Geeking Out: Pluto Edition

Something a lot of people, even people who know me very well, probably don’t know about me: I’m a bit of a closet space geek. I’ve been a science fiction fan for as long as I can remember, and as a child of the 80s grew up on Star Trek, Star Wars, and the rest of the usual sci-fi classics of my generation (and of course readers of this blog will know that in recent years I have become a pretty big Dr. Who fan). I would always pick up sci-fi novels when I was a teenager, and I particularly remember loving the Foundation series by Asimov. But beyond Sci-Fi I was always interested in the actual science behind space, and still remember finding books in my elementary school library about rocketry, quantum physics, and space exploration which I devoured (or at least tried to, most of it was way over my head). I built and flew model rockets. I even went to “space camp” a couple times.

We probably all remember at least some of our answers to what we wanted to be when we grew up. There were 4 distinct phases to mine: Ghostbuster (until I realized that I am actually pretty scared of ghosts) followed by Paleontologist (until I realized that digging in the dirt VERY slowly isn’t actually that much fun) followed by what I am going to rather inexactly call “space dude”. Astronaut is of course always a sexy job, but I was realistic even at that age that I didn’t exactly have the body type of a test pilot. Being a rocket scientist sounded pretty good as well, and I remember some pretty serious day dreams in my pre-teen years of pursuing something in the engineering or science realms related to space. However those dreams soon enough came crashing back to Earth (pardon the pun) with the following realization: I neither am very good at, nor very much enjoy, math. And that appeared to be pretty much a career limiting move when it comes to the space sciences.

Thus I eventually settled on my last, best destiny: public policy. However over the last number of years I’ve realized that there is actually an overlap in my professional pursuits and my childhood interests in that space policy is not only a thing, but arguably an increasingly important one. Though my day job for much of the past decade has focused on a very different type of intersection between technology and public policy, I still love reading and learning about all things space related.

So I have been following with great interest the big year for space exploration that has been happening with the first visits to some of the more inaccessible reaches of our solar system. First there was the landing in November of the Philae lander on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, the first ever “soft” landing on a comet (“soft” being in quotation marks as it ended up being a bit of a bumpy ride). Then the Dawn spacecraft using a remarkable ion propulsion system became the first ever spacecraft to orbit two different extraterrestrial bodies when it entered into orbit around Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Amongst other things, it discovered the enigmatic “bright spots” on Ceres’ surface which have still yet to be explained.

However for most people the main attraction of the 2014/15 space exploration season is taking place as we speak. The New Horizons spacecraft which launched from Earth some 9 1/2 years ago, is about to reach Pluto with it’s closest approach taking place in just a few hours at 7:49am EST July 14th. This is the first time we will have ever seen Pluto up close, the last of the major bodies in our Solar System to receive a visit from us humans. The Voyager era was before my time, so this is really the first time in my lifetime that we are getting to experience the thrill of newly exploring a major body in our solar system. Up until a few weeks ago, Pluto and its moons were nothing but a few pixels in even our best telescopes. But now with even just the preliminary images we are starting to get a fascinating look at this previously unknown world.

Image of Pluto taken by New Horizons on July 12 from a distance of 1.6 million miles (2.5 million kilometers). Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Image of Pluto taken by New Horizons on July 12 from a distance of 1.6 million miles (2.5 million kilometers). Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

For those who are interested in learning more about the New Horizons mission and following it as starts sending back data from its flyby, by far the best resource I have come across is Emily Lakdawalla’s blog on Start with her “What to expect when you’re expecting a flyby” post and you can follow the breadcrumbs from there. I also have a Twitter list of over 100 space peeps which I have been slowly building which will provide you with a pretty good live look at what is going on as many of them are following the final approach to the Pluto system at the mission control centre.

Aside from the hard science of the mission, Pluto holds a special place in our collective psyche and expect to see some more light-hearted takes on this new chapter of space exploration. Earlier this week I stumbled upon this music video tribute to Pluto which aside from being fun and catchy, is actually also surprisingly touching:

As the high-resolution images start coming in over the next few days, no doubt Pluto will be gracing newscasts and newspapers around the globe. In fact this is likely to be one of the highest profile moments for space exploration we have seen in many years. Which I think is more than a little sad.

Sad because there are so many amazing things happening in the field of space exploration right now which for most people are flying completely under the radar. The commercialization of space exploration with the emergence of companies like Space X and Virgin Galactic. The rapid advancement of space programs in non-traditional space-faring nations such as India and China (In the past 18 months alone China landed a rover on the Moon and India put a probe into orbit around Mars). The search for exoplanets which has already found thousands of planets around stars in just our little corner of the galaxy. Big advancements in astronomy including the planned launch in 2018 of the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope. The beginnings of a mission to send a probe to Jupiter’s moon Europa to look for signs of life beneath its frozen oceans. The development of the Space Launch System and Orion Program by NASA with plans within the next decade to send humans on a near-Earth asteroid re-direction mission, and possibly back to the Moon or on to Mars – which will be the first time since the Apollo Moon landings that there has been a serious program to send humans beyond Low Earth Orbit. I could go on, and each of these topics could merit not just a post but volumes onto themselves.

All that to say, there are some amazing things happening right now in the realm of space exploration. Yet not only is the public awareness of what is happening in this field shockingly low, but so too is government support. For example, spending on space programs make up just a fraction of what is spent on the military. With some quick Wikipedia research, here is a snapshot of how annual expenditures compare in the top ten spending countries on space vs. their military expenditures for the most recent years available.

Country Space Program Military %
United States 17,800,000,000 518,000,000,000 3.44%
Russia 5,600,000,000 70,000,000,000 8.00%
France 2,500,000,000 53,100,000,000 4.71%
Japan 2,460,000,000 47,700,000,000 5.16%
Germany 2,000,000,000 43,900,000,000 4.56%
Italy 1,800,000,000 24,300,000,000 7.41%
China 1,300,000,000 129,400,000,000 1.00%
India 1,100,000,000 45,200,000,000 2.43%
Canada 488,000,000 20,100,000,000 2.43%
United Kingdom 414,000,000 61,800,000,000 0.67%

With space program spending being in the single digits as a percentage comparison to military spending in each of these countries, that means it is just a fraction of a percentage point compared to the overall national budget. For example, in the United States NASA’s budget is currently less than 0.5% of the national budget, and even during the hight of the Apollo program was less than 4.5%.

My point being this: so many amazing things are happening in the field of space exploration in spite of the remarkably low levels of funding, just imagine what could be done if for example we collectively doubled humanities’ spending on space programs by re-purposing a few percentage points of military spending to the peaceful exploration of our cosmic neighbourhood. The breadth and speed at which our reach, knowledge, and experience as a species would increase would be staggering. Moments like the New Horizons mission remind us that we are living in the future; but that future won’t last long if our public policy priorities don’t follow.

Another Line on the Life Calendar

“We all change. When you think about it, we are all different people all through our lives and that’s okay, that’s good, you’ve got to keep moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be.”
The Doctor, Dr. Who, The Time of the Doctor

Last week I got to start a new line on my Life Calendar (for those who aren’t familiar with my Life Calendar project, see here and here for the back-story). Since my last update to this project, the boxes have changed colour, a new city is on the right-hand margin, and another “Dr. Who moment” has been added.

Life Calendar - May 2015

So what have I done with those 21 new squares on the calendar? I’ve moved across the Atlantic and made significant progress on the adjustment process to my new (even if in the grand scheme of things, temporary) home in Paris. I have met dozens, if not hundreds, of new people from literally every corner of the globe – among them some wonderful colleagues and a diverse set of new friends. I’ve had the opportunity both through work and personally to start travelling throughout Europe with trips to Slovakia, Northern Ireland, London, and within France to the Champaign region (with a stop to see the impressive cathedral of Remis) and to the Medieval Disneyland that is Provins, while of course continuing to explore the amazing city that is Paris. I’ve had the pleasure over the past few months to host a couple of friends and also my father who made an extended visit in April (my tour guide skills are getting better by the day – in the 3 1/2 weeks my father was here we estimated we did about 150KMs of walking the streets of Paris and London!). I also made a trip back to North America to attend my 5-year reunion at the Harvard Kennedy School for a weekend of reconnecting with the many amazing people I shared that time with, and years worth of catching-up and hugs squeezed into a few days. Last, but not least, I’ve continued to broaden my professional horizons through my work at the OECD in gaining a better understanding of how digital government initiatives are unfolding across the globe and starting to move forward on a few projects that will help countries accelerate their progress.

Of course I would be remiss to leave this update at that; guilty of what in the social media era is best known as “selective sharing“. Yes there have been amazing moments over the past 5 months, but there have been some tough ones too. In what has become a common reflection amongst other ex-pats I have talked with, it gets harder the older you get to just pack up your life and start fresh. It’s a unique sensation to suddenly find yourself on your own living somewhere you know virtually no one; family, friends, and even familiar memories an ocean away. As I am starting to discover, it strengthens you in ways that you weren’t even aware needed strengthening.

A short update on life in Paris

Well it has been almost two months since my inaugural post from Paris. Despite good intentions, I haven’t been able to find the time to sit down and put virtual pen to virtual paper on a proper post. Thankfully I never had any clearly committed to posting schedule, thus I will take inspiration from one of my favourite blogs which has just recently updated its posting schedule from “New Posts Every Tuesday” to “New Posts Every Sometimes”…sounds about right!

As always, for those interested in what I am up to as part of my European adventures, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook are the best ways to keep up with my goings on. The long and the short of it: life is good.

Sometime in February I crossed the threshold when moving to a new city where one goes from feeling like a tourist to feeling like I actually live here (if not quite yet at home). It’s a good place to be at coming up on my third month here and I’m feeling more and more settled and comfortable in Paris. The language barrier in day-to-day life is something that I’m conscious of, but my rudimentary (and hopefully slowly improving) French, combined with the occasional need for an impromptu game of Charades, has been enough to navigate most situations. There have been a lot of little differences I’ve noticed in daily life here; in fact that is a blog post in and of itself that I plan to write at some point. However on balance most of the little differences fall into either the “good” or “interesting” category and I can say 2 1/2 months into this journey that I am very happy that I took this particular leap of faith.

Work started to kick into high-gear over the past month and I have to say that I am grateful for the opportunities to travel and learn that this position is affording me. I am currently working on projects related to public governance reforms in both Northern Ireland and Slovakia. Over the past month I have had the opportunity to travel to Belfast and Bratislava to learn first-hand about their systems of government and work with their officials to help identify areas for improvement, specifically in my case in the realm of what we call digital government. I’m also working on a number of broader projects with our OECD member countries in the realm of digital government, taking a particular focus on our work on best practices in government use of social media. Last month I co-authored a blog post with a colleague of mine titled “Measuring Government Impact in a Social Media World” which builds on some research that our team published late last year. We got some good online traction from the blog post and even a few media articles in Chile.

So that’s it for now! I will wish you all well and leave you with a few pictures from my travels over the past month and my continuing exploration of Paris.


My colleague Jeremy took some amazing pictures from our time in Belfast which you can find at this link (I’m sharing with his permission as they put anything I took to shame!)

I will only add to his great collection a shot of the very impressive Titanic Museum that I had a chance to visit on the Saturday morning before I flew back to Paris, along with the scale model so you can see how big the actual ship was compared to the museum (each corner of the museum is the same size as the bow of the ship):




The “UFO Bridge”:IMG_2382

Panoramic view of the Slovakian Parliament and the Bratislava Castle:IMG_2391

View of the Slovakian Parliament from the front steps:IMG_2405

I don’t know what these are actually called, but I call them “Slovakia Sticks” and they were great! 🙂IMG_2414


The small-scale replica of the Statue of Liberty at the Point de Grenelle near my apartment:IMG_2434

Speaking of my neighbourhood, some poetry on the metro by the writer/poet that my street is named after:IMG_2184

A few other landmarks of Paris:IMG_2201IMG_2441IMG_2131 IMG_2129

Walking in the City of Lights

It has been almost three weeks since I arrived in Paris, and what a remarkable time it has been so far. The first weekend I was here, as I was trying to shake off my jet lag and explore this new city, the title for this blog post instantly jumped into my mind. Paris is a city of immense beauty. Literally around every corner is something remarkable, and as someone who has always enjoyed reflective walks at night it occurred to me on my very first of those walks in Paris that I may have found myself in the best city in the world for such an activity! But it would be disingenuous of me not to address the elephant in the room first.

When I got on the plane in Saskatoon the morning of January 2nd I couldn’t have begun to image how the world’s gaze would be on Paris just a few days later, so tragically for reasons of violence and hatred. Mine is a generation who have known international violence and terror in a way that Canadians haven’t for a long time. Terrorism is, almost by its very definition, shocking. It is designed to disrupt normal life and force everyone to pay attention. 9/11 happened while I was still an undergraduate student at Carleton University. I still remember how I felt that morning and that uneasy sense that the world was changing, that we were at one of those points that would divide events into “before” and “after”, and the pit in our collective stomachs waiting for the other shoe to drop.

It is remarkable the number of people I know in my life who served or were involved in some way in the Afghanistan war. During my time at the Harvard Kennedy School I met so many more American friends who were impacted by their involvement in the Iraq war. Having lived in Boston for two years the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 hit me in a personal way, particularly as I was checking social media constantly that day to make sure that those friends still living there were okay. Three months ago I was on the receiving end of that concern from family and friends when the shooting took place in Ottawa that killed a Canadian Forces honour guard at the tomb of the unknown solder and led to a gun battle in the halls of Parliament. Then on morning of January 7th of this year, just four days after arriving in Paris, news started filtering out about the horrific attacks at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. More violence would follow in the days after as all of France, indeed much of the world, held its collective breath as the manhunt for the gunmen raged and culminated in the hostage stand-offs that took place two days later.

I shared some thoughts with Saskatoon radio station 650 CKOM in the immediate aftermath of the attack on Charlie Hebdo which you can listen to here. While I have had some more time to process everything that has happened, I still ultimately feel the same way I did when I gave the interview: life goes on. Indeed it occurs to me that in some ways this is nothing new, and every generation faces their own demons. Today acts of horror in our world get amplified given the instant interconnectedness that technology brings us, but they have always been with us and it is important not to forget that in so many important ways the world is in fact getting better.

I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t unnerving to now see police and soldiers with assault rifles patrolling the streets of Paris. However, one of the great strengths and weaknesses of the human condition is that our memories are short, and even now I get a sense that things are starting to move back to a sense of normality. In the face of such madness all that can really be done is to go on and live our lives, stay vigilant of course, and perhaps most importantly, try to do what we can to make the world a little bit of a better place.

That is after all why I am here (The OECD‘s slogan is “Better Policies for Better Lives”). This has always promised to be an incredible professional and personal opportunity for growth, and the past few weeks have only reinforced that for me. In many ways I feel like I have had little more than a glimpse of Paris since I got here, but if there was one word for me to describe this place it is “magical”. After the intensity that always accompanies a move to a new city, I’m starting to feel settled. I’ve met new colleagues and friends from literally dozens of countries, and have begun to enjoy the pleasures, both simple and grand, of life in Paris and this new experience. There is so much more to come, and I look forward to sharing this journey with you!

I will leave you with just a few images from my walks in the City of Lights so far (P.S. I’ve started using my Instagram account more regularly, so for those who are on it follow me for my latest photos from my time here). Unlike some things in life, I can truly say that the great monuments and sights of Paris are so much more impressive in person than a picture can hope to capture.

ETower from across River nightOblest and Wheel Louve Louve facing West  Arc de Triomphe

New Chapters, Life Calendars, and Dr. Who

As some of you might know, last month I got some big news about how I am going to be spending 2015:

In just a few days I am going to be taking this next leap in my life’s journey, moving to Paris for at least the next year to work on digital government issues for the OECD. This is an incredibly exciting opportunity and I think will prove to be quite an adventure professionally and personally.

Preparing for this kind of a transition is obviously an opportunity to pause and reflect. All the more so with it being the holidays and New Year’s Eve upon us, a time of year I have always found full of self-reflection. Last year at this time I posted about my reflections on 2013, which I described as the toughest year of my life to date. I predicted that 2014 would see me move into a new phase of life professionally and personally, which proved to be true even if not in the ways that I expected (but then again, when does life ever unfold in the ways that we expect).

2014 was very much about setting the stage for the next act. I had to make some choices at various points throughout the year to close certain doors in my life, often without knowing which ones would open up in turn. My family and I went through the difficult experience of losing my step-mother to cancer this fall. There were real moments of joy this year as well, and many reasons to celebrate victories, births, and important milestones of those in my life. More than anything, when I look back on 2014 it strikes me as a year where I learnt more about myself.

One of the exercises that I started in 2014 was creating a “life calendar”. For those who have been following this blog (or my Facebook or Twitter feeds) you may have read a bit about this project of mine. I’ve done some further refinement of my life calendar since my last post in September, and I’m happy to share with you the fruits of my labours:

Life Calendar - Beta 2

You will notice the yellow squares with numbers I’ve added throughout my timeline. Those represent major transitions in my life, or as I have come to think of them, my “Dr. Who moments” (bare with me for a moment and I will circle back to explain what that means). These are major transition points in my life which launched significantly new chapters. They were all instigated by a career change, a move to a new city, or in many cases both. They also involved having new people become a part of my life, and in many cases having to say goodbye to others. Arguably only #1 and #6 were truly transformational, with everything in-between being smaller chapters within the same narrative arc. A new number is going to be added to the calendar next week, and I am fairly confident that #8 will fall into the “truly transformational” category.

Which brings me to Dr. Who. Last year around this time thanks to the magic of Netflix I started watching the modern seasons of Dr. Who (starting from the 2005 re-boot), the British sci-fi series that has been running for over 50 years. For those who have never seen it, the central character, the Doctor as he is known, is a Time Lord that travels through time and space having frequent madcap adventures while saving the universe. While the Doctor is for practical purposes immortal (though not completely), if he is fatally injured he goes through a process of “regeneration” where he takes on a new physical appearance. Through this convenient plot device there have been 12 different actors who have played the Doctor since 1963.

Predictably, I loved Dr. Who and ended up gobbling up all 8 seasons of the modern re-boot in fairly short order. Immersing myself in it, I soon realized that beyond the sci-fi plot lines there is a deeper metaphor being explored throughout the Dr. Who series. To me, it speaks to the nature of the journey that is our lives. How the journey itself changes us and we can appear, at least to others, to become different people at different points along the way. How some people travel with us for part of the journey (the Doctor often has a travelling companion), even sometimes through multiple regenerations, but more often than we would like through choice or circumstance our travelling companions have to take different paths.

The best expression of this metaphor in the series is the final episode of David Tennant’s run as the Doctor, titled “The End of Time”. Throughout the episode he knows due to a prophecy that he will soon be needing to regenerate and struggles with moving on to this next phase of his journey:

Later in the episode, after he is critically injured and knows that he only has a little time left before he regenerates into the next Doctor, he takes some quick trips through time and space to say goodbye to the people that were closest to him through his most recent travels (the clip below captures the last couple of these goodbyes; unfortunately I can’t find one with the full scene):

The past month I have spent a lot of time saying my own goodbyes to the people that have been important to me these past few years. I’m truly excited about the journey ahead, but I would be lying if I said that there weren’t moments of pause in the realization that this really is the start of something new, and everything that means.

So as I begin this new chapter, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to blog more regularly, in part to keep my friends, family and colleagues updated on my Paris adventures. If you are interested, I’d encourage you to to sign-up for email updates from my blog through the subscription box below:

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Wishing you and your loved ones health and happiness for 2015! À la prochaine!

Life Calendar (Beta Version)

Those who follow me on Twitter or Facebook may know that about two months ago I bought a “Life Calendar” from the wonderful blog “Wait But Why” (and specifically, inspired by this blog post). After putting down $15 and waiting a few weeks, I had my very own 2 foot by 3 foot life calendar.

Life Calendar - blank

There are 52 boxes across the horizontal axis (one for every week of the year) and 90 rows down the vertical axis (one for every year of a 90 year life – above the average, but still a reasonably achievable goal). That’s it. Your entire life graphed on one piece of paper. I have to admit, unrolling it for the first time, tacking it to the wall, and stepping back and looking at it was an interesting mix of humility, inspiration, and terror.

Over the past month I have had some (unexpected) time for reflection and to work on a few projects that I have had kicking around, including this one. I decided to take a first crack at visualizing the contours of my life using the calendar as my canvas. I must admit that I underestimated how much time it would take to actually remember/research my life down to the granularity of week-by-week and convert it to calendar that starts on May 28th, decide what to include on the calendar and how to represent it in a meaningful way, and then put pen/marker to paper.

The fruits of my labours, what I am going to call the “beta version” of my Life Calendar, is below along with a rough legend to help you make a bit of sense of the colour scheme:

Life Calendar -  Beta 1 Life Calendar - Legend

A few explanatory notes, followed by a some initial observations and questions. First, the legend should hopefully make at least a cursory review of the Life Calendar possible by anyone (those who know me well will probably have a bit easier of a time figuring out what exactly is what – I’ve admittedly done a lot of different things in the first 33 years of my life and kept the categories fairly general as a result). In each week’s box, only the top half is coloured in. This represents the “primary activity” I was doing that week (put another way, that week what was my most likely answer to the question “what do you do?”) – more on what, if anything, I will do with the bottom half of each square later. Along the far right side you will see city names. Those specify which city I lived in for the majority of that year of my life (every year had a pretty clear winner). I had considered colouring in the the gaps between boxes to indicate different cities lived, but I was not only running out of colours but also worried that it would make the whole calendar less legible. I did try the grey border around the two times I lived outside of Canada…not sure how well that worked in the end.

I’m still taking this in and what it means. It really is powerful to see one’s entire life graphically represented at a glance like this. A few initial things that jumped out at me:

  • The sheer volume of my life to date that is taken up by formal education of some type is surprisingly large to me
  • I was also surprised by how much of my professional life was spent working in politics in one form or another (perhaps because it feels like it was a long time ago) – it’s actually under-represented on this version; more on that later
  • While 20 of my 33 years I have lived in Saskatoon, only 2 of those were as an adult, if we use the age of 18 as the definition of adulthood (debatable, I know). Of my 15 “adult” years, 10 of them have been in Ottawa, 2 in Saskatoon, 2 in Boston, 1 in Washington DC
  • There are only two significant gaps in my Life Calendar in my adult life where there was no “primary” activity: 9 weeks in my 23rd year and 8 weeks in my 29th year (there was also a bit of a “slump” period of about 12 weeks in the later half of my 26th year, but using the methodology I’ve chosen it doesn’t really show up as such). I remember those gaps being filled with anxiety trying to answer the question “what’s next?”, and for the most part being not particularly pleasant periods of my life

In my mind this is not yet a finished product and I’d love some feedback to help get it there. Keeping the scope purely to my professional life, there are a few notable absences given the methodology I’m using that are significant parts of my life story (e.g. my work on Parliament Hill during all four years of my undergraduate degree, my work last year on getting my tech startup company off the ground). Should I use the bottom half of squares to colour in areas where there were important “secondary” activities in my life? Beyond that, should I try capture non-professional/educational aspects of my life? If so, how and which ones (e.g. significant trips, relationships, specific milestones)?

I hope this post doesn’t come across as too much naval-gazing but is taken in the spirit in which it is intended: a mix of geekish interest in effectively visualizing complex systems and personal self-reflection.

Round Numbers

Even after all the promises you’ve broken to yourself,
All will be well. 
You can ask me how but only time will tell.
– “All Will Be Well” by The Gabe Dixon Band

There is something deep in the human psyche that makes us inclined to want to celebrate and reflect on anniversaries that end in 0s or 5s. It’s not clear to me if this is a biological imperative or driven more by cultural influences, but regardless of the cause it remains a fact of life.

This week I was back home in Saskatchewan, in part to celebrate a round number anniversary. In this case that of a very special person in my life, my Baba Mabel Androsoff who turned 90 on June 6th.


After a family dinner we had at her home in Blaine Lake in honour of her birthday, we decided to watch the video of her 65th birthday party. This was one of the first major family events that I have any significant memory of. As I sat there watching the parade of faces, many of whom have now left us, a realization started to wash over me. The images I were seeing were from 25 years ago. Mental math ensued. Then it hit me: in this video, my parents are the same age that I am now. A strange feeling started to grow in the pit of my stomach, which I struggled to articulate.

Later that evening I was driving back to Saskatoon and decided to take a bit of a scenic detour through the north end of Saskatoon where early in my career I lived and worked. As I was driving a second realization washed over me. Exactly 10 years ago I was in the midst of a particularly monumental period in my life. That 12 month period from September 2003 to September 2004 would set in motion much of the next decade of my professional and personal life. I could viscerally recall exactly what I was doing 10 years ago in June of 2004 and how the shadows of that time in my life still linger in unexpected ways. That same unarticulated feeling came back.

As I sit here writing this, I can tell you what that feeling isn’t. It isn’t a feeling of being old. It isn’t a feeling of regret. It isn’t even a feeling of nostalgia. Perhaps I can best describe what it is as vertigo brought on by a sudden loss of a frame of reference. In that feeling may also lie the reason as to why we have such a strong attachment to round number anniversaries – after all, one of the ways to treat motion sickness is to focus on a fixed spot on the horizon.

The Seduction of the Startup

Last spring I co-founded a tech startup company called Beyond 2.0. Our mission: to build innovative products and services based on open data. Around the same time I was returning from language training to Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) where I was taking on a new challenge managing the team that runs the Government of Canada’s internal collaborative platforms, GCpedia and GCconnex. I was putting in long hours with my public service job, while my early mornings, late nights and weekends were filled with trying to get the start-up off the ground. This was never going to be a sustainable arrangement in the long run and I had given myself a year to pursue both paths and make a decision as to if I would stay in the public service or leave to run the startup full time.

As I was going through this journey something very interesting became apparent to me: most people in my life were rooting for me to leave government and take the startup path. Friends, family, and colleagues alike. Over the course of that year whenever I would go to social events, family get-togethers, or catch-ups with professional contacts, when I would tell them what I was doing with Beyond 2.0 their eyes would light up. They had a million ideas. They had people I needed to talk to. They would send me articles they clipped from newspapers or tell me about the latest episode of Dragon’s Den or Shark Tank I needed to watch. They were all rooting for me, and it was a great feeling.

Yet here is the rub: by any reasonable measure of contribution to the public good and society at large, my work as a public servant is at least an order of magnitude more important and impactful. My team and I are putting in place some of the infrastructure that will enable government to stay relevant and agile in a modern networked world. We are empowering public servants to find and connect with each other in ways they simply couldn’t do a few years ago. We’ve grown our internal collaboration ecosystem beyond just the early adopters and tech enthusiasts and now have tens of thousands of mainstream public servants logging on to these social networking and collaboration tools for the first time. These are big moves that will have impacts on the public service for years to come in ways we can’t even envision right now. For our work my team and I won the TBS Award of Merit last year. Yet for most people in my life, all they really wanted to know for the past year was what was happening with the startup and how soon I was going to leave government.

“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads”
Jeffrey Hammerbacher, data scientist and early Facebook employee

Recently I had the great pleasure of being back on the Harvard Kennedy School campus to take part in the IDEASpHERE conference. One of the sessions I attended was a discussion by my former thesis advisor Nicco Mele, whom I have known since my time at the Kennedy School and whose work I follow closely, and fellow communications and internet innovator Morra Aarons Mele who I had the great pleasure of meeting for the first time. During their panel about the “promise and peril of the internet” Morra started a great discussion about what she termed “entrepreneurship porn”, namely how the excessive value that our society is putting on startup culture is causing a serious brain drain for traditional institutions like government.

It clicked for me during her talk that I had been living this exact scenario for the past year. Moreover, I am not alone. In the four years since I moved back to Ottawa to join the federal public service I have met countless passionate, dedicated, innovative public servants who to their very core want to improve how government works and serve the public. Yet almost to a person, they are battling a constant crisis of faith in a public service career and considering if they can accomplish more or be more fulfilled working outside of “the system”. Much has been said about the challenges with government HR processes to recruit and retain talent, and those issues are still as valid as ever and need to be addressed. But what is now becoming clearer to me in a very personal way is that at the same time we also need to address the equally detrimental stigma that exists around working for government. The poisonous attitude that I hear from far too many, even from those in the public service itself, which says anyone who is good at what they do wouldn’t be working for government.

As the session with Morra and Nicco wrapped up, we started talking about where we go from here. One concrete idea was the notion of encouraging public sector entrepreneurship, specifically allowing startup-type organizations to be born, grow and, sometimes, fail inside of government itself. As a friend of mine later put it, creating (and in some cases preserving) enclaves of awesomeness. There are of course numerous other ideas and initiatives that need to be part of this conversation, but what I do know is that this is a conversation that we need to start having. I’m encouraged that the recent Destination 2020 report recognized this in the recommendation to shape the brand of the public service. This is critically important for anyone who cares about public policy, because the alternative is that we run the risk of losing a generation of our best and brightest public servants to the pursuit of building better click-bate.

In case you are wondering, I decided to stay.

Hello 2014

“Make a little money, take a lot of shit.
Feel real bad, then get over it.
This will be a better year.”
– Strictly Game by Harlem Shakes

I’ve always found the Christmas and New Year season a time to reflect on the year past and to consider the year to come. This past week is no exception.

A year ago at this time not only was I in a very different place in my life, but on a very different trajectory. It was not necessarily one that I was happy with for a variety of reasons. I pledged to myself to change that trajectory, no matter how hard it would be to do so.

So I did. And it was hard. Very hard. In fact in retrospect I am prepared to say that 2013 was one of the most difficult years of my life.

Momentum is a funny thing. When we are younger, we have less built up. That means it doesn’t take as much effort to change course. As I am learning, as we get older we build up more momentum (some might call it inertia, but I actually think momentum is a better way of describing it even though the practical effect is the same). The more momentum you build up on a certain trajectory, the stronger the G-forces are when you try to change that trajectory. Our natural inclination is to ease off on the throttle, not to change so much so quickly. Yet the pain is probably a good thing, and fighting that natural instinct likely saves us in the end. The longer you stay on the same course, the more momentum you are going to build up; it will never be easier to change something in your life than it will be right now.

Five years ago I was finishing up my first semester at Harvard. I wrote a piece called “Emotional Homelessness” about my reflections on that first semester and some of the struggles that came along with it. It resonated with many of the friends I shared it with. Today I was thinking about the last line I wrote in that piece:

“Perhaps this is indeed the curse of our generation; the realization that comes over the course of our 20s of what has been sacrificed upon the altar of unlimited possibility.”

Five years later, it occurs to me that my perspective has evolved. That there is a growing realization, often just a whisper in the subconscious, that those sacrifices may have been to a false god. That in fact over time you can’t keep a door open without closing others, and that the ability to choose what you are prepared to let go of in life is just as important as knowing what you want.

If this all sounds a bit dark, it isn’t meant to be. It is meant to be honest. In fact I am very proud of what I have been able to accomplish this past year. I co-founded a tech startup company. I learnt French (well…”learnt” may be overstating it…survived six months of language training might be more accurate!). I lead a team of 10 people to make huge advances in the Government of Canada’s internal use of social media tools, for which we received the Treasury Board Secretariat’s Award of Merit. I continue to be blessed with loving and supportive friends and family across the globe.

Life is good. Not in spite of 2013 being a tough year, but because of it.

I am legitimately excited about the year to come. One way or another I will be moving into a new phase of my life professionally and personally. There are some great opportunities ahead, and my only resolution is to grab hold of them as they come and to enjoy the journey each and every day.

Happy New Year to you all and wishing you the very best for 2014!

A Tale of Two Cities: Snow Removal in Saskatoon and Ottawa

Yesterday I made a quip on social media about how bad the snow removal is in Saskatoon (a fact that was made evident to me once again while back in town visiting family for the holidays these past few days). Like really bad. Like “driving on a skating rink would only be marginally worse” bad – particularly on residential roads. Growing up in Saskatoon I guess I was just used to it (as I suspect most people here are). I didn’t realize that pavement on a residential street not seeing the light of day from the time of the first snowfall until the spring thaw isn’t necessarily the natural order of things. But having since lived in and visited many other cities in northern climates I now know that it is not the way things have to be. That knowledge, that in fact this isn’t as good as it gets, now makes it all the more painful to see the state of snow removal in my home-town.

So instead of just randomly whining on Facebook and Twitter, I thought that since I am on vacation and have a little more time on my hands than usual, I might as well put all that public policy training to good use and do a little bit of research. At the very least my annual complaining will be more informed from here on in.

So I did. And what I found was fascinating. So fascinating, that I thought it was worth sharing here as no doubt this may be of interest to others.

An important caveat before I continue: I have approximately zero expertise when it comes to winter road maintenance and related issues. Everything that follows is based on some relatively quick research, and it is entirely possible that I am missing important facts, figures and context. If so, I would love to know where I am wrong so don’t feel shy to chime in via the comments section.

So what did I learn? Here are three things that jumped out at me after a bit of Googleing:

1) The City of Saskatoon had an $8.4 million “Snow and Ice Plan” for 2013, of which $1.88 million was earmarked for road sanding/salting.

2) Priority streets will be cleared within 72 hours of a snowstorm ending (Priority 1 streets, which are essentially Circle Drive, 8th, 22nd, 33rd, Idylwyld and Wanuskewin, are to be cleared within 12 hours). Non-priority streets (i.e. most residential streets in the city) will only be considered for plowing once they have more than 6 inches of packed snow, and at that are only budgeted for 2 cleanings per winter. Note: for those interested, description and map of the priority routes for snow removal is available here.

3) The city uses a 19:1 ratio of sand-to-salt in the mixture it uses on winter roads.

While that is all interesting, facts in a vacuum don’t mean much of anything. Maybe that represents world-class best practice in snow removal given Saskatoon’s per-capita number of roadways. Maybe it doesn’t. What we need is context. Thus short of doing extensive comparative research, it struck me that the path of least resistance here would be to compare those three factors to another city that I know well and which on a purely subjective basis I can say does an outstanding job of snow removal: Ottawa.

Now I will grant you that Ottawa isn’t a perfect comparison to Saskatoon, but it isn’t an awful one either. Obviously it is a significantly larger city (according to 2011 numbers from Wikipedia, 883,391 vs. 222,189) with a significantly larger number of roadways (5,400km of roadway vs. 1130km). What is interesting in eye-balling those numbers is that while Ottawa has a population about 4 times larger than Saskatoon, it has almost 4.8 times the number of roadways. Surprisingly to me, the potential argument that Ottawa snow removal is more efficient because of a more densely populated city is actually not true, and in fact per capita Ottawa has 0.006km of road per person to clear vs. 0.005km per person in Saskatoon.

In terms of weather conditions, they are both cold winter cities. Based on almost 30 years of Environment Canada data (1981-2010), Saskatoon is colder on average with winter month temperature lows running between 5 to 8 degrees lower on average than Ottawa. However, Ottawa has significantly more snowfall with 63.3 snow days and 233.5 cm of snow a year on average compared to 55.4 snow days and 91.3 cm of snow a year for Saskatoon. That is a surprisingly big difference and again nullifying one of the potential arguments as to why Ottawa snow removal might be better, namely that there is less snow to remove. In fact the opposite is true with there being approx 2.5 times more snow to remove in an average winter.

So how does Ottawa compare across the three factors I listed above for Saskatoon:

1) Budget: The City of Ottawa’s “Winter Operations Budget” is $59 million. That is approximately 7 times that of Saskatoon’s. Now while we would expect Ottawa to spend significantly more on snow removal than Saskatoon, 7 times strikes me as a bigger multiple than a straight scaling considering our baseline comparison data (4x as many people; 4.8x as many roadways).

2) Response Time: The difference here is striking. While in Saskatoon priority roads are to be cleared by the end of 72 hours (Priority 1 roads within 12 hours), in Ottawa all roads, including residential, are to be cleared within 10 hours! Moreover, while in Saskatoon residential roads won’t even be considered for cleaning until there is 6 inches (15cm) of packed snow (and at that only budget for twice a year), in Ottawa residential roads are cleared every time there is more than 7cm of accumulation. I can tell you that from personal experience, city crews in Ottawa hit these targets regularly and that equipment is out on the major roads almost as soon as the first snowflakes hit the ground.

3) Salt: Why do I care about salt? Because I see evidence of how well it works every (winter) day in Ottawa. While it is awful for what it does to shoes and pants (though I am sure a boon to the drycleaning industry in Ottawa!) my completely subjective observation is that it makes a huge difference in dealing with ice on roads and sidewalks. So what do the numbers say? While Saskatoon uses a 19:1 ratio of sand-to-salt, Ottawa uses a 50:50 mix. Why the big difference in salt usage? I’ve heard it said that salt doesn’t work when it gets too cold. While that may be true (I really have no idea), Saskatoon isn’t THAT much colder than Ottawa that it would strike me that it would preclude its use.

There are clearly a whole host of issues that I haven’t given any consideration to which could account for at least some of the differences between these two cities, such as how those dollars are actually being spent (Are they more efficient in one city vs. another in terms of dollars per snowflake removed? Is there a difference between using in-house equipment vs. contractors? etc.). I don’t know what exactly is being included in the snow removal budgets for the two cities and it is entirely possible that I am not exactly comparing apples to apples with those budget numbers. There may also be some sort of economies of scale issue going on with snow removal where the first KM of snow removal is a lot more expensive than the last KM of snow removal, thus bigger cities have a natural cost advantage built in. The salt issue itself raises a number of potential environmental, regulatory, and cost questions which may account for some of the difference in practice between the two cities.

One final fascinating figure to consider: both the City of Saskatoon and the City of Ottawa spend approximately the same percentage of their annual budget on snow removal: 2.2% vs. 2.3%. Why they get such dramatically different results is an interesting public policy question and one that I hope others who are better positioned than I will look into further.