Here’s a fact checker nightmare

You know what keeps us fact checkers up at night? Little things like ‘where you were born’.

Below are three screen grabs of  three biography pages about a Canadian federal politician. In each instance the place of birth was, presumably, supplied by said politician.  The first one is from his official biography on the Parliamentary website and the others are from social media pages (the third photo is Facebook but I was hasty with my cropping)

I checked with Library of Parliament who published the first bio. Their information came from the MP’s office. Maybe there is a nuance between ‘place of birth’ and ‘hometown’ that I’m not familiar with. For the record  I was born in Iserlohn, West Germany but my parents lived on a Canadian military base a few miles away.  I left for Canada when I was 11 weeks old so don’t really understand the emotional pull of a hometown,  but I digress.

I checked the map – Beaupré and Saint-Augustin-de-Desmaures are about an hour apart along the north shore of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec. Maybe Beaupré was a fluke accident. I’m going to contact M. Godin’s office later today. Here’s hoping they don’t give me a third town.

Godinjpg

Since it’s #FOI Friday

It’s FOI Friday, the day to ponder all the information goodness that the aged Access to Information law allows any citizen (or permanent resident) to obtain from the federal government for a mere $5 investment. All you need to do is fill out this form Access to Information requested, submitted on the govt. issued form. It really is that simple. You don't even have to print it out.or – for some departments – submit your request online.

I had a call from an ATIP coordinator at a federal department today. Nothing too exciting in that except…. she was calling to be helpful. Super helpful. So helpful the advice poured forth from my telephone with such speech I could barely keep up and take notes. Young-Woman-shouting-into-telephone-Stock-Photo-angry-screaming

I mailed in two requests earlier in the week and she was calling (side note – Dear Canada Post. Why don’t cheques from my clients get to me with the same lightening speed?) to tell me about a completed request that was similar to my own but just outside my time frame. Did I want it? (“Uh. Yeah” was my response). The searchable database of completed ATI requests is a good legacy from the Conservative government. She directed me there. I told her I knew all about the database but had neglected to check this one time. Then she suggested I check her minister’s briefing book. Not the one’s posted to the website that you can download but the really big one that requires redactions that you have to request by email. She started reciting the table of contents to me and mumbling about different sections. I think she kept referencing my ATIP as well. It was hard to follow. At this point I wanted to reach through the phone, take her by the shoulders and implore her: Slow.Down.Breathe.

She’s sending me the released document as an informal request. So I’ll rejigg the request I sent in – she’s already sent me a draft text. How sweet is that?  Then she gave me the update on the monthly list of briefing notes to her minister and when they would be available on the “completed ATI list”. “Why pay for something if you don’t have to”, she said. That’s the main ‘pro’ to making an informal request. Someone else already paid the $5 and forced the department to do the legwork. On the ‘con’ side,  you cannot complain to the Information Commissioner if the department takes months to send you the documents they have already compiled (looking at you Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada)

One other helpful tip she offered: you can bundle about 5 ministerial briefing notes into one ATIP request paying only one $5 fee. More than that and you risk appearing greedy and the department will probably need an extension. Good to know.

Competitors

focus on hands suggesting collaboration

I’m a member of a local BNI chapter here in Ottawa (BNI is an international business referral networking organization). I just listened to the most recent BNI podcast from networking guru Ivan Misner about networking with your competition (listen or read the transcript here) and I thought to myself – ha! Info pros have been doing that for years.

I have a perfect example. Since attending my first Association of Independent Information Professionals (AIIP) conference  in April I’ve both referred work and subcontracted work to other info pros who are, technically, my competition. AIIP logoOne colleague I knew from our previous lives as news librarians and the other I met for the first time in April. And it worked out great in both cases. I think this type of ‘strategic’ networking and collaboration just makes sense for solopreneurs. So, check out the podcast and tell me how you can work with your competition.

I’ve been a terrible blogger of late. I’m trying something new – the short a sweet blog post. I got the tip from yet another podcast when a solopreneur interviewed a time management coach.

 

This week I love the phone

I loved this toy as a kid.

I loved this toy as a kid.

As a professional researcher the key tools of the trade are: 1 brain; 2 your computer; 3 your phone. This week I’m in love with my phone (not in a odd “Her” way)

Dude who falls in love with phone operating system. source: SSinsider.com

Dude who falls in love with phone operating system.
source: SSinsider.com

Let me back up a bit. I spent over 20 years as a news researcher covering federal politics and national issues. Long before email I regularly called government departments, politician’s offices, think tanks and experts hunting down information or people.  The responses ranged from helpful to obstructionist, the latter came mostly from government communications people. Actually it ranged from being ignored to obstructionist to helpful.  Just like emails that go unanswered now it is remarkable how many calls never get returned.

Calling institutions with the weight of my media organization behind me felt powerful. No general information line for me. As media, we have special access to most organizations.  I got to ask for the media spokesperson or the communications office. As an information professional I’m back in the regular line, calling the general information line most of the time. I still have a few media clients so I still get to use the express lane every once in awhile.

The first few calls I made as an info pro I wondered if anyone would talk to me. As media, institutions have to talk to me. (They don’t have to provide any useful information on my deadline – but that’s another rant) To my surprise, institutions will talk to you when you start the conversation with “Hello. I’m a professional researcher and I need your help.”  Mary Ellen Bates has an excellent chapter on telephone research in her book Building and Running a Successful Research Business.

This week alone staff from a cemetery, two funeral homes, an archive, a police department, a coroner’s office and some municipal departments all took my calls and answered my questions.

The art of the call

I’m a introvert (hence the library science degree). I don’t like talking on the phone. I remember spending 15 minutes psyching myself up to call a business or a government department. My face would go all blotchy and red, I’d stammer. The flop sweat would drip all over the script I wrote out to use as a security blanket. It was dreadful.

Pretty accurate depiction of my prepping for a phone call. Source: http://www.optuszoo.com.au

Pretty accurate depiction of me prepping for a phone call.
Source: http://www.optuszoo.com.au

But thank heavens for those pre-email years. Now, even though I sometimes spend 3 seconds giving myself a pep talk before dialling a number, I know it’s a skill that is a huge asset to my business. My years in a newsroom made for a great classroom. I listened to some of the smartest journalists in the land ask questions and conduct interviews.

Things I overhead included the preliminary chatter – the getting comfortable stage. A fine handbook for investigative reporters Digging Deeper calls this the icebreaker phase. The quip I tried with the woman at the coroner’s office fell flat and lifeless to the floor (appropriate considering the circumstances). She helped me anyway. I was effusive with my gratitude as I rang off.

Then there’s the deft use of open ended and closed questions. It’s important to know how to frame questions so as to encourage the interview subject to participate. “Who was there?”, “Explain how this works?”, “What happened next?” are all examples of this type of question. Silence is also important. Give the person time to answer. You never know what they will say just fill the void of dead air.  Always try and end the call on a positive or encouraging note and always ask some variation of  “Is there anything I’m missing?” / “Do you have any final thoughts?” / “Who else should I talk to about this?”

This is Woodward and Bernstein of Watergate fame. It's hard to find pictures of the fine reporters I worked with talking on the phone. Source: Bangor Daily News

This is Woodward and Bernstein of Watergate fame. It’s hard to find pictures of the fine reporters I worked with talking on the phone.
Source: Bangor Daily News

Email is a  great thing and the introvert in me leapt all over the new communication tool to reach out and ask questions. On email people can’t see your face get blotchy and the flop sweat as you type a question. But, email has some shortcomings. It’s easy for people to spin you and control the message.  It’s hard to discern nuance and context on email.  I find it vexing that many federal communications units, even if you call them, insist you write the question in an email. (Although the Access to Information junkie in me loves this part because an email is a government record while a phone conversation is not)

So, let’s sum up. As an information professional, telephone research is a superpower and I have the magic ring.

Don't just look at it, make a call!

Don’t just look at it, make a call!

 

 

How do you know if you’re charging enough

On Thursday I had great interviews with a partner and the business manager at two law firms. The purpose was to explore expanding my business into small and medium size law firms. They both provided me with very useful feedback. I believe I can help busy law firms do general research so they can focus on specialized legal research and other lawyerly activities. Let them focus on what they do best and not waste the time and energy of the junior lawyers.court room

And besides, how do they know where to find the best resources for general research.

The partner at the first firm is already a client. I wanted some feedback, based on my past work for her, so I can target my message. The best part of our interview came when she delicately suggested my rates were far too low. “Oh don’t worry” I told her, “They’ve gone up.”. She was delighted.

When your client says "you need to charge more"

When your client says “you need to charge more”

 

 

‘Spotlight’ on print directories

Poster for the 2015 film "Spotlight"

Poster for the 2015 film “Spotlight”

I finally watched the recent film “Spotlight” this past weekend. Great movie if you like watching a process film. Great movie if you love good journalism and watching important news stories get made. It’s all about a team of investigative reporters connecting a bunch of dots and reporting on the massive coverup of the sexual abuse of children by priests in the Boston area from the 1960s up the the early 2000s.

Read the actual Spotlight stories here.

The first story published by the Spotlight team about sex abuse by priests in the Catholic Church in Boston.

The first story published by the Spotlight team about sex abuse by priests in the Catholic Church in Boston.

As a news librarian turned solopreneur information professional, I cheered every time the reporters visited the library, referenced old clippings, and consulted directories.  I bored my wife and friend by enthusiastically pointing out the Lektriever compact file storage system by name. (They aren’t librarians). This blog by Reel Librarian has a great post about the portrayal of the Boston Globe library in the move complete with screen shots that explain all the geeky stuff.

(As an aside, I’m surprised at the lack of internet or online database searching in a newsroom in 2001. Newspaper databases like Lexis and Dow Jones had been around for over a decade at that point. Even Canada’s own Infomart launched in 1985)

As the Spotlight team decides to compile a spreadsheet using the “Massachusetts  Catholic Directory” to track the roles and parishes of various priests in the Boston archdiocese looking for those out on sick leave, or absent or in treatment

Source: Reel-librarians.com

Source: Reel-librarians.com

 

I paused the film to bore my companions once again. I tell them that if that directory is now an electronic only resource – the tracking the Spotlight team performed would be impossible. Electronic directories only care about the here and now. They don’t save the historical data. My friends absorbed this information in the context of Spotlight and uncovering crimes and exposing a horrible coverup. “No way!” was the collective reaction.

The movie makes a point of showing one of the reporters at Boston Public Library searching old copies of the “Catholic Directory”. I checked BPL. They still have the old issues of  the “Boston Catholic Directory”. I presume that’s the actual name for the reference book mentioned in the movie.

Screen shot of Boston Public Library catalogue for the "Boston Catholic Register"

Screen shot of Boston Public Library catalogue for the “Boston Catholic Register”

Luckily a free resource I found on the web when looking for the “Massachusetts Catholic Directory” called “The Catholic Directory” goes to great lengths to explain how it is different from “The Official Catholic Directory”, which are printed directories and – hooray – still being published. The unofficial Catholic Directory looks like a useful resource to find a parish and priest but it only contains current information.

Here’s another illustration of what I mean and – bonus – it’s oozing Canadian content.

These are telephone directories for federal public servants working in the National Capital Region (Ottawa-Gatineau). My old news library had printed phone books from the early 1970s to the last issue printed (2006 or 2008 – can’t quite recall).

Issues of the Government of Canada Telephone Director Ottawa-Gatineau on the shelves at the Library of Parliament.

Issues of the Government of Canada Telephone Director Ottawa-Gatineau on the shelves at the Library of Parliament.

Phone directories are terrific resources because you can search by name and browse by department. If you want trace the career of a public servant – you can. You can also see who they reported to and who they worked with.

Details of a page in the Government telephone book, circa 2005ish.

Details of a page in the Government telephone book, circa 2005ish.

 

The government replaced the printed books with GEDS – the Government Employee Directory Service – about a decade ago. GEDS also allows browsing and searching but there is no historical data. Ask any investigative reporter, historian or researcher why is significant. I guarantee they will talk your ear off. Imagine a public servant in Ottawa is charged with a crime. Can you see how these old directories come in handy to figure out where they worked and who they knew.

Russell Williams leaving court. Source: Ottawa Citizen, October 2010.

Russell Williams leaving court.
Source: Ottawa Citizen, October 2010.

In 2010 when CFB Trenton Base Commander Russell Williams was charged with  murder I raced down Wellington Street to the Library and Archives with a copy of his biography from the National Defence website. I used old city directories to cross reference against his military postings to find former neighbours. I emailed names and contact information back to the newsroom so reporters could try and track down people who may have known him. Even city directories are endangered species in the internet era. Last year I was trying to trace the whereabouts of a man in Vancouver. The Vancouver city directory went out of print about a decade ago.

Earlier this year I was very pleased that I had an opportunity to arrange for a donation of the government telephone books, some old Canadian Who’s Who directories and other resources from the Postmedia News library to the Reader’s Digest Resource Centre at Carleton University. They are now the proud owners of two titles that I used all the time for backgrounding federal political issues. One is the Canadian News Facts. This is an annual binder of news summaries published from 1968 to 2001. It had good indexing and a chronological layout. It was fast and easy to use.

Source: My 2015 photo. Postmedia News Library.

Source: My 2015 photo. Postmedia News Library.

The second set is the Canadian Annual Review of Politics and Public Affairs. The set includes volumes from the 1960s to mid 1980s. These are in longer chapter format but if you needed to understand the context of a particular sitting of Parliament, or what the top issues were in a given year, they are an excellent resource.

Canadian Annual Review of Politics. A few issues photographed at Postmedia News in 2015.

Canadian Annual Review of Politics. A few issues photographed at Postmedia News in 2015.

Have I made my point? These old printed directories, phone books and compilations are gems and don’t always have digital equivalents.

Come and hangout with the Information Commissioner

I just wrote a short piece on my LinkedIn page about today’s CAJ event with the Information Commissioner. (see below)  Ms. Legault is a very busy Officer of Parliament. She’s also the keynote speaker at the World Press Freedom Day lunch next month and just had this published in Policy Options magazine. If we ATI enthusiasts had our way, reform to the crumbling Access to Information Act would happen tomorrow, not in 2018

 

The National Capital Region Chapter of the Canadian Association of Journalists is hosting a Google Hangout with the Information Commissioner of Canada later today. If you’re in Ottawa, please drop by

Source: Come and hangout with the Information Commissioner

Conferences really do make a difference

This is a slight variation of a post I just published on my LinkedIn page.

here's the program from last week's conference and the raffle tickets that didn't win me anything.

here’s the program from last week’s conference and the raffle tickets that didn’t win me anything.

In my 20 plus years as an information professional I’ve attended a handful of conferences in either librarianship or journalism. The benchmark for me was Special Libraries Association conferences. They were so huge. Thousands and thousands attended. The conference-planning book was nearly a centimeter thick. You had an endless supply of tracks, divisional streams and interest group activities. There were optional “pre” and “post” conference workshops (if time and money were not barriers). As a news librarian – I belonged to the cool clique for once. (The parties in the division hospitality suite were legendary). They are terrific opportunities to learn and to network and reduce the sense of isolation you get working as a solopreneur. I’d always return to my newsroom full of great ideas and, if lucky, implement one or two of them.

On the flip side were to two occasions I attended the Canadian Library Association annual conference. They skew to public, school and academic libraries so the sessions were not as applicable to my career. I chatted a bit and looked for sessions that built my skill set. If there was a chance for individual mentoring or peer coaching I took it. I knew back then, my future was probably as an information entrepreneur. The crowds were smaller, the exhibit hall still robust. The last conference I attended in 2012 the keynote speech was a simmering hate-fest between the audience and Daniel Caron, the struggling head of Library and Archives Canada. He “resigned” less than a year later (search #CLAOTT2012 AND caron on Twitter to relive the rage).

The journalism conferences hosted by CAJ were smaller again – perhaps a few hundred. There were lots of professional development opportunities, very few vendors but good networking opportunities.

After two years as a member, I finally got to AIIP this past week. It was in Pittsburgh so it was drivable. This is the Association of Independent Information Professionals, or, as I described it to the border guards – librarians for hire. I’ve know about them for years as there is lots of cross pollination with SLA.  There were a few vendors, but individual members sponsored as many parts of the conference as our vendors. Conference goers were in the dozens. The entire program fit on two pages. There was only one stream, except for the optional workshops on Thursday. You had a choice of two. You saw the same people in every session. You ate with them much of the time; you socialized with them. It was awesome. And what a value that was to see the same people at every turn. You really got to know them – your peers, your colleagues. And even better – they got to know me. It reminded me a bit of SLA when the Canadian news librarians would caucus and vow to keep in touch. I’m so stoked that dozens of very smart info pros are now part of my network.

Three first timers hanging with the new board president, Jane Langeman (left), Peggy Garvin (conference organizing committee second from left) and Jan Knight (second from right)

Three first timers hanging with the new board president, Jane Langeman (left), Peggy Garvin (conference organizing committee second from left) and Jan Knight (second from right)

I cannot wait to go to New Orleans next May for #AIIP17

Another government review of ATI. Seriously!?



Treasury Board President Scott Brison is supposed to spearhead reforms to the Access to Information Act..... by waiting two more years.

Treasury Board President Scott Brison is supposed to spearhead reforms to the Access to Information Act….. by waiting two more years.

 

The Toronto Star is reporting the Liberal government has decided to wait until 2018 before making any significant reforms the the aged and creaky Access to Information Act. Until then, they plan to stick on a few more bandaids and pieces of duck tape to hold the legislation together.

What poppycock.

Minister Brison and the federal government have stacks of recommendations from dozens of reports just waiting for them. Here’s a recap of some of the many studies already done. Some recommend the odd bandaid but many suggest thoughtful and substantial reforms

2015

An open letter from a group of civil society organizations and journalism groups including a list of specific reforms.

2010 and 2009

A Parliamentary committee report first tabled in 2009 and again in 2010 agrees with reforms proposed by former Information Commissioner Robert Marleau. The then Tory government indicated it would be too expensive and cause a burden on the federal court to follow through with the suggestions. And besides, noted then Justice Minster Rob Nicholson, they passed the Federal Accountability Act in 2006. The Accountability Act expanded the number of government agencies covered by the Act and stuck on a few bandages.

file_folder_lock

2008

A very short (three paragraph) report by a House committee deplores the termination of a government wide ATI tracking system.

2006

The same parliamentary committee recommended the government introduce legislation to modernize the ATI Act before the end of the year.

But wait. I just found this wonderful compilation from the Library of Parliament published in  2012. It summarized 20 years worth of reviews of the Act, covering  the period 1987 to 2009 and governments of every stripe – Progressive Conservative, Liberal and Conservative. The compilation found another dozen reports or private members bills that with ideas to reform the Act.

The Information Commission regularly provides advice to Parliament to improve and update the legislation in her annual reports and other special reports and well as regular appearances at Parliamentary Committees. Open just about any page on her website and you can find her ideas.

Suzanne Legault making recommendations for reforms to the Act for the millionth time (perhaps a slight exaggeration)

Suzanne Legault making recommendations for reforms to the Act for the millionth time (perhaps a slight exaggeration)

Academics and journalists and FOI advocates continue to press for reforms.  Sean Holman is writing a history of the Act while leading the Canadian Association of Journalists #CdnFOI campaign to bring attention to problems with the Act. Fred Vallance Jones spearheads the annual Freedom of Information Audit, which found the usual serious deficiencies in 2015. Openness advocate Ken Rubin recently cautioned that “transparency crumbs” such as proactively posting parts of some ministerial briefing books online may just placate us, allowing the government to keep the really controversial records secret.

Update: Here’s Ken Rubin’s op-ed from the Ottawa Citizen on this very topic.

Source: Radiofreethinker.com

Source: Radiofreethinker.com

No more bandaids.