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A few years ago, we were sitting with friends having coffee. As it often does amongst this group, the conversation eventually turned to the ineffective, gridlocked, shrill, rancorous state of politics virtually everywhere in the world and at every level of government. Thinking long and hard about it for a while, we couldn’t think of one place where democratically-elected government seemed to be working well. It doesn’t mean there weren’t examples — we just couldn’t think of any and that, we thought, was a fairly perilous state of affairs. What may surprise you is that this inconsequential moment amongst friends over coffee was before 2016. We thought it was bad back then. It was about to get worse. Way worse.
“What we need is some sort of system to record all those empty promises and throw them back in their face when they don’t keep them!” one of us said. It was really meant as sarcastic rhetoric. However, after some thought the conversation became more serious and considered. “We understand tech. We have built systems for all manner of industries and applications. Why don’t we build one? A system to help politicians make better promises and then help them do a better job of keeping them.” It would be based on objective facts, faithful record keeping and rigorous follow up.
This was the seminal moment for what would eventually become VoxVolo. We initially attempted to fund it with — wait for it — a one million dollar Indiegogo campaign. That got about as far as producing a pretty good video. Well, we thought so given the zero dollar budget to produce it.
Good or not, it didn’t help much with the seven digit budget we felt was required to build the system properly. We ran the Indiegogo campaign, but we didn’t come close to our funding goal. Or even remotely close. Actually, not even in the same galaxy, to be honest. However, we were not discouraged and there were even offers of substantial individual funding which eventually fizzled. They all came with strings attached and political bias. VoxVolo’s independence and freedom from political or special interest influence was at the core of the concept. So we stopped and moved onto other things. Sometimes that’s the way life is. You don’t always get what you want.
Suddenly it’s mid-2018 and undoubtedly over yet another cup of coffee, we lamented our exhaustion to the point of despondency at the state of politics and governance today. When we look around the world, we grow even more morose. Is there any way out of this tailspin? It really seems like it’s all going to end in a very bad place. Absence of leadership and tribalism rarely ends well for anybody.
And then along came, of all things, our home town’s thought of bidding for the 2026 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. A prospective bid gained some favour by our City Council and suddenly we seemed to be rushing headlong into a bid process that would eventually be difficult to stop. Had we considered all the implications? Had everybody who might want to be consulted, been consulted.
Calgary had hosted the 1988 Winter Olympic Games which were, by many standards, a real success for the city. The venues built for those Games still stand and with a little TLC over the years have continued to provide real, tangible value to Calgary’s citizens. There was no great deficit to retire after the Games — in fact there is even a legacy fund which continues to help further the long term goals of hosting the Games in the first place. I think most observers, even skeptical ones, would say that the 1988 Games were good for our city. Calgary was indeed transformed by the Olympics: from parochial prairie oil, wheat and beef burgh into a world class city with name recognition around the globe.
But it’s a different time and Calgary is a very different city than it was back then. There are valid arguments on both sides: to host, or not to host another Winter Olympic Games? A recent, City-sponsored, fairly scientific poll rated citizen support at only 53%
Our perspective was that we genuinely didn’t know what was right for Calgary. In the end, though, we agreed what was most important is that citizens get whatever it is they want. If the majority want to make a bid, we should do it and all get behind it. If, on the other hand, the majority feel we should give it a miss, then that is what we should do and move on to other things and all of us get behind whatever that might be.
Our concern, however, was a vocal minority on either side might hijack the discussion and we would wind up with the polar opposite of what we wanted: a decision, whatever that might be, not supported by the majority of Calgary’s citizens. We began to think of VoxVolo again and its core values: a means by which we could have a deeper connection with those for whom we vote and expressing our wishes to them to do what we collectively want.
Unfortunately, we still didn’t have the seven digit budget. So we reached for the tools we had at our disposal and we could afford. That meant they had to be free. What we chose may surprise you.
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So now we’re completely up to date with the short and unremarkable history of VoxVolo. In the next article we’ll talk about how we are experimenting with out-of-the-box, bog standard Twitter Polls to trigger civic engagement and civil discourse about Calgary’s Olympic bid.