Psilocybin & Perspective

When you turn 50, if you have not done so already, take a psychedelic like psilocybin.

Do it with intent. Seek clarity. Or to tackle a problem. Get a fresh perspective.

Never use it to run away from problems or escape the daily reality of your life. Just occasionally for recalibration and focus. Never more than required. And put aside the folly of youth of just getting high.

Use it to grasp your place in the world.

Hopefully, it will be a natural source (like magic mushrooms), and from your trust network. Ask of the quality and strength. Be comfortable with your choice.

Take in a familiar place with someone who can put up with a stoned person. Have the music you like readily accessible.

Take a prescribed amount. Maybe a bit more.You may get a little nausea at first, but you will be OK.  You will get fucking high. But you will not overdose if the source is natural. (Seriously, this would be easier if it were regulated and you can a one time prescription every decade after 40.)

Set aside a day.

Tune out the world.

Lay back and relax.

Embrace the experience, knowing it will rewire the brain a bit. And enjoy accessing parts of mind that you seldom use or forgot about. It is in many ways better and cheaper than a therapist or prescription medication when used appropriately. You can also curb you desire in seeking “mindfulness.”

A well engineered experience brings forth moments of creativity, clarity and empathy.

But most of all, consider your mortality. Honestly, there is no better time when you have access to entire mind. Consider the gift you have been given and what you want to do with it. And how to make those things happen. And matter.

My most memorable trip was in 1990. As a gay man who managed to make it through the 80s, my trip helped put any risks I had taken into perspective and face the future head on. It also reminded me of my friends who did not make it here with me (even until today), and I knew I had to live a life worthy of their collective potential. It was and still is one of my responsibilities. And I embarked on a year of travel in 1991.

Most importantly, that trip helped me refine who I am, reduce my fear of the unknown and focus on the future. Its positive effects have remained with me ever since.

This is for brother Krishna, my friends Liza and Denis who died way too young last year, and for friends, still living, who are going through a rough patch.

Please note, I did not write this to promote recreational drug use. It is about a singular or  only occasional experience. Unfortunately it is a controlled substance, when regulated may be better. Please keep in mind there are folks traveling to the Amazon specifically for ayahuasca – a similar hallucinogenic experience. Physicians are using psilocybin to treat depression, addiction, PTSD, and those faced with a terminal illness. In the right context, usage can be helpful and beneficial.

Torn between the Occulus Rift

Screenshot from 2014-08-30 23:08:43

Many of our articles here have focused on Kickstarter, trying to explain and explore what Kickstarter means in the modern world. Normally, we’re profiling the habits of backers and why they make their choices, or what distinguishes successful projects from ones that aren’t. What we don’t deal with as often is the problems of success. What happens when that project is out in the world?

Oculus VR is a company and project around a VR Headset, also called Oculus Rift. The VR headset had aprimary focus of video games. The Kickstarter project was to develop a developer version of the VR headset. These developer kits were then to help get the game-makers onboard into developing games that would utilize the technology.

The Kickstarter project was wildly successful. Their goal was $250,000 and they ended with $2,437,429. Ten times what they originally requested. The company went forward, developing and sending our their kits. The buzz continued and everyone seemed excited… until recently. Facebook purchased Oculus for a combined value of $2 billion, dwarfing even the amount raised on Kickstarter.

The public felt betrayed; they had a sense of ownership and pride in Oculus. This isn’t unfounded, since the project’s marketing language talks about ‘joining the revolution’ and ‘changing gaming forever.’ The backers felt as though they were a key part of that inititave. Facebook’s purchase removed that sense of ownership, since the success of the company will now be credited more to Facebook than to anywhere else.

An important feature of Kickstarter is that the backers are not investors; they don’t have any financial stake in the projects. They can receive backing rewards, and these often take the form of access to or a physical copy of whatever the project is working towards, but they can’t continue to garner value after the initial reward. Or garner value when the company is bought afterward.

Screenwriter John August has described Kickstarter as being a place where people can put money towards ‘things they want to see in the world’ and this seems apt. It also points to the only real continuing reward backers can expect: pride and satisfaction in having made an idea into a real thing.

Arguably, this happened with Oculus… and the buzz from it’s success led directly to Facebook’s purchase. It’s also important to note that the project was to fund a developer kit, not a consumer model. Although many non-developers invested in the project, they were not necessarily the target audience.

That said, some indie developers did also feel betrayal, including Minecraft creator Notch. This had as much to do with fear of what Facebook might impose on the Oculus experience as with a similar lack of ownership. These developers had felt comfortable dealing with one company but not with another.

Normally, a successful Kickstarter has a few challenges as part of that success: fulfilling on the project as they promised, and fulfilling the various rewards offered to the various levels of backers. (Wecomic Order of the Stick had this problem in spades; it delayed the entire project because they had so much extra work fulfilling all the rewards.) In this case, Oculus has to deal with specific challenge of having succeeded too well; they no longer look like they need the people who helped get them going.

Redford’s resignation and the future of the Alberta PC Party

Image obtained from The Calgary Sun

Image obtained from The Calgary Sun

It became inevitable. Alison Redford’s resignation. After abandoning promises made to supporters, rising debt, all it took was a trip to Nelson Mandela’s funeral (and other associated travels) and the departure of two MLA’s to precipitate this action on Wednesday.

This may all seem odd to the rest of Canada. Here we are in the most prosperous province, the boom still on and low unemployment rate, and there is strife with the ruling party. Especially, in a ruling party that has been in power after 43 years and the sentiment of stable government the preferred state for Albertans.

Where did this go wrong?

Redford came to power in the 2011 leadership race.  She was a fresh face, well-spoken, always impeccably dressed (with her signature pearl necklace and perfectly coiffed hair), as well as, more importantly, a spectacular lineage as a lawyer, a stellar dossier of international experience and the ability to take on the “old boy” network. She entered the leadership race with the sole support of a single back bench MLA. Her win was a result of her reaching out to Alberta’s progressives and bringing them under the tent. She was a moderate as the tide was turning toward the centre in Alberta’s politics.

Now at middle-age, the Progressive Conservatives (PC) Party’s was starting to show the associated signs of sag and spread. The most dramatic change beginning with the disenchantment during the Klein era and under Stelmach’s leadership that resulted in the formation of the Wildrose Party. Redford was reluctantly accepted by the Party’s governing body – Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta (PCAA) – and caucus with hope of Party’s reinvention.

Redford’s flirtation with the left was fruitful in 2012 when the PC Party won another majority. But this election exposed weakness with the ruling party. Facing a potential defeat and a Wildrose majority, the Party cried wolf and garnered support from the centre-left parties to fend off this right-wing threat. Albertans sent a message – while they were not happy with the PCs, they did not identify with nor wish the rest of the world to see their province associated with the Wildrose’s brand of politics. The PCAA knew they dodged the proverbial bullet.

Living in Alberta you actually come to appreciate the work ethic of the PC Party (and for many, begrudgingly so).  The Party remains a conundrum in Canadian politics – it is actually big tent party that comprises the entire political spectrum. For years that diversity of thought served the party well. So strong the Party brand was that to win a nomination race meant that you would likely going to win a seat in Alberta’s legislature.

But one of the oddities of being in power 43 years is that there is a new generation of MLAs that grew up knowing nothing about PC rule. Let alone starting their careers among their “Generation PC” cohort. This is a generation whose social capital, careers, financial status and friendships are defined by their relationship to the Party. This is where arguments of entitlement have taken hold – when you grow up under royalty, you begin to think and act like royalty. There is also the dimension that this is a family business – with dad being the PCAA, there is a constant reminder for those who ascend to premier or caucus that they are the progeny of a successful, powerful franchise.

With these intricate connections comes the problem of groupthink and lack of creativity in policy. There is typically limited desire for the “family business” to engage Albertans on serious issues facing the province while the economy is humming along and the party is strong in the public opinion polls – problems can be swept under the carpet.

This is why Redford – a product of the Party – became a problem. While it is debatable that she had the political capital to pursue her promises with newly engaged centre-left support, on the issue of the $45,000 trip to Mandela’s funeral it is hard to agree with what she did and how she dealt with it. Based on the strength of the Party brand, the strategy was initially to let it blow over. But there were more significant problems – fundraising… one of the key indicators of a Party’s brand strength, dropped under her leadership. When it comes to party politics, money matters. Combined with an increasingly well-funded Wildrose party, the first formidable opposition in years, as the polls dipped, her disconnection with caucus exposed, the patriarch of the business stepped in and took back the keys. As Gwyneth Midgely astutely tweeted: “… she’s betrayed the left and was never wanted by the right – what was she thinking?”

A statement by Steve Robson, President, Edmonton-Beverly-Clareview PC riding association, during the melee last week was particularly enlightening: “Alison’s group doesn’t care about the people who got the party to where it is in the first place, at all. I would like the PC party to be in power after the next election … I don’t think the PCs will win with her in power.”

While the cliché that politics is all about power holds true, the PCs mission has become exclusively about staying in power. When your sole focus is about winning elections you forget how to govern. This balance between governing and winning elections was abandoned during the Klein Era. The PC Party is a well-oiled machine and for years made the effort to stay connected with and attuned with their constituents. But over the last decade, things have changed and it is time that that the Party got caught up with Alberta itself. The public wanted Redford. Not the PCAA.

While some may say this is schadenfreude, dissent and Redford’s resignation have exposed cracks in the PC’s armour. The Party prides itself in reinventing itself via “change from within.” However, with the younger generation hoping to take the reins, like a family business, conflict with PCAA stalwarts will likely be inherent and the Party’s concept of change may be pushed past its natural limits.

Recent polls by Angus Reid and ThinkHQ have also exposed Albertans to the reality of the Wildrose party gaining in strength. Born out of frustration and anger, this is a party founded from a family feud with the PC Party and a decidedly right-wing agenda. It is also a party closely aligned with Harper’s Conservative Party of Canada. Albertans have a right to be concerned. However, supporters of centre-left parties may be at their limit and likely will ignore the PC’s next very real “cry wolf” call.

Donna Kennedy-Glans, a former Minister, stated in departure on Monday: “I am increasingly convinced that elements of this 43-year old government are simply unable to make the changes needed to achieve that dream of a better Alberta.” This belief is shared by many and presents a problem for the PCAA where their intransigent culture is destroying the appeal of the brand, and aspects of entitlement being exposed regularly. They may take a lesson from Redford’s resignation – when supporters lose belief in what you have to offer, while the path is long, the demise is fast.

Calgary’s Civic Election of 2013: Why did Manning get involved?

Manning Nenshi

October 21 will be an important day in Canadian politics. Don Iveson and Naheed Nenshi will be elected in Edmonton and Calgary respectively. Why should Canada care? These two individuals represent the fresh, young, and engaged face of politics in the country. Their election is a sign of some major shifts in the country’s political landscape – and an interesting one over the last eight months, specifically in Calgary.

Let me first disclose that I was a pollster and strategist for Naheed Nenshi in 2010, but I have not been involved in the 2013 campaign. When I was involved, Nenshi’s victory caught many of the old guard off guard. How did this youthful candidate, with a team of with few political operatives, a message of change and drive for transparency, pull off one of the biggest upsets and Canadian political history?

This much-analyzed campaign was driven by building a foundation with the hyper-engaged online voter. It also changed the rules of campaigning. Further, Nenshi, true to his word, took his transparency mantra to Office, and upset how business was done at City Hall. Among the changes instituted, his monthly disclosure of who he met with was likely the most drastic, especially for a host of Calgary home builders. This group was used to doing business with a call, handshake, and generally favourable access to Council.

So how did Preston Manning get involved in this matter?

Ever since his departure from federal politics in 2002, Mr. Manning has settled into the role of patriarch of the modern Canadian conservative movement – fondly called the “Calgary School.” Yes, Calgary is considered a natural home for Canadian conservative politicos. But all of a sudden, with Nenshi’s election, the city had an articulate, Harvard-educated, outspoken, centrist mayor, and he was talking about new ways of doing politics. This clearly did not align with conservatives’ perception of the city (e.g. MLA Kyle Fawcett’s tweet, and some of Ric McIver supporters who took this loss exceptionally hard) and the so-called “Calgary School.”

It may be difficult to establish an exact causal link, but Preston’s new conservative think tank, the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, launched the Municipal Governance Project. This initiative squarely focused on Calgary.

Why do I raise this causality?

At the Manning  Networking Conference in Ottawa on March 8 (which I attended as a curious onlooker), one of the speakers at the “Conservatives in the City” session, David Seymour, Senior Fellow, Municipal Governance at the Manning Foundation, talked about creating the conservative “manifesto” or script. He also talked about Calgary’s governmental “megalomania” – a thinly-veiled reference to Major Nenshi’s almost  celebrity-like status. Manning himself, during his closing keynote the following day, stated:

“[There is] an enormous amount of work to be done to apply conservative values and principles at the municipal level right across the country… the level where there are 25,000 elected officials compared to around 800 at the provincial and territorial level, and 308 at the federal level.”

Earlier, during introductory remarks at a plenary session, Manning even cited Rob Ford’s mayorship as a victory for Canadian conservatives.

Manning is an enigma on the Canadian political scene. He is most likely a moderate libertarian, and is generally well-liked and respected across the political spectrum (yours truly included). Most of his political problems occurred with the company he kept, namely the former Reform Party. His ideas on policy and governance are thoughtful and supported by solid arguments. But as the Reform leader, he was never able to deliver a winning formula for this conservative faction. Under Harper, and with the formation of the Conservative Party of Canada (essentially the Reform Party Part 2), the movement became more disciplined, focusing on engineering victory, which was finally achieved with the 2011 majority. This was a change for Manning: Conservatives found a way to win, and win convincingly. In this, Manning, with over 25 years of hard work, realized that this boiled down to a simple fact: to pursue your ideas, you need to win elections.

Preston embraced this fact with the establishment of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy. Located in downtown Calgary, it houses a think tank (the Manning Foundation) and the Manning School for Practical Politics. The School, to this point, teaches little about policy and governance. It teaches students how to campaign. Clearly, Preston has taken his realization to heart. His mission has since then been dedicated to raising the next generation of conservative politicians and sustaining the winning ways for the conservative movement. This, based on the School’s offerings, is more about feeding the Conservative party engine than building better politicians.

For those following Calgary municipal politics, in the now famous 18-minute leaked video of Cal Wenzel (CEO/CVO Shane Homes)  (readily available online), he stated his dissatisfaction with Nenshi, and his desire to shift the balance of power back in favour of the home builders by ensuring that they had an assured eight votes (out of 15, including the Mayor) on City Council. He also stated that he and ten other home builders donated $100,000 each (total $1.1 million) to the Manning Centre to help make this happen.

I want to emphasize that these home builders are actually pretty good guys, and are upstanding members of Calgary’s business community.  They have every right to do and support whoever they please – within the bounds of election law. They are also free to donate as they please to the Manning Centre and Manning Foundation. But the video did more than reveal these facts – it was a peek into the world of backroom politics and those obsessed with having political decisions go their way*. Jack Abramoff, the famous former American lobbyist, indicated that lobbying had one of the best returns on investment of any form of government relations. With an estimated $33 million development fee (as some call it, a “sprawl subsidy”) at stake, the coalition of home builders, in their best interests, voted with their dollars on how to sway the balance of Council with a potential rate of return of 30 to 1 on the City’s revenues should they manage to keep any development charges at the current level. But more than this, citizens found out that what they sought was to have Council organized to serve their best business interest.

With the leak of the video in April, the backlash in the media, especially social media, was instant. And Nenshi made political hay with the content of this video. But what occurred subsequently was equally as strange. With the so-called Manning Centre/home builders’ “slate” identified, party lines were drawn; and Nenshi, in an unprecedented move, endorsed all incumbents – some of whom were endorsed by Wenzel in the video. With campaigners for the province’s political parties staking their support in candidate camps, Nenshi’s campaign took a page from Tom Flanagan‘s book (the same Tom Flanagan who teaches a course at the Manning School of Practical Politics), leveraged this video, and carved it out as a wedge issue to divide camps. Yes, this was old-school Conservative Party campaigning.  The 2013 iteration of Nenshi the candidate looked and felt very different than he did three years earlier.

Meanwhile, amidst the official campaign period (nomination day was September 23), the Manning Centre’s Municipal Governments Project released a steady stream of pointed reports on the performance of Calgary’s municipal government. While this appeared to be carefully staged to disrupt the flow of the election, the Cal Wenzel video has been ever-present to remind voters of the home builders’ intentions – which effectively destroyed any traction that could have been gained by the content contained within these carefully researched reports. Further, a leaked memo from Greg Lafebre (CEO, Excel Homes and Apex) Thursday, October 17 (originally dated September 27), encouraged employees to vote for identified preferred candidates; this added more fuel to the fire created by the video. The reality remains that a video plotting control of government trumps any municipal finance facts.

Nenshi’s victory on Election Day is practically assured if the overwhelming support identified in a recent Leger poll in the Calgary Herald comes to fruition. Should he get his wish to keep Council intact, that is another matter. This is a test of his leadership, and he has expended much capital to make the point that Council is, based on his brand of politics and perspective, delivering Calgarians a balanced representation from their elected municipal officials. This perspective clearly is not shared by the home builders, the Manning Centre, and the staunchest conservative voters.

The odd thing about this situation is that, looking at the core values of Nenshi and Manning, they are surprisingly close. Nenshi is likely the type of politician that Manning would love to see more of running for office. Manning has said that a barista at Starbucks gets more training than a politician running for office. Nenshi entered office with a tremendous foundation in civic politics and citizen engagement.

So why this tension?

The reality is that this was never a suburban/urban thing. Nenshi gets along fairly well with most developers and home builders and agree on most things. And most agree it was more about the equity of who pays for what.

The true dynamic of this cuts at the core of Canadian party politics. It is about power. And the power to control. And the power to affirm the way that a (perceived) establishment likes and wants to do business. And an establishment that thinks that that they are naturally in charge.

Manning, thoughtful as he may be, with support from corporations and the well-moneyed (i.e., the old boy network), was seeking ways to continue finding ways to explore his ideas, reaffirm the strength of “Calgary School,” and consolidate the power base of the traditional party system. Nenshi, and his Edmonton counterpart Iveson, represent the new guard of those seeking transparency, breaking down political walls, driven by better representation and open dialogue in their vision for government. That is, those aspects that undermine the core of the party system.

While this round may go to the young bucks, the old guard is observing carefully, adapting, and seeking ways to quell this movement before it infiltrates party politics. And the reality for this new breed of politicians is that they need to adapt to the tools of traditional campaigning. And like Manning, they will realize that you need to keep winning and have the necessary support to make your ideas count. The preferred reality seems to be somewhere between these two camps, with a lean to the new guard, to reinvigorate politics for in Canada.

* Author comment: The response by the home builders remains curious. They dug in, and the video continued to have a life through out the election. From a crisis communication perspective a better response would have been to admit being caught, state that this is an unfortunate view into backroom politics and apologize that public had to witness, with an additional statement that there real civic issues that have to be dealt with and sometimes options like this are explored and pursued.

Additional Resources:

CBC Calgary: Preston Manning breaks silence on home builders video

Either you are truly social or you need to rethink your business.

LeviathanHere’s a salient piece of advice: Businesses need to fully understand and APPRECIATE when a shopper starts taking pictures with their smartphone. If not, you will be losing out in the future.

So what sparked this post?

Yesterday, I was at one of my favourite wine stores in Calgary – the Kensington Wine Market.  I was there for two (2) reasons: (1) Window shopping – checking out some of their unique stock; and (2) They were having a sale this weekend, so I was scouting some wines to add to my cellar.

Here’s a handy detail that is not immediately obvious to most wine store employees: wine is one of my hobbies. I am not saying that to be a smart ass or a snob. Nor am I an alcoholic ;-). I will be soon working on my sommelier diploma (I have completed 2 levels already), and I enjoy the discipline of trying to figure out what wine pairs with food. So I spend what maybe a disproportionate amount of time in wine stores checking out their inventory. This entails taking pictures of wines that I would like to consider adding to my cellar. On my phone, I have this fantastic app called Vivino, it helps me keep track of my cellar and crowd sources reviews on almost 900,000 wines. Vivino has a reasonably good rating system that I have come to trust in helping me select a decent bottle of wine. That does not negate that I am willing to accept a recommendation from a friend or employee.


While I was in the store, I was taking a picture of a bottle of Leviathan (a California red) and checking it against its Vivino rating (i.e., if I was considering $50 for a bottle of wine, it better be good!). During this act one of the managers (or who I assume was a manager) came up behind me and asked if I was interested in the bottle of wine. I told them that I was but I was taking pictures for future reference of wines that like to consider adding to my cellar. This person shook their head and said that they did not like people taking pictures in the store. This struck me as odd, and I felt uncomfortable and quickly left the store without buying anything.

Let’s consider the following…

Good wine is a social thing – it is made for sharing and having a conversation over. It was an enabler of the original social media! Given my interest in wine, I follow other wine reviewers on Twitter and share my recommendations with all my friends on Facebook and Pinterest. Typically, when I find something that I like I will share a picture of the label and tell my friends where to get this wine.

wine & cell phone

Now, it strikes me as odd that a proprietor or store representative does not grasp this nuance that I am effectively a sales channel for them. A free, unpaid, advocate and credible channel. Unpaid content too. And to a motivated audience – I could potentially be driving traffic to the store to buy some pricey wine. Further, I want to have the best possible wine experience where I want to know I am buying a wine that is well rated by folks who share my taste. And this is being enabled via apps such as Vivino on my smart phone. Businesses that have archaic attitudes to such devices need to get over themselves. They are losing out on the potential of the collaborative economy. An economy that is bigger than your store. The smartphone is really your friend and gateway to a larger market. It enables a highly networked sales channel and the ability to connect with and bring thousands into a store like never before. In fact, the more that folks know you have great wine, the easier it is to covert sales.

Clearly I am but one customer. And this business has been around for years. They have a decent but dense newsletter. But if they are saying this to me (is it only me?), it makes me wonder what their vision is and their evolution strategy as people have better tools to evaluate their wine choice and share their views on their purchases. And you have to be nice. Else customers think you don’t care. You don’t get them. And you don’t get it.

While some businesses focus on remaining entrenched within the retail economy, they need to realize that they have to evolve to meet the need of the collaborative economy. Your customers are expecting more engagement. And more license to share your content and amplify their love for your business. Why not enable it?

Perspectives on Polling – Part 4 of a 4-part series: Where do we go from here?

Polling: Where do we go from here?



Based on articles published in the Globe and Mail and on the Market Research and Intelligence Association (MRIA) blog, this extended 4-part series looks at what’s wrong with political polling in Canada (and elsewhere) and asserts that it can and must be fixed. Drawing on his own experience in both the political and market research arenas, and from his interviews with thought leaders and pollsters from across Canada and the US, Brian F. Singh critiques conventional polling methods that are perpetuated by pollsters and passed on to the public by the media, and concludes with a 5-point call to action for the market research industry.

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Part 4 – Where do we go from here?

Just throwing money at this problem is not a solution. The money, frankly, is not there. Costs matter. We are in a new world – low voter turnouts, multiple communication technologies, social media platforms, and the use by parties of geo-demographic targeting and sophisticated voter identification methods to find supporters. These have dramatically affected the political polling business, and pollsters have been slow to adjust and/or they are not evolving their skills.

This is a cultural problem – one of our industry, the media and public engagement connected to and part of our political ecosystem. Grenier is pointed in his summation:

“I think the next time around there will be a lot more reticence to get more than a passing kind of mention of what the poll is showing, rather than using it as a basis for entire articles. I think once an election comes around where the polls do well, and there will be, some of that trust will be regained but it won’t be the same for at least a couple of years I would say.”

Polling is evolving, and has to continue to evolve. The horse-race dimension is damaging our reputation and we are losing the public’s trust. Corporate leaders are asking questions about the accuracy and quality of our work. Thoughtful, more transparent polling is what is being asked of the industry.

As outlined above, we have numerous and emerging realities. And it is only going to get more challenging. Emerging trends will be amplified: new players will always enter the market seeking to build their reputation by giving away their findings, and aggregators (serving as third party evaluators) will likely become our spokespersons. However, I believe that this is good time to reflect and set a firm course of action. This can also be MRIA’s time to shine and provide leadership on a very public issue.

My apologies for the Nate Silver love fest. While he a free-rider in his use of polls, he has made them sexy in the minds of the public. And he has the platform of the NY Times, his book and speaking tour to do it.

Based on my review of practices in other jurisdictions, feedback from interviews with thought leaders, and from my own observations, I propose the following points for our association, and for the polling ecosystem, to consider.

1: Focus on Quality Control I believe that we need to focus on diligence, transparency and disclosure. While many are already diligent, we need to pay greater attention to stratified and structured samples. And we need to be transparent about how data collection and analysis were undertaken. Further, a full disclosure of data collection, including sample sources and field protocols, weighting schemes and, if it was part of an omnibus survey or if the poll was commissioned, needs to be posted. Datasets should also be available for review and, ideally, subject to ongoing academic review. Integral to this is more nuanced polling – moving beyond the horse race and  building stronger data integrity.

2: Media Disclosure MRIA needs to immediately establish more stringent reporting standards and work with Canada’s print, electronic and digital media outlets to adopt and enforce them. There are many examples out there – grab them, take the best ideas, and make sure the media adopt them, too. And don’t let up – keep posting polling articles and what was disclosed.

3. Oversight In times of crisis, other jurisdictions undertook inquiries into their polling industry. While MRIA may lack the clout to do this, we can provide leadership. While it would be great to set up a Canadian Association for Public Opinion Research (CAPOR?), it might be more realistic to become a national chapter of AAPOR. Adoption of their resources, protocols and dissemination of education resources, within a Canadian context, would be a positive step.

4. Establish an online information database to inform polling: I believe the onus is on us to collect, review and triangulate as much data as we can before we design a poll. MRIA could consider establishing a “pay to play” central database that pulls in and organizes all political data from social media platforms – e.g., hashtags (such as #cdnpoli, #bcpoli, #ableg, #onvote), blogs, articles (e.g., media clipping service) and other types of commentary – that can be analyzed to assess emerging issues and trends that can be used to inform polling questions. Establishing a forum to discuss how these data are used in questionnaires and methodologies could serve as a valuable complement. A potential partnership with The Hill Times? Could this be an opportunity for app development? Canadian political geeks will be all over it.

5. A Real Experiment: While this may be a call to return to first principles, I think an in-depth project with real-time research on research is required. I propose that our industry look at the 2015 federal election, and work with media and academics to collaborate and co-create an introspective, future-oriented national polling project. It can be multi-modal, but more importantly, we can build on inventory of insight and dialogue (using YouTube, Google/hangouts and podcasts) on preparing for and polling during an election. Aspects such as A/B testing, broad population versus voting populations, and analysis of swing ridings only, could be conducted. Aggregators, who benefit from our work, could be brought in to provide another critical perspective. MRIA should coordinate this.

While the emergent media/pollster business model requires careful examination, the current business model of the media overrides any quick resolution of the “fast and cheap” polling problem. I have stopped short of advocating for only publishing polls that are paid for, or for labeling free poll results as “advertorial.” While this is going to take a lot of money (I am not delusional about this), it is our reputation and trust in our industry that is at stake.

MRIA should approach all levels of government, foundations and think tanks to seek out the funding to pursue these recommendations (including possible use of SR&ED and IRAP grants). The rest of the funds can come from industry, with substantial sweat equity, and finally from the media. Ultimately, the project will be transformative and will serve as a LEAN review of our industry and ecosystem.

Poor polling is a symptom, not a cause, of weak voter turnout. While voter turnout will continue to plague our elections, at least we can begin to put to rest any problems and beliefs associated with suspect polling and its subsequent reporting.

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Helpful resources:

American Association for Public Opinion Research:

Associated Press Stylebook on polls and surveys:

The New York Times Polling Standards:

BBC Opinion Polls, Surveys, Questionnaires, Votes and Straw Polls – Guidance in Full:

Nate Silver – Which Polls Fared Best (and Worst) in the 2012 Presidential Race:

CBC, The Current – The Power of Polls (May 16):

Perspectives on Polling: Part 3 of a 4-part series – Calgary Centre: An Odd Case of Public Engagement

Calgary, Alberta

Based on articles published in the Globe and Mail and on the Market Research and Intelligence Association (MRIA) blog, this extended 4-part series looks at what’s wrong with political polling in Canada (and elsewhere) and asserts that it can and must be fixed. Drawing on his own experience in both the political and market research arenas, and from his interviews with thought leaders and pollsters from across Canada and the US, Brian F. Singh critiques conventional polling methods that are perpetuated by pollsters and passed on to the public by the media, and concludes with a 5-point call to action for the market research industry.

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Part 3 – Calgary Centre: An Odd Case of Public Engagement

I reside in Calgary, where there was a by-election last November in the Calgary Centre riding. Given the restricted geography, the only polls that were being done were telephone-based – via either live operators or IVR, with an emphasis on the latter.

The initial IVR polls indicated a strong position for the Conservative Party of Canada candidate. My sense was that given the nature of the candidate, as well as that of the riding, the polls may be overstating the strength of this candidate; given that this was a by-election, there was likely going to be a low turnout, and thus, less predictive power of the polls. As the writ was dropped and we got closer to election day, more IVR polls were being conducted. This being an isolated riding, as IVR polls got underway the parties started to send out messages via social networks to their supporters asking them to answer their phones.

The results were intriguing: as more people were aware that polling was being undertaken, they were more inclined to respond to them. What is fascinating is that the IVR polls started to perform really well; in fact the last one that was released by Forum Research practically called the result, including the slight lead for the Conservative candidate on election day.

Thus, the notion of being aware of polls and their importance within a particular jurisdiction led to some vested interest on behalf of the public to respond to that. While the voter intention rate was high, the actual distribution was more realistic compared to anything else I have seen in IVR polling within Calgary.

This was a one off event, but an interesting one. The underlying consideration here is: if voters are aware of when polling is undertaken, regardless of inclination, could it improve quality and response rate?

The Matter of Calibration

In the future, IVR, online and mobile methodologies will likely predominate given the cost. However, these do not address the issue of calibration: how do we establish methods that are able to better represent the population and generate higher response rates? Part of the challenge is to calibrate the population over the course of the election cycle, in order to better grasp what the reality of their voting behaviour is, to be able to identify who is voting, and then zero in on that population to better grasp what their intentions are.

Yes, this is a modeling consideration, but we need to calibrate with known numbers – such as mobile phone ownership, vehicle ownership and home ownership, which are firm numbers that we always use to assess quality of the data. This will lead us to a better position for the future as we evolve methodologies and do more research on research in future polls.

The Rising Role of Aggregators

For this article I reviewed Nate Silver’s analysis of polls, and as well I interviewed Éric Grenier. These two individuals are aggregators of surveys. They rely upon the data and the quality of that data to do their jobs. The question arises at this point: are they garnering more attention than the pollsters who are doing the polls themselves? This is another proverbial ‘train that has left the station.’ The reason why they have gained more media clout is that they have become more agnostic across polling methods and have factored that into their analyses – especially on their assessment of the quality of polls themselves. They have become our de facto third party polling evaluators.

This also presents a problem for them: to keep doing their jobs they are dependent upon our work; moreover, they are not paying for that work and we are not gaining on our reputation other than through the validation they provide for the polls that our industry releases. Henning reflects on this:

“Nate Silver, Huffington Post, Talking Post Memo, and Real Clear Politics. There are four aggregators right there that probably get more attention combined than traditional polls and for good reasons I think. It does create an interesting Tragedy of the Commons where why should I do the hard work and do the increasingly expensive work to do it right, in terms of cell phone sampling and everything, if I am just going to end up subsumed into somebody else’s model.”

Is this a major problem for the industry? My belief is that it isn’t, but I do feel that we need to collaborate with such individuals to have them at the table and give feedback based on their usage of the data that we generate.

The Importance of Disclosure and Transparency

Darrell Bricker is blunt about the state of our trade:

“This is one of the problems I also have with Canadian pollsters – we kind of get obsessed about what is happening here and we don’t necessarily learn from what is happening in other countries. I mean these aren’t new phenomena or new issues.

This is again about disclosure, research on research, being mature about our responsibilities as pollsters, as social scientists, to explain and to open ourselves up to critiquing criticism by people who are actually having an informed discussion about this stuff.”

Based on experiences of the jurisdiction, there is much learning to be grasped, especially from a publishing standpoint. There are the Associated Press Style Book on polls and surveys, the New York Times polling standards, and the BBC’s guidance on opinion polls, surveys, questionnaires, votes and straw polls. These are excellent resources but they are rarely used. What has generally prevailed is the notion of a margin of error, and we have seen margin of error being quoted on all forms of surveys. While some consider this questionable, the bigger question is what really is margin of error?

Margin of error is about the error within the data based on the reproducibility of the survey using the same exact methodology. What has happened is that horse race questions have been fielded across the various methods, all quoting margins of error within the same timeframe, and yielding dramatically different results. Thus, we have a disclosure issue that we have to address so that there can be more external assessment and evaluation of a poll. The onus should be upon the pollster to publish a more complete snapshot of the methodology, the questionnaire and the dataset, in order to allow individuals to assess the quality of the poll. This would always remain problematic as there are commissioned polls and there are polls that may be tacked onto an Omni that lack clear accountability.

I am not advocating that people can’t conduct polls independently; we should never lose that right. However, the more that we disclose what we are doing and the motivations for doing some of these things, the better we can focus on the quality of the polling and assess any areas where things may be slipping quicker so that we can address them more effectively across time – but specifically, and especially, within an election cycle.

Bricker, likely one of the loudest voices in Canada on this issue, reinforces this perspective on disclosure and its motivation for self-reflection:

“This is again about disclosure – research on research, being mature about our responsibilities as pollsters, as social scientists, to explain and to open ourselves up to critiquing criticism by people who are actually having an informed discussion about this stuff.

“…When you go to AAPOR and see the absolute disclosure that they demand, all of the information that the pollsters give to them, how they dismiss people who play these kind of games and don’t even include them in the averages, that is the way we should be.”

Éric Grenier pointed out Nate Silver’s revelatory analysis prior to the 2012 National Election: he had found that a more transparent a polling firm was, the better the results were. Food for thought.

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Next up – Part 4: Where do we go from here?