RESEARCH AND INNOVATION AT THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO
JULY 2009 · VOL.10, NO.1
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The social economy’s hidden value
OISE centre helps non-profits by Jenny Hall

 

Laurie Mook & Jack Quarter. Photo by John Hryniuk

Pop quiz: which sector in the Canadian economy has a million full-time employees and contributes seven per cent of the gross domestic product?

If you guessed the auto sector, you weren’t far off — though the cars contribute slightly more at about 12 per cent of the nation’s wealth.

Try the non-profit sector, which is but one part of what Jack Quarter and Laurie Mook call the nation’s “social economy.” Quarter, who with Mook, co-directs the Social Economy Centre at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto, says the social economy is a “bridging concept for organizations that have a social mission but at the same time create some economic value through the services they provide.” Think non-profits, cooperatives, community
organizations and some socially-minded businesses. From the theatre company that puts on the play you saw last night to your kid’s Scout troop, the social economy is everywhere.

There’s been a lot of public hand-wringing lately about the potentially-disastrous consequences of letting the auto sector die. But what about this sometimes-invisible sector? “Imagine if the social economy suddenly wasn’t there,” says Mook. “What if all the recreation, health, leisure and arts organizations disappeared? They’re an integral part of our lives but they’re often marginalized or seen as separate.”

Mook and Quarter aim to change the way society values the social economy. To this end, they’re overseeing 35 research projects, funded through a five-year Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council strategic grant of $1.75 million. In addition, they have developed an open source software called Volunteers Count to assist community organizations in developing social accounting statements that include volunteer contributions.

“In 2003 Canadians contributed two billion hours of volunteering through non-profit organizations,” says Quarter. Their research showed that most organizations were keeping track of volunteer contributions manually, so they set out to develop an application that estimates comparable market value for volunteer labour and generates social accounting reports.

A lot of what the Centre does is to prod us to rethink how we assign value in our society. Mook is an expert in the field of social accounting. In conventional accounting, she says, certain rules and norms are followed, but we never ask about the values that underlie those rules. “There are decisions made about what’s in and what’s out in a conventional accounting statement and that has implications. Conventional accounting statements are constructed around the notion of success as the maximization of profit and as such the accounting statement drives behaviour toward the maximization of profit.”

She gives the example of exploitation of the environment. In conventional accounting this is called an “externality” — it’s a side effect of doing business and it’s not generally reported on. But what if your definition of accountability required you to report on your company’s impact on the environment? Would that change whether you were “successful” in a given accounting period?

“Social economy organizations have a social mission, so it’s easy to see that conventional accounting doesn’t capture a lot about what an organization accomplishes,” she says. Software like Volunteers Count and other tools developed by the Centre are helping organizations rethink how they report on the value they add to society.

The Centre works with a host of community partners and is committed to providing concrete assistance to community groups and non-profits. Each research project is required to have a plan for dissemination to non-academic audiences and a series of workshops keeps researchers in contact with those who work in the field.

Mook and Quarter also hope the Centre’s research will change the way we think about the social economy. “This is a vast social infrastructure that we could not function without,” says Quarter.

“This is the glue that keeps society together.”

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Birthright lottery
Ayelet Shachar rethinks citizenship by Jenny Hall

 

Ayelet Shachar wants you to work a little harder. But it’s not just you — the legal scholar also has courts, governments and minority communities in her sights as she rethinks the way we organize some of the fundamental categories of society.

To wit: her new book about citizenship, called The Birthright Lottery.

“A child born this minute in Canada has all the protections, opportunities, rights and security that Canada provides,” she says. “At the same moment, a child born in Malawi has a very different set of opportunities because she happens to be born into a less prosperous country. Each child has no control over which country provides her rights and status. It really is a lottery.”

The idea of birthright was entrenched in feudal times, when birth on a certain territory would create a lifelong relationship between serf and lord. Shachar doesn’t suggest abolishing citizenship based on birth, but points out that in all other aspects of life, we have abolished birthright as a meaningful criteria for membership in a group. “You wouldn’t assume that someone who was born to a lawyer would automatically become a lawyer.”

Yet birthright not only survives but thrives in the realm of citizenship. “The harsh reality on the ground,” Shachar explains, “is that most people alive today — indeed 97 per cent of the global population — are assigned citizenship by the lottery of birth and either choose or are forced to keep it that way.”

Her solution? Those who win the birthright lottery pay a “global levy” for their good fortune in a way that brings some of their advantages to those who don’t fare so well in the lottery. And she’s not just talking about financial investment. “If I could design this, I would say that every kid who’s born in a well-off country would do a year or two of service in a poorer place. We should have a sense of how lucky we are, and the best way to do this is to see how other people are living.”

Getting us all to work a little harder is an enduring theme for Shachar, who’s also an expert on multiculturalism. Her previous book, Multicultural Jurisdictions, grappled with how much recognition states should grant religious communities while simultaneously protecting the rights of women within those communities.

For example, she studied a case of a Jewish couple who were granted a civil divorce. As part of the settlement, the husband promised to go through the religious process of releasing his wife, something that was required for her and her children to remain in good standing within their religious community. When he failed to do that, the Supreme Court granted her the right to sue for damages.

“How do you divide the responsibility between the state and the religious community over an individual who belongs to both?” she asks. Many people suggest that all the power be granted to the state. But this isn’t satisfactory, she says, because the result is often a dilemma for women who might find themselves still married according to the norms of their religious communities.

In response, she tried to find legal mechanisms for cooperation between states and religious communities. “The idea,” she says, “is that both need to work harder to protect women.” She developed what she calls a joint governance regime: the state is left in control of things like property and custody but the religious community is granted the ability to define whether a person is released from barriers to remarriage according to their faith. But the last word in this legal arrangement is reserved for the women themselves. If they are treated unfairly by either the state or the religious group, they retain the right to turn to the competing jurisdiction. “In this way,” she says, “both entities are forced to work harder to earn a woman’s trust.”

Canadian courts and tribunals have taken note of her innovative solutions and she has consulted with foreign governments. She’s delighted by the interest in her work.

“I want to impact the world. I care about theory but I care about the world as well. I believe that fresh ideas are the core offerings that scholars can proffer. We need to do our fair share.”

 

Ayelet Shachar. Photo by John Hryniuk

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Your E.R. reservation is ready
Mike Carter is engineering better access to health care by Paul Fraumeni

 

Pamela Chan, Mike Carter and Dr. Tom Chan. Photo by John Hryniuk

You twisted your ankle at four in the afternoon. Now it’s midnight and the ankle is twice its normal size. You know you should go to the hospital emergency, but you also have a good idea that you’ll have to wait…and wait…and…

But what if you could call the emergency ward and be told how long you would have to wait to be treated? And what if your name could then be put on a waiting list, guaranteeing you a spot?

Industrial engineering professor Mike Carter thinks this is entirely possible.

He and master’s student Pamela Chan (above, left) are working with Dr. Tom Chan (above, right), Medical Director and Chief, Emergency and Urgent Care at The Scarborough Hospital in Toronto on this very possibility. “It’s never been done before anywhere. But it’s not tricky. You just need to have the right statistical information. Right now, emergency staff are generally reluctant to say much about wait time. They may tell you your wait will be at least three hours. It’s more difficult to say it’s going to be between three and four hours. But we’re close to having models that narrow the gap.”

Carter, founder of the Centre for Research in Healthcare Engineering, has an impressive 18-year record of success. He has predicted Ontario demand for hip and knee replacement surgeries, modeled the impact of colorectal cancer screening and reduced EMS ambulance delays in Toronto.

Does he have a secret formula? “We scrounge around to find useful statistics, such as historical data on people who use the emergency, staffing levels throughout the hospital and how many major trauma cases come in. From all that, we create predictability models. Health care policy is typically made without quantitative support because they don’t have the models. But we’ve proven that combining mathematical models based on real statistics and clinical experience can improve health care service.”

 

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The software doctor is in
Greg Wilson prepares students for work life by Jenny Hall

 

Greg Wilson. Photo by John Hryniuk

Most of us take software for granted. It comes preinstalled on our computers, or we download it with a few clicks. But what goes on behind the scenes to create the software we rely on for work and play?

When new software is being developed, it’s a team effort — at any given time an individual developer is working on only a small piece of the overall project. Development teams rely on web-based portals to keep them organized and on track: who’s working on which bits of code, when things are due, what’s being said to clients, and so on.

When computer science professor Greg Wilson began teaching at U of T, he came with industry experience that had exposed him to these sorts of portals. But he noticed they weren’t being used in classrooms — and
he thought they should be.

“For a while I tried using some off-the-shelf products that are intended to support the development of software on the scale of something like Firefox,” he says.
“But they’re just too big for classroom use. They have features students don’t need and features that get in the way of a novice trying to learn the basics.”

So Wilson took the closest thing he could find to what he wanted and had his students turn it into a classroom-friendly portal called DrProject. Wilson calls it a “simple-to-learn, simple-to-install introductory tool” that integrates project management with features like mailing lists, shared calendars and wikis that keep track of things like design ideas and meeting minutes.

It’s a stripped down version of the sorts of development portals students will encounter when they enter the world of work. He hopes this jump-start will help them make the transition to the bigger portals used
inside companies or on large open-source projects. “These kinds of tools can take quite a while to learn your way around, but it’s going to be easier if you’ve got the concepts internalized.”

It isn’t just students who are benefiting from DrProject. Wilson developed the software under an open source license and it’s being used by small companies in the Greater Toronto Area, other educational institutions and the Belgian Space Agency.

 

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Violence prevention
OISE centre helps non-profits by Jenny Hall

 

Scott Wortley. Photo by John Hryniuk

Jordan Manners. Jane Creba. These high-profile victims of crime are symbolic of the rise of gang violence in Toronto and other Canadian cities, and the number of government commissions and inquiries created to understand the problem. Scot Wortley has become a fixture on these commissions, offering insight and analysis honed over a decade studying patterns of youth crime and victimization, gang involvement and criminal activity.

Together with co-investigator Julian Tanner of the Department of Sociology, Wortley, a professor at the Centre of Criminology, developed one of the first studies in Canada that conducted detailed interviews with gang members, speaking to more than 300 of them on a range of issues, from why they first became involved in gangs to why violence erupted within the gang context.

Around the time those interviews were nearing completion, the Jordan Manners shooting took place at C.W. Jeffreys Collegiate in Toronto’s Jane-Finch corridor, immediately leading to the creation of two different commissions of inquiry to examine what governments and school boards should be doing to prevent violence both inside and outside schools. Wortley was asked to be the research coordinator for both commissions.

“The Manners case caused a moral panic in terms of violence because it happened within a school,” he says. “But most of the violence in these disadvantaged neighbourhoods takes place outside of the school and therefore gets a lot less attention.” Regardless, Wortley says, his approach on these two commissions was not only to document the extent and nature of the violence, but to review the international program evaluation literature to find out what community programs are working and which aren’t. “In the Canadian context, there is very little high quality evaluation of crime prevention strategies, not to mention policing, law enforcement and sentencing strategies,” he says. “It’s only through better evaluations that we can find out how to spend taxpayer money wisely. We want to find funding for those programs that are working and stop funding programs that are not meeting their objectives.”

This past fall, U of T and the City of Toronto were awarded a $5 million grant from Public Safety Canada to operate and evaluate a gang intervention program in the Jane-Finch corridor. The evaluation team, led by Wortley, will examine the effectiveness of this new project over a three year period. The evaluation strategy has a broader aim. “We not only want to uncover whether this program helps youth refrain from criminal activities and exit the gang lifestyle. We also want to determine if the program has an impact on youth mental health, educational and employment opportunities and a number of other quality of life outcomes.”

Wortley says that research shows that, in the long run, early prevention is more effective than specific, short-term law enforcement strategies. “If they don’t address the root causes of youth violence, narrow law enforcement approaches are doomed to failure. We are not going to arrest our way out of this problem.” Nonetheless, Wortley notes: “It seems that every time there is a high profile shooting that allegedly involves gang members, there’s a multi-million dollar government investment in special police guns and gangs units. Unfortunately, the long-term impact of these dedicated enforcement initiatives are rarely evaluated. By contrast, once we were approached by the City of Toronto to evaluate this gang intervention program, we jumped at the opportunity. It is an important project and we hope to find some promising results that could lead to significant reductions in youth violence within the GTA.”

 

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EDGE · JULY 2009 · VOL.10, NO.1