News

1. Uber and other similar companies get one step closer to local approval

You could never be this happy in a taxi. Photo: Uber.com

Today is Zane “the machine” Woodford day at the Halifax Examiner, as our intrepid reporter weighs in with three new stories this morning — and you won’t want to miss any of them.

First up is council passing amendments to the city bylaw, bringing “transportation network companies”(TNCs) like Uber and Lyft, along with any potential local startups, one step closer to being allowed to operate in Halifax.

Woodford writes:

The rules would require the companies to buy licences with the city, but their drivers would be licensed by the TNCs — unlike taxi drivers, who are licensed directly with the city.

The TNCs would buy an annual licence for between $2,000 and $25,000, depending on the number of vehicles in their fleet. Councillors asked for the graduated fee system to make it easier for local start-up companies to operate. A company with one to 10 vehicles would pay $2,000, while one with 100 or more would pay $25,000, with steps in between.

While the city wouldn’t licence the drivers, the TNCs would be required to report any safety issues or criminal charges to the city, and drivers who are suspended or banned from driving taxis wouldn’t be permitted to drive for TNCs — and vice versa.

There was a lot of discussion at council before we got to this point — about deferring the motion while waiting for the province to decide on allowing the city to charge a per-trip-fee, about the effects of these services on transit and active transportation, and about criminal record and vulnerable sector checks.

It’s really worth reading the whole story, because they are interesting discussions. You can read all of “Halifax ride-hailing rules pass first reading despite Uber and councillor concerns” here.

This story is for subscribers only. As you probably know, we are completely subscriber-funded. You won’t find us shilling for ZipRecruiter, or whatever. Subscribe here.

I watched Matt Whitman’s Twitter feed yesterday, while his fellow councillors discussed the possibility of deferring a discussion on allowing TNCs to operate here. Whitman, of course, is known for his complete and uncritical support for app-based non-taxi companies. He’s even created his own “Halifax needs Uber” graphic which he frequently shares. He is also known for his indiscriminate hashtag use on Twitter, tagging everyone from The Canadian Museum of Immigration and the Halifax Wanderers to local media in his various pronouncements. (The Museum and others have had to point out publicly that they do not endorse him.)

Yesterday, as he tweeted his outrage at the possibility of a delay (and while councillors Zurawski and Cleary pointed to evidence that companies like Uber and Lyft have cut into transit use), Whitman repeatedly used #ClimateEmergency and “CLIMATE EMERGENCY” with reference to the proposed deferral of the bylaw amendments. I guess because somehow these companies contribute to reducing fossil fuel emissions? Which they don’t? I don’t get it.

I have more to say on techno-utopianism and “the sharing economy” in the Views section below.

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2. Let’s sort of, kind of, defund the police, maybe

Photo by Taymazvalley via Flickr.

Up next from Zane Woodford is a story on two separate efforts to review policing in the city. These both come on the heels of a still-secret policing review report that was released earlier this year.

First, there is councillor Waye Mason’s motion (which passed) on reviewing police responsibilities.

Woodford reports:

On Tuesday, Mason said he’s heard from residents in support of the motion and others who say it’s disrespectful to the police and he should be ashamed of himself. But he said the motion is not attacking the police and a dozen former police leaders have told him his motion is on point.

“We’ve all heard the last four chiefs of police, of HRP, speak about how they have become a dumping ground for programs and social problems, without resources and without training, that divert police from their core mission,” he said.

Mason said he’s not looking for quick, rash decisions. He wants to build on past reports, like Scot Wortley’s on street checks, and take a “reasoned and measured approach” to responding to the Black Lives Matter movement.

I’m not sure if it’s a great selling point that former police leaders like the plan, but I guess we’ll see what comes out of it.

Meanwhile, as Woodford previously reported, the board of police commissioners has struck its own committee to define defunding.

For me, this was the jaw-dropping quote in Woodford’s piece:

“The RCMP is not accountable, whatsoever, and do not kid yourselves … They’re not accountable to the police commission at all,” said Coun. Stephen Adams.

“If they are given some advice by the commission they can take it or not take it. They’ll do what they feel they should do or what Ottawa tells them they should do.”

Last night, councillor Tim Outhit went on Twitter to voice his support for school resource officers, as an example of a service he thinks should remain. Outhit was concerned they could be cut before a replacement is found — the assumption being that you need someone to fulfill the role of police in schools. I asked Outhit if there were cops in schools when he was a kid. I said there weren’t any in my schools, but then again, I didn’t grow up here. Maybe things were different. His reply: “No but my kids did and had no issue with it.”

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3. Council looking to clarify Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes park boundaries

Map 11 from Halifax’s 2014 regional plan.
Map 11 from Halifax’s 2014 regional plan.

Best lead of the day here in Woodford story #3:

Councillors want a bigger park boundary for Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes, but like novice hikers trying to make their way into the back country, they had a hard time finding a path to getting it done.

Woodford reports on councillor Richard Zurawski’s attempts to clear up confusion about the boundaries of the Blue Mountain-Birch Cove Lakes wilderness park. Maps posted on the city website are inconsistent, and these inconsistencies have real-world consequences.

From the story:

Zurawski’s motion stemmed from last month’s council last debate on the park, when it decided to forge ahead despite a staff recommendation and help the Nova Scotia Nature Trust buy a piece of land that municipal staff believe to be outside the approved park boundary.

At the end of that meeting, Zurawski gave notice that he would bring the following motion to council’s next meeting:

“That Halifax Regional Council move a motion that, for clarity for staff and certainty for the public, Council makes clear that the full working outline as represented on Map 11, including the western lands to Cox Lake represents Council’s ideal or aspirational vision for the future Blue Mountain Birch Cove Lake park, and not the outdated, truncated and obsolete park outline derived from the 2006 environmental assessment for highway 113. And that this clarification be represented on the www.halifax.ca web site and reflected in the upcoming staff report on park planning.”…

But legal director John Traves told Zurawski his motion was out of order. Because the regional plan follows the staff interpretation of Map 11, Traves said Zurawski’s motion attempts to amend a planning document without going through the arduous process required for doing so, including a public hearing.

Oh boy.

Zurawski gave notice to bring an amended motion to the next council meeting.

This story is for subscribers only.

One thing I appreciate about Woodford’s reporting on stories like this is how he delves into the process issues. These are really important when it comes to how the city is run, and it’s not easy to write these stories — which require a lot of attention to detail — and keep them lively. If you also appreciate this reporting please subscribe.

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4. Asking kids how they are faring in the pandemic

Yvette d’Entremont reports on a new study on children from Dalhousie’s Healthy Populations Institute. The study, which launched Monday, involves surveys for parents and kids on how children and young people are faring in the pandemic – especially as they prepare to go back to school.

How do kids say the pandemic is affecting them? Photo: Kelly Sikkema/ Unsplash.

D’Entremont writes:

“Children are feeling overwhelmed, they’re feeling stressed, they don’t know what it means. It’s a scary thing. It’s scary enough for adults in the room,” researcher and professor Sara Kirk said in an interview.

“We wondered where are their voices in this conversation when we’re talking about what school’s going to look like, how much input are kids having into that? When we looked into it there wasn’t a lot about the student voice coming through.”

Kirk said while there are national studies underway examining how children and youth have fared in terms of physical activity and other health behaviours since schools were shut down, there wasn’t much literature that included the voices and perspectives of youth.

“We wanted to know how are they feeling now in the pandemic, what is their health like, and what does it mean as they go into the return to school so that we have that kind of baseline,” she explained.

The survey includes a lot of open-ended questions, allowing for plenty of exploration of thoughts and feelings.

Read the whole story here. I found Kirk’s explanations of the study’s aims and how the researchers went about setting up the surveys really interesting.

Meanwhile, education-related labour leaders in Nova Scotia are holding an event to discuss their concerns with the back-to-school plan, using Facebook Live, on the Nova Scotia Teachers Union page this morning at 11:00. (You don’t have to have a Facebook account to watch the livestream.)

Among the conerns in a release from the Nova Scotia Federation of Labour:

There is no protocol for halting the spread of infection and informing the public when outbreaks occur in schools. And while more students are now required to wear masks in class, thousands are not.

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5. Proposed hotel is dead, so you’ll have to go somewhere else to enjoy “Aboriginal” art

A Newfoundland-based developer has dropped its proposal for a high-end hotel and “Aboriginal” art gallery at Gottingen and Brunswick. The proposal had garnered criticism when it first came before council but, Zane Woodford reports, the developer says COVID-19 is to blame for kiboshing the proposed hotel.

A rendering of the “Aboriginal” art gallery proposed by Steele Hotels.
A rendering of the “Aboriginal” art gallery proposed by Steele Hotels.

Woodford writes:

An email from project architect Ron Fougere… offers few details:

“Please be advised that a decision has been made by the JAG owner to not proceed with the above referenced project, due to the impact the Covid Pandemic has placed on the project.

“We wish to thank you and all City of Halifax personal for all your / their assistance and support in the design and permit acquisition process.”

Read the story in part for the very funny/pathetic recap of what happened the first time this project came to council, including one of the rendered image for the “Aboriginal” gallery, which “shows people in a gallery hung with generic art, photos of Indigenous people performing in regalia, and a photo of Buffy Sainte-Marie apparently ripped from thecanadianencyclopedia.ca via Flickr.”

This story is for subscribers only. You can subscribe here.

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Views

How breathless tech writing helped bring us the gig economy

This law-abiding driver has definitely stopped his car before using his cellphone. Photo: Melissa Mjoen/Unsplash

Sam Harnett is a reporter who covers tech and labour with radio station KQED in San Francisco. A couple of weeks ago he shared a work in progress (which appears to be a chapter from a book manuscript) called “Words Matter: How Tech Media Helped Write Gig Companies into Existence.”

It’s an excellent read, and relevant, given our current conversations in Halifax over allowing companies like Uber to operate, and the rental market disaster caused in part by short-term rental companies like Airbnb.

Harnett looks at the role tech writers played in pumping up these companies. He says there was a “collective media swoon over companies like Uber and TaskRabbit”:

It lasted for years and helped pave the way for a handful of companies that represent a tiny fraction of the economy to have an outsized impact on law, mainstream corporate practices, and the way we think about work. The content generated by swooning pundits and journalists made it seem like these companies were ushering in not only an inevitable future, but a desirable one. They helped convince the public and regulators that these businesses were different from existing corporations – that they were startups with innovative technology platforms designed to disrupt established firms by efficiently connecting consumers to independent, empowered gig workers. This was not only false, it was the exact rhetorical cover these companies needed to succeed.

Perhaps you are more astute or more cynical than I, but I will confess to having read these breathlessly utopian stories and being caught up in them. Airbnb? Awesome idea! I then remember feeling pissed that the original “sharing economy” idea — make a couple of bucks renting out a spare bedroom to travellers — was being corrupted by people doing things like building entire apartment buildings to serve as unregulated apartment buildings. But my naive understanding was all wrong. Undermining regulations and making money by being as predatory as possible was the goal all along.

Harnett quotes from a Thomas Friedman piece called “Welcome to the sharing economy”:

 At one point he writes: “Turns out there is an innkeeper residing in all of us!” The not-too-subtle subtext of these kinds of opinion pieces is that this “technology” (which again is just a mobile app and a company with venture capital to pursue regulatory arbitrage) can save us from the ills of modern-day capitalism – things such as feelings of alienation, growing income inequality, and evaporating sense of purpose. The piece fails to root Airbnb in any historical context and is rife in speculation about a better future. In order to sell the utopia, Friedman breathes life into the gravely misleading idea that Airbnb and these other apps are part of some imagined trend called the “sharing economy.”

The problems began, Harnett argues, with the original framing of these companies in media reports as tech companies.

App-based service-delivery companies aren’t developing silicon chips like Intel or AMD, creating consumer software like Adobe, or making networking switches like Cisco. They don’t get money from inventing new tech, but from venture capital and by taking a slice of every transaction made by their contingent labor force.

But tech writing — at least in the era when these companies were first making a splash — tended to be relatively uncritical, and tech companies were still seen as shiny new things that would transform our lives. By looking at these companies through the lens of tech — instead of say, labour — we got a skewed view of their personal and social impacts.

The language that’s used is important, because it shapes the discourse to come. You see this with any news story. Once Afghans fighting our forces were deemed “insurgents”, they stayed “insurgents” in headline after headline and story after story.

Harnett gets into this phenomenon with tech, and writes about how hard it is to escape using these established terms:

Whenever news breaks there is a critical time frame where terms are established to describe what is happening. This language develops into a sticky shorthand that is repeated again and again…

When I started covering companies like Uber, I found myself increasingly encountering these problematic terms. These included Silicon Valley-speak like “pivot,” “friction,” “innovate,” “disrupt,” “platform,” and “startup,” but also big, baggy words like “freedom” and “efficiency.” Companies like Uber and Lyft got their own section on my list with terms like “transportation network company,” “gig,” “rideshare,” “sharing economy,” and “collaborative consumption.” I fought to cut these terms, but I was sometimes overruled or had to settle for scare quotes because editors thought these words were essential and benign. Eventually, the editor I was working with came to understand that a word like “startup” was editorializing because it was endowed with positive associations (new, fresh, not your typical corporation!) yet provided no concrete definition (how old can a startup be? how many employees can it have? how much revenue?).

One of the key contributions I think Harnett makes is his taxonomy of what he calls “Five archetypes of misinformation.” They are:

  1. The introductory review
  2. The first-person experience
  3. The outlier worker profile
  4. The techno-utopian think piece
  5. The founder interview

You will recognize all these stories and have probably read dozens of them. The guy who drives an Uber for a week and writes about his experience. The person making six figures in the gig economy. The empty platitudes from the founder about their vision for changing the world.

It’s worth reading the paper for the examples of stories that fall into each of these categories.

If the result of all this was just naive suckers like me thinking that Airbnb wanted to help you “share”, that wouldn’t be so bad. But as we can see, very real consequences on the ability of people to make a living, afford rent and so on come out of politicians uncritically embracing the techno-utopian vision primed by this kind of writing.

Harnett again:

Politicians quickly began to repeat the innovation-disruption rhetoric honed by tech media, and doing so offered an easy way to both burnish their own brands as cutting-edge lawmakers and to connect with constituents who appreciated the new services. In San Francisco, former Mayor Ed Lee declared July 15, 2013 Lyft Day, and the city’s Deputy Innovation Officer (itself a title informed by the innovation-disruption
rhetoric) presented the proclamation to Lyft.

And when it comes to regulation? Well, go read Zane Woodford’s story on the motion to allow TNCs in Halifax and see if any of this sounds familiar:

In 2013 the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) decided to not regulate Uber and Lyft as taxi companies, but instead to create a new regulatory category called “Transportation Network Companies,” or TNCs. The decision hinged on the determination that these companies were built on new technology, a position in line with the rhetoric formulated by tech media, echoed by academics, and repeated by politicians. Michael Peevey, the head of the CPUC, chose to view these companies as something wholly new. He recalled in his book how his daughter introduced him to Uber and how he thought it was “wonderful.” “My god,” he wrote, “here we have an application of a new yet modest technology …” Peevey did not want his agency to stand in the way, and it didn’t. It turned the rhetoric into reality by deeming Ubers and
Lyfts a new kind of transportation, TNCs.

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Noticed

Old train trestle at the end of Summerville Beach. Photo: Stephen Archibald

Reading Stephen Archibald’s latest post on his Noticed in Nova Scotia blog, I got nostalgic for a lovely day trip we did down the South Shore last July. We had a really nice lunch in Port Medway, went to Summerville Beach (and had a nap there), and then on to Sable River, where I gave a talk on fermentation and demonstrated making sauerkraut.

Archibald’s trip is longer than a day and covers more ground — from LaHave Outfitters to Lockeport and back to Lunenburg. Lots of interesting architectural photos. As Archibald writes:

 You know what gets me noticing.

In this case, neat little buildings, decorative gables, a driveway lined with conch shells.

Archibald says he was quite struck by this little cottage in South West Port Mouton, and I can see why. He asks:

Was it a miniature Greek temple or a child’s drawing of a house. The meadow of Queen Anne’s lace didn’t hurt.

Cottage in South West Port Mouton. Photo: Stephen Archibald

“Staying in Nova Scotia has not been a hardship,” Archibald writes, and I have to agree. Other than an annual camping trip to PEI, we’ve spent most of our vacations locally for more than 20 years, and there are still all kinds of amazing places in the province we’ve never been to. I was talking to someone whose family is from Cheticamp the other day, and he said he is always surprised by how many Nova Scotians he meets who have never been to Cape Breton.

The really nice weather doesn’t last all that long here. Might as well stay here and enjoy.

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Government

City

Wednesday

Special Audit Committee (Wednesday, 10am) — virtual meeting; agenda here.

Special Audit and Finance Standing Committee (Wednesday, 10am) — virtual meeting, immediate following Audit Committee; agenda here.

Special Halifax and West Community Council (Wednesday, 6pm) — virtual meeting; agenda here.

Special Harbour East Marine Drive Community Council (Wednesday, 6pm) — virtual meeting; agenda here.

Thursday

No meetings.

Province

No meetings.


In the harbour

03:30: Maersk Patras, container ship, sails from Pier 42 for New York
04:30: MSC Rochelle, container ship, moves from Pier 41 to anchorage
05:30: Maersk Mobiliser, offshore supply ship, arrives at Pier 9 from the Sable Island field
06:00: Selfoss, container ship, arrives at Pier 42 from Reykjavik, Iceland
07:00: Nordloire, bulker, arrives at Pier 28 from Quebec City
07:00: Oceanex Sanderling, ro-ro container, arrives at Pier 41 from St. John’s
10:00: Selfoss sails for Portland
13:00: Maersk Mobiliser sails for sea
13:00: IT Integrity, supply vessel, arrives at Pier 9 from Roatan, Honduras


Footnotes

Going camping again this weekend and staying at Mira River Provincial Park. Bringing our bikes. I’ve never stayed at this park before, and the last couple of times I was in the area I was doing book research and at a baseball tournament — so not a lot of time spent on other activities. If you have suggestions for places to ride, hike, eat, swim, or whatever, feel free to drop your favourites down in the comments.

Also, the Dartmouth Book Exchange is running a give-away for my book, Adventures in Bubbles and Brine, so if you’d like a shot at a copy of it, and you are a Facebook user, drop by their page.

Please subscribe, or drop us a donation. Thanks!

Philip Moscovitch

Philip Moscovitch is a writer and audio producer, and the author of the book Adventures in Bubbles and Brine; Website:...

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  1. I’m eternally puzzled by how anyone can confuse companies that sell software products with companies that use software to circumvent regulations on the sale of products and hiring of employees. Uber, for example, is a taxi company. Nothing more, nothing less. They happen to have good software for hiring, dispatching, and paying for taxis, but the service provided is taxi service, and the company should be regulated like any other taxi company. Our democratic governments have created regulations for good reasons, and flashy software from well-heeled investors seeking greater profits, which impresses politicians and the media, is no reason to drop the regulations.

  2. re the breathless writing — to paraphrase (and gut) the Meghan Trainor song…
    “it’s all about the words, ’bout the words, not the substance…”