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Consumer group that battles the big telcos blames CRTC for its ‘dire’ financial troubles

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If you own a cellphone, use the internet or watch TV, your life has probably been affected by one of the most influential consumer advocacy organizations in the country — a group on the verge of shutting its doors for good.

For the past 42 years, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre [PIAC] has fought for better consumer protections from the telecom and broadcast industries.

But in a matter of weeks, PIAC says it will run out of money because the CRTC, the industry regulator the group so often prods, takes too long to compel the big telcos to pay the group for its work on behalf of consumers.

“We don’t exactly know why it’s taking so long to get paid,” PIAC executive director John Lawford told Go Public. “It’s a dire time right now.”

In a recent email to supporters, Lawford describes “an acute funding crunch” and says his organization will be unable to keep going without urgent help.

The CRTC has more than doubled the length of time it takes to order telecom companies to pay PIAC’s costs when it participates in regulatory issues. (Shutterstock)

The Ottawa-based advocacy organization recently moved to a smaller office to save money, and had to let two of its four staff members go.

But Lawford says that hasn’t been enough to stay afloat.

Where’s the money?

Most of PIAC’s budget comes from work the organization does at the CRTC.

“We go there as lawyers to argue for consumers,” Lawford said. “We try to get them lower prices and better service.”

When groups argue in the public interest before the CRTC, the regulator orders that the cost of that legal representation be paid by the companies involved — such as Bell Canada, Rogers, Telus and Netflix.

“It’s a regular regulatory cost for the companies,” Lawford said. “It’s an important check on their sort of full-speed-ahead efforts to get what they want from the CRTC. And it’s a small and very efficient price to pay to have consumer and public input on decisions that affect millions of Canadians.”

Lawford, second from right, testifies at the recent public hearing into sales tactics used by Canada’s largest telecom service providers. PIAC had urged the CRTC to hold the hearing. (CPAC)

He says over the past five years, the CRTC has more than doubled the length of time it takes to order telecom companies to pay those costs, from 3.7 months to 9.6 months. That’s simply too long to wait for funding, Lawford says.

PIAC is currently owed just over $150,000. The oldest outstanding claim was filed with the CRTC in July 2017.

“I think the CRTC has forgotten how it’s supposed to function,” Lawford said.

PIAC is also a registered charity and a non-profit organization, although its 2017 financial statement shows it received just $1,940 in donations.

Lawford bristles at the idea of asking the public to provide the organization’s funding.

“We’ve previously had a system that put the cost of this where it should lie,” he said. “Which is at the feet of the companies who are making billions and billions of dollars from consumers.”

CRTC will decide about payment ‘in due course’

Go Public asked the CRTC why it takes so long to make what’s called a “cost award” — calling on telecom companies to reimburse PIAC for its participation on consumer issues.

In an emailed response, spokesperson Patricia Valladao said it “depends on the complexity of the issues in each cost application.”

She also said the number of interveners applying for funding and the length of the proceeding can affect how quickly groups such as PIAC are paid. She said the regulator will make a decision about PIAC’s current application for payment “in due course.”

Consumer victories

PIAC opened in Ottawa in 1976, during the heyday of consumer activism in the U.S., led by Ralph Nader and his Public Interest Research Group.

Lawford joined PIAC in 2003. The idea of battling powerful telecom companies on behalf of consumers appealed to him.

“It was a chance to fight on a level playing field, if only for a moment,” he said. “And we got some big wins.”

PIAC was created in Canada in 1976, as Ralph Nader was leading the charge for consumer protections south of the border. (Jay Drowns/Associated Press)

In 2010, the CRTC ordered Bell Canada, Telus and other phone companies to refund every customer up to nearly $100 after overcharging for regular phone service. The rebate was the result of four years of hard work by PIAC and other consumer groups.

Lawford himself received one of those rebate cheques. It’s framed on his office wall — a memento of the fight that resulted in telcos having to refund $310 million.

The Wireless Code, a mandatory code of conduct for all wireless providers, was also hugely influenced by PIAC, Open Media and other consumer groups.

“So now there are rules about how long your wireless contract can be, and whether you can be charged when you’re roaming above a certain cap, and so on,” Lawford said. “These developments really helped consumers.”

Most recently, PIAC urged the CRTC to hold a public inquiry into misleading and aggressive sales practices used by the telcos.

PIAC called for the creation of the Commission for Complaints for Telecom-Television Services, a dispute mediator between telecom customers and their service providers. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

When the regulator refused, saying such an inquiry was not within its mandate, PIAC insisted that it was, and the federal government eventually ordered the CRTC to hold an inquiry. It is due to wrap up in February.

“Our role is to say, when consumers are having a problem that is actually affecting their bottom line in a big way… ‘As a regulator, you have to deal with it,'” Lawford said.

The group recently wrote a letter to Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez and Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains urging them to contact the CRTC to help resolve the payment issues for groups like PIAC.

“We believe in your commitment to ensuring the CRTC carries out its public interest mandate and we request your assistance with this matter on an urgent basis,” wrote Harry Gow, chair of PIAC’s board of directors.

PIAC wrote a similar letter to government last year, which Lawford says prompted the regulator to order overdue costs be paid. But the delays are now worse, he says.

Go Public asked the federal government for its response to PIAC’s letter.

In an email, Dani Keenan, press secretary for Bains, said “officials are reaching out for a status update” and “will continue to monitor this situation closely.”

Hard time for consumer organizations

PIAC’s financial struggle is a reflection on the state of consumer advocacy in Canada, Lawford says.

“Broad-based consumer groups are now reduced to either being run by volunteers with only one paid staff,” he said, “or they are specialists like we are, who find a very small niche because that’s the only way to stay solvent.”

And even that “niche” approach may not save PIAC.

“It’s important to have somebody to just stick up their finger in a [telecom] hearing and say, ‘Excuse me, consumers think this.’ And that’s what we do,” Lawford said. “It’s just sad to see it go.”

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Trudeau Government Should Turn to Sustainable Floor Heating In Its New Deal

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A consortium has been chosen by Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) to manage the $1.1-billion overhaul of five heating and cooling plants in the National Capital Region. However, this decision has been met with a lot of disapproval by the country’s largest federal public service union.

Early June, the department announced that Innovate Energy has been awarded the 30-year contract “to design, retrofit, maintain and operate the plants,”winning the bid over a rival group that included SNC-Lavalin.

Minister of Environment, Catherine McKenna, said the federal government was “leading by example” in its bid to drastically reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions across the country. McKenna noted that by supporting this project, they’re utilizing heating and cooling infrastructure to promote a more environmentally friendly option.

“We’re very proud that our government is working with partners like Innovate Energy to modernize this critical infrastructure,” she said during the announcement at one of the facilities that will be upgraded, the Cliff Heating and Cooling Plant in downtown Ottawa.

The plants would be known as the district energy system and would heat 80 buildings in the area with steam. It is also expected to cool 67 of these buildings with chilled water through more than 14 kilometres of underground pipes.

Under the Energy Services Acquisition Program, PSPC will be tasked with modernizing the outdated technology in the plants to lower emissions and supportgrowth in the eco-friendly technology sector.

During the first stage of the overhaul, the system would be converted from steam to low temperature hot water and then switched from steam to electric chillers—with the estimated completion date being 2025. PSPC notes that the project will reduce current emissions by 63 per cent, the equivalent of removing 14,000 non-eco-friendly cars off the road.

Afterwards, the natural gas powering the plant will then be replaced by carbon-neutral fuel sources, which according to estimated will reduce emissions by a further 28 per cent. The renovation project is bound to save the government an estimated fee of more than $750 million in heating and cooling costs in the next 40 years.

Furthermore, the implementation of radiant floor heating in Ottawa by the federal government would be an additional step in driving its agenda for a more eco-friendly state.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Savers website, radiant floor heating has a lot of benefits and advantages over alternate heat systems and can cut heating costs by 25 to 50 per cent.

“It is more efficient than baseboard heating and usually more efficient than forced-air heating because no energy is lost through ducts,” the website states.

Radiant floor heating provides an equal amount of heat throughout a building, including areas that are difficult to heat, such as rooms with vaulted ceilings, garages or bathrooms. Consideringit warms people and objects directly—controlling the direct heat loss of the occupant—radiant floor heating provides comfort at lower thermostat settings.

“Radiators and other forms of ‘point’ heating circulate heat inefficiently and hence need to run for longer periods to obtain comfort levels,” reports the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNet).

Radiant heating is a clean and healthy option—a perfect choice for those with severe allergies—as it doesn’t rely on circulating air, meaning there are no potentially irritating particles blowing around the room. Additionally, it is more energy efficient, aesthetically pleasing with wall radiators or floor registers and virtually noiseless when in operation.

“They draw cold air across the floor and send warm air up to the ceiling, where it then falls, heating the room from the top down, creating drafts and circulating dust and allergens.”

It is important for the leadership in Ottawa to equally drive the adoption of radiant floor heating as doing this would lead to increased usage in residential buildings—and even government-owned buildings.

However, in October, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), a representative body of employees of the plants,began a campaign target at the government against their decision to use a public-private partnership (P3) for the retrofitting project, citing concerns about costs and safety.

According to the union, outside employees won’t be bound to the same health and safety standards of government workers and that typically P3 projects cost a lot more than traditional public financing deals.

The union demands that the government scraps the proposed project and meet PSAC members and experts to brainstorm on a new way forward that would ensure federal employees continue to operate and maintain the plants.

However, parliamentary secretary to public services and procurement minister, Steve MacKinnon said that the union officials have consulted him but that after conducting an analysis, the P3 option was still the best for the job.

“We didn’t have (to) sacrifice on safety or health — we didn’t have to sacrifice on job security,” he said.

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Steps to becoming a Data Scientist

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Data science has become one of the most in-demand career paths in this century, according to Business Insider. With the amount of information being circulated online, it has created a huge demand for storing, interpreting and implementing big data for different purposes—hence the need for a data scientist.

Today, there too much information flying around for regular people to process efficiently and use. Therefore, it has become the responsibility of data scientists to collect, organize and analyze this data. Doing this helps various people, organizations, enterprise businesses and governments to manage, store and interpret this data for different purposes.

Though data scientists come from different educational backgrounds, a majority of them need to have a technical educational background. To pursue a career in data science, computer-related majors, graduations and post graduations in maths and statistics are quite useful.

Therefore, the steps to becoming a data scientist are quite straightforward.  After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in an IT related field—such as computer science, maths or physics—you can also further your education by obtaining a master’s degree in a data science or any other related field of study. With the necessary educational background, you can now search for a job and obtain the required experience in whichever filed you choose to invest your acquired skills.

Here are the necessary steps to be taken to become a data scientist.

Step 1: Obtain the necessary educational requirements

As earlier noted, different educational paths can still lead to a career in data science. However, it is impossible to begin a career in data science without obtaining a collegiate degree—as a four-year bachelor’s degree is really important. However, according to a report by Business Insider, over 73% of data scientist in existence today have a graduate degree and about 38% of them hold a Ph.D. Therefore, to rise above the crowd and get a high-end position in the field of data science, it is important to have a Master’s degree or a Ph.D.—and with various online data science masters program, obtaining one is quite easy.

Some institutions provide data science programs with courses that will equip students to analyze complex sets of data. These courses also involve a host of technical information about computers, statistics, data analysis techniques and many more. Completing these programs equips you with the necessary skills to function adequately as a data scientist.

Additionally, there are some technical—and computer-based degrees—that can aid you begin a career in data science. Some of them include studies in, Computer Science, Statistics, Social Science, Physics, Economics, Mathematics and Applied Math. These degrees will imbibe some important skills related to data science in you—namely, coding, experimenting, managing large amounts of data, solving quantitative problems and many others.

Step 2: Choose an area of specialization

There rarely exists an organization, agency or business today that doesn’t require the expertise of a data scientist. Hence, it is important that after acquiring the necessary education to start a career as a data scientist, you need to choose an area of specialization in the field you wish to work in.

Some of the specializations that exist in data science today include automotive, marketing, business, defence, sales, negotiation, insurance and many others.

Step 3: Kick start your career as a data scientist

After acquiring the necessary skills to become a data scientist, it is important to get a job in the filed and company of your choice where you can acquire some experience.

Many organizations offer valuable training to their data scientists and these pieces of training are typically centred around the specific internal systems and programs of an organization. Partaking in this training allows you learn some high-level analytical skills that were not taught during your various school programs—especially since data science is a constantly evolving field.

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Artificial intelligence pioneers win tech’s ‘Nobel Prize’

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Computers have become so smart during the past 20 years that people don’t think twice about chatting with digital assistants like Alexa and Siri or seeing their friends automatically tagged in Facebook pictures.

But making those quantum leaps from science fiction to reality required hard work from computer scientists like Yoshua Bengio, Geoffrey Hinton and Yann LeCun. The trio tapped into their own brainpower to make it possible for machines to learn like humans, a breakthrough now commonly known as “artificial intelligence,” or AI.

Their insights and persistence were rewarded Wednesday with the Turing Award, an honor that has become known as technology industry’s version of the Nobel Prize. It comes with a $1 million prize funded by Google, a company where AI has become part of its DNA.

The award marks the latest recognition of the instrumental role that artificial intelligence will likely play in redefining the relationship between humanity and technology in the decades ahead.

Artificial intelligence is now one of the fastest-growing areas in all of science and one of the most talked-about topics in society,” said Cherri Pancake, president of the Association for Computing Machinery, the group behind the Turing Award.

Although they have known each other for than 30 years, Bengio, Hinton and LeCun have mostly worked separately on technology known as neural networks. These are the electronic engines that power tasks such as facial and speech recognition, areas where computers have made enormous strides over the past decade. Such neural networks also are a critical component of robotic systems that are automating a wide range of other human activity, including driving.

Their belief in the power of neural networks was once mocked by their peers, Hinton said. No more. He now works at Google as a vice president and senior fellow while LeCun is chief AI scientist at Facebook. Bengio remains immersed in academia as a University of Montreal professor in addition to serving as scientific director at the Artificial Intelligence Institute in Quebec.

“For a long time, people thought what the three of us were doing was nonsense,” Hinton said in an interview with The Associated Press. “They thought we were very misguided and what we were doing was a very surprising thing for apparently intelligent people to waste their time on. My message to young researchers is, don’t be put off if everyone tells you what are doing is silly.” Now, some people are worried that the results of the researchers’ efforts might spiral out of control.

While the AI revolution is raising hopes that computers will make most people’s lives more convenient and enjoyable, it’s also stoking fears that humanity eventually will be living at the mercy of machines.

Bengio, Hinton and LeCun share some of those concerns especially the doomsday scenarios that envision AI technology developed into weapons systems that wipe out humanity.

But they are far more optimistic about the other prospects of AI empowering computers to deliver more accurate warnings about floods and earthquakes, for instance, or detecting health risks, such as cancer and heart attacks, far earlier than human doctors.

“One thing is very clear, the techniques that we developed can be used for an enormous amount of good affecting hundreds of millions of people,” Hinton said.

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