Changing Our Habits at Work, Online, and On the Road

Briefing #18

Welcome to the 18th issue of the Digital Policy Salon weekly briefing.

This week, we’re talking about transitions in behaviour: online shopping, digital engagement, platform work, and e-bike sales are all growing in popularity, and each of our interviewees and featured authors has a fresh and informed perspective on the policies and plans we need in order to adapt. We’re particularly excited to bring you a new piece of research, Loading: The Future of Work, on the remote, gig, and platform economy: read on for a taster of that report’s findings in our data visualization of the week. For a change of pace, in this week’s “what we’re reading,” we hear about author Nassim Taleb’s perspective on whether COVID-19 is a so-called “black swan,” with talking points from ICTC Senior Economist Ryan McLaughlin.

If you like this newsletter, don’t forget to check out today’s special event on cybersecurity talent, demand, and workforce development featuring a panel of Canadian cybersecurity professionals.

- Tyler & Faun

COVID-19 and Tech Policy Updates 🇨🇦

Retail sales up in May with huge spikes in online shopping

Retail sales increased 18.7% from April to May, while online sales increased 112% since May of last year. Online sales now represent 8% of all sales in Canada, providing further evidence that COVID-19 has accelerated digital trends, such as the trend toward online shopping. The figure also highlights how important it is for retail stores to adopt websites with digital payment options for consumers.

Canada’s national parliament gets serious about going digital

The House of Commons has been meeting in hybrid, online formats since regular meetings were suspended in May. Currently, only MPs physically located in the chamber can vote to pass legislation, although that may be about to change — the Procedures and Affairs Committee recommended on Tuesday that the House adopt a secure voting system, which would allow MPs to participate fully in future proceedings, irrespective of their physical location.

Increased competition could lower cell phone bills as much as 50% in some markets

Canada’s competition bureau published a submission to the CRTC last week, finding that, “prices [could] be more than 50% lower for all cell phone users in markets where there is strong competition from regional carriers,” with “savings far greater than what some customers may have saved as a result of ‘unlimited’ plans.”

US loses adequacy status under GDPR

The EU’s top court struck down the EU-US Privacy Shield this week, and with it, the US’ adequacy status under the GDPR. The court highlighted tensions between EU privacy law and US national security law that may prevent US companies from adequately protecting the privacy of EU residents. The decision has implications for Canadian companies that transfer EU personal data to the US, and has led several Canadian privacy experts to question whether Canada’s adequacy status will be looked at next.

Evidence mounts that COVID-19 antibodies disappear within months

A new study from the US has validated a UK study released last week, which warned that COVID-19 antibodies may disappear within months. US researchers found the virus’ antibodies to have a half-life of just 73 days, although it’s not yet clear what implications these findings have for the potential success of a vaccine, or for immunity to COVID-19 generally. — Mairead Matthews | email

Special Events

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Join Us For a Virtual Panel

Thursday, July 23rd, 2020–3:00–4:30 PM ADT

Join the ICTC research and policy team behind the report Searching for Hidden Talent: Experience and Expertise in New Brunswick’s Cybersecurity Community as they highlight their findings followed by a virtual panel discussion with industry leaders from the New Brunswick Cybersecurity Community.

This report, Searching for Hidden Talent: Experience and Expertise in New Brunswick’s Cybersecurity Community evaluates the magnitude and type of demand for cybersecurity personnel in the province of New Brunswick, a recognized cybersecurity hub within Canada.

Event Overview:

  • New Brunswick Labour Market Research and Analysis Project Overview
  • Expert Panel with Andrew Jefferies (Deloitte Canada), Kathryn Cameron (Beauceron Security) & Jamie Rees (WorkSafeNB)
  • Questions and Answers period

You will have the opportunity to directly engage with our speakers on this content through an online chat. Click the link below to secure your registration today.

Register here 🗓

Interviews in the Field

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“No Application Without Representation”

By Kiera Schuller

As part of ICTC’s Technology and Human Rights Series, ICTC spoke with tech ethicist and digital citizenship expert David Ryan Polgar. David has brought to light some of the hotly debated issues that exist at the intersections between social media, privacy, ethical design, and digital wellbeing. He has helped define what it means to be human in the digital age. An attorney and former educator, David is the founder of All Tech Is Human, an accelerator for tech consideration and hub for the responsible tech community. David is a three-time TEDx speaker and has been featured by CBS This Morning, BBC World News, the Today show, Fast Company, USA Today, AP, LA Times, and The Guardian. David serves on TikTok’s Content Advisory Council, is an advisory board member for the Technology & Adolescent Mental Wellness program, and is involved in many other related responsible tech initiatives. Kiera Schuller, Research and Policy analyst with ICTC, interviewed David about strategies for tackling tech ethics, the implications of the data revolution, and how to be an engaged “digital citizen.”

Kiera:

One of your central topics is digital citizenship. You co-founded the global Digital Citizenship Summit, held at Twitter HQ in Oct 2016, and have a class on digital citizenship for adults, filmed with Skillshare. How do you define a digital citizen? What does being a digital citizen entail, and why is this concept important?

David:

The way I like to define digital citizenship is “the safe, savvy, and ethical use of social media and technology.” The concept has been around for nearly 10 years but has been more popular in the K-12 space among teen and younger audiences, particularly in the US. Lately, however, organizations like Common Sense Media have started sharing the concept with older age groups; and colleges and universities have started asking, “What kind of digital citizenship training do we have for college students, or even adults?” Digital citizenship transitions us away from viewing people as users to viewing them as citizens. Right now, I’m sitting in the US, and I am considered a citizen of the US as well as a resident of a state and a city. Each of these roles comes with certain rights, responsibilities, and obligations.

David Ryan Polgar, Tech Ethicist

Read the full interview here 🎙

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Cycling Towards Low Carbon Cities

By Faun Rice | email

How European cities are promoting cycling during COVID-19, and what North America can learn: A conversation with Jill Warren, co-CEO of the European Cyclists’ Federation.

Faun:

Thanks for taking the time to meet with us today. We were talking earlier about the uptick in active transport due to COVID-19. In your view, should municipalities begin considering readapting transportation infrastructure to accommodate or facilitate these changes and, if yes, how?

Jill:

The ECF has put out a set of recommendations regarding COVID changes that municipalities, regions, and countries can take inspiration from. We said that to meet the need for social distancing and to ease congestion on public transport and the roads, we require roads to be repurposed for cycling and walking, pop-up bike lanes, car-free zones, and reducing speed limits. We’ve also recommended that cycling be incentivized through fiscal measures, purchase schemes, things like that, and to disincentivize travel by car. So that could mean taking away car parking spaces, imposing congestion charges — anything that discourages car travel.

We also think it’s a good idea to facilitate cycle logistics, as in using bike couriers for business operations. Studies in Europe show that over 50% of motor vehicle trips to move goods in cities could be switched to bikes. Over 90% of the commercial vans and trucks in circulation in Europe are diesel fuelled. I don’t know about Canada, but there are certainly lots of diesel-fuelled trucks here. A single cargo bike replacing a diesel transporter can save over 5 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year. That makes cargo delivery bikes one of the most effective tools for achieving the EU goal of CO2 emission reductions and CO2-free city logistics by 2030.

Faun:

Is there any different advice you might give to Canadian municipalities, given the differences in our urban landscapes?

Jill:

I think that the fundamental question, wherever we’re talking about, is, “How do we achieve more and better active mobility, more and better cycling, for more people in this particular context.” It might be a slightly different thing than in a more compact European city, but we still need to ask ourselves first, “What works?” and second, “What might stop people from cycling who would otherwise be open to it?” Is it perceived danger? Do they think it’s not convenient? Is it access to bikes? Is it an issue of affordability? What encourages more people to cycle? Is it good infrastructure, a safe parking space, not worrying about the bike getting stolen, and are there fiscal or purchase incentives that could encourage people to buy a bike and take up biking?

Jill Warren, co-CEO of the ECF

Read the full interview here 🎙

What We’re Reading

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The Pandemic Isn’t a Black Swan but a Portent of a More Fragile Global System

(The New Yorker)

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is “irritated,” he told Bloomberg Television on March 31st, whenever the coronavirus pandemic is referred to as a “black swan,” the term he coined for an unpredictable, rare, catastrophic event, in his best-selling 2007 book of that title. “The Black Swan” was meant to explain why, in a networked world, we need to change business practices and social norms — not, as he recently told me, to provide “a cliché for any bad thing that surprises us.”

Yet, for anyone who knows his work, Taleb’s irritation may seem a little forced. His profession, he says, is “probability.” But his vocation is showing how the unpredictable is increasingly probable. If he was right about the spread of this pandemic it’s because he has been so alert to the dangers of connectivity and nonlinearity more generally, to pandemics and other chance calamities for which covid-19 is a storm signal. “I keep getting asked for a list of the next four black swans,” Taleb told me, and that misses his point entirely.

Talking Points:

Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan (2007) claims that systems live in either ‘Mediocristan’ or ‘Extremistan,’ where the former is characterized by predictability and only mild randomness, and the latter by atypicality, tendency to accelerate, and lack of predictability. Taleb suggests that social scientists spend too much time thinking about Mediocristan, and not enough about Extremistan (and he has particularly harsh words for economists).

The problem is summarized with an example. If aliens came to earth and wanted to know the distribution of human weight, they could draw a sample of 50 random earthlings, and get a pretty good idea of all 7.5 billion humans. This is because human weight roughly follows a normal distribution (a bell curve). However, if the aliens wanted to know about average wealth of an earthling, they would have a much more difficult time. They could randomly sample hundreds of thousands of earthlings and think they had a good idea. Then, the next random draw could be Jeff Bezos, net worth $180 billion. Bezos’ wealth is equal to about 1.8 million times the median American family’s wealth. An individual human cannot weigh as much as 1.8 million American families. Accordingly, the disturbing takeaway is that for systems living in Extremistan, you cannot easily understand the system from random sampling, or from historical evidence. Taleb suggests that economists are guilty because rather than accepting the extent of their ignorance, they convince themselves that systems are in Mediocristan, and thus easily studied, when they are not.

It is also the problem of Black Swans. Taleb invites us to consider the story of an empirical, evidence-based turkey. For 1000 days, the turkey is getting bigger and fatter. But on the 1001st day, Thanksgiving, he is slaughtered by the farmer. Past evidence was not only useless, it was misleading. According to Taleb, Black Swans have these properties:

  1. The event is a surprise (to the observer).
  2. The event has a major effect.
  3. After the first recorded instance of the event, it is rationalized by hindsight, as if it could have been expected; that is, the relevant data were available but unaccounted for in risk mitigation programs. The same is true for the personal perception by individuals.

Next year, the turkey economists rationalize the ‘Thanksgiving Shock’ as an outlier, clear in hindsight. - Ryan McLaughlin | email

Research Visualized

Drawing on mechanisms from digital platforms, the “gig economy” focuses on matching individuals seeking short or task-based employment opportunities with customers or employers seeking these types of services. Common examples of gig economy platforms include Freelancer.com, Upwork, TaskRabbit, Amazon Mechanical Turk, and Fiverr.

Reasons for undertaking gig work in Canada, 2019 — Source: Bank of Canada, 2019
Features of common gig work platforms — Source: OECD, 2019

The advent of big data and AI, along with advancements in connectivity, have boosted the proliferation digital platforms; as a result, the popularity of the gig economy also grew. As regional economies around the world face pressure to grow and improve productivity, digital platforms offer opportunities for alternative methods of economic participation and engagement. Yet, the impact of these platforms on vulnerable (often lower-skilled) workers has not necessarily been favourable. Acting as a global medium for skills and competencies, the gig economy has commodified some forms of labour.

Our Research

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Loading: the Future of Work

COVID-19 has been dubbed the world’s “first mass experiment in remote work,” an unprecedented catalyst for the adoption of internet-enabled work and the gig and sharing economy.

“We are on the cusp of a new era of labour market shifts and workplace transformation spurred by the advent of advanced digital technologies and expedited by the recent COVID-19 events. This research is pivotal for examining the changing nature of work and its socioeconomic impacts on the labour market in Canada,” — Namir Anani, ICTC president and CEO

Technological innovation brought new flexibility and substantial growth and complexity in the digital-platform economy. Advocates of remote work cite recent studies of overwhelming worker support for extending work-from-home arrangements beyond the pandemic, and that most workers are confident they can perform as, or more, effectively in a remote work environment.

Critics worry that this new reality will exacerbate existing and growing class divisions between those who are able to work remotely — often full-time workers with secure employment — and essential workers who do not have this capability and rely on precarious gigs that often lack job security, paid sick leave, health insurance, and employment benefits.

Loading: The Future of Work explores the key concepts of this labour market transformation, its economic and social implications, and the opportunities and challenges for creating a resilient and inclusive economy in the post-COVID world.

Read the full study here 📖

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