Your Personal Mayor

by bicyclemark 3 Comments

Mayor of Twitter! Cory BookerWhen looking critically at changes in democracy and politics around the world, much has been said about the personalization of politics. In many countries, where politics may have once been about the policies of a party and choosing between those parties at the ballot box, today it is increasingly all about the individual candidate.

Political posters feature huge images of the face of a candidate, either smiling or looking confident. Somewhere in smaller print is the party logo, in case you’re wondering about that.  In many municipalities in the US, where one party automatically dominates, it is all about the individual candidates.  But even on the highest levels, president, prime minister, these days we pay close attention to the policies, values, and personality of the individual, more so then the party. This has been referred to as the personalization of politics.

Yet right now there is another type of personal politics that has become a major force in many democracies thanks to the internet. It is the type of political relationship where the candidate or election official reacts and behaves based on your wishes.  Bill Clinton’s staff used to do phone surveys after his speeches and TV appearances, to get a feel for what works and doesn’t work for potential voters.  Adam Curtis laid out these and other activities in his fantastic documentary “The Century of the Self,” where he looks at how candidates would make changes to their policies and actions, based on what individuals wanted.

Tweeting Snow CleanupThis might all sound well and good, people getting what they wish; a direct democracy perhaps?  If we look at the phenomenon of Mayors who make use of twitter on a regular basis to communicate with the public, we find what is very much another example of this personalized representation.  Many, including myself, have celebrated this development, as citizens are actively hearing about their election official’s daily activities, and providing real time feedback.

One of the greatest examples I follow has been my friend, Newark Mayor Cory Booker.  Now in his second term as Mayor, much has been documented about how this young Mayor takes a different approach to politics and leading a city.  Where some make speeches with their sleeves rolled up to look busy, Cory picks up the shovel during snow storms, pulls over drivers who litter, patrols the streets with citizens at night, and turns up more neighborhood parties than anyone in history.

It should be no surprise based on this description, that Mayor Booker is an avid twitter person. Tweeting a mix of inspiring quotes, personal observations, thank you’s, and daily city hall acitivies, he is not only widely followed but he also does a lot of following as well.  I should know, I’m one of those he follows.   As someone who keeps an eye on twitter and has the good nature to listen when citizens have a problem or concern, Cory receives many public twitter messages asking for help with issues in Newark.  From large to small problems, citizens tweet their Mayor about streetlights being out, meetings being held, abandoned lots that get filled with garbage, and most of all at this time of year – snow not being shoveled on their streets. Unlike his counterpart Mayor Bloomberg of (admittedly much larger) New York City, Cory does not simply post a phone number and tell his followers to use it, almost 100% of the time he responds with a “sending a crew over now” or “we’re on our way.”  Sure enough some hours later, you will be able to find a followup tweet from a citizen saying thank you or great job Mr. Mayor.  Occasionally it will be a followup complaint if the street in question isn’t clean yet, to which he still takes the consideration to tweet a very polite “be patient, we will get to you.”

Once again many observers will say – Fantastic! A modern Mayor using modern means to cut out the middleman and communicate openly with the public. Indeed I never miss a chance to tell people about the good deeds the Mayor of the city of my birth does using twitter.

Yet as more snow falls, as more problems appear for the city of Newark (or any city for that matter), and more people join twitter to tell the Mayor something directly, the more it becomes a legitimate question if this is really as fantastic as it first seemed. The individual might rejoice because their complaint or demand has been addressed almost immediately, but taken together, is the energy spent satisfying the individual well spent, among all the tasks the elected official must perform. Beyond that, how can the Mayor be sure that these issues tweeted to him are as deserving of his attention as say, some other city hall business? At some point even Mayor Booker himself tells people with demands to “be patient”.

Naturally the work of the Mayor is more often in city hall and not on twitter, the responsibilities people entrusted him with by electing him to the office.  Much of that work, as long has been true, occurs in the offline world, and sometimes unavoidably, out of the site of the general public.  Citizens of course see and live the results of the Mayor’s work over time, which always results in approval, disapproval, or something in between.

The main question here is: Does this style of leadership, elected leadership directly active on twitter, signal something positive in the long run? Is it a breakthru in the practice of addressing the needs and concerns of citizens? Or at some point will it just be the individual speaking only for an immediate and personal problem, at the expense of the greater good.

Postscript: Mayor Booker became the focus of this post which I actually wanted to be about the bigger picture of politics and twitter. I know for a fact he does tons more offline and online to hear from citizens directly and man oh man do I admire him for that.

Upside of Afghan Elections

by bicyclemark 4 Comments

Cross-posted on

There is a term that is often thrown around in reference to how elections, in any nation around the world, should ideally be conducted: “free and fair”. When much of the world is watching an election and trying to gage if it is a good election, we look for evidence that people were able to vote without intimidation or any other undemocratic obstacle, and that the results of the vote were processed without irregularities. If this does not happen, then the reports start coming in, and we all sort of collectively decide that whatever elections a nation claims to have had, they were not up to the “free and fair” standard and therefore are not really a democracy.

Here in Afghanistan elections are only 2 weeks away. It is no secret that the government does not control the entire country and a war continues to be waged. Last month the announcement came that due to the strong risk of fraud and violence in certain regions, 900 polling stations would remain closed on election day. In a city like Kabul, Afghan National Police (ANP) run checkpoints throughout the city and there is the undertone of fear of being attacked or kidnapped by both foreign and local people. All-in-all, the task of holding an election in two weeks time is obviously going to be difficult and not without some problems.

The conclusion many observers in the media, governments, and perhaps you reading this right now, is that based on the aforementioned problems, the election is a failure before it even takes place. They take the standard of “free and fair” and they look at the poll closings, the threat of violence, and the recent attacks on political candidates, and they say – nope, Afghanistan’s election is a failure.

Yet the situation could also be looked at in another way. We could look at the 19,942 other polling stations that will be opened and look at the examples where people are voting when election day comes. We can look at the long list of 2,556 candidates from diverse backgrounds, including 405 women, running for parliament. Because looking at election with an interest in what goes right, not only what goes wrong, should also be part of the story that is Afghanistan today.

“Free and Fair” is certainly something anyone would want in an election, and if we were honest, we would admit that this doesn’t exist anywhere in the world. In the end we aim for an election that is as free and fair as possible within its context. The Afghan context is no doubt one of the most difficult in the world right now, but to be able to carry out an election, even one wrought with problems, should also be worth something on the road to stability.

Portugal’s Alternative Energy Revolution

by bicyclemark 6 Comments

Outside Lisbon, 2008

It isn’t hard to find things that don’t work correctly in Portugal.  It also isn’t hard to find people who will go on and on about how the prime minister is a bum and a crook. Indeed Portugal has plenty of problems as a nation with high unemployment, a disappearing rural population, and unsustainable metropolitan centers.

So it may come as a surprise after all this, to learn that Portugal is a global leader in alternative energy. More specifically, as of this year the country gets 45% of its total energy from renewable resources like wind, solar, wave and hydro.  Besides being an impressive number it is even more eye opening when you learn that this is a 28% increase from 5 years ago.  And just when you thought you’d already been impressed, you will find that -in fact- Portugal has become one of the largest (if not THE largest) wind energy producers in the United States!

How did this happen? What conditions and factors somehow led to this fairly small and less wealthy European nation become so active in alternative energy?  Here are a few reasons:

Despite a very low approval rating now, when his party was elected with a parliamentary majority in 2005, Prime Minister José Socrates and his cabinet set their sites on major investments in renewable energy, even under huge warnings that it would cost too much money.  5 years, many landmark projects,  and 13.6 billion euros later, Portugal has developed energy production and a smart grid that most of the world only talks about having one day.  The nation is now in a position to decommission 2 coal power plants and even sold energy to Spain this year. In the next few years they will roll out the world’s first nation wide electric car and charging station network. They also expect their percentage of electricity produced by renewable sources to be 60% by 2020.

Sure there are questions and a whole lot of concerns about what has happened in Portugal.  The biggest being the high price of electricity in the country.  Or what will happen if private investors and private energy companies get into financial problems, will the windmills, solar panels, tidal machines, and hydro-electric power plants still be run and maintained?

In the short term people may look at their energy bills and feel like they have been wronged.  The government may be accused or in fact involved in some scandal eventually resulting in it being voted out of office.  The achievements of Portugal may always be overshadowed by large nations like the US and China being unwilling and unable to take bold steps towards an efficient and environmentally sustainable energy system.   Yet despite all the criticism that has come and may come one day, especially in the political and economic realm, Portugal has accomplished an amazing feat in the quest to reduce emissions and dependence on fossil fuels.

ctrp345 Cyber Armageddon and Other Myths

by bicyclemark 0 Comments

Ninjacon 2010There is no shortage of poorly written stories scattered throughout the internet, about cyber attacks leading to near apocalyptic situations involving power stations or other key infrastructure sites. And for every story, there is someone who believes it, and not many who take the time to critically examine and verify that anything ever really took place.

My guest, Anchises De Paula, is an exception to the rule. Based in São Paulo, Brazil, he has taken the time to check on these stories and speak out about them. The result is something most politicians don’t want you to hear. They prefer to keep the public in fear; believing half-truths and myths.

Follow Anchises on Twitter or via his Blog