Online election hypewatch

I love to hear about the new and exciting ways in which the Internet and related technologies are going to transform our political system forever. I’m directly involved in such efforts myself, fiddling about with a number of projects whose aim is to apply the web to politics or vice versa. However I can’t bring myself to believe the predictions of those who tell us that we’re entering into an era of web-based democracy. From Karlin Lillington’s recent piece in The Irish Times titled “Web-based politics and democracy for the 21st century” (subscription required):

In the past in Ireland, air and print- time for politicians and parties was highly controlled around elections and the domain of the established media. However, that is all going to change. New technologies and services enable all sorts of small guerilla actions by individuals who can, anonymously if they wish, post unflattering or flattering material on a candidate onto a blog, a picture site or a video site. Likewise, expect candidates and parties themselves to use such tactics, probably anonymously of course, but not always.

I expect this is true, although I’m not sure if the impact of such activity, and of the other examples of “web-based politics” provided by Lillington, will be significant enough to justify her closing line:

Politicians and political parties, welcome to 21st-century web-based democracy. This is your official wake-up call.

I have a very simple theory about the role which the Internet and related technology will play in the next election. I’ve been sharing it with anyone who will listen for the past couple of years, so I may as well spell it out here. In summary, there is a small but increasing cohort of voters who will use the web sites of candidates as their main point of reference in deciding where to allocate their votes. That’s it.

You’ll note that my theory doesn’t mention blogging, the disruptive influence of the citizen media, guerrilla YouTube videos, or reinventing politics for the Internet age. In other words, it’s not a very sexy theory. But I believe it to be valid. There are a lot of voters out there for whom the web is the first point-of-contact when shopping, researching, or just browsing for fun stuff, and I expect many of them will take the same approach when deciding on where to direct their votes. They will expect each candidate’s web site to clearly lay out the candidate’s position on the main issues of concern, to demonstrate a track record of activity on these issues, and to generally convey the impression that the candidate is worthy of their vote.

Some voters may be influenced by what they read about candidates, parties, and policies on blogs and online discussion forums. Having hung around for a few years now, I’ve seen a few minor examples of posters changing certain political opinions after engaging in online debate. Here’s a thread on which you can find a couple of examples. However, the vast majority of people who enage in debate on these sites are already politically committed, and in many cases are out-and-out party hacks. In my view this is not a medium through which to secure the support of floating voters.

It seems to me that blogs, podcasts, videos etc. will have a negligible impact on the outcome of the election. This doesn’t mean that candidates shouldn’t make use of them, indeed I think they can go a long way towards conveying the messages I refer to above. However no web-savvy voter is going to be swayed purely by the fact that a candidate has managed to embed a grainy YouTube clip on their site. Judging by the YouTube efforts of candidates to date, it seems more likely that they’re opening themselves up to derision from web-savvy voters rather than winning them over. Candidates should be looking to enhance their core messages with a certain amount of online enagement, but shouldn’t expect that votes will be won purely on displays on technological mastery.

In light of all of the above, I have decided it would be a useful public service to identify instances of hyperbole on this issue as I encounter them. Any articles I discover will be linked here with the tag “Hypewatch”, and I would encourage anyone who wants to contribute to this effort to use the same tag. I’m not suggesting that everything so tagged is completely over-the-top, just that it contains predictions which have yet to be tested in the white heat of an election campaign. In this way we can return to the issue after the election and assess which predictions held true, and which turned out to be, well, premature.

Joe McCarthy has published a web site with a wealth of information on two issues close to my heart: electronic voting and incineration. Aptly named, it contains documents compiled from Joe’s freedom of information requests on eVoting, and extracts from his submission to An Bord Pleanála on the proposed incinerator at Poolbeg.

It all makes for interesting reading. And if that whets your appetite, you can read the submission I drafted for John Gormley on the incinerator.

Fingal Safe Cycling Action Group

This group has been set up to “accelerate the provision of safe (off road) cycling routes in Fingal“. They have also called for “the development of a national cycle route strategy, and the establishment of SUSTRANS in the Republic.”

Their focus seems to be very much on creating safe cycling routes for children in particular, in order to encourage more young people to start cycling. While I’m very much in favour of both safety and encouraging children to start cycling, I’m dubious about the off-road focus. The group would see their campaign as being complementary to campaigns for urban commuter cyclists, such as the Dublin Cycling Campaign, but in a sense campaigning for off-road routes is a tacit concession that the roads cannot be made safe for cycling. I believe campaigners should continue to focus on making existing roads safe for cycling, and challenging the notion that roads should be designed for motorised traffic alone.

Having said that, cycling campaigners cannot ignore the fact that in the current environment families will pragmatically decide that the roads are simply not for them. It’s hard to argue that parents should expose their children to perceived risks for the sake of safer roads in the future. Commuter cycling campaigns need to make some sort of common cause with groups like this, otherwise we will fall victim to the ever-effective “divide and rule” tactic. There is no easier excuse for lack of political action than “these people can’t even decide what they want”.

Further discussion: The group have a post on the cycle path debate and David Healy has made a good contribution to another post on the site. There is also a discussion.

Who needs planes? Long-haul travel over land

This is something I’ve wanted to see in a newspaper for ages – a feature on visiting far-flung parts of the globe without stepping on a plane. The Guardian sent three journalists via train, bus and boat from London to three different destinations: Thailand, Cairo and Ibiza. Although I’m not usually a big fan of travel writing, I found each of the stories fascinating, perhaps because the political context gives them an extra edge. For the most part, these travelogues are a serious attempt to get to grips with a post-aviation world.

Train journey across Europe and Asia

Predictably, in all cases the rail option works out significantly more expensive than the equivalent journey by air.  However the journalists all travelled by first class rail for at least part of their journeys and some of the cost was accounted for by hotel stays made necessary by the nature of the trips.  A rough calculation of the carbon emissions attributable to the journeys showed a clear advantage over air travel, except in one case where the writer took a very roundabout route, mostly by bus. The other significant factor is the greatly increased travel time – in the case of the trip to Thailand, the writer spent the best part of a month travelling across Russia, China and Vietnam.

If we do get serious about aviation and climate change, will journeys like this become the new long-haul holidays?  Is there any prospect that rail fares will come down in the same way that air fares have over the past decade?  Will projects such as a tunnel between Spain and Morocco become feasible? Will high-speed trains allow us to reach further afield without devoting fortnights to travelling?

Reading these accounts makes me think that a new golden age of rail travel might be one positive outcome from the changes that climate change will force on us.  However they also make it clear that rail travel is currently very much the poor relation in holiday-making terms: you have to be exceptionally committed and rather wealthy to use rail as your long-haul option.

Of course in Ireland, embarking on any sort of rail journey to Europe or beyond involves first getting off the island. I priced a ferry journey between Dublin and Holyhead at €29, with a standard train fare from Holyhead to London costing about €100 (£65). These days it would be difficult to pay more than that for an air fare. It’s not crazy money, but you would be giving up a whole day travelling.

There’s also a page on the Guardian’s Travelog site where you can discuss the issues: Is it realistic to give up flying?

Update: Ciarán Cuffe has posted about his experience of a low-carbon long weekend in Paris.

An Taisce and planning

It’s been quite a while since I last posted but I suppose I’ve just been waiting for an excuse. I had a letter published in yesterday’s Irish Times which seems as good an excuse as any.

The background is a column by John Waters, “Beware the unelected busybodies” (subscription required), which contained the usual vitriol directed at the “chinless wonders” of An Taisce. The column drew the following letter of support from Liam Aylward MEP:

A Chara, – I would like to lend my full support to John Waters’s column on An Taisce’s negative role in blocking once-off rural housing developments.

People living in rural Ireland should have the right to build a home on their own land. An Taisce’s efforts to thwart this process at every turn is denying people the basic right to house their own families.

The people working in An Taisce have no democratic mandate, yet the policies they pursue have a very serious impact on the political direction that local authorities take when it comes to the granting or otherwise of planning permission for once-off houses in our country.

Ireland at present also has an ever-increasing population. We need policies which ensure that we can house our people in both urban and rural parts of Ireland.

If An Taisce has its way, then all progress will be blocked and Irish people who own their own lands will be powerless to build houses for their own families into the future. The power of An Taisce must be reined back.- Is mise,

LIAM AYLWARD MEP, Hugginstown, Co Kilkenny.

I was moved to fire off the following response, which was deemed worthy of publication for some reason:

Madam, – Liam Aylward MEP, as a representative of the main Government party, should be aware that “the political direction that local authorities take when it comes to the granting or otherwise of planning permission for once-off houses in our country” is set not by An Taisce, but by the Government and the local authorities themselves.

An Taisce’s only role is to highlight to planners cases where proposed developments would be contrary to these policies.

Mr Aylward says that An Taisce’s power “must be reined back”, but An Taisce has no powers either to set policy or to enforce policy – these are functions of Government.

I am not a member of An Taisce but I know a scapegoating exercise when I see one. – Yours, etc,


Ireland working for Microsoft?

Bill Gates and Charlie McCreevyFlorian Müller of the No Software Patents! campaign has posted an article claiming that Ireland is pushing for software patents because we are economically dependent on Microsoft and other US software companies:

Given his obvious bias, Irishman Charlie McCreevy should never have been entrusted with the control over the process on the software patent directive. Unfortunately, in his role as recently appointed EU Commissioner for the Internal Market, he is the most powerful man in the process. That man is a Microsoft vassal. Bill Gates’ wish is McCreevy’s command. We are not talking about an impartial politician but about someone who even vowed in a speech in the European Parliament that he would vigorously represent certain interests. If he is not stopped, then he will abuse the power of his office to wreak havoc to 24 EU member countries only to do what he thinks is good for one country — his own.

Those accusations may sound quite strong but they are based upon facts. Let’s look at the way things work in Ireland for those U.S. software companies like Microsoft.

Continue reading

Scully’s Field: An Bord Pleanála refuses permission for 92 apartments

An Bord Pleanála has reversed Dublin City Council’s decision to grant permission for 92 apartments on Scully’s Field in Milltown. This is excellent news, and I’m particularly pleased that permission was refused on the substantive issue of the zoning of the site. The reasons given by the Board are below:

  1. The site of the proposed development is located in an area zoned ‘Z9′ in the current Dublin City Development Plan, where it is an objective of the planning authority to preserve, provide and improve recreational amenity and open space. This zoning objective is considered reasonable. The site of the proposed development is also adjoining similarly zoned lands. Having regard to the scale of the proposed residential development, it is considered that the proposed development would contravene materially the zoning objective for the site and would, therefore, be contrary to the proper planning and sustainable development of the area.
  2. It is considered that the scale of the proposed development would intrude significantly into the open character and appearance of the site and the setting to the River Dodder thereby detracting from its natural and organic character and unique natural amenity. The proposed development would, therefore, seriously injure the visual amenities of the area and be contrary to the proper planning and sustainable development of the area.

The Board is still considering an appeal in respect of a related application for 18 apartments on the same site, but as this is interdependent with the larger application it seems unlikely to go ahead.

eVoting campaigners meet with Minister

Irish Citizens for Trustworthy eVoting (ICTE) have finally had a meeting with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and officials from his department. Representing ICTE at the meeting yesterday were Colm MacCárthaigh, Margaret McGaley and Adrian Colley. You can find a preliminary report on the meeting on the archives of the e-voting mailing list.

At first glance, it doesn’t appear as if much progress was made, although getting a meeting in itself was something of a breakthrough:

The Minister expressed surprise that this was our first meeting with the Department. He said that this was a “very open Department” and added that you couldn’t find a group of people who cared more – or knew more -
about voting systems than the Franchise section. I pointed out that we had been trying to communicate with the Department on this matter since 2001, but without success, and that as a result we had been involved in a dialogue of the deaf for much of the intervening time.

As we only have this preliminary and informal report so far, I won’t comment further at this stage.

Home taping is killing music (2005 remix)

The Irish Recorded Music Association (IRMA) have been briefing newspapers on the “legal minefields” new owners of iPods and other digital music players may face. From an article in this week’s Sunday Business Post:

Dick Doyle, the managing director of Irma, told The Sunday Business Post that it was “against the law’‘ to copy music onto iPods and other devices. “People should know that private copying from one medium to another is illegal,” he said.

“There is no private copying exemption in Irish law. You cannot burn downloaded music onto CDs. You cannot transfer it onto an iPod.”

Thousands of iPods were bought in the run-up to Christmas by people hoping to download music onto them from their CD collection or internet sites. But Irma’s Doyle said that anyone doing so would be breaking the law.

“People think that if there is no commercial gain that they can do it,” he said. “They can’t.”

While the article unhelpfully mixes up a number of related issues (illegal downloading, ripping from your own CDs, burning legally downloaded music to CD), it does appear that IRMA are keen to remind people just how few rights they enjoy in relation to sound recordings. It’s not clear whether they are planning to come after you for ripping your CD collection onto your iPod, but they do want you to know that Irish copyright law offers no exemption for this activity. Having read Chapter 6 of the Copyright and Related Rights Act, 2000, it appears they are technically correct. The only exemption I can find which might apply is that of “Fair dealing: research or private study“.

Is this a timely reminder that the law needs to be amended to take account of the entirely reasonable activity of transferring your own CD collection onto your own digital music player?

Slashdot on car sharing

Slashdot carried a story a few days ago about car sharing services (car clubs) in the US. It qualifies as “news for nerds” because of the technology used to manage bookings and control access to the cars.

I’ve always thought that car clubs should be tried in Dublin, as they address both the traffic and parking problems. I managed to get an objective to support car sharing schemes included in an early draft of the new Dublin City Development Plan; it will be interesting to see if this survives into the final version, which is due in February.

For more on car clubs, check out this article from the Guardian.