City Council endorses phased approach to Edmonton Galleria project, but many questions remain

The long-discussed Galleria project received a fresh injection of life today after Council threw its support behind a phased approach that would see the $1 billion project constructed through 2020. The item was up at Executive Committee again after last year’s request by Council to find a way to lower the risk to the City.


The Galleria project consists of the same components today as it did then: four performing arts theatres (1600 seat theatre, 650 seat theatre/concert hall, 200 seat theatre, 200 seat recital hall); the relocation of the University of Alberta’s School of Music, Department of Art & Design, and one other department; construction of an office tower; development of a covered public galleria; and commercial and retail opportunities. The difference is that now it’s not an all or nothing proposition.

Today’s decision by Council to endorse a phased approach means the project backers can seek funding from the other orders of government. It also means in theory that certain triggers must be met before the City needs to spend any money, the first of which is agreeing to a memorandum of understanding in September and giving final approval to the City’s financial contribution.

So how much would the City be on the hook for?

“The total project costs outlined in this report that would be the responsibility of the City total $58.3 million. When factoring in interest charges on the amounts that are eligible to be borrowed for, the total expected cash expenditure for the City is estimated at $75.2 million.”

It sounds like any City money would come with strings attached too: “The release of city funds would be dependent on EDAC achieving certain milestones including the securing of a tenant in commercial/residential development with income sufficient to cover the capital and operating commitments of the Foundation.” That’s a much better approach than they took with the arena. For now they’ve approved $7.5 million for the pedway between Churchill LRT Station and the Royal Alberta Museum.

As I mentioned last year, I’m fine with the land acquisitions the City would be making. That’s probably a wise investment whether the Galleria project goes ahead or not. But there are still too many questions outstanding for me to support this project.

Provincial or Federal funding

The Galleria project is only going to move forward if funding from the other orders of government can be secured, and that’s far from guaranteed.

We saw absolutely zero interest from the PCs in supporting the project, even with Irv & Dianne Kipnes as donors, so I don’t see why the NDP would be any more likely to support it. The Provincial government has stuck to its hard line against funding the downtown arena, and I’d be surprised to see them all of a sudden come to the table on the Galleria.

On the federal side, Mayor Iveson has said that Council has received “mixed signals” and that he’d be surprised if the project could secure any federal funding at all. It has not been easy to get money out of Ottawa. Council had to agree to a P3 in order to get federal funding for the LRT, for instance.

Furthermore, the reality is that the City and specifically Council is going to have to go to bat for the project if the Province or the Feds are going to pony up anything at all. And that begs the question, is this really the project you want to burn important political capital on? Is this more important than the City Charter, LRT, poverty elimination, or any of the other significant priorities Edmonton has?

Lack of support from the Arts Community

Crickets. That’s what we’ve heard from most arts organizations about the Galleria project, at least publicly. Privately many have argued against the project, but the Kipnes are powerful enemies to attract.

A purpose-built opera house would undoubtedly be a good thing for the Edmonton Opera. It’s probably the most expensive art form in the world. For example, the Jubilee is effectively dark for about 90 nights a year to stage just 3 or 4 opera performances because of the construction and rehearsal time that each one takes. That’s a lot of lost revenue when you consider that events like “The Book of Mormon” can arrive and be setup in a day and will nearly always sell out.

Without hearing from other organizations, how can we be sure the proposed four theatres would meet the need that exists in the arts community? How much of the new Galleria space would be open and available to other arts organizations? How often would it be unavailable thanks to either opera or University of Alberta use? What costs or other requirements would go along with use?

Perhaps those details are yet to be finalized and that’s why it is difficult for arts organizations to decide whether or not to support the project. But it’s not a good sign that the arts community at large has been so quiet on the project.

Breaking up the University of Alberta

With MacEwan and NorQuest consolidating their campuses downtown, I can understand that perhaps the University of Alberta feels a little left out, but breaking up its own campus doesn’t seem like a wise move. For years it was pretty clear in all U of A long range plans that a downtown campus was not in the best interests of the university or its students. The South Campus vision was the preferred approach, allowing for a more connected campus.

There has been some vague lip service paid to the fact that being connected via the LRT to all other post secondary institutions would be a beneficial thing, but as soon as the Metro Line opens we’ll already have that. No need for a new campus.

Innovation doesn’t seem to be happening by segregation. The most interesting and powerful ideas that are changing the world are coming from interdisciplinary efforts. Why separate the arts from the science and engineering part of the university?

Furthermore, what impact would a downtown arts campus for the U of A have on MacEwan’s new Centre for Arts and Culture? Does it make sense to have two arts campuses so close to one another?

More empty space left behind

Look up and you see cranes. Look around on ground level and you’ll see a bunch of empty space.

We’re coming up on four years since the EPCOR Tower opened, the first new office tower built downtown since 1990. Originally known as “Station Lands Tower A”, the building still to this day has empty, unused space (such as the entire 16th floor where the recent downtown event was held). The other buildings that were slated to be part of the Station Lands development have never materialized.

The old EPCOR tower, rebranded First & Jasper, still has plenty of empty space, such as most of the ground level commercial. Even Edmonton’s premier downtown street, 104 Street, is home to its share of vacancies. The old Carbon space near 102 Avenue remains empty as does the old Sobey’s on the corner of Jasper Avenue, one of the most visible – and in theory attractive – locations in all of Edmonton.

All of this space is empty today, before development has really gotten underway. What will happen when the City of Edmonton offices consolidate into the new tower? Scotia Place, HSBC, Century Place, and other buildings are going to have a lot of vacancies. What about when Stantec consolidates into its new tower? All of its existing offices will need new tenants. What happens to City Centre when the new hotel and theatre open in the arena district? It’s already struggling to keep retailers.

In fact, a Cushman and Wakefield report suggests that by the end of 2017, Edmonton’s office vacancy rate could reach 17%, the highest in the country.

I’m all for getting rid of additional parking lots, but where’s the demand for yet another office tower? Especially one that needs to generate revenue to help fund the project.

Competition with the Edmonton Arena District

So far the Katz Group has been publicly supportive of the Galleria but I have no doubt that would change if their significant real estate investments came under threat. There’s simply too much money at stake.

The arena deal is done and for better or worse the Downtown CRL depends on it. So as taxpayers, we need that project to be successful. Does it really make sense to build a competitive project right next door? Another office tower to fill, with additional retail spaces that need to attract patrons? Proponents of the Galleria would argue that the project will drive significant additional traffic to the area but I find their estimates unrealistic and I’ve not see any new data that would change my mind.

Plus we’d have yet another big, open public space to program or have sit empty. Is there really a need for Churchill Square, the EAD square, and a public galleria?

A holistic decision needs to be made

I completely understand that when someone comes forward with $50 million as the philanthropists behind the Galleria project have, there’s a desire on the part of Council to leverage that money. Acquiring funding for projects is hard and having private money brought to the table is a huge help and doesn’t happen every day. But just because you come to the table with money doesn’t mean that your project should go ahead.


Council needs to decide not only if the Galleria itself is a good project, but whether it is going to bring a positive, net benefit to downtown and to Edmonton as a whole. Does Edmonton need the Galleria right now? Will it have a positive impact, without negatively impacting the other major projects we have underway?

With so many big questions still unanswered, I remain unconvinced that Edmonton should support the Galleria project.

Why does the University of Alberta want to be part of the Galleria project?

“The University has long desired to establish a significant campus in downtown Edmonton.”

That’s the first thing the Edmonton Downtown Academic and Cultural Centre (Galleria) business case from April 2013 identifies under opportunities and benefits for the University of Alberta. It sounds plausible, given the ongoing interest in revitalizing downtown and the University’s desire to play a role in the larger Edmonton community. But is it really true?

Here’s what columnist Paula Simons wrote in November 2001:

“Officially, a downtown campus isn’t an option. I’ve spoken to U of A President Rod Fraser, to University Provost Doug Owram, and to Jim Mitchell, the university’s vice-president of facilities. They all tell me it would be too expensive to build downtown, much more than developing land they already own in Garneau or southwest Edmonton. They say it would be too hard to find suitable space for labs and large lecture theatres. They say students and staff would feel isolated from campus life and facilities. They say it’s not their mandate to save downtown, but to serve the best interests of the U of A.”

That was around the time that the University of Alberta’s Long Range Development Plan (LRDP) was being developed (approved in 2002). It provides “a planning framework to accommodate and to guide physical development on University lands during the next thirty years.” Though it focuses on land and facilities that the University already owns, it does deal explicitly with the idea of a downtown campus:

ualberta lrdp

Though the plan has been amended a few times over the years, notably to incorporate Augustana Campus and most recently to incorporate updated plans for South Campus, that section has never been changed. “South Campus will accommodate much of the growth of the University of Alberta for the next thirty years” is what the most recent amendment says.

Even in 2005, when the University announced plans to buy the Hudson’s Bay building, it was not seen as a first step toward a larger campus in downtown or a change to previous plans. New President Indira Samarasekera said “the University of Alberta is a contributor to business, arts, and other sectors,” adding “we have an obligation to the community that we take seriously, and a downtown presence will build on that.” A few years later at the official opening of Enterprise Square, she said “that the University has finally crossed the river and found a place in the heart of the city is very significant” but also admitted that “it initially scared the heck out of me; we took a leap of faith.”

It was with some surprise then that Provost and Vice President Academic Dr. Carl Amrhein posted the following on the University of Alberta’s blog yesterday:

“The Galleria project is more than much-needed space for the University of Alberta—it is consistent with the university’s vision of an urban, linear campus connected by LRT where students, faculty and members of the public move freely around the city to access world-class teaching and research experiences offered at Edmonton’s post-secondary institutions. Imagine the vibrancy that 5,000 art, design and music students, faculty and staff will bring to the downtown core. Imagine the potential when students and professional artists interact through linkages with the Winspear, Citadel and Art Gallery of Alberta. The creative energy will be palpable!”

That seems to contradict not only statements by earlier University officials, but also the LRDP. Had the need for “an integrated campus environment” changed? Had the disadvantages about paying rent changed? Did student leaders now find a downtown location desirable? I reached out to Dr. Amhrein for clarification.

“There’s a technical point,” he told me, “which is that the Long Range Development Plan is concerned with real estate that the university owns and controls.” Given that the U of A would be leasing space inside the new Galleria project, it wouldn’t necessarily contradict the plan. He recognized the larger point however, and said “the argument for integrated locations is ease of mobility and the ability to move people around in a certain amount of time.” That’s where the LRT comes in.

Bay/Enterprise Square
Bay/Enterprise Square LRT Station, photo by Christopher Cotrell

“The feature that made Enterprise Square imaginable was the LRT,” Dr. Amrhein told me. “It meant that it was no more difficult to get from HUB to Enterprise Square than it was to get from HUB to South Campus.” He said the U of A’s first question then about the Galleria project was, “is there an LRT stop?” As both Churchill LRT Station and MacEwan LRT Station are close, the goal of an “urban, linear campus connected by LRT” is achieved at the Galleria, according to Dr. Amrhein.

In his blog post, Dr. Amrhein reiterated the University of Alberta’s key requirement for the Galleria:

“Yes, the university has identified climate-controlled access to the Galleria from the LRT as critical for our students, faculty and staff, and the patrons of the performances at the Galleria theatres and concert halls. A pedway is one solution, but there are others.”

He sounded annoyed that the pedway had become such a touch point in discussions about the Galleria. “The pedway is not a deal-breaker for the University,” he told me. Only “climate-controlled access” is a requirement. When I asked him to suggest alternatives to a pedway that could meet that requirement, initially he dodged the question. But asked a second time, he suggested the position of the buildings could provide the required access, citing the Telus towers and their connection to the LRT as an example. “Clever positioning with a plus fifteen would achieve the same result,” he said, noting that the project architects would have to rethink their plans to make that happen.

Dr. Amrhein told me the University requires climate-controlled access for three reasons. The first is the need to move faculty, staff, and students around campus in short periods of time. “When it’s dark and cold, there’s a disincentive to move around the facilities,” he said. The second is safety, which Dr. Amrhein said has been “completely lost in the conversation.” He stressed the importance of safety, saying that pedways are “well-lit and heated, and very visible” and that they often include security features. “There’s a personal safety issue here.” The third is accessibility of the performance venues for the community.

Dr. Carl Amrhein, photo by James MacKenzie

Back to the central question – why does the University of Alberta want to be part of the Galleria project? To answer that, Dr. Amrhein brought up Mayor Mandel and his vision to have all of Edmonton’s post-secondary institutions integrated and connected by LRT. “Imagine a medical student at NAIT,” Dr. Amrhein said. “That student can move from the classrooms at NAIT to the labs at the Walter MacKenzie Health Sciences Centre because of the LRT.” Integration across institutions like that would “put Edmonton in a very small group” of cities, Dr. Amrhein said.

It’s clear that Dr. Amrhein views the University’s participation in the Galleria project as something that will help Edmonton as a whole. “I hope it goes ahead.”

Chasing the Northern Lights in Edmonton

I feel very fortunate to have grown up in Inuvik, NT where the northern lights are relatively easy to see. I remember heading to the east channel of the Mackenzie River (a short ten minute walk from where we lived) and venturing out onto the frozen ice to gaze up at the incredible dancing aurora above. Even in Yellowknife where my parents now live, you can see the northern lights relatively frequently. Here’s an incredible shot my Dad took back in September:

Aurora Borealis at km 13 of the Ingraham Trail, Yellowknife, NT, by Martin Male

Take a few minutes and check out some of the other aurora he has captured. The lights just don’t look real!

Here in Edmonton the northern lights aren’t exactly uncommon, but you do need to work a little harder to see them than they do up north. Or at least I thought you did, until I discovered the AuroraWatch service a couple years ago!

Auroral forecast from

The award-winning AuroraWatch service was created and is operated by a team at the University of Alberta. The service monitors geomagnetic activity in the Edmonton area and can email you for free if the northern lights might be visible. At any given time, you can visit the website to see the estimated probability of witnessing the aurora borealis in the evening (their live widget is embedded to the right). There are two alert levels – yellow when the probability is above 50%, and red when the probability is above 70%.

Since it launched back in October 2007, AuroraWatch has had more than 1.2 million visitors and currently has more than 26,000 email subscribers. Since 2009, they have issued more than 175 alerts.

So how can you ensure you get a good view? Well once you’ve received your red alert, get to a better viewing location:

The best advice for viewing aurora is to look north, after dark. Just around or before midnight is an especially good time, but the northern lights can be seen in Edmonton from early evening onwards on some very active days. Inside the city, the light pollution makes dimmer auroras harder to see – so you will get a much better view if you go to a location with darker skies outside the city.

That makes sense, right? Head outside the city and you just might get an amazing photo like this one taken by local photographer Mike Isaak back in November:

Northern Lights over Elk Island
Elk Island Aurora by Mike Isaak (purchase prints here)

He posted the photo on Twitter and received more than 330 retweets and more than 280 favorites. You can see why! Mike is also a finalist in the 2014 VISTEK Emerging Photographer competition – go vote for him!

Of course, if you know when to look and how to capture it, you don’t have to go very far at all. On the same weekend in November, photographer Kevin Tuong captured this incredible shot of the northern lights over downtown:

Northern Lights over Downtown
Northern Lights over Downtown by Kevin Tuong

I didn’t think you could see them like that within the city limits, but you can! Kevin’s photo was also popular on social media, with lots of upvotes on Reddit.

The AuroraWatch site often hosts images that photographers have sent in. It sure looks like that Remembrance Day long weekend in November was a sure-thing for aurora-viewing.

AuroraWatch won the ASTech 2013 Public Awareness Award for the unique service it provides:

“We are delighted and honoured that the impact of in promoting space science and technology was recognized with this ASTech Award to the Aurora Watch team,” said principal researcher Ian Mann, noting that space weather can also have more damaging consequences on the satellite, GPS and power grid infrastructure we increasingly rely on in the 21st century.

According to Environment Canada, there’s an average of about 90 nights per year when the northern lights are visible in Edmonton, and the best month is probably September. The good thing about AuroraWatch is that you no longer need to guess which nights those are!

If you love gazing up at the aurora borealis as much as I do, go sign up for the AuroraWatch Alerts. You won’t be disappointed. Also check out @aurorawatch on Twitter.

Many thanks to Mike Isaak, Kevin Tuong, and Martin Male for letting me use their excellent work to help illustrate this story.

Recap: Hacking Health in Edmonton

Last weekend was Edmonton’s first Hacking Health, a unique event that aims to enable collaboration between technology geeks and healthcare workers to solve health-focused problems. The hackathon took place at the Edmonton Clinic Health Academy at the University of Alberta from Friday evening through Sunday afternoon and attracted dozens of participants and many more observers.

Hacking Health Edmonton 2013

Here’s what Hacking Health is all about:

Hacking Health is an experiment in collaboration. Our hypothesis is that the interface of front-line clinicians and technology experts will yield innovative approaches to some (not all) of healthcare’s most entrenched problems. By rapidly building and testing prototypes, we can identify the fraction of ideas that have the potential to scale and at the same time, allow others to take their learnings and apply them to new ideas. Our goal is to make this experimentation as low risk as possible for everyone involved – the individual participants, organizers, and supporters.

Hacking Health was founded a little over a year ago in Montreal by Jeeshan Chowdhury, Matthew Huebert, and Dominic Savoie. They found the startup scene and hackathons in particular quite intriguing, and felt that such events could have a positive impact on the world of health too.

What if they could get doctors, nurses, and other health professionals in the same room as technology experts? Could they reduce the risk of healthcare innovation by giving designers and developers exposure to the healthcare knowledge and connections they lack?

Since that first event in Montreal, more than 1000 clinicians, patients, designers, and developers have participated in subsequent events in Toronto and Vancouver. The Hacking Health team have ambitions to spread across the world, starting with Canada. For some additional background, check out this ExpressNews article.

It was only a matter of time until Hacking Health made its way to Edmonton, as this is Jeeshan’s hometown (we actually went to high school together). Our growing startup and technology scene combined with an established and widely recognized health sector make Edmonton a great fit for events like Hacking Health. I didn’t have the opportunity to participate in the event, but I did attend the demo session on Sunday.

Hacking Health Edmonton 2013

Hacking Health followed the same format as many other hackathons. Friday night is when the ideas are pitched and the teams are formed. If an idea or proposal catches your attention, you’re welcome to join the team. Once that’s done, the teams get down to work, spending all of Saturday trying to make progress on their solution or idea. Sunday is when the teams demo what they managed to accomplish over the weekend.

There were 33 projects pitched, 13 of which had teams formed around them. There was quite a bit of variation in the projects and team sizes, which made for an interesting set of demos! Each team had 2 minutes to show off their work, followed by an opportunity for the judges to ask some questions.

Hacking Health Edmonton 2013

Here’s a quick overview of the 13 teams that demoed:

  • Health Facility Wayfinding: This team didn’t actually take a technology approach to their solution. Instead they proposed the use of human guides along with signage to help people navigate the hospital.
  • Education for Extracorporeal Therapies: An extracorporeal procedure is one which is performed outside the body. In this case, the team focused on the need to do something with a patient’s blood, and they devised a clamp system using Arduino. It was described as an add-on to existing products, and while I can’t personally appreciate the impact it might have, others in the room seemed excited.
  • Kala: An Emergency Room Wait Time Genie: The idea with Kala was to use machine learning to predict wait times. They demoed a dashboard that would present that intelligence, and said the biggest challenge would be getting access to data from the hospitals. AHS does share estimated wait times, of course.
  • Referral Appointment Dashboard: Called ezReferral, this team’s project would allow doctors to negotiate with one another to simplify the complicated referral process. They are apparently about 80% of the way to completion!
  • LinkRX: This project aimed to build a link between doctors and pharmacists for prescriptions. Using a QR code on a prescription, the team hoped to ensure that prescriptions could not be forged and to make it easier for pharmacists to scan on their end (no more deciphering doctor’s notes). They said pieces of the system already exist, but their project was a unified system.
  • Tracking/Improving Emotional Well Being via Smart Phone: This team built an Android app to enable emotional tracking. The vision is to combine self-reported moods (the piece they worked on over the weekend) with everything else that your smart phone knows about you.
  • StandUp!: This team said “sitting is the new smoking” and their plan to get you up and out of your seat is an app that reminds you when you’ve been sitting for too long. It would assign you an activity, like doing ten squats, that you could invite a friend to join along in. You earn points for completing each activity, and your workplace could pay for data to monitor the health of its workforce.
  • Mis TakeAway: This project envisioned a safe space for health professionals to reflect on their mistakes, a sort of post secret for the healthcare industry. The webpage featured messages in a bottle, each of which contained a confession.
  • CoughDoc: Another simple but powerful idea formed the basis of this app – allow patients to record their cough (or their child’s) using a smartphone and send it to their doctor. The doctor could then diagnose remotely and determine whether an appointment is necessary.
  • Rehabilitation with games using KINECT: Rehabilitation using Kinect is not a new idea, but this team forged ahead with a fun, Super Mario Bros-inspired game nonetheless. They focused on rehab for an elbow injury in their game called Super Reventure World.
  • What’s for lunch?: This app is a tracker for nutritional information. Again, there are dozens of these services already out there, but what made it unique was the interface – users could enter plain English and the app would parse it and convert it to the appropriate nutritional information.
  • Walk-ins Welcome: It sounds like last minute cancellations are a big problem, and that’s what this project aimed to solve. The service would connect patients with last minute appointment times, and would allow doctors to keep track of which patients were no-shows.
  • TrialConnect: The final project was focused on connecting willing participants to clinical trial research. It’s like a matchmaking service for researchers and patients.

Hacking Health Edmonton 2013
The judges deliberate

In the end, CoughDoc, ezReferral, StandUp!, and Walk-ins Welcome were all recognized by the judges as well as sponsors BDC and Bird Communications. I think my favorite was StandUp!, perhaps because it seemed the most realistic and immediately impactful to me. It’s pretty amazing what each of the teams was able to accomplish in such a short amount of time!

Everyone seemed to have a great time over the weekend, and it was great to see all of the demos at the end. Congratulations to everyone that helped to make Hacking Health Edmonton happen! For more on the event, check out Tamara’s Storify.

Hacking Health Edmonton 2013
The StandUp! team

Hacking Health will be making its next stop in Calgary in February 2014, followed by events in Montreal and Hamilton before going international to New York City, Stockholm, and Strasbourg.

Here in Edmonton, stay tuned for a second Hacking Health event next fall. You can follow Hacking Health Edmonton on Twitter (they may get a meetup group going too). Check out more photos from the first event here.

Media Monday Edmonton: The Wanderer

Edmonton’s online coverage got a little bit richer last July when The Wanderer officially launched. Described as “Edmonton’s premier daily online magazine,” The Wanderer was born at the University of Alberta but aims to reach beyond campus by highlighting local politics, culture, science, sports, and more. I sat down recently with Emerson Csorba, one of the site’s founders, to learn more.

Emerson is entering his fourth year of Sciences Politiques at Campus Saint-Jean after spending a year working for the Students’ Union. Last spring he started throwing around the idea of starting a newspaper or magazine with some friends. “We wanted to highlight Edmonton a little differently,” he said, citing influences such as The Atlantic, Gawker, and GOOD. The wanted to provide an alternative to The Gateway, but also didn’t want to be restricted to covering university-related news. The other founders included Sansitny Ruth, Dongwoo Kim, Katrina Regino, Skye Oleson-Cormack, and Sydney Rudko. In the summer they decided to make it happen.

Emerson Csorba

Emerson and the team recruited about 20 writers and started posting content, with the site officially launching on July 5, 2012. Today they’re up to about 70 contributors, 20 of whom contribute regularly. All are volunteers. “We run off gratitude,” Emerson told me. “Thanks for contributing!” Emerson is hoping to have some professors start writing for the site consistently too, perhaps talking about their research. And another challenge is to find a core group of younger students who can contribute. “We want to have a reunion 20 years from now!”

The goal is to publish something new every day. Contributors have quite a bit of autonomy, though usually a piece will get bounced off at least one other person before going live. The site runs on WordPress and contributors are granted “editor” privileges. For the most part this works well, though it can backfire occasionally. The satirical paragraph about northsiders in this piece didn’t come off well, Emerson told me (nor did his piece on Plastiq). Still, they didn’t take it down. As of April 15, a total of 847 articles had been published on a variety of topics.

The name of the site was a suggestion from Sansitny. “At first I didn’t like it,” Emerson admitted, adding that it has grown on him since. It’s meant to capture the idea that students are wanderers, experimenting as they work to find their path. Other names that were considered included “Butterdome Republic” and “Rutherford Post”.

I have really been enjoying the content at The Wanderer, especially lately. Interviews with Omar Mouallem, Edmonton Opera’s CEO Sandra Gajic, and Mayor Mandel have all been great reads. An earlier project that received a lot of attention was The Wanderer’s list of the Top 100 Undergrads. I asked Emerson if he considers himself a journalist, but he shunned the label. “We want people to write about things they’re involved in and passionate about,” he told me.

The Wanderer

As for what’s next for the site, Emerson says “consistency is the goal,” at least in terms of posting content. Watch for podcasts and videos in the future, as well as enhanced visual arts coverage. Emerson is also hoping to have The Wanderer branch out into events. “Maybe we can do a half day conference on education,” he mused. “Tie all the levels of education together.” Another area of interest is community leagues, and how to engage more youth (Emerson served as president of the Parkallen Community League for a year, so he knows a thing or two about that!) There’s clearly a lot of energy and ideas flowing. I think their recent “Thank you, readers” post captures the possibilities well:

The Wanderer honestly doesn’t have an end-point in mind; we evolve based on our writers’ ideas. We provide autonomy to our writers and tell them to basically “go for it.”

The Wanderer is off to a great start, with a Yeggie nomination in the “Best in Edmonton” category (if that wasn’t proof enough that The Wanderer is on to something, a website called Ualberta Green Onion poked fun at them recently), and more than 60,000 unique visitors and 200,000 page views since launch. Add to that a large team of contributors producing quality content, and you’ve got a local site to keep an eye on!

Media Monday Edmonton: Headlines matter

I was up relatively early Friday morning for meetings, so I was working from my home office. I had a few minutes in between calls at around 8am, so I clicked over to Google News. I was shocked to see the top news section filled with stories about a shooting at the University of Alberta. I poked my head out the door and said to Sharon, who was in the kitchen eating breakfast, "There’s been a shooting at the U of A!"

I later realized that while the shooting took place on the University of Alberta campus, it was not a school shooting as I had assumed after reading the headlines.

Five employees of G4S Cash Solutions Canada were making a delivery to ATMs at Hub Mall just after midnight when one of them, 21-year-old Travis Brandon Baumgartner, allegedly opened fire on his colleagues as part of a robbery. Michelle Shegelski, 26, Brian Ilesic, 35, and Eddie Rejano, 39 all died on scene, and Matthew Schuman is in critical condition in U of A hospital. Baumgartner was caught attempting to cross the border just south of Abbotsford, BC on Saturday with more than $300,000 in cash. He remains in RCMP custody and has been charged with three counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted murder, and four counts of robbery with a firearm.

There’s a page at Wikipedia for school shootings. A school shooting is defined there as "an incident in which gun violence occurs at an educational institution" though the page further explains that the term "is most commonly used to describe acts committed by either a student or intruders from outside the school campus." When I hear the term "school shooting" I most often think about Columbine, Virginia Tech, or Ecole Polytechnique (and those three are just the tip of the iceberg). Those incidents were all very different than the shooting that took place on Friday at the University of Alberta. They all involved students, for one thing. They involved the school in more than just location. So why did the headlines from Friday all make it seem like this was another school shooting?

Thanks in large part to search engines and the proliferation of bite-sized information distribution systems like Twitter, the nature of the headline is changing. Crafting brief, punchy headlines with a touch a humor and word play is rapidly being replaced by crafting headlines that rank highest in searches and work well on social media. It is not uncommon for the same article to have different headlines online and in print, because what plays well in the paper may not result in the best SEO for the online version.

Headlines are important because they punch above their weight. As this academic paper notes, "headlines reach an audience considerably wider than those who read the articles, since all those who buy the paper will glance, if only fleetingly, at the headlines." More importantly than the reach they have is the fact that a headline is more than just a collection of words. "Headlines encapsulate not only the content but the orientation, the perspective that the readers should bring to their understanding of the article."

As is often the case with crime stories, people craved information about the incident and the media gave us what we asked for, producing countless articles, videos, and other story elements. Let’s take a look at some of the headlines used by the media this weekend to describe the shooting.


Notice how prominently the University of Alberta factors into those headlines. “U of A shooting” and “Hub Mall shooter” were both commonly used. The Edmonton Sun called their section “U of A slayings”. There’s no easily discoverable section at the Journal, but in the “More on this story” box for this article on the Edmonton Journal, every single one of the twelve articles listed includes “U of A shooting”. What perspective does that suggest you bring to your reading of the news? Remember that the incident simply took place on campus property, but was not what we would typically describe as a "school shooting". As Paula Simons noted in her column: "This has all the hallmarks of a calculated, cold-blooded heist, an inside job — about as far from a random campus spree killing as you could get."

The emotional connections our community has to the University of Alberta should not be overlooked. Some of us are alumni, others have children who are studying there. The U of A’s significance as our province’s and our city’s university creates a less direct but still important connection. When the U of A is recognized by others, we feel pride. When a horrific event takes place on campus, we feel sadness and maybe anger. Our emotional connection to the University has an impact on how we perceive news about it.

I don’t mean to suggest that the University of Alberta should have been removed from the story. The incident took place on campus, and questions about whether or not students were appropriately notified are important and should be explored. But I am troubled by the confluence of the U of A and the shooting because I think it makes news consumers think of school shootings, when that is not the correct perspective to bring to the story. The facts do not support the "school shooting" perspective.

I guess I’d be one of the alumni that Paula wrote about:

Some U of A staff and alumni are trying to distance the university from the shooting – arguing this was just a kind of bank robbery that accidentally happened to take on university property. Yet even if this tragedy is only tangentially connected to the University of Alberta, we’d be wilfully naive to assume people in the wider world won’t connect the shootings and the university.

Maybe that’s true, but the headlines that media organizations chose to use certainly didn’t help. You need not look any further than Paula’s column itself: "Simons on U of A shooting: The danger of turning killings into online entertainment". That’s the online headline, the one that people in the wider world would see.

What should the headlines have read instead? Perhaps less focus on the location, and more on the actual event – an armed robbery that turned deadly. Some of the headlines that appeared later did this, such as "Manhunt on for triple-murder suspect in shootings of Edmonton armoured-truck colleagues". While last year was a very unusual year, most homicide stories carried a headline about the count, as in "Edmonton’s 30th homicide". If a location was included, it was often in general terms such as "West Edmonton" or "Downtown". But I don’t think there’s a simple answer. Maybe this story is sufficiently unique that comparing it to other homicide stories is inappropriate. Certainly the level of violence combined with the robbery make it an unusual incident for Edmonton.

Covering a story like this is hard work and I have a lot of respect for the journalists that worked through the night to keep us informed. Events unfold rapidly, information is incomplete, and journalists and editors need to make decisions quickly about what is right and what is wrong and what should be shared. It’s much easier to look back and critique what happened, but I think that’s an important part of the process too. Reflection will ultimately help us improve for the future.

The University of Alberta will be feeling the impact of Friday’s terrible shooting for quite some time, and not just because of the headlines that the media used to tell the story. Still, I can’t help but think that the close association of the U of A with the incident in many of those headlines did more harm than good.

More than just email: Google Apps goes live at the University of Alberta

Today officials at the University of Alberta will flip the proverbial switch and 40,000 students will get access to the university’s deployment of Google Apps for Education, a significant milestone for a journey that began back in November 2008. The U of A’s move to Gmail has been talked about for quite some time, but the switch is about more than just email. This is an important step toward building the IT campus of the future – a mobile, connected community of staff, students, faculty, and alumni.

Our goal is to create the most mobile, connected academic community in Canada: anyone, anywhere, any time.

You can learn more about the broader vision here in PDF.

When Academic Information & Communication Technologies (AICT) was given the task of examining the University of Alberta’s email systems, they didn’t realize just how unwieldy email on campus had become over the years. With more than 80 mail servers spread across campus supporting nearly 150,000 accounts, it was definitely becoming difficult to audit, manage, and support. Six months after they began looking into the issue, AICT started exploring Gmail. In September 2009 the University of Alberta began legal discussions with Google, and over the next year negotiated the various contracts. There were lots of very valid concerns about privacy and security, and the university tackled those head on. There is no data mining, and there are no ads under the agreements that were finally signed in December 2010 (PDF).

Jason Cobb, Issues & Communication Manager to the VPs at the University of Alberta, explained some of the driving forces behind the migration to Google Apps. Improving the quality of the experience was really important, as was improving security. The shift will enable the university to reduce infrastructure costs, which should lead to some broader cost savings (he noted that no positions would be lost) and some productivity gains, as the mundane task of managing email can now be removed. “Most importantly, we’re trying to be transformational, not just transitional,” Jason told me. That means enabling collaboration in ways that just weren’t possible without a system like Google Apps. That’s why the U of A is adopting the full suite of apps, rather than just Gmail.

Other universities around the world have adopted Google Apps for Education of course, but the U of A is definitely one of the biggest to take on a project of this scope. Many other Canadian universities are now understandably interested in following the U of A’s lead (and Google is no doubt keen to see that happen as well). You can bet they’ll be paying close attention to the rollout.

The 80 mail servers that AICT identified are generally broken up by subdomain. Central Mail refers to the default account that all students receive, while many faculties and departments have managed their own email on separate servers, with addresses such as (for the Computing Sciences department). The switch today starts with Central Mail. Students will follow a simple three-step process to convert their email to Gmail.

The first step is to understand and agree to the terms and conditions. The second step is to activate the Google Apps account, which will cause all new email sent to the student’s email account to appear in Gmail rather than in Central Mail. And the third step is to migrate any old emails into the new system (a process which can take a few hours). Students retain the exact same email address, and automatically get access to the other pieces of Google Apps such as Calendar, Documents, Chat, Groups, and more. They have the choice of switching for now – in October, Central Mail is scheduled to become read-only and students will have to switch at that point.

After completing the switch and logging in, students will be presented with the “launch pad” that will serve as the entry-point to Gmail and the other apps. When Simon Collier, Network Administrator with AICT, demoed the system for me last week, he wasn’t quite sure what to show! It really is just Gmail. The only differences are the University of Alberta logo and the lack of ads (it looks like there are one-line ads above the inbox, but those are actually RSS feeds…AICT chose to leave them enabled so that students have the option of turning the feature on or off).

The U of A has done some interesting things to make this happen. They’ve implemented single sign on, which has been rolled out for BearTracks as well. This means that Google never actually gets the user’s password, they just get a one-way hash. Security remains entirely within the University of Alberta. AICT has also done some work to make the migration process possible. Initially, they tested a migration tool hosted by Google and calculated that it would take two and a half years to migrate everything! That was unacceptable obviously, so they found another way. Now the university hosts the migration tool, and they estimate it would take just two to three weeks to migrate everything. How much data are we talking? As of mid-February, Central Mail was home to more than 228 million messages, taking up approximately 30 terabytes of space!

The next phase of the project is to migrate the other mail servers. It’s a more difficult task, because there is more business process involved. The migration will start right away with a staggered list based on failing hardware, age of hardware, business needs, and other factors. The goal is to have the vast majority of users migrated to Google Apps within a year, and to have everything completely migrated within 18 months.

The new system supports collaboration in a variety of ways. One of the simplest features is auto-complete on the “to” line when composing an email. Start typing a name and you’ll see matches from the entire campus directory! Likewise, you can now pull up anyone’s free/busy status in the calendar, which Jason emphasized will make scheduling meetings much simpler than in the past. The ability to share and edit documents using Google Docs is another big win for collaboration, especially given the new discussion features that Google recently introduced.

It’s not hard to see how this can be expanded in the future. Closer integration with BearTracks is something AICT is working on, so you can imagine registering for your courses and having your calendar get updated automatically. Perhaps students could be added to automatically created Groups for each of their courses. There’s a lot of opportunity to build atop the platform, and work is already underway to examine the possibilities.

The move to Gmail and Google Apps is a big deal, but it really is just the beginning. This is an initial step to better position the University of Alberta for the future:

We can’t be evolutionary in the changes that need to happen to our core IT infrastructure; we must be revolutionary. We must position ourselves to support the mobile, connected IT campus of the not-so-distant future, else we run the risk of being regarded as increasingly irrelevant to the needs of our students, staff and faculty.

It’s exciting to see the University of Alberta moving so boldly to make this vision a reality!

UPDATE: Here’s the official U of A post on the switch.

UPDATE2: Here’s the official Google Enterprise post on the adoption of Google Apps.

Still Trending Down: Computing-related graduates in Alberta

If we’re serious about shifting the Alberta Advantage, I think we need to focus on technology. If we really want to be in the sweet spot of adding lots of value, participating in the economy of the future, and being globally competitive, we need smart people who can be creative and innovative in the appropriate sectors and industries. Technology is absolutely going to be at the heart of any sector or industry that will enable us to be world-class and trendsetting, there’s just no question about it.

That’s why this graph absolutely shocked me:

The data comes from the University of Alberta, but I think it is representative of the province as a whole.

The number of students graduating in the fields of Computing Science and Computer Engineering in Alberta is trending downward, with no correction in sight. How can we build the economy of the future when the picture looks like this?

Here’s a bit more detail – with the number of graduates broken out by degree/program:

I haven’t looked, but I suspect enrollment numbers would be similar (that is, I don’t think an incredible number of students register in computing-related programs and then switch out).

Bill Gates has been talking about the need for more students to take up computer science for years now. There’s more demand than supply, even when you factor in immigration. The need for us to stay competitive in this regard is well-documented. It looks like we’re falling further behind.

I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t know how we get more students interested in computer-related degrees. But I do think it is important to consider this data when we talk about the success of our provincial technology sectors, and indeed when we consider shifting the Alberta Advantage.

U of A Chancellor Linda Hughes on Community Engagement & Public Policy

Last night Sharon and I attended a talk with University of Alberta Chancellor Linda Hughes, part of the Edmonton Speaker Series created by the Edmonton Community Foundation, E4C, and the Edmonton Social Planning Council. Linda was the first female editor-in-chief of a Southam newspaper and was also its first female publisher (of the Edmonton Journal) so I was really interested in hearing her thoughts on community engagement given her experience in the media industry.

Linda started the evening by introducing A Joyful Noise Choir, a choir “for people who believe they cannot sing.” They performed three or four songs for us – it was a welcome surprise and a great way to start off!

A Joyful Noise Choir

After returning to the stage, Linda explained why she thought it would be a good idea to start with the choir. She said it was the perfect metaphor for what community is all about – individually, the choir members didn’t feel they could sing, they didn’t have a voice, but collectively, they sang beautifully. I couldn’t help but think of the wisdom of the crowd as she said this – the best crowds are those with great diversity, just like the choir (men, women, old, young, etc).

Linda spent most of her time talking about the importance of education, bombarding the audience with the same statistics that U of A President Dr. Indira Samarasekera shared during the EEDC Annual Luncheon last month. She started, however, by relating how disconnected from public policy she had to be while working at the Edmonton Journal. Unable to publicly support an issue, or make a donation to a party, or otherwise seem unbiased, Linda felt ill-prepared when she took on the role of Chair of the Mayor’s Committee to End Homelessness here in Edmonton. Obviously, she got the hang of it pretty quickly! She said that what she learned was that it’s not just about “being political” but rather about getting informed and pursing an issue you’re passionate about.

A little aside…as I’ve written here before, I have difficulty accepting the notion that journalists are unbiased. They’re human, and they have opinions and a bias – it’s natural. Why can’t we just accept that and move forward? It’s really only an issue if you read just a single opinion. If you think critically and seek out a number of viewpoints and opinions, like you should be doing, then you’re not going to be misinformed.

Linda transitioned from the “you need to be informed” train of thought into discussing the importance of education. She shared some of the experiences she’s had during her time as Chancellor at the U of A, as well as some of the great research that has come out of the university and had a positive impact on the community here and abroad. My favorite example was Acticoat, a bandage that uses silver to speed up healing and reduce the frequency with which bandages must be changed. Acticoat is the world’s first commercial medical application of nanotechnology, and it was created at the University of Alberta. Very cool.

Linda closed by imploring everyone in the audience to help make education the top public policy issue. She explained that education is the key to solving all of the other issues that we’re passionate about.

Though I was hoping for a little more on the media perspective, I enjoyed Linda’s talk! Next up in the series is Sheila Watt-Cloutier, a 2007 Nobel Peace Prize nominee, who will be speaking in September.

Talking Open at Technocon 2010

I’ve spent the last two days at Technocon 2010, a technology conference jointly hosted by the City of Edmonton and the University of Alberta for their respective IT employees (about 450 of which have attended). With six keynotes and more than fifty breakout sessions on a range of topics (everything from “Fulfillment and Freedom” to “BlackBerry Enterprise Server”) there has been a little something for everyone.

I’m closing the show this afternoon with a keynote on the topic of “open”, which is one of the three themes for the conference (the other two are “world class” and “transformation”). Keeping in mind that I stand between the audience and home-time, I’m going to keep things light and brief. Here are my slides:

The key thought I want to share is that open government is fundamentally about the relationship between government and citizens and less about technology. And related to that, we should avoid the temptation to jump on the open government bandwagon just because it’s the hot new thing, and focus instead on making sure we improve that relationship. Both sides have a role to play, and I hope to bring some of the citizen perspective to the audience. And of course, one of my key messages is that we can work together.

You can watch it live here. Thanks to Technocon for having me!