Thursday, January 29, 2009

One way we are organizing on Bowen

Peter Rawsthorne talks about the ways we are using the web to hook up ciizen initiatives for the public good on Bowen Island. The final question is an interesting one: is the Bowen eGovernment initiative, as a citizen run initaive a slap in the face to local government?

Peter's answer is dead on: not at all. It's about invitation and taking on things we all CAN do for each other, whether it is building online tools that the community needs or hosting conversations that the municipality CAN'T host, or running projects that don;t need government support. It's all in aid of the bigger good.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Road Status tool

When the snow was falling a group of intrepid Islanders created a road status tool by mashing up Google Maps and crowdsourcing information. The result is the Bowen Island Road Status Tool, a little project led by Stu Cole, Mark Groen and John Dumbrille and supported by Peter Rawsthorne, Brad Ovenell-Carter, James Glave and me.

Head over there and explore it, and most importantly, use it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A visitor

Red-tailed hawk

Awoke to a dusting of snow on the ground with a little more expected, although it's not snowing at the moment. Also awoke to a juvenile red-tailed hawk calling out from a fir tree in front of our place. I saw this bird yesterday for the first time, and this is the first red-tailed hawk I've ever seen on Bowen. Looks like it's hanging around, but who knows for how long. Haven't seen much of our neighbours semi-feral chickens either. Hmmm.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The shape of things to come

James Glave and I have been tossing around ideas about urban vs. rural since I wrote about what urban means to me a couple of weeks ago. Today I responded to an excellent post on his blog with this comment:

In my long term vision for Bowen Island, I actually see the neighbourhoods becoming villages, with some small commercial activity for example in Tunstall Bay, Cowan Point and other palces perhaps (probably at some point in the future the Cape too). I’ve always had in my mind that we could move from an island of neighbourhoods to an island of villages much like other islands of our size.

Last year as I was travelling through Belgium, I was struck by how close together villages were, only a couple of miles apart, and how focused each village was on it’s own things - a pub and a bakery and some uberlocal gardens and farms producing the villages food. Every few villages there were services like a garage, a building supply store, that sort of thing. The flow of things was not “everyone falling in towards a centre” but rather, lots of things happening around several hubs all with a reagional consciousness. This is what I can see happening to Bowen as a way to preserve mixed forms of housing, a more distributed village centre and large tracts of free land for various types of resource use (recreation, ecologging, non-timber forest products, agriculture, and wild lands).

What if we became an island of villages?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Community engagement

Last year I was invited to give a talk on the shapes of community engagement for a conference sponsored by the BC Treaty Commission called Forging Linkages and Finding Solutions. This is the slide deck I used and here is a transcript of my talk.

Given some of the stuff happening around here at the moment, I thought I'd share this with my friends and neighbours.

Multimedia fog

I wasn't here for the great sock in of 2009, but other Bowen bloggers covered it. Here's what the fog looked like to Richard Smith and here's how Robert Ballantyne heard it.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Wht did I miss?

Just back from two weekes on another, much warmer, Pacific island. Seems while we were gone, the island was socked in by 19 straight days of fog, and the turf war erupted again. My friend James has a nice posting (with great conversation in the comments) on the issue of installing artificial turf at BICS.

There is still a lot of snow about. At our place, where the snow plummeted off the roof, there are mini glaciers surrounding the house. Hopefully they will melt before the scour circques into our new landscaping.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Rains have returned

The rains have returned. Last night and this morning the skies have poured and the snow has melted away except where it was piled up. Fog is coming and going this morning and our palette has returned to grey and green.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

What is urban about our Island?

In a little Twitter conversation about some of the Bowen Island egovernment stuff that is alive right now, Boris Mann suggested that we look at Urbantastic as a tool for helping with community engagement.

The site itself is interesting, but I had an immediate reaction to the name and posted a little tweet about how Bowen is not an urban place, so "yes/and..." This was followed by a comment by Paul Ricket who runs our local specialty wine and spirits store, that indeed many Bowen Islanders want urban amenities. Which got me thinking.

Bowen Island is a rural place. We are an Island with a small commercial village hub, and several neighbourhood settlements. There are pockets of commercial activity along Mount Gardner, Grafton and Adams Road like the Building Centre, auto service and gas, garbage removal, the nursery, some kennels, Alderwood and the Ruddy Bakery, the last two of which are sort of combination farm/stores. There is agricultural activity throughout the valley's on the island, and some light industry as well.

Our small tax base relative to the costs of keeping things going here, especially when you factor in our rural roads network, ensures that the island will never be a city. Snug Cove is our village, and it could become even more so a traditional type of village in a rural landscape, and in the next few decades, other villages may sprout up as well. My wish for these is that they look more like traditional villages and less like "village developments" like you see in the revitalized centres of dying small towns, or in upscale places like West Vancouver. I'm not sure the moniker "urban" will never apply to this place in my lifetime.

Additionally we are an island municipality within the Islands Trust, which I happen to think is a good thing, but that extra layer of government (which many are unaware of) helps to shape the character of our island.

So what does urban, rural and suburban mean in the context of Bowen Island? We live next to the biggest city in BC, and many people who live on Bowen are escapees from the urban or suburban climes. For those that have never lived in small towns before, there is a culture shock when you move from a city to an island. Unlike places like Cortes Island, Galiano or Hornby (let alone Lasqueti!) it is possible to live on Bowen and still be an urbanite, with large parts of you life in Vancouver and your bed on Bowen. You can move here without the intention of becoming an Islander. Bowen CAN be your bedroom. We have a mix here now of people who consider themselves Islanders and people who are just living on Bowen, because the city is too expensive or too noisy or because its a great place to raise kids.

All of this makes for a very interesting mix, especially as we enter into conversations about community planning. I suspect that a variety of approaches and conversations will be used, reflecting the unique and changing character of our island community, one that balances rural values, land and marine stewardship, village life, and urban sophistication all on one rock. We have a chance to declare a unique voice for ourselves in the next few years, and I hope we can develop a unique way of doing that.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

A hairy ride

I left Bowen Island on the 6:00 ferry to Horseshoe Bay after a hairy afternoon of negotiating impassable roads, and dreading the onslaught of a southeasterly gale with huge amounts of snow and freezing rain.

This afternoon I got stuck on Hummingbird Lane - me, the guy who started the road conditions blog - and had to be towed out by my friend (now GOOD friend) Damien and his nephew James. The irony of a couple of Aussies getting this born and bred Ontario boy unstuck from a road he should never have been on in his "all-season (except for winter)" tires, is not lost on me. Thanks lads.

Following that adventure, I packed my things and headed out to catch the 6:00 ferry to Horseshoe Bay, choosing NOT to use the water taxi, on Damien's advice. He had come over earlier, as a southeasterly gale was picking up and he reported that the boat spent more time in the air than on the water, and his back was a little stiff. With a week long business trip ahead of me and a two week vactaion following that, I opted for the Cap.

When Caitlin dropped me at the ferry dock I scurried for the citizen-built shelter from last October's barnraising and was relived to wait for the ferry in there. The wind was gusting storm force by then and the "snain," as Richard Smith is calling it, was being driven into the skin on my face at 47 knots. Wrinch, Rhodes, et. al., thank you for that barn on the Government Dock. It was perfect in there.

The crossing was as bad as I had ever experienced it, the Cap was bouncing around and the snain was being driven into the windows. On the other side, a 1.5 hour trip through Vancouver in a cab got me safely to my mother-in-law's home where a dinner of salmon sausage and buckwheat noodles with braised broccoli and red wine was waiting.

I'm away from the island until January 24. Clean it up while I'm gone will you all?

Trying to thaw

It's 2 degrees and trying to melt outside. We had another foot of snow yesterday, but it fell light and was easy to move. This morning, it is trying to melt, and some of it will, but we're expecting another 20cms this afternoon and evening.

Even when I lived in Ontario, in Ottawa, and Peterborough and Toronto, I can't remember a winter when we had so many major snowfalls so close together. This is how it comes on the west coast - in huge quantities. When there is a less present Arctic airflow, it rains, but this year so far, the warm air has eluded us and it has almost all fallen as snow.

The rain is coming though, later this week. But that all depends on where you are. Down here, 170 feet above sealevel we should get a melt starting. Only a little higher than us though it will continue to snow in large amounts throughout the week. It could be ANOTHER foot or so for higher elevations.

I won't be around to see it however, as I'm off to California for work and then Hawaii for a vacation, and not a moment too soon. See you in three weeks.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Polar Bear Swim

I missed it this year, but George was there, and here's the video.

Crowdsourcing at home

We`re living through a mighty big snowfall here on Bowen Island, the likes of which haven`t been seen for at least 40 years. As a result there is much handwringing about what other people should be doing about things like keeping the citizenry informed about the current road conditions and such. Most of our municipal government officials are on holiday and there have been no official releases of information since before the snow started falling on December 16.

As a fan of passion bounded by responsibility, I decided yesterday morning to set up a weblog which provides a space for the crowd to get to work. The idea is that people will visit to check on road conditions and while they are there, leave a comment about how things are in their neck of the woods. It’s a gift exchange and so far it’s working marvelously. Yesterday, up for half a day, the blog had posts from 7 people describing conditions on most of the major roads on our Island. Today with a massive snowfall (30cms) ongoing since early morning, we have had reports from 16 people covering all of the major routes on the Island. Even the bus company folks wrote to announce schedule cancellations.

A group of us were also up late last night tweaking the blog and working on a Google maps mashup creating a road status tool that users can colour when conditions deteriorate. Stu Cole is leading the charge on that one. Also, one islander, Boris Mann created a FreindFeed home for some of the Bowen Island eGovernment iniatiatives that John Dumbrille and Peter Rawsthorne have been musing about. Richard Smith, James Glave and Brad Ovenell-Carter are looking into a wifi mesh and a webcam network across the island. James Glave and the One Day Bowen crew are hosting the development pages for these projects at the Bowen 2020 wiki. Most of the development chatter has been happening over twitter.

Everything we are doing is gift based, and we are hoping that the municipality will steal it (or better yet , post links to all of this on their infrequently updated web page. What amazes me is what a small group of us can do, in responding to a need, in so short a time using freely available tools. We’re lucky that this has happened while we have had a little time, being snowbound and all over the holidays, but when there is a need, it’s amazing to see what can come of it.

If you have anything to add to our efforts or tools we should know about, post them in the comments or visit the Bowen2020 wiki and join the effort.

Snowing again

More snow today. It started snowing early this morning quite heavily and another pile up has begun.

In the meantime, the weblog I set up yesterday to monitor road conditions by crowdsourcing has done quite well. My neighbour Stu Cole is building a mashup with Google maps that will let people colour in sections of road depending on current conditions. Please go ahead and post there if you have news.

Friday, January 2, 2009

In my work with government and other folks who are designing and facilitating strategies to engage with the public on important issues, I always encourage them to adopt the following approach to consultation:

  1. Be prepared and curious. Come into the meeting room curious. Be curious about the people who are there, about how the day will go. Genuinely want to find out stuff, get interested in the discussions and ask stupid questions. Maintaining a role of respectful curiosity, grounded in good preparation will allow you to be detached enough to see the possibilities as they unfold over the day.
  2. Acknowledge that the heart speaks truth. People that care deeply about an issue will become quite emotional if they see that something bad is going to happen to that issue. They will speak out in emotional ways. It is a true reaction. You can’t lie when that kind of passion arises. So hear the truth, acknowledge that what they care about is real, and that it needs to be heard. It’s important that the client know that there is a real issue at the heart of the intervention.
  3. Reflect what is being said. All those communications courses where you practised active listening and reflected back what you heard felt contrived, right? Well, in practice it isn’t contrived - it actually works. When people say something, especially in a situation where they are “speaking truth to power” the most significant act you can do is to repeat what they said. To feel heard is a powerful salve. To BE heard is the goal of good consultation. So reflect back and ask questions for clarification or to test out a theory that what you have just heard connects to something that someone else said earlier. Then you are really engaged and your interlocutor knows it too.
  4. Build wholeness and sense the emerging story. There is nothing more frustrating than a consultation that is simply a set of speeches. Encourage people to connect their thinking with what has come before. As a facilitator listen for the emerging story and see how people are connecting their comments to that story. At the end of the day it will mean that you have something truly valuable, much more so than a collection of comments that stand alone and make no sense. Wholeness should be the goal. That is what makes consultation useful.
  5. Do not be attached to anything other than the container. Your client might have spent years working on the thing that is being ripped to pieces in front of them, but that is not your concern. If it is out there for feedback, you have to let the feedback come. As a facilitator, pay attention to the container, and ensure that as the piece is being ripped up that it is done so respectfully and constructively. Don’t let people get away with being “terrorists” in a meeting. Passion bounded by responsibility, leading to wholeness is what you are after. If there is anger, ask about what might be done to move forward. If there are dismissive comments, challenge them and invite people to share the alternative. Building and holding a well formed container, one that, as Williams Isaacs says, hold safety, possibility and energy, is your job.
  6. Coach, affirm and soothe. Your client might be raw before, during or after a difficult gathering. Coach them to listen and see what is being said, and help them to understand that it isn’t personal. And if it is personal, and there was a reason, get really honest with the personal behaviour that triggered the attack and help to move forward. Affirm their work, and help them to see that the people who gave time to provide feedback, in whatever form, are committed to what is happening, and as such, they are actually allies. It’s about seeing differently.
  7. Be honest. There is no faster way to get people angry than to lie to them. When bullshit detectors go off, the reaction comes fast and furious. As a facilitator I have ethical standards for working in these kinds of meetings. If something is a done deal and the consultation is just window dressing, I won’t do that job. If a client betrays the confidence or the trust that has been built with a group, in an ongoing process, I will quit the job. Honesty and trust are the only things you need to move past difficult public meetings. It is surprising how many people choose to go the other way, into deceit and mistrust.
  8. Ask real questions. Get really clear on what you want from people and ask them real questions. When folks provide feedback, probe with real questions that are aimed at drawing the conversation forward into something bigger. Real questions are questions with which something is at stake. If you can get your client to say “we really don’t know and your feedback will help us move forward” then you have overcome many of the hurdles that prevent collaborative relationships from evolving. Asking real questions means asking questions that put us all on the same side of something.
  9. Turn around cross examinations. You would be amazed how many people learn conversational techniques from watching courtroom TV. It’s appalling. Whatever benefit the adversarial legal system has for society, its form of debate is toxic. In many meetings people will ask impossible questions about decisions long past, or worse still, will ask a series of questions which can only be answered with “yes” or “no.” These questions are loaded with assumptions, and the good news is it’s a simple matter to turn them around. When someone says “Have you taken into consideration that your building will destroy this forest?” you have a tremendous opening to begin a conversation with that person about values. Ask “So for you it’s important to preserve that forest. How do you see this project negatively impacting the forest? What kinds of ways might we mitigate that impact? What do we need to know about the forest that seems to be missing?”
  10. Debrief the deeper learnings. After the meeting is over, build in time to reflect about the content and the process, but do it in a deeper way. Talk about the story that emerged, the places people were attached to that story and the reasons why heart showed up. Think about what made the meeting work well and get a handle on the strategies that were used. Reflect on improvements for next time.
As we move into the OCP review here on Bowen Island, I would add one more, and that is to include your expert stakeholders and community members in the design. To that end, what if the initial public conversation on the Bowen Island OCP process was around this question:

"What would an OCP review process look like that built social capital and community engagement rather than depleting it?"

I am willing to host this conversation with anyone else who would like to join me.
The other day I wrote about how the limits of my admiration for the plow drivers had been reached when one sprayed me while I was shovelling out a space for my car. Today, my admiration has been restored, largely because these guys are doing this work in the context of a community that is incessantly bitching about them.

If you read the Bowen Online Forum - and I used to post there, but I don't anymore - there are several threads where people complain about two things: the conditions of the roads (why haven't mine been plowed yet, it's so icy that its impassable) and the communications fro the Municipality. Here are my thoughts on both.

On the road conditions

The weather we have been having is freakish and unseen for 40 years. There is no way to compare this weather to anything people on Bowen can remember. Forty years ago, no doubt the island just shut down and people bravely banded together. What has made this weather tough is the huge amounts of snow we have had followed by days of rain, freezing and thawing. This is how it is in March in most of the rest of the country, where conditions get very icy and dangerous.

Main roads are kept clear and are passable all day when the temperature thaws them, At night, they are icy though and very dangerous, especially for cars, like mine that aren't equipped with snow tires. So bottom line is that I don't drive at night.

On the secondary roads and tertiary roads, things are bad. People are complaining that those roads haven't been plowed. It seems as if every road HAS in fact been plowed at least once, and the hills have been sanded and salted. The problem is that the moment anyone drives on fresh snow, it compacts it and in the cycle of freezing and thawing, that compacted track becomes ice. You can salt to help reduce frost buildup, but ice more than a centimeter or so thick is really hard to get off with a plow.

There are other complications with some roads being very narrow and having cars parked on them because people are snowed out of their driveways. In these cases, there is no way the plow can get through.

So, while its frustrating, I have to admit that I have seen snowplows every days since before Christmas and that these guys are doing their best to get the job done. The weather we are having is not typical for our community and not easy in terms of snow removal.

What you can do

  • If you are parked in a public space, it might already be too late for you, but get your car into a private space. This might mean shovelling out somewhere or asking someone to do that for you. It might cost some money, but along our stretch of Miller Road, we've been doing that for each a little, especially with folks that can't shovel. Cars have to be off the roads for the crews to do their thing.
  • If there are tricky sections on your road, you could go out there and break them up. Compacted ice needs detailed attention, not a snowplow, and there is no one else that is going to come and do that for you. Peter King, our intrepid bus driver, has been slating and shovelling treacherous parts like Reef Road in Tunstall Bay. Follow his example and take care of the road by your place. Take shovels, axes, garden edging tools, salt and sand or dirt and take advantage of the thaws during the day to work on your part of the road.
Municipal communications

This one is tougher. The municipality has not communicated well during this storm. Part of the reason for that has to do with the fact that it is holiday time, and the staff aren't around as much. Part of it has to do with the fact is that no one is able to or required to update the website. It seems people would like to see the following information:

  • Road conditions updated as much as possible, but especially focused on passability and iciness.
  • Plowing schedules so folks have a sense of what is being done
One challenge for this kind of thing is that we really don't have a local communications system. There is no one place people turn to for up to the minute information. We have a local radio station, but it is mostly web based. Not everyone has an internet connection, and so even the Municipal website will only reach some people. As for the forum, that is not a place to post news. It once was, but the vitriol of several posters over the years have scared people away from it, and I know I only check it on occasion. It's a venting space, now, which is fine, but it's no longer a useful source for breaking news. Pretty much the only things everyone reads is The Undercurrent, but they are a weekly paper.

In fact the best source of news has turned out to be Peter and Toni King, who run the bus company, but they are TOTALLY overwhelmed with people calling and asking about conditions. If you want to call someone, do what firends of mine have been doing - call your friends further down stream from you. I have taken calls from friends in Eaglecliff and Hood Point about road conditions here on seven hills and am happy to do so.

An additional challenge is that everyone wants news provided to them individually. In other words, I want to know specific things right now. It's impossible for a central communications hub to do this. And given that the municipality ISN'T doing any of it, it seems that the best thing to do is take the matters into our own hands.

What you can do

  • First, stop complaining about how easy it is to set up a blog or a wiki to share road information, and just do it. Here I did it for you: Bowen Road Conditions weblog. If you want to be an administrator there, please email me at and I'll hand it over to you. People can post news in the comments. For a tool like this to be effective, people have to know about it, so spread the news and we'll see if it catches on.
  • Alternatively you could contribute to the road status tool being built on Bowen 2020 to help out a groups of folks develop a mapping tool that would do the same thing.
The Municipality might embrace decentralized news gathering, but it might not be for a while. All of which begs the question of our emergency communications system in the case of an earthquake. I'll have to check into that one.

Anyway, there are some things we can do as citizens to get through this strange period of winter weather. If you have more ideas leave them in the comments.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

First post for's snowing again this morning although feels like it could turn to rain.

To get the year off to a start, here is a post from my neighbour and friend Alison about what life is like in the caring knot of community that we have here on Bowen. Last year she and her partner suffered life thretening illnesses and this is how people responded:

People, some of whom I barely knew, fed and cared for my animals, cleaned my house, answered my messages, picked up my mail, did my laundry, stocked my fridge with food and when I still wasn't home a week later threw it all out and restocked it again, delivered firewood, chopped kindling, paid my bills, made the trek into Vancouver to visit me - so many kindnesses I didn't even know about at the time.

When I got home and was recuperating and sweetie was still in a coma for what would turn out to be another 6 weeks, they ferried me into Vancouver for doctor's appointments and to visit him, read to him days I couldn't get in, took him food from restaurants when he woke up, called me with visit status reports, brought me food, flowers, music, books, movies, and kept the woodstove going. Every day. For weeks. I lacked for nothing.

A woman I'd only ever spoken to twice gave me an old sweater she'd always found comforting, a friend wanted to rent me an apartment in the city so I'd have somewhere to stay in between hospital visits, surrogate daughter phoned from Wales where she was going to school to say she was coming home. (*sternly* You'll do nothing of the kind, you'll stay and finish your degree)

I returned months later to a part-time job to discover paychecks waiting for the time I hadn't worked there.
We should never tke this for granted. This community is knit together by acts like this, folks looking after each other. If this was a reserve, we'd call each other "cuz." This closeness, I believe, is our most precious resource. It can be put to good to use and it can be depleted as well.

So my wish for Bowen for 2009 is that our most precious resource grow and flourish and that we do all we can to make that happen.