Paul Singh brings tough love to Edmonton’s startup community

Paul Singh is a well-known entrepreneur, investor, and speaker based in Washington, DC. For the last few years, Singh and his partner Dana Duncan have travelled around North America visiting startup communities “that other investors weren’t visiting.” Along the way they’ve interacted with thousands of founders, investors, community leaders, and elected officials, and have seen first-hand what nearly 100 cities are doing to try to grow their startup ecosystems.

ScaleUp YEG brought Singh’s North American Tech Tour to Edmonton this week. He participated in a number of events on Thursday and Friday in addition to one-on-one meetings with local entrepreneurs to provide “mentoring and support” (and presumably to look for investment opportunities). I saw him speak on Thursday afternoon at the Edmonton Innovation Ecosystem Community (EIEC) meeting hosted by EEDC.

Paul Singh

“It’s not better anywhere else,” Singh told the room. “We could pick this room up and put it down in any other city and we’d have the same conversations.” Entrepreneurs would complain that there’s not enough money, investors would complain that there aren’t enough quality companies, and bureaucrats would complain that they’re being overlooked compared to others.

Singh lamented the fact that entrepreneurs see investors as individuals with power that need to be won over, referencing Dragon’s Den and Shark Tank tendency to focus the camera on the investors as the popular reinforcement of this idea. He suggested investors are just like entrepreneurs, with a business to grow. Still, he didn’t hold back when it came to his advice for the entrepreneurs in the room.

“If you cannot build a business in Edmonton, moving is not going to help you,” he said. “The internet has made place less relevant.” Singh argued that because the barriers to entry are so much lower now, it’s most often entrepreneurs themselves that get in the way of success. “Most entrepreneurs underestimate the value of just getting started,” he said. “We have a lot of wantrapreneurs.”

When asked which cities he has come across that are successfully building startup communities, Singh cited Kelowna, BC and Lincoln, Nebraska. But he quickly turned back to Edmonton. “I feel like Edmonton’s worst enemy is the people that already live in Edmonton,” Singh observed. “You guys are awful to yourselves.” He noted that in today’s world, ambition and access to information are both fairly evenly distributed. “It’s visibility that is not equally distributed,” he said. And that’s what Edmonton should focus on.

“If you want to make Edmonton better, you don’t need collaboration,” he said. Instead, entrepreneurs need to pick up the phone 200 times a day and sell, investors need to just focus on making more money (wherever it comes from), and government officials need to drive visibility.

“The only thing stopping more billion dollar companies from being here in Edmonton is the entrepreneurs not doing it,” Singh said.

Controversial criticism

One of the other events that Singh participated in during ScaleUp YEG was a session called Customer vs Investor Presentation: Knowing How to Pitch to Your Audience:

“Local ScaleUp dealcloser will share their sales and investor presentation for feedback from our experts Carey Houston, Paul Singh, & Kristina Milke on what makes for a good presentation for each audience. You’ll leave understanding the differences between a sales and investor presentation, what makes a good pitch, and understanding the needs and motivations of your audience.”

Amir Reshef, co-founder and CEO at dealcloser, gave the two presentations on stage in front of a crowd and received feedback from Singh, Houston, and Milke. I was not at the event, but understand that Singh did not hold back in his criticism and that Reshef, while expecting constructive feedback, was taken aback at the approach that Singh took. This led Alex Putici, founder of Work Nicer, to write a blog post explaining that Singh would not be welcome to participate in upcoming events at the coworking space. He wrote:

“A community member was participating in a pitch event and was thereafter “roasted” and “humiliated”. Tough truths, direct feedback, and criticism is important. But it must be delivered respectfully while helping the individual and encouraging the community around them. This balance can be tricky, but it’s culture setting.”

Both Singh and Reshef have since responded on Facebook.

“I apologize for making you feel roasted and humiliated — I’m sorry,” wrote Singh. “My understanding of that particular event’s goal was clearly incorrect, I believe the organizer has conveyed that to you.” He said that he and his partners enjoyed their time here in Edmonton, adding that “we’ll be doing our best to invest more of our time and money in promising entrepreneurs here.”

“Overall, it was not a fun experience and while I do not begrudge Paul giving honest and blunt feedback, I would have preferred not to be the person at the receiving end of that feedback in such a public manner,” wrote Reshef. “When the organizer of ScaleUp YEG asked me to present, I was told it would be a very positive and friendly presentation. It did not pan out that way.”

I understand that Singh, Reshef, and Putici have all spoken with one another and are ready to move on.

My Thoughts

So why mention the controversy at all? Two reasons.

First, I think it is a reminder that people are generally making good faith efforts toward a common goal and that they really do care. Singh was not out to get anyone, the organizers did not intentionally mislead anyone about the intent of the session, Reshef did not complain or ask for the removal of Singh from Work Nicer, and Putici was acting in the best interests of the community he’s responsible for. I believe they all genuinely want to see Edmonton’s startup community succeed. The fact that they care so much is what makes incidents like this seem bigger than they are.

Second, it does present an opportunity for everyone in the local startup community to reflect on the type of community we’d like to have. If we want a respectful, constructive, and accountable community then we need to be intentional about building it that way.

Paul Singh

I really enjoyed Singh’s talk. Though I am sure he has delivered the exact same message to countless other cities on his tour, he seemed genuinely interested in Edmonton’s startup community and attempts to improve it. I appreciated his reminder that often the grass is not greener on the other side, as well as his observation that Edmontonians spend too much time worrying about how we’re doing rather than just getting on with it.

A little perspective goes a long way.

UPDATE: The pitch event took place at the Edmonton Convention Centre not at Work Nicer Beaver House as originally stated.

Recap: DemoCamp Edmonton 44

Edmonton’s 44th DemoCamp took place on Tuesday night at the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Sciences (CCIS) on the University of Alberta campus. It was the first DemoCamp of 2019. You can see my recap of DemoCamp Edmonton 43 here.

DemoCamp Edmonton 44

If you’re new to DemoCamp, here’s what it’s all about:

“DemoCamp brings together developers, creatives, entrepreneurs and investors to share what they’ve been working on and to find others in the community interested in similar topics. For presenters, it’s a great way to get feedback on what you’re building from peers and the community, all in an informal setting. Started back in 2008, DemoCamp Edmonton has steadily grown into one of the largest in the country, with over 200 people attending each event. The rules for DemoCamp are simple: 7 minutes to demo real, working products, followed by a few minutes for questions, and no slides allowed.”

Here’s my Twitter thread for the event. We had six demos, in order of appearance:

CleanNow is aiming to be the Uber for house cleaning. They launched in early December and now have more than 400 active customers over the last 30 days. CleanNow is trying to solve the problem of finding a reliable house cleaner, so they demoed some of the features that support that. The backend is written in Code Igniter and they have a PHP API. Payments are done in-app with Stripe. CleanNow is launching next in Calgary, hopefully in March.

The World’s Opinion, or two for short, was inspired by election polls and how inaccurate they can be. “Everyone has a phone so why can’t we get a sense of what people are thinking?” Noah said. The app is currently iOS only (built in Swift from scratch) and allows users to vote on questions by swiping left or right, to ignore or skip questions by swiping up, and to save a question for later by swiping down. The question editor looks like the Instagram story interface and allows for thumbs up/down or two-choice questions. Everyone can see the breakdown of responses for a question, including some basic demographics like gender. The backend uses Google Firebase, and Noah said he’ll probably do an Android version at some point.

Sparkshot is an art discovery platform with a twist. Artists create artwork, upload it to the site, and behind the scenes Sparkshot will cover it in black pixels. Users can then purchase pixels (using Bitcoin micropayments) to reveal the art over time (price per pixel is set by the artist). Each piece looks a bit like a jigsaw puzzle until it is fully revealed. Once finally revealed, anyone can see and share the png file as well as all of the messages the buyers posted along the way. Because it uses Bitcoin, there’s no need to know who is buying the pixels, so there’s no account to create. Jarret and Dean demoed Forkdrop.io at DemoCamp Edmonton 42, another Bitcoin-related project.

I remember participating in hackathons and it seemed like an achievement to get the entire team setup in source control and have a simple website built. How things have changed! Eric and Mark showed us their hackathon project, which is a gesture controlled robotic arm. They built a wristband with eight pressure sensors to measure muscle movement that sends data to an Arduino micrcontroller and on to a computer with a classifier to convert the muscle movement into four different motions for the robotic arm. They told us they currently measure 200 data points for each position. In the future they’d like to make the wristband wireless and they also talked about prototyping their own microcontroller boards to speed up signal processing. Amazing.

Next up was RevonTech with Animus, which is a small device that can power a string of up to 150 LEDs in sync with music. They 3D printed the case and designed the board themselves to ensure that power consumption was kept to a minimum (it can run continuously for over 6 hours). Animus can control the lights based on frequency and also does some beat detection. Using the mobile app, users can choose from a collection of patterns. Patrick told us they wanted it to be a plug-and-play kind of device, for people who don’t know all the tech, but want to take advantage of it at a concert. We also learned the hardware supports far more than they have been able to implement in software thus far. Animus is about to launch in beta!

The final demo of the night was VSS-30, which Matthew explained is an attempt to emulate those electronic keyboards you probably played with as a kid. He modeled the keyboard in Blender and it took about 15 hours. VSS-30 runs entirely in the browser using WebGL and features all the effects, synthesizers, and recording that you could hope for. “Is there a way to save your creations out of this?” someone asked. “Absolutely not!” was the response. Matthew said it’s about recreating the toy experience. “Go in, making something cool, and then let go of it.”

I really enjoyed all of the demos! It was my favorite kind of DemoCamp: a nice mix of software and hardware.

DemoCamp Edmonton 44

Here are the events and other announcements that were mentioned in-between demos:

  • Student DevCon is coming up on March 23, 2019 at the Edmonton Convention Centre. Tickets are just $35 and include all sessions, swag, breakfast, and lunch.
  • Business Model 101 is Startup Edmonton’s most popular workshop. It is running twice per month for the next few months, and new for 2019, you can attend in Riverbend or Meadows, so you don’t need to travel downtown.
  • There are plenty of upcoming community meetups listed at the Startup Edmonton meetup site.
  • DemoCamp Edmonton 45 is scheduled to take place on March 12, 2019.

You can also check out the Tech Roundup for the latest headlines & happenings in Edmonton’s technology community every Tuesday. Here’s the latest edition.

If you’ve got something to show, apply to demo at a future event.

See you at DemoCamp Edmonton 45!

Cyber Summit 2018: How to Fix the Future

Andrew Keen was the keynote speaker on the first day of the Cyber Summit last month, an annual technology conference organized by Cybera. They were gracious enough to host me this year as a guest. The theme for 2018’s event was “Mind the Gap: Surviving (and Thriving) in the Age of Disruption”. That’s exactly where Keen began.

“We are living through the age of disruption,” he said.

Andrew Keen

Keen is an entrepreneur who founded Audiocafe.com back in 1995, but he’s best known as an author and critic of Internet culture. I remember reading his first book, The Cult of the Amateur, shortly after it was published in 2007. As an entrepreneur myself (in podcasting) not to mention an early and enthusiastic adopter of Twitter, I remember strongly disagreeing with his critique of Web 2.0 and user generated content. It made me angry. I had read James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds around the same time and I couldn’t believe how different Keen’s perspective was. Why couldn’t he see?!

So, it’s no surprise that I started reading Keen’s latest book, How to Fix the Future, with some hesitation. Would it rankle me as well? I hadn’t finished it by the time the keynote rolled around, but I had read enough to have an idea of what to expect. And I was looking forward to it.

“Is technology shaping us or are we shaping it?” he asked. Keen spoke about Marshall McLuhan, lamenting that technology was supposed to create a global village. “We were promised that the new business models were truly revolutionary,” he said. We’d have greater cultural understanding, more jobs, and more equality. But, “something has gone wrong” and that promise “for the most part, has not been realized.” There have been other unforeseen effects too. He thought McLuhan would be “amused by the unintended consequences of technology.”

“I’m not a Luddite,” Keen protested. “I’m not suggesting there aren’t benefits of technology, that’s self-evident.” He also knows that there’s no going back. “Digital is the reality, for better or worse, and we need to make it work,” he said.

Not only has the promise of a better future not been realized, we’ve found ourselves with new problems to deal with. Inequality, the demise of expertise, the echo chamber, and privacy are all among the concerns Keen raised. “The inequality in economic terms is astonishing,” he said, predicting that there is a great jobs crisis on the horizon. Describing “surveillance capitalism” Keen suggested that “privacy itself is a potentially fundamental casualty.”

So, what to do about it? “We’ve been through this before” with the industrial revolution, he said. “We break the future and then we fix it; that’s what we do.”

In his keynote as in his book, Keen spoke about Utopia, written by Thomas More in 1516. It was “a call to arms, to make the world a better place,” he told us. It’s a useful way to frame his argument that each of us has a responsibility to be a part of the solution. “We have to be careful not to fall into the utopian discourse of the first generation of web tech,” he warned.

Keen suggests we have five tools with which to fix the future: regulation, competitive innovation, worker and consumer choice, social responsibility, and education. He only spent a few minutes on these in his keynote, but elaborates on each in the book.

The section on regulation stood out for me. He compares the current state of technology to that of the automobile in the 1960s when the lack of safety regulations resulted in high numbers of auto-related deaths and injuries. He shared the story of how Ralph Nader’s bestselling book Unsafe at Any Speed brought the issue of traffic safety into the national discourse and led to the passage of seat-belt laws and other traffic safety measures.

Could something similar happen in tech today? I don’t know what the digital equivalent of the seat-belt might be, but I do know that not a day has gone by since I read the book that some sort of big tech-related problem hasn’t been in the news. New privacy breaches, new abuses of power, and new unintended consequences seem to dominate Techmeme these days, usually in reference to Facebook and Google.

“There’s no app to fix the future,” Keen told the audience. “The only way we fix the future is in a human way.” In the book he says, “technology doesn’t solve technological problems; people do.” It won’t happen overnight, and Keen was upfront about that. “It will take a generation or two, just like it did for the industrial revolution,” he said. “But we have to begin to address it now.”

Andrew Keen

I have since finished reading How to Fix the Future and would recommend it. I think Keen raises some important issues and does indeed provide some thoughtful commentary on potential solutions.

Many in the audience found Keen’s keynote to be a downer, and there were plenty of comments about it being a pessimistic start to the conference. He certainly prompted a lot of discussion among attendees, which is all you can really ask for from a keynote.

But I found myself on common ground. Maybe in the decade since I read his first book I’d become more critical of technology, or at least more aware of the possible negative consequences. Maybe Keen had mellowed somewhat, adopting a more pragmatic approach in the hopes of effecting change. Or maybe, it was a bit of both!

Thank you to Cybera for hosting me at Cyber Summit 2018!

Mayor Don Iveson looks back on 2018

“I believe this was the year we made a shift to building Edmonton for the next generation,” said Mayor Don Iveson last week as he hosted the media at City Hall for a briefing and roundtable discussion on 2018.

Asked for a highlight from the past year, Mayor Iveson cited the new funding deal with the Province. The City Charters Fiscal Framework Act will provide Edmonton and Calgary with “infrastructure funding tied to provincial revenues, meaning they would share in Alberta’s future revenue growth.” It is both a replacement for Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) funding and a new source of long-term transit funding. “We’re legislated now into long-term growth,” the mayor said. Last month he wrote that “the deal reflects the province’s economic reality now.”

Mayor Don Iveson

Here are some of the highlights from the roundtable discussion:

Budget Savings

Given the budget hadn’t yet passed when the roundtable took place, there were some questions related to cost savings. Acknowledging there were valid questions about the size of the City organization and in particular the size of management, Mayor Iveson said “it will be a continuing conversation for us.” He noted there are pros and cons to reducing the size of management that need further discussion.

In terms of savings, the mayor said that through innovation the City has harvested $68 million in savings in the last five years. And he indicated there was more to come. “I suspect there will be things over the next year that we close or significantly adjust our approach to,” he said. “We’re prepared to declare certain things no longer relevant.”

Culture of Confidence

Asked about his frustration this summer over the way Administration handled things like the bench plaques program, the mayor said “mistakes are going to happen given the complexity of what we do.” He acknowledged that Council had given Administration competing direction to both save money and to be as helpful as possible. “Both are values this organization has and they conflicted with one another,” he said.

The mayor made it clear he doesn’t want to micromanage things. “I don’t think every complex decision needs to come from Council,” he said. “It’s not an effective use of the thirteen members of Council.” Instead what he’d like to see is a “culture of confidence”.

“My expectation is that anyone working at the City with an idea that could lead to savings has the opportunity to bring that forward as opposed to being afraid to suggest it due to risk management,” he explained. That requires “a tolerance for failure and innovation” that won’t come easily. “We have to give some permission for it to not work out,” he said.

Mayor Iveson did say that he thought the “long-term culture change is moving in a good direction” at the City of Edmonton.

Edmonton Coliseum

On the question of what will happen to the Coliseum (formerly Rexall Place) the mayor said “it has no practical use or reuse that is economically viable” and as a result “it will be torn down.” He noted there are ongoing costs related to keeping the building secure and said, “I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to find a cost-effective and timely way to deal with the Coliseum.”

And what about the land? “We’re going to have some interesting discussions about how to redevelop those lands,” the mayor said. He’s not in a rush to sell the land, though. “In this market the land is probably not worth as much,” he said. “Where we try to rush land decisions that generally doesn’t go well for us.”

Media

Unsurprisingly, some of the journalists in the room were curious about the mayor’s thoughts on the media. He has made suggestions throughout the year that the City needs to do more of its own storytelling, and of course he continues to be active on Twitter and his own website.

“I think people expect a certain amount of direct content from their city,” the mayor said. “I think for most people the City of Edmonton is a credible source.” He doesn’t see direct communication from the City being the only channel, however. He talked about the importance of transparency and opening up multiple channels to the public. “Earned media is always going to be part of our day-to-day connecting with people,” he assured everyone.

Mayor Don Iveson

Innovation

Many of Mayor Iveson’s comments touched on innovation, but he used a question about the city’s economic outlook to share the majority of his thoughts on the subject. “We can fear the future or we can chart our own destiny,” he said. “This is why I put so much focus on the innovation economy.”

The mayor said he’s “excited” to work with EEDC’s Derek Hudson and Cheryll Watson further on a culture of innovation and said the recent scrutiny of EEDC “is really, really good.” He said the SingularityU conference that Edmonton is hosting next year “will be a platform for that culture to grow in our city.”

“As the world faces a lot of uncertainty, we can be problem-solvers for the world,” he said. “That’s not incompatible with our DNA as a city at all.”

Region

We didn’t have as much time to discuss the region as I’d have liked, but Mayor Iveson did touch on the subject. “If the region can speak coherently to the provincial and federal governments we can have much greater impact than historically we’ve had,” he said. The mayor cited work on transit, the regional growth plan, and economic development as recent successes in the region.

Mayor Iveson also spoke briefly about “shared investment for shared benefit” saying “it’s about the region getting to the point where we fix problems together.” He explained that the idea is “some of the new money that comes from new development goes into a pot that helps to pay for the next thing to attract jobs and prosperity to the region.”

Thoughts on Council

During the budget discussions Mayor Iveson expressed frustration with his colleagues on Council bringing forward ward-specific items to essentially try to “queue-jump”. He told us that he was talking to former mayor Stephen Mandel about it recently and realized, “I was doing the same things 7 years ago!” He added that “what we have ultimately is a Council that has come together remarkably well around this budget.”

“We have a group of very bright Councillors who have a desire to serve and to have their service noticed,” the mayor said. “It’s not a bad thing to have councillors with ambition to make an impact on the city.”

Third Term

“I really like being Mayor of Edmonton and I have no plans to enter federal politics, other than to stay on as chair of the Big City Mayor’s caucus,” he said in response to a question about running for another office. “I’ve got more work to do here.” Mayor Iveson told us “the City Plan is going to be a lot of fun” and that representing Edmonton through the upcoming provincial and federal elections would be “a great challenge”.

Noting “it’s a really long way to the next election,” he did acknowledge that others might be thinking about making a run for his chair. “I think it’s fair to say that some of them have their own political aspirations.” His advice to those Councillors? “Don’t get started too early.”

Mayor Iveson said he has not made any decisions about seeking a third term as mayor. “I want to focus on governing, and implementing the things I ran on,” he said. “If I can think of four more years worth of stuff to do, then I would look at running again.”

Mayor Don Iveson

Looking ahead to 2019, Mayor Iveson said “we must continue to rally for our city.”

Recap: DemoCamp Edmonton 43

Edmonton’s 43rd DemoCamp took place last night at the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Sciences (CCIS) on the University of Alberta campus. It was the final DemoCamp of 2018. You can see my recap of DemoCamp Edmonton 42 here.

DemoCamp Edmonton 43

If you’re new to DemoCamp, here’s what it’s all about:

“DemoCamp brings together developers, creatives, entrepreneurs and investors to share what they’ve been working on and to find others in the community interested in similar topics. For presenters, it’s a great way to get feedback on what you’re building from peers and the community, all in an informal setting. Started back in 2008, DemoCamp Edmonton has steadily grown into one of the largest in the country, with over 200 people attending each event. The rules for DemoCamp are simple: 7 minutes to demo real, working products, followed by a few minutes for questions, and no slides allowed.”

Here’s my Twitter thread for the event. We had six demos, in order of appearance:

Xpertz is a Slack app catered toward large teams that lets you showcase your skillset right within Slack. Everything is done using slash commands, and the flagship features include “search by expertise” (so you can find the Android developers in your company, for instance) and “high-five” (which is a way to validate someone’s expertise). Xpertz reminds me a little of the skills on LinkedIn that you can give and receive, but within Slack, and with emoji. Brandon is working on a dashboard with analytics next.

Alex, a NAIT student, showed us Digiplay which lets you play PC games right in the browser. He explained that the high cost associated with PC games combined with the new capabilities of WebAssembly make it possible to play games like Tomb Raider and Quake right inside the browser. Currently desktop-only, Alex would like to add mobile in the future, and is looking at licensing games from smaller studios. He’s also got some original games like Foxtrot, which he demoed. The gaming industry seems to be betting on streaming, but Alex thinks the lag and latency associated with that will ultimately prevent it from working effectively. Next up for Digiplay is a custom compiled interface which would add controller support, and taking advantage of streaming compliation once the browsers support it, which would enable larger games.

I love a good hardware demo and OmniVelos delivered. “We’re not reinventing the wheel,” joked Nick! OmniVelos is a bit of hardware you add to an ordinary bicycle to turn it into an electric bike. The hardware is light and doesn’t interfere with the normal riding of the bicycle. The battery has a range of 20 km, depending on how fast you accelerate, and it can easily be removed and recharged. They’re looking at incorporating regenerative braking in the future. “Do you have any idea about pricing?” asked someone in the audience. “It’s DemoCamp,” responded Jay, to laughter from the audience. (At DemoCamp if you ask someone about their business model you owe them a beer.)

Next up we had two demos from the University of Alberta CompE Club’s HackED Beta hackathon, which took place recently.

The first team, made up of five high school students, showed us Habit Creator, which is a fun web app for reinforcing your habits. As you complete habits you earn rewards that allow your environment to level-up, represented visually as a picture of nature (so as you level up, flowers and other foliage appears). The team had to learn everything in 24 hours! Habit Creator includes a progress report to show a day-by-day breakdown, but currently uses browser storage.

The second team showed us Guba Rush which is an interactive, motion-sensing game featuring the University of Alberta team mascot. One of the team members wore a vest and fanny pack that contained accelerometers, gyros, and an Arduino. As he moved, the data was transmitted to the game to control the character on-screen. The idea is to physically move in order to dodge or jump over obstacles on the screen. Think of it like a Kinect, but with a vest you have to wear.

DemoCamp Edmonton 43

The final demo of the night was from Dan who showed us HonestDoor. He realized when buying real estate that greater transparency would be helpful, so he started tinkering with HonestDoor and realized others found it useful too. The web app can show you the last sold date and price for a given property, and in some cases can also provide an analysis of what HonestDoor thinks it might be worth. The data comes from third parties, including land titles, but was fairly incomplete in the demo. There’s clearly demand for this type of app, given the popularity of Zillow south of the border.

Here are the events and other announcements that were mentioned in-between demos:

You can also check out the Tech Roundup for the latest headlines & happenings in Edmonton’s technology community every Tuesday. Here’s the latest edition.

If you’ve got something to show, apply to demo at a future event.

See you at DemoCamp Edmonton 44!

Amii brings Edmonton’s AI community together with new meetups

The Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (better known as Amii) held its first AI Meetup at Startup Edmonton on September 10. The organization has been hosting “Tea Time Talks” and other small events at the University of Alberta for a while now, but the new AI Meetup is an attempt to reach a broader audience. Judging by the turnout to the first event, they’re on to something!

AI Meetup

Melissa Woghiren, an Amii grad student, was one of two speakers at the packed event. She spoke about her work using machine learning to assist physicians in the timely diagnosis of stroke. “No one cares about the algorithms,” she said. “They care about the ML tools, generally speaking.” Melissa dazzled the crowd with details on what AI can do now to detect stroke and heard attacks, but also discussed the risks of algorithmic bias. Her take home points were that AI can be useful in medicine, we care more about the ‘what’ than the ‘how’, and the goal is not to replace doctors but to assist them.

Jobber co-founder Forrest Zeisler was the second speaker. He focused on “Applied AI Myths and Misconceptions”, a topic that really seemed to resonate with the crowd. The biggest myth is that most of a machine learning project involves machine learning – it doesn’t, he said. The bulk of the work is planning, infrastructure, UX, training, etc. Forrest also dispelled the myth that you need a research lab to do AI. “That’s like hiring people for your restaurant who can build new microwaves,” he said. Instead, use an off-the-shelf model and “you can have a pretty big impact.”

AI Meetup

After the talks, there was an opportunity for questions as well as a DemoCamp-style call for anyone in the room who is hiring.

The next AI Meetup is coming up on October 10 at Startup Edmonton from 5:15pm to 7:15pm:

“Discuss the latest topics in AI and machine learning, learn about the latest tools and techniques in machine learning, discover how companies are using AI to drive value, and network with thought leaders from Amii, local AI companies, service providers, and corporate labs.”

Register for the free event here.

Machine Learning 101

Just a few days later Amii held a Machine Learning 101 meetup at Startup Edmonton and once again the event was standing room only. Geoff Kliza, a Project Manager at Amii, delivered a modified version of an ML101 talk he has given to dozens of organizations recently. Here’s my Twitter thread from the event.

Machine Learning 101

“You don’t have to work with our 14 world-leading researchers” to use ML and to do it well, he started. Geoff talked about how the cost of prediction is getting cheaper thanks to cheaper computing power and storage, and more efficient algorithms. A common question that comes up is how AI relates to ML, data science, and other terms, and he showed a great Venn diagram to help explain it. He also defined some common terms in AI such as unsupervised learning (learning about your data), supervised learning (learning from examples), deep learning (neural networks), reinforcement learning (learning via experience), and transfer learning (learning from analogous situations).

Geoff also shared 8 key takeaways reinforcing similar points made at the AI Meetup, including that machine intelligence projects often involve very little ML, that data changes destroy models, that no one cares about your algorithm only what it can do, and that machine intelligence and humans work best together.

On that last point he shared the example of metastatic breast cancer diagnosis. Doctors are about 96.6% accurate and machines are about 92.5% accurate, Geoff said. But together, they are 99.5% accurate, which is an 85% decrease in the human error rate. That’s the power of working together.

Machine Learning 101

The next Machine Learning 101 event is coming up on October 17 at Startup Edmonton from 4-5pm:

“Heralded by many as the fourth industrial revolution, artificial intelligence has inspired countless news articles, novels, and films. With this deluge of information comes hopes and aspirations, fears and misconceptions – some justified and others not. How can we make sense of it all? “

Register for the free event here.

For the latest local AI and other tech news, subscribe to Taproot Edmonton’s Tech Roundup.

Recap: DemoCamp Edmonton 42

Edmonton’s 42nd DemoCamp took place last night at the Centennial Centre for Interdisciplinary Sciences (CCIS) on the University of Alberta campus. You can see my recap of DemoCamp Edmonton 41 here.

DemoCamp Edmonton 42

If you’re new to DemoCamp, here’s what it’s all about:

“DemoCamp brings together developers, creatives, entrepreneurs and investors to share what they’ve been working on and to find others in the community interested in similar topics. For presenters, it’s a great way to get feedback on what you’re building from peers and the community, all in an informal setting. Started back in 2008, DemoCamp Edmonton has steadily grown into one of the largest in the country, with over 200 people attending each event. The rules for DemoCamp are simple: 7 minutes to demo real, working products, followed by a few minutes for questions, and no slides allowed.”

Here’s my Twitter thread for the event. We had six demos, in order of appearance:

The first demo of the evening was from the team at Gabbi. Sherman and Bryan showed us the app which helps real estate agents organize their messages and collaborate with their team. Like the rest of us, real estate agents are always on their phones and Gabbi can help them respond to messages, transfer conversations between agents, and more. Building on top of that foundation is an AI assistant, to “get the agents to the next level.” Gabbi uses Microsoft’s LUIS behind-the-scenes for understanding intent. Essentially, they’re building an AI-assisted CRM for real estate agents. Neat!

Next up was Permit Tool, which is a Microsoft Power BI-based data crunching tool that can help you visualize and understand development permits in the City of Edmonton. Brandon wanted to build the tool to help him apply for a job in the commercial real estate industry, and once he found the data available in the Open Data Catalogue, he was off and running. “There’s so much interesting information that we didn’t even know existed!” During the demo, Brandon used the tool to filter for people that had applied for permits to build hot tubs. “Go make friends with these people,” he joked. In addition to being a useful tool, his approach worked: he got the job!

Our third demo was from the team at What’s The Deal?, a web app that tells you about happy hour deals nearby. The site lets you view deals by day, or you can use the search feature to filter by characteristics like whether or not there’s a patio or free Wi-Fi. The website is built on WordPress but is really more of a proof-of-concept; they’re planning to launch a native mobile application next month. Currently the team manually curates all the data, but they hope to have restaurants take on that role themselves in the future.

Next up was Brendan who shared yegsecrets.ca. He got the idea for the site after participating in a Reddit discussion about the hidden gems in our city. “It really bugs me when people say Edmonton is boring or ugly or Deadmonton!” The site is basically a big map full of pins that represent interesting locations. You can click on a pin to see a brief description and photos of the location. There are no plans to add businesses to the site, because there’s already a lot of places to find those. The idea is to showcase great views, inspiring art, that sort of thing. Brendan, who took part in Startup Edmonton’s Summer Student Program, has seeded the locations based on input from others, and there is a suggest feature if you know of a hidden gem.

DemoCamp Edmonton 42

Our fifth demo was from Dean who showed off Forkdrop.io, which is an information and educational resource for Bitcoin holders. And specifically, forks or projects that give value to holders of Bitcoin in the form of newly created coins. The site contains a giant table with the latest information on all of the different projects, but also features in-depth guides for people to follow. Since launching the site has attracted about 28,000 users and has received a bunch of press in the Bitcoin industry. It’s all open source too.

The final demo of the evening was from Dana who showed us Tadum.app, a new app that helps you have more effective meetings. The name “Tadum” works two ways: it sounds like the noise a to-do list might make when you complete a task, and it’s an acronym for the key features of the app: To-Dos, Actions, Discussions, Updates, and Metrics. Dana said his experience has shown that the best meetings follow a routine, have a structure, and have forced accountability, so those are all aspects of the way Tadum works. It will work best if you buy into the process. Dana and the team have focused on ensuring the agenda experience is great, but have plans to add integrations in the future.

All of the demos went fairly smoothly! As an Edmonton fan myself, I love the spirit of yegsecrets.ca, and as someone who has had my share of bad meetings, I’m intrigued by what Tadum offers. And yes, I’m always interested to see how others are using open data, so I found Permit Tool pretty cool as well.

Here are the events and other announcements that were mentioned in-between demos:

  • You can now pre-order Nathan Youngman’s new book, Get Programming with Go. He had a couple of signed copies to show off last night. Congratulations Nathan!
  • Preflight is Startup Edmonton’s flagship program and it helps entrepreneurs “reach a global market, harness your ambition, and structure your business to grow right from the start.” New sessions are starting in October and November.
  • Edmonton Startup Week takes place October 15-19. Launch Party Edmonton 9 will take place on October 18.
  • If you’re a student, be sure to check out the free Student Membership from Startup Edmonton.
  • Save the date for the Student Development Conference, taking place March 23, 2019 at the Shaw Conference Centre.
  • There are plenty of other upcoming community meetups listed at the Startup Edmonton meetup site.

You can also check out the Tech Roundup for the latest headlines & happenings in Edmonton’s technology community every Tuesday. Here’s the latest edition.

See you at DemoCamp Edmonton 43!

Edmonton Global officially launches to attract investment to the Edmonton Metro Region

Last week Edmonton Global held a launch event outside its offices on the main floor of TELUS House.

“Edmonton Global’s goal is to attract investment and jobs to the Edmonton Metro Region by developing a regional brand, a regional database, and a strategic plan to ensure the Region takes its rightful place amongst ~300 comparable world communities.”

The event was emceed by Randy Boissonnault, MP for Edmonton Centre, who talked about the Edmonton region being a great place to work, live, and invest. The other speakers included Deron Bilous, Minister of Economic Development and Trade, Mayor Don Iveson, Edmonton Global Board Chair John Day, and Stantec’s Simon O’Byrne.

Edmonton Global Launch

Minister Deron Bilous said:

“With over 1.4 million people, Edmonton is one of the fastest growing metropolitan regions in Canada. We are proud to provide Edmonton Global $2.5 million to support projects that will attract new investment and create jobs.”

Mayor Don Iveson called Edmonton Global “a profound game changer” and said:

“This is the most important thing we need to do-pull the region together. But that would not be possible without all of you agreeing that that was what we needed to do.”

John Day said:

“We aren’t going to be successful unless we do it together. And that’s what this is all about… we have opportunities and challenges.”

Simon O’Byrne wrote following the event:

“I spoke to the audience about how places like Edmonton are ideally situated in a VUCA age (i.e. a time of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity). Markets seek certainty and stability. Edmonton is that place. It has, perhaps, the best public education system on the planet. It is a meritocracy where refugee children go to school with children that fly first class. That just doesn’t happen almost anywhere on Earth. Edmonton is one of the most inclusionary cities. 1/3 of us was born outside of Canada. Almost 40% of Edmonton are visible minorities. 1/3 of us can speak a language other than English or French. We have some of the best higher education institutions. We are also an affluent region, where ¼ households makes more than $100,000 a year. Almost 80% of households spend less than 30% of their income on housing, which is an enormous competitive advantage over many coastal cities. So why does this all matter? Because in a VUCA world, we are the model to follow. We are the safe, resilient and surest bet. We are the place you want to invest. To move to and raise a family. The place where the business climate is fertile for growth.”

I’ll give Edmonton Global itself the last word on the launch:

“A big thank you to everyone who came to our official launch event last night in Edmonton! If the attendance was any indication, there is huge support for the work we are doing to bring business here and position the Edmonton Metropolitan Region as a location of choice for global investment. We have so much to offer, including strong collaboration from regional leaders.”

A brief history of Edmonton Global

In September 2015, the mayors of nine municipalities in the region (Edmonton, Strathcona County, St. Albert, the City of Leduc, Fort Saskatchewan, Spruce Grove, Sturgeon County, Parkland County, and Leduc County) announced the Metro Mayors Alliance. Together, they represented 95% of the region’s population, 96% of its assessment base, and 80% of its land base. They contributed a total of $600,000 to conduct a study on how to make sure the Edmonton region is globally competitive. This was done at a time when the Capital Region Board (CRB), created in 2008, was still an unwieldy 24 members. It wasn’t until October 2017 that the CRB became the Edmonton Metropolitan Region Board (EMRB) and reduced its size to 13 members.

Mayors at MOU signing
Photo courtesy of the Metro Mayors Alliance

The Edmonton Metro Advisory Panel, the body formed to lead the study, released its report called Be Ready or Be Left Behind in June 2016. “We can’t just hunker down in our municipalities and milk the cows that we have,” said Don Lowry, who chaired the panel. The report warned that “as much as 87,700 additional hectares of agricultural land and 50,200 hectares of natural areas could be lost to uncooordinated development over the next 50 years” with the settlement footprint across the region growing to “as much as 273,900 hectares.” The report further warned that “taxpayers could be on the hook for an additional $8.2 billion to service that larger footprint with roads and other public infrastructure.”

The report made three cornerstone recommendations:

  1. Develop a collaborative, focused economic development strategy for the Edmonton Metro Region.
  2. Create a new inter-municipal mass transit entity in order to plan and deliver the smooth flow of people and goods between communities and across the region.
  3. Establish a mechanism with the capacity and authority to integrate and act on Metro Region land use plans and infrastructure development.

A few months earlier, in March 2016, the Capital Region Board had passed a motion to “incubate a formal regional economic development model, which would be independent of the CRB.” So when the Metro Advisory Panel’s report came out, there was a lot of overlap. The CRB pushed ahead with the new entity, adopting some aspects of the report along the way, and established an interim board of directors in February 2017, and followed that up with articles of association in April 2017. The City of Edmonton signed on to the entity the following month. Though all 24 members of the CRB were invited to join the new entity, just 15 signed on (the 13 members of what would become EMRB, plus Bon Accord and Gibbons).

The interim board phased out its work over the next month and the new organization was incorporated on June 9, 2017 as the “Edmonton Metropolitan Region Economic Development Company” now known as Edmonton Global, “the first fully regional economic development company for the Edmonton Metropolitan Region.” In September 2017, the inaugural Edmonton Global board of directors was announced, with John Day selected as board chair. They met for the first time a few days later and announced a target of July 1, 2018 to be fully operational.

In November 2017, Mayor Stuart Houston of Spruce Grove was named Chair of the Shareholders Group and Mayor Gale Katchur of Fort Saskatchewan was named Vice Chair. In April 2018, the organization announced that Malcolm Bruce would serve as CEO on a full-time basis starting July 1, 2018. He had been serving as interim CEO since the organization was formed, and was the CEO of the Edmonton Metropolitan Region Board since January 2015.

And that brings us to September 6, when the official launch event for Edmonton Global was held.

Edmonton Global Launch

What’s next?

In 2016, I wondered who was responsible for the Edmonton metro region. While there’s still a lot of overlap and jockeying for position going on, it seems that EMRB will be responsible for long-term planning while Edmonton Global will be responsible for economic development. In an interview in May 2018, Malcolm Bruce said “when we hunt as a pack on the world stage, we offer a far more compelling package to investors.” Still to come is that new regional transit authority.

Edmonton Global’s 2018-2023 Strategic Plan includes four priorities:

  1. Serve as a catalyst for investment and job attraction and retention for the Edmonton Metropolitan Region.
  2. Be the voice of the Edmonton Metropolitan Region’s economic development activities.
  3. Leverage partnerships to enhance Edmonton Global’s success.
  4. Organizational Excellence.

The organization started with a budget of $1 million 2017 which grew to $3 million this year and will expand further to $5 million in 2019. Over the next six months or so, Edmonton Global anticipates adding up to 20 staff.

The City of Edmonton contributed $330,000 to Edmonton Global in 2017, which came out of the Corporate Expenditures Management Initiatives budget. This year it contributed $668,000, which came out of the EEDC budget. Next year the City will contribute $1.346 million, but the funding source is yet to be determined. Each shareholder contributes funds based on a formula tied to its population and assessment base, which means the City of Edmonton is funding about 75% of the organization’s total budget.

The big question then is what this means for the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation (EEDC), which was responsible for nearly everything that Edmonton Global will now be tackling. A report to City Council last year promised “a broader reflection on role clarity relative to areas of investment by the City of Edmonton’s in economic development will be undertaken.” The City also said in November 2017 that “discussions are ongoing with the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation regarding the roles and responsibilities between the two organizations.”

That work is still ongoing. I asked EEDC CEO Derek Hudson about it last month just after he was named to the role. “I don’t see us stepping back in much of the work we do,” he told me. He pointed out that capacity-wise, there’s no comparison. EEDC has a budget of nearly $50 million and more than 200 employees, so it simply has a greater ability than Edmonton Global to get things done.

That said, he sees a need to work together, and told me the boards of the two organizations have a subcommittee to sort through it all. “One of the things that is critical is what’s the experience of someone coming from outside,” he said. “Ideally an investor from Asia gets a coherent experience from the time they first hear about the Edmonton metro region to when they participate in an investment,” no matter where in the region it is.

#yeg turns ten

Today marks the tenth anniversary of the #yeg hashtag on Twitter. Here is the first #yeg tweet:

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That’s probably the only time I have used #Edmonton! Ever since then, it has been nothing but #yeg. Here’s what I wrote about that tweet back in 2009:

“If I remember correctly, I found about the #yyc hashtag while I was in Calgary for BarCampCalgary2 on June 14th, 2008. I learned from @wintr that a few Calgarians had started using the hashtag to tweet about things related to their city. I thought it might be a good idea to do something similar here in Edmonton.”

Timing counts for a lot, and my Twitter story is no different. I was in the right place at the right time and joined Twitter early, on July 14, 2006. It was a fun and frustrating time (remember the fail whale) to be on Twitter. I convinced Sharon to join Twitter fairly early on, in October 2006. Her first tweet, fittingly, was about food. (Her second tweet the next day was an attempt to turn off Twitter, which at the time worked via text message).

Being one of the first people in the world on Twitter meant I was one of the few people to follow when others joined. It also probably meant I was just statistically more likely to be the one to post the first #yeg tweet, though looking back now it is kind of amazing to me that it took two years to do so. On the other hand, it wasn’t until August 2007 that Chris Messina suggested using the # symbol for groups on Twitter and posted the first hashtag in a tweet. Tagging was popular on the web already at that point but the word “hashtag” was new. Its use grew so much that it was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in June 2014.

EdmontonTweetup
That’s me speaking at the first EdmontonTweetup in May 2008

On the fifth anniversary of the #yeg hashtag in 2013 I wrote:

“People from other cities often comment on how connected and tight-knit the online community in Edmonton seems to be, and I think the #yeg hashtag is really at the heart of that. We’ve used it to make new friends, to share the news, to raise money for important charitable causes, and for thousands of other interesting and important reasons.”

It didn’t take long for Edmonton’s Twitter community to grow beyond simply #yeg. Now people use all kinds of tags that start with #yeg like the ever-popular #yegfood. It used to surprise me to see #yeg used in places outside Twitter. Now, for better or worse, it’s part of the social fabric of our city.

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Still, it wouldn’t be the hashtag (and community) it is today without all of the people that have worked to support and grow it over the years. Especially Brittney, Adam, Jerry, Tamara, Linda, and Kathleen, to name just a few.

Oh, and it’s pronounced y-egg not why-e-gee. 🙂

Here’s to the next ten years of #yeg!

Recognizing child friendly businesses in Edmonton

Child Friendly Edmonton, a Council Initiative sponsored by Councillor Bev Esslinger, launched the new Child Friendly Business Recognition Program today at City Hall. The program “aims to promote businesses that are intentionally welcoming to children and their families.”

Child Friendly Edmonton
Councillors Esslinger and Paquette spoke at today’s launch event

“We want to share this new program with the city and highlight the current successes of local businesses who have become more child-friendly,” said Councillor Esslinger in a news release. “With more than 20 per cent of the population being under 18, it’s very important that kids feel welcomed and included in their city.”

Based on input from Edmontonians, Child Friendly Edmonton identifies three keys to being a child friendly business:

  • Attitude “is the most important way to become child friendly. Patient, friendly and understanding service from staff who take the time to greet and welcome their younger customers is a major factor in how welcoming a business feels to children and their families. A smile is a great place to start.”
  • Amenities “are generally for the benefit of the adult(s) accompanying a child. Amenities are choices that businesses can make to improve the experience for adults with children. Some amenities like providing seating for children and washrooms that can be used by all genders to change diapers are considered ‘must- haves’ for child friendly businesses.”
  • Activities “help occupy children throughout their visit. Children that remain calm and content make their, as well as their adults’ experience at the business more enjoyable. Activities can be anything from providing a coloring sheet to creating an area specifically for children.”

Nine different child friendly businesses were showcased at the launch event today, but there are already more than 65 businesses that have been recognized under the program. I was thrilled to see that they are all listed in the Open Data Catalogue! There’s also a map view which shows they are nicely spread around the city.

Child Friendly Edmonton

If you know of a business that is child friendly, you can nominate them to the program online. If you have visited a child friendly business recently, there’s an online survey you can fill out to share your experience.

Child Friendly Edmonton’s vision is “a welcoming city for all young Edmontonians; children are listened to, respected, and valued for their thoughts and ideas.” The new program supports all four of Child Friendly Edmonton’s goals, as outlined in the Working Plan: engagement, accessible spaces, inclusive city, and “downtown demonstration project.”

That last one is to use downtown as “a demonstration site to explore and showcase an urban area which is welcoming and supportive to children and their families/caregivers.” Ian O’Donnell, executive director of the Downtown Business Association, spoke today about the DBA’s support for the program. “We want to improve the family-friendly nature of downtown and continue to work with our member businesses towards a downtown for everyone.”

Baby's first media event
Baby’s first media event

As a downtown resident with a new baby I’m obviously happy to see the push for child friendly spaces. But I know the outcome will benefit more than just families. Often the same considerations that make families feel more welcome apply to other demographics as well. This is well-illustrated in the similarities between strollers and wheelchairs, for instance.

You can learn more about Child Friendly Edmonton here and on social media using the #ChildFriendlyYEG hashtag.