Before you make up your mind about IserveU, please read this

Sponsored by IserveU

Every day, I start work around seven and don’t usually wrap up until midnight or one o’clock. I often forget to eat and sometimes can’t sleep because there’s so much going on, and it’s the same for the small team of staff and volunteers in the trenches with me every day.

I’m Paige Saunders, one of the founders of IserveU, an e-democracy society building an open-source online platform here in Yellowknife. Basically, we’re creating a website where anyone eligible to vote can register, vote and share comments on issues at city hall. This platform will be the first of its kind and, if people like it, we’re hoping other jurisdictions will adopt and adapt it for their own purposes at no charge.

There are three candidates running in the current municipal election who are engaged with our system: Marie-Soleil Lacoursiere, Dane Mason and Rommel Silverio. What that means is, if elected, they’ll use the website as a decision-making tool and, when greater than half of registered users vote, they’ll abide by the results of the site and vote that way at the council table.

I think IserveU could be the best of both worlds. It lets people vote when they feel strongly about an issue. But on day-to-day business that isn’t of great concern to most people, it lets councillors use the forum to inform their vote.

Every night, a team of volunteers and some modestly paid (think minimum wage with plenty of unpaid overtime) staff members are going door-to-door across the city to introduce this idea and answer questions. While we wish we could pay more, the people we have working for us are so committed, they’d do the work for free.

Generally, people have been incredibly encouraging, from interested in hearing more about the idea through to being so excited they’re ready to volunteer. To date, we’ve had 1,359 people sign up to take part in this project and more than 850 share their email so we can provide more information and updates.

We’ve done our best to answer as many questions as we can through our FAQs, but we’re always adding to them, so please let us know if you think there’s anything missing or unclear.

As a skeptical and critical person by nature, I respect and fully understand people who aren’t totally convinced this idea has merit. Generally, thoughtful questions and constructive criticism help us improve the system. After all, we’re doing something for the first time, and while vision is important, so is a willingness to adapt and absorb feedback.

That said, given the thousands of hours we’ve put in to date, I’d also like to ask for time for IserveU to take root and shape before deciding it’s worthless. In a society voting less often than ever before, and in a city where government is a constant source of griping in many circles, we see IserveU as a possible improvement.

What we don’t see it as (at least at the moment) is a perfect answer to any and all problems with government. If we have candidates elected, over the next few years we’ll make IserveU work as well as we can. Sometimes things won’t work for people, and we’ll fix them. We all deeply care and love this project, and we want Yellowknifers to, as well. We’re as honest as we can be, and when you’re blazing a trail sometimes you have to deal with things as they arise.

This is a low-risk, high-reward opportunity that, in our view, is worth trying. At best, we have a whole new group of citizens engaged in issues affecting them. At worst, if things really don’t work out, for whatever reason, we can revert to the current system next election by electing different people, just as we do now.

Who’s IserveU?

There are questions around the people involved and money behind IserveU. As one of the leaders of an e-democracy society partly devoted to increasing government transparency, I think they deserve answers.

Writing this is really scary for me. I’m an introverted guy and, at first, I was trying to stay out of the media, largely because the narrative tended to focus on “eccentric man does weird thing,” and, quite honestly, it was kind of sad to do an interview on the exciting possibility of improving government and read a story saying “OMG, guy sold his house for some website thing.”

But the vacuum created through giving the public no face to hone in on makes people think strange forces are at work. I hear all sorts of stuff these days, like that IserveU is a corporation run by an Australian businessman. If they think I’m Australian (I’m a New-Zealand born Canadian Citizen), I’m not surprised they think an open-source software foundation ‘makes money.’

As an organization, IserveU is a society incorporated in the Northwest Territories in January of this year, which means our first reporting will be filed by June of 2016. The incorporation documents are publicly available to anyone who searches on the territorial government’s legal registries online database.

I started this with friends of mine including Jeremy Flatt and Dane Mason. I count Pablo Saravanja as a trusted advisor as I do my business partner Brent Reaney and good friend Karen Pryznyk. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to repay the support I’ve gotten from people over the last year, or list all the people who have moved mountains on this project. We also employ three people in communications, design and event organization/admin.

Paige Saunders

Now to the money. While I don’t have to legally disclose what I do with my money, I feel it’s important to make this public.

I’ve had the good fortune of making some money in property development through past involvement with a local firm by the name of CloudWorks. I’ve also recently sold a house, which I spent my first few months in Yellowknife couch (and even igloo) surfing to buy.

I’ve taken a portion of this money and invested it in Verge Communications Ltd., which publishes EDGE YK and EDGE Online, but over which I purposely and consciously exert no editorial influence or control. I used another portion of it to fund IserveU with no expectation whatsoever of a financial return. For me, this divestment was a way to do good things with my money. I liked EDGE Online‘s investigative articles and wanted to support their efforts to up the quality of journalism in town. I’d also thought about e-democracy for years and wondered ‘when is this opportunity going to come around again?’

The total IserveU budget should be around $80,000 by the time we’re done, and we’re now fundraising through our website, as well, to help keep the initiative running over the long-term.

We were initially going to spend the money on signs and brochures for candidates, but ended up putting it towards events and staff to inform the public about the idea, build good software and support candidates with time and expertise. We were going to fund candidate campaigns, but it turns out this new way of serving the public isn’t for everyone, and that’s totally fine.

As our team works their asses off to offer an alternative to our current system, while every other candidate fires up their soon-to-be abandoned Facebook pages, throws up signs with five-word slogans while tweeting daily about “interesting discussion with X about their concerns,” I’m reminded there has to be something better than manipulating the public to tick a box one day before packing it all in for another cycle. I hope IserveU is it.

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