Heights, not in Assiniboine, where she’s running, partly because she’s got three kids and aging parents and couldn’t find a house big enough in her riding, say her campaign staff. NDP MLA Jim Rondeau has been not-so-subtly making use of that tidbit in the race. Meanwhile, Tory candidate Marty Morantz lives in Tuxedo, just outside River Heights where he’s running. A Green candidate running in inner-city Logan lives on Wellington Crescent, according to Elections Manitoba.
I always wonder how much voters care about that sort of thing. Premier Gary Doer didn’t live in Concordia for much of his time in the legislature and it never really hurt him.
You tell me. If a candidate is competent, good at the door, and knows the riding, how big a deal is it if he or she lives elsewhere?
Someone just pointed out that Assiniboia NDP MLA Jim Rondeau actually lives in Kirkfield Park, according to the address listed by Elections Manitoba.
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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