If you have paid any attention to the news lately, or walked down a busy city street, you have probably seen the staggering lineups outside Service Canada offices as people wait for their passports.
While the delay is likely connected to pandemic-related staffing issues and backlogs, the lines feel like an uncomfortable reminder that our dealings with our own government can be frustrating, slow and simply bad.
I had a pleasant surprise recently, though. Frustrated by how many apps on my phone tracked me and served ads, I decided to ditch the ubiquitous Weather Network app in favour of the one provided for free by Environment Canada.
Not only was the app just as good, it was also far less invasive — and left me feeling that perhaps the government can not only do things well, but has a role to play in our digital lives.
The great thing about the WeatherCAN app by Environment Canada is that it just works. It’s fast, it looks nice and, importantly, it is accurate. Couple that with a widget for your home screen and even helpful little messages about general weather knowledge, and it’s a winner.
Contrast that with The Weather Network. The apps are fine, if occasionally frustrating. Notifications bother you incessantly and the radar map — useful to see if you are actually about to be rained on — seems to barely work. More importantly, though, upon downloading the app asks you for age and gender, all so it can serve you ads and better know its users.
The reason is that The Weather Network is actually owned by Pelmorex Corp, which not only runs weather services, but is also a sophisticated data company. As the company writes on its website, “Over the decades, we’ve accumulated a wide and deep pool of data that gives us insights into how to efficiently and effectively reach consumers.”
Put another way: All those weather apps on your phone also track user behaviour to personalize which ads you see. It’s all perfectly legal and ordinary, but that doesn’t make it either desirable or good.
Perhaps that’s why something as plain and everyday as the WeatherCAN app felt like such a revelation. Because it is made by Environment Canada, the point of the app is to tell you the weather, not get you to buy a new car or sign up for a gym membership.
The incentives are different: they aren’t trying to sell you stuff, or sell your information to other people who are.
That’s reason for pause. If apps and digital services are a basic part of life now, then perhaps the government has a role to play in offering publicly funded alternatives. Instead of the usual setup — that is, you get a free app like Facebook in exchange for offering up your data and seeing ads — you get a service provided to you by the government that exists to serve you.
Think of, say, SaskTel, the publicly owned telecom company in Saskatchewan. You can still get your phone from Rogers or Bell, but you can also get your cell plan through the Crown-owned provider — and often with a better deal.
What if, then, instead of giving up your privacy to Google to get Gmail, or having to sign up for a Microsoft account to use a calendar on Outlook, the state provided those services as part of what a modern government should do to serve its citizens? It could also be a part of a modern digitization of social services and things such as driver’s licenses and health records
True, there are privacy concerns here; as any Indigenous activist could tell you, the Canadian state is hardly neutral. But this could be handled by the creation of an arm’s-length, publicly funded third-party agency to run digital services that would keep data out of the hands of either the government or the police except when the law required it.
It shouldn’t be the case that downloading a weather app that actually works and is better than the private alternative is a revelation; but alas, it is. We have grown too accustomed to the digital world as one that compromises privacy. An app that doesn’t feels like a breath of fresh air.
But we have a body that is meant to represent us and our interests. Perhaps it’s time they do something radical and continue the good work started by the WeatherCAN app: that is, give Canadians a better option than the snooping apps that populate our phones — and remind us that a government can actually do good things, too.