Category Archives: analytics

Interview about Digital Innovation in the age of COVID-19

As part of Yukon Innovation Week, Kari Johnston interviewed Inga Petri about her work in arts & culture in the digital world. I discuss my mission to help artists and arts & culture organizations use digital technologies in profound and new ways and build successful digital business models. It’s not about merely building a website, but about leveraging the latest web technologies and ways in which web 3.0 works to secure viable spaces for artistic and cultural expression and experiences.

Part of Yukon Entrepreneur Podcast Series

A perspective on Universal Tax Debt Relief

COVID-19 Government Aid

Canadian governments at all levels responded to COVID-19 by telling people to stay home and shuttering large parts of the economy resulting in massive job losses along with creating massive liabilities for business owners and threatening the survival of businesses ranging from theatres, to restaurants and airlines.

Federal COVID-19 relief as of April 24, 2020 was $145.6 billion according to news media.  In the first month COVID-19 emergency funding was already 3.5 times of Canadians’ old tax debt and it has continued to rise rapidly. As of May 26, 2020 news media reported that the $2,000 Canada Emergency Response Benefit had paid $40 billion dollars to 8 million Canadians. 8 million people represents a staggering 42% of Canada’s workforce, including sole proprietors, and self-employed Canadians.

The Government of Canada also immediately extended tax filing and payment deadlines from April 30 to September 1, 2020, ostensibly to reduce Canadians’ stress and anxiety of being unable to pay their outstanding 2019 taxes due to COVID-19 decimating their financial capacity to pay their regular bills for shelter, food and communications, let alone any outstanding taxes.

Canadians’ Tax Debts

In 2018, Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) reported that uncollected taxes had risen to $44 billion and “…unpaid tax owed is set to hit more than $47 billion by 2020. The steady increase in the tax debt — up by about $2 billion annually [since 2015] — comes despite a major investment in the 2016 federal budget to wrestle down fast-rising levels of uncollected tax debt.”

Importantly, “close to half of the unpaid tax debt is owed by individual Canadians. Corporations and businesses account for the remainder, which includes unpaid GST and payroll deductions not turned over to Ottawa.”

Source: https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/tax-debt-liberal-budget-collections-1.4715967

To be clear, tax debt includes neither tax revenue lost to the underground economy (the black market) nor tax evasion, for instance through offshore tax havens. Tax debt means tax owed by Canadians who actually have filed their individual and business tax returns, i.e. people who rather than cheating are dealing with capacity to pay issues.

Universal Tax Debt Relief

Universal Tax Debt Relief is an efficient way to give affected Canadians a chance at recovery and rebuilding their lives, or at least some peace-of-mind. Meaningful tax debt amnesty has to extend to 2019 and perhaps include COVID-19 Year 1, ie the current year.

It would give affected Canadians a chance to wind down their businesses responsibly, perhaps even avoid personal and business bankruptcies, and stop having the millstone of CRA debt around their necks, potentially until the end of their lives. An utterly hopeless situation.

Eliminating their CRA debt would give affected Canadians a chance to begin the long but hopeful process of rebuilding their lives, their credit and start with a fresh slate in terms of their relationship with CRA. They could work to avoid poverty becoming a burden to Canada’s social safety system.

Unprecendented? Not really.

CRA has not collected from tax evaders despite having access to the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers, for instance.

CRA has hired more tax collectors since 2015 to deal with the tax debt backlog, and they have assigned a few staff to tax evasion as well. But CRA simply does not have sufficient enforcement capacity and uncollected tax debt keeps growing – and no one seems to track what the other group, tax evaders, are doing overseas to avoid or evade taxes in Canada..

In 2012, the federal government simply wiped out about 280,000 skilled immigrant applications because they were backlogged and doing so gave the government a clean slate rather than have a years-old millstone around its ability to act in the present time.

https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/canada-s-skilled-immigrants-backlog-to-be-eliminated-soon-1.1290847

But what about fairness?

COVID-19 isn’t fair. Falling into debt because of following ones passion
isn’t fair. Missing a single tax payment and learning the hard way how big a stick the government carries isn’t fair. Life isn’t fair.

My proposals isn’t suggesting anyone should not be paying their taxes – I pay mine and I expect all tax payers to pay theirs. This is simply a
recognition that there are groups of people who have ended up in dire financial situations, while they have been building businesses, communities and making all manner of contributions. With COVID-19 all bets are off. The fall out will include business and individual failures. This is a chance to give back hope for a better day.

COVID-19 relief has been fast and effective at saving the lives of millions of Canadians. It is time to save the lives of those Canadians who have been living under the unyielding choke-hold of tax debt and CRA tax collections.

Some added notes

Tax Debt and CRA’s punitive penalty and compound interest regime

CRA uses a punitive daily compound interest regime coupled with severe penalties for late filing or not being able to pay all taxes by the due date. This is applied in the harshest ways related to payroll taxes. GST debt and income tax is treated with somewhat less punishment in comparison. The penalties and compound interest exceed the average profit margin of many businesses by a wide margin, making catching up exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.

“The penalty for late filing payroll remittances is:

  • 3% if the amount is one to three days late
  • 5% if it is four or five days late
  • 7% if it is six or seven days late
  • 10% if it is more than seven days late, or if no amount is remitted
  • 20% if this is the second or subsequent time you are assessed this penalty in a calendar year, if the failures were made knowingly or under circumstances of gross negligence”

Amongst other penalties there is a “penalty for failure to file information returns over the Internet.” And for some tax remitting organizations, “payments made on the due date but not at a financial institution can be charged a penalty of 3% of the amount due.”

https://www.canada.ca/en/revenue-agency/services/tax/businesses/topics/payroll/penalties-interest-other-consequences/payroll-penalties-interest.html

Importantly, any monies owned to CRA including penalties and interest CANNOT be used as a tax write off. Normally, interest on a loan is a tax write off, but interest on CRA debt has to be paid out of after-tax income, making paying old debts dauntingly difficult.

Getting a loan to pay off CRA debt?

Banks will not make loans to people carrying CRA debt. Loan sharks on the other hand charge more than 30% on loans they give – again, most businesses do not achieve such high profit margins. This spiral of despair is a set up for failure.

Does bankruptcy wipe out CRA debt?

Important to understand is that debt to CRA is unlike any other debt – even in bankruptcy CRA debt is not automatically wiped out and can persist to the end of a person’s life. In effect CRA can keep a bankrupt person from ever emerging from bankruptcy. CRA can and does claw back Canada Pension Plan payments, which average around $650 a month, leaving seniors with tax debt in a despairing situation.

Restaurants at the Brink – COVID-19 Response

A sector analysis series #1

Creative Commons Licence CC BY-SA (i.e. use in any way you want with attribution of source: “Inga Petri, Strategic Moves, May 17, 2020”)

Public health officials in Canada ordered dine-in restaurants closed everywhere during March 2020. Now in mid-May, they are musing about reopening restaurants with new obligations, centred on 2 metre distancing, disinfecting surfaces and perhaps more.

That potential “permission” to “open” cannot result in thinking restaurants and their owners wouldn’t require continued financial support.

The reality check

2018 financial data from Statistics Canada available at http://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/pp-pp.nsf/eng/home shows that for the 35,514 full-service restaurants with sales between $30,000 to $5 million (data for those earning above $5 million is suppressed):

  • 35% did not generate any profit at all, i.e. they were operating at a loss.  
  • The other 65% turned a profit of 7.6% on average, representing $24,400 for the year.

That means a profitable restaurant in Canada makes money only 4 weeks out of 52 on average. It also means a restaurant owner’s average annual profit is less than minimum wage. And no, many sole proprietors do not pay themselves a regular wage; instead keeping everything working in their business.  Anyone can see the high risk restaurateurs take and how tenuous their existence is.

In the Yukon, where I live, the numbers are a little better: only 22% do not report any profit and of the 78% that do, the average profit is 9.3% representing $66,000 on average in 2018. Nonetheless these figures show how little slack there is and how all the money for the years comes from the now cancelled summer tourist season.

This data makes clear:  the average restaurant, closed down already for two months due to the public health orders, is already bankrupt. Re-opening obligations are shaping up to be costly and won’t result in lower staffing complements despite serving far fewer customers due to new labour intensive cleaning regimes. There is simply no economic case to reopen for the great majority of dine-in restaurants.

Significant direct contributions to Canadians

Through the risk borne by them, restaurateurs have been contributing far-reaching benefits to Canada’s economy: according to Government of Canada data, the average dine-in restaurant had $765,600 in sales. Of that $250,300 went to labour costs and wages.  Purchases and materials that are part of the cost of goods sold totalled $273,900. Rent accounted for $65,300 and so on.

And there are many more indirect, restaurant owners have been building communities, contributed to quality of life, played a large part in attracting and retaining a skilled workforce, growing tourism through the culinary arts and memorable dining experiences, supporting charities, paying staff, helping put young people through school, feeding people, all while breaking their backs and bank accounts.

In short, the direct and related economic activity generated by the restaurant sector is worth billions to Canadians and the Canadian economy.

A broken model – Restaurateurs need help

COVID-19 is showing for the world to see what has been true for some time: The business model independent full-service restaurants have been forced into, largely by price competition from other food sector players, is broken and the owners are broke.

The numbers also make clear why restaurants can fall into GST and Payroll remittance tax debt, when basic break-even is so difficult to achieve. Non-remittance incurs extraordinary penalties and interest charges that can take up any monthly surplus and more. And then they are exposed to the CRA’s relentless collections and being treated as less than valuable community builders and hard-working, creative, innovative business leaders.

They need a chance at a life beyond COVID-19 and beyond a broken business model.

How can Canada help restaurants and their owners now?

A few ideas that could pull restaurants and restaurateurs back from the brink:

  1. Consumers have to learn to pay much more for the pleasures of eating out, especially when they don’t wish to tip 20% for servers and rather see living wages for restaurant workers, rather than below minimum wage as is the case in some jurisdictions. In the Yukon where I live it appears as though most, if not all, workers in the restaurant industry earn well above minimum wage plus tips.
  2. Landlords should permanently slash rents to restaurant tenants to enable restaurant owners earning a living wage and being able to invest in innovations in their business or business model.
  3. In addition to short-term COVID-19 Transition Grants to pay for additional public health mandated expenses and staff training, Government has to consider providing meaningful tax debt relief to allow a fresh start or at least some peace for owners.
  4. Sole proprietors must be considered as a special group requiring assistance. If sole proprietors are considered as “making a profit” when they barely break even before paying themselves anything, their work translates into not being able to cover their personal expenses and falling into debt.
  5. Local governments should revisit their zoning requirements to enable new, innovative ways of providing food services to the public. They can range from quickly enabling sidewalk patios and taking over unused parking spaces (no tourists means ample parking spaces are unused); a new breed of home-based businesses offering nano-scale/single-table/prepared-food eating experiences without the massively expensive requirements for home-based commercial kitchens; significantly reducing restaurant and liquor licensing costs.
  6. Canada’s provincial and territorial government-owned and run Liquor Control Boards should look at offering higher discounts or find a way to return most of their profits to their customers, i.e. bars and restaurants that must purchase alcohol at government controlled prices; allowing off-sales within every restaurant liquor license during the COVID shutdown period and 3 months beyond.

COVID-19 relief has been fast and effective at saving the financial lives of millions of Canadians. It is time to save the lives of those Canadians who have been living under the unyielding pressures of low price competition while the market demands quality food and high quality, unique dining experiences.

How intelligent is AI today?

I recently attended a workshop by Arts Impact AI, which is undertaking conversations on AI across Canada. I discovered quickly that my expectation of what Artificial Intelligence (AI) is, wasn’t quite in the right place for the conversation at hand. I expected the discussion to centre around intelligent machines thinking and working similar to humans. Where attributes like self-learning or the ability to intelligently change its programming based on new input would be explored.

Algorithm Making

We spent the morning considering algorithms capable of rapidly analyzing vast amounts of data. An intuitive example came in the form of a group exercise where group 1 developed an algorithm (five characteristics based on a set of 12 images of convicted criminals) to identify the most likely criminal in a crowd, group 2 – the computer – applied the algorithm and group 3 – the humans – were tasked to simply identify the criminal without an algorithm. My colleagues in group 1 –  which was made up of people from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities who live on the traditional territories of self-governing First Nations in the Yukon (and yes, that might have mattered to our decision-making) – opted to select criteria that did not include racial stereotypes. Needless to say, we broke the machine.

Each group had serious struggles with the ethical implications of their group’s role. This was the point, of course: do the designers of algorithms simply reinforce the stereotypes based on a highly biased judicial system that disproportionately affects Indigenous people and people of colour, and often men that are visibly part of these groups; or do they write an algorithm that does not fall into those stereotypes but focuses on other aspects.

Big Data Analysis

In my way of thinking this kind of AI application lives in the realm of big data analysis. While I imagined AI to feel unfamiliar and new, this felt extremely familiar to me: As a market researcher, I have followed for years work on “big data” analysis and how with the aid of faster computers our ability to analyze truly vast data sets has increased many fold. The biggest advantage, indeed, being speed that cannot be matched by a single human brain.

The AI application this group exercise mirrored is based on the analysis of a vast amount of data, e.g. 10,000+ photographs of convicted criminals, using computer facial recognition. This analysis identifies statistical probabilities for the parameters that were set.  Those probabilities are then used by humans to program an algorithm. That algorithm seeks to identify people in large crowds that match the analysis. By definition, this kind of analysis is looking to the past to inform the future; or in this case, to become the future.

Ethical Dilemma

The humans who build such algorithms  – which itself is void of AI self-learning or the acquisition and application of new information and capacity – determine their outcome.

When these humans do not apply a greater understanding, or an ethical lens (related to systemic impacts of oppression of certain groups in society, for instance) to the parameters analyzed in the first place, or to the resulting statistical probabilities, they are bound to create algorithms that reinforce the systemic biases evident in society.

In short, they may miss a lot of criminals and identify a lot of non-criminals. In so doing, they may also ensure that more of the same groups of people are pursued with the government’s righteous rigour, resulting in higher incarceration rates for these groups. Rather than discover what is real, it perpetuates a seriously biased reality that increasingly would disadvantage specific groups. The past literally becomes the future.

AI governance as data governance

This discussion of what algorithms are today centred on big data and what we can and should do with it was fascinating. Alas, it didn’t paint a picture for me of artificial intelligence in the sci-fi sense.

In any case, as a result of this data focus, the AI governance discussion was heavy on data governance, i.e. the collection, storage and use of personal data. Personal Information Privacy and Electronic Documents Act and  provincial laws govern information that is identifiable to an individual already. Canadian Anti Spam Legislation tries to combat spam and other electronic threats. There is a Do Not Call List to regulate how landlines can be used. These legislative tools tend to deal with a specific technology. This approach leaves much grey and blank space as companies explore and create more advanced technological innovations.  Simply put, technology changes more rapidly than laws.

In the end I feel it is this conundrum that AI governance should address – to move away from regulating one specific technology at a time to contemplate the notion of privacy and social licence we wish to adopt in our society.

Definitions of Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence (AI) is an area of computer science that emphasizes the creation of intelligent machines that work and react like humans.

Some of the activities computers with artificial intelligence are designed for include:

  • – Speech recognition
  • – Learning
  • – Planning
  • – Problem solving

[Source: Technopedia]

4 Types of AI

  1. Reactive machines – e.g. Deep Blue chess playing machine
    • Reactive machines have no concept of the world and therefore cannot function beyond the simple tasks for which they are programmed.
  2. Limited memory – e.g. autonomous vehicles
    •  Limited memory builds on observational data in conjunction with pre-programmed data the machines already contain
  3. Theory of mind – e.g. current voice assistants are an incomplete early version
    • decision-making ability equal to the extent of a human mind, but by machines
  4. Self-awareness -so far only exists in the movies
    • Self-aware AI involves machines that have human-level consciousness.

Source: G2

Cross-posted on https://digitalartsnation.ca

Leadership matters: Reflecting on the Yukon Arts Summit

My mind keeps returning to the Yukon Arts Presenters Summit. I had the rare benefit of debriefing with Michele Emslie, Summit organizer and Community Programming Director at the Yukon Arts Centre, over a few days and assisting in reviewing the personal and group action plans to which participants committed.

I am struck by the leadership capabilities that underpinned the success of the summit; qualities that go beyond being adaptable or seeking to be relevant to stakeholders.

Design thinking applied

Rather than define and solve a specific problem, the organizers held themselves to a different standard based on a broad goal: strengthening the Yukon arts presenting eco-system. Making such a broad goal central meant that much effort was spent on creating the conditions in which participants could discover and define the actions that were important to them. At heart of this design thinking approach lies understanding that a combination of empathy, creativity, analysis and synthesis as well as having explicit spaces for convergent and divergent thinking are essential. In short, by taking this approach, organizers succeeded in creating a space in which a diverse group of participants could learn, reflect, be inspired, meet and talk together and arrive in new places together.

Co-creating an intentional journey

There was no pre-defined destination, no agenda in terms of specific outcomes, no boxes to check off, no need for linear progression. Rather, there was an invitation to join together on a journey of discovering common ground and action priorities.

The organizers were focused on empowering participants from the start, knowing that the summit is its participants. They asked potential participants to co-create the content through soliciting feedback on hot topics and burning issues. 60 responses came in! Organizers listened carefully and found five key themes to address. An important  effect of this open, listening approach was that the tone of the summit, its ownership was already in the hands of participants well before they could even register for it.

Deep respect and trust in each person’s wisdom

The organizers showed a deep, easy respect for each person and their knowledge and experience. This was apparent in every facet, including activities like:

  • The Friday morning networking exercise using a photo, paper and markers to answer four questions: who are you/ what do you do, what is your hope for the future, what can you contribute to the summit, what do you need from it.
  • A gift exchange: each participant was asked to bring a gift that represents something about them, their work or their community (using their imagination rather than pocket book). These gifts were randomly distributed at lunch and then everyone read the brief note that was attached by the giver and talked about what significance this gift held to them. There were all kinds of wondrous giver-receiver match ups and the exchange made for a profound sense of connection and some fun. 100+ people managed to share in plenary over lunch while staying on schedule for the entire conference.
  • Each day’s opening reflections, ranging from an elder’s prayer to Haiku to Gramma Susie.

Wisdom comes from many places and, in particular, the spaces in between.

Action-oriented

The summit schedule was action-packed, not because of featuring talking heads or experts, but because of its focus on facilitation, conversation, meeting and thinking together, and action planning. (As a speaker, I felt I was well briefed heading into the summit!) As a result this summit produced several big ideas and actions through collaboration, rather than consensus. Perhaps most important, it resulted in the ownership of these ideas residing within the community itself, owned by various champions and those who gathered around these big ideas. Conference organizers didn’t get a long task list back, but rather received a strong mandate to remain stewards of the process, facilitate the next steps and to continue leading by encouraging leadership from within the arts community.

Using Open Space methods, participants pitched these initiatives for discussion.

Using Open Space methods, participants pitched various initiatives for discussion and to see which ones were strong enough to warrant concerted action.

A network = An action community

I believe we are seeing a profoundly different kind of arts presenters network emerge in Yukon. Not one that becomes a membership-based service model over time and that might suffer the eventual difficulties that have become so well documented for many membership-based associations; but a living, breathing, creative community that gathers around common actions (which require a just large enough group to be interested in working together), that is highly responsive to emerging and changing needs, and that delegates authority to all participants while benefiting from unhurried and effective stewardship provided by the Community Programming Director at the Yukon Arts Centre (YAC). Finally, YAC is ideally positioned for this role as it is a territorially created arts centre whose mandate includes strengthening arts as an important cultural, social and economic force in the Yukon Territory as a whole.

This close-knit, open network grounded in shared leadership and personal commitments, will show us how big ideas can be realized through concerted actions – unfettered from needing to establish narrow service priorities or delegating authority to a few (like a board of directors) – and thus able to grow and shift as the situation warrants.

What’s the matter with numbers?

With thanks to CAPACOA for commissioning my response to the Culture Shock debate entitled  “Hard Facts VS. Proverbial Truths: The Impact of Arts & Culture on Canadian Citizens & Communities” held on November 20, 2014 at the Community Knowledge Exchange Summit.  Moderated by Canada Council for the Arts CEO Simon Brault you can watch the archived livestream here

Billed as #CultureShock, Alain Dubuc, a journalist and economist, and Shawn van Sluys, who heads up a philanthropic foundation that works to make the arts more central to our lives, debated whether “For arts and culture to be fully valued by society, their impact must be demonstrated with hard facts” or whether proverbial truth are sufficient.

The case for telling the stories of transformation and understanding through art was made eloquently. Yet, I was more struck by the economist’s assertion that hard facts are “the best way” rather than “the only way” to ensure we fully value arts and culture.

This debate brought to my mind Daniel Kahneman’s observation in Thinking, Fast and Slow  that humans  have a propensity to believe that “what you see is all there is.”  He cautions us that we can easily miss important parts of a situation because there may be more going on than meets the eye.

And that reminded me of the old adage that what we count is what matters.  By inference that suggests that we actually count what truly matters, and that those things left uncounted do not matter.  In the arts much of what gets counted are ticket sales or attendance as a percentage of capacity. Until recently, little attention has been paid to collecting the stories, let alone data points, of impact and benefits of the arts. In my view, just because some things are (relatively) easy to measure, like attendance or GDP or employment figures, that does not mean that they tell the whole story – or the most important parts of the story. Conversely, just because some things are harder to measure that doesn’t necessarily make them any less important or, for that matter, immeasurable.

Indeed, I think we gain the deepest insights through a purposeful combination of numbers and stories. For numbers are not meaningful by themselves. Numbers require context and an understanding of the intrinsic dynamics at play. In my work as a researcher and strategist, my task is not merely to produce tables and analysis, but to interpret findings and create meaning. It is this highly creative process of meaning creation and collaboration with all the decision-makers that can lead to new insight. And in creating meaning we bring the numbers to life through examples: the stories.

Some in the arts do not wish to speak the language of numbers which they equate with the language of business. From my experience working with corporations I know that yes, numbers are important, but many invest heavily in innovation and creativity in order to solve significant problems and improve quality of life through new products and services. The divide is not so great. Rather, we may well be just lacking translators or mediators; people who are proficient in both languages and who can help us understand each other better.

Watch the debate. 

Research in the arts for everyone!

I was invited to present a webinar on the Dos and Don’ts of Research in the Arts this week by Ontario Presents and Atlantic Presenters Association. The full webinar recording and a few downloadable files are available here.

The audience for this session were people working in arts presenting organizations. They are not researchers typically, but use or commission research and may well put together the occasional survey. The focus of the webinar was understanding what value research brings, reviewing a comprehensive research design, exploring briefly major types of research (secondary, qual, quant and data analysis), a few high level observations on sample design and questionnaire design and, finally, legal frameworks that apply to marketing research.

Obviously, each of these topics merits much more time and depth . In fact, this webinar came out of a 1.5 day arts research seminar I conducted for Atlantic Presenters in St. John’s last June. All to say with this webinar I aimed to raise awareness of what we think about when undertaking and designing research and keep it real in terms of practical applications. The hands-on workshop is a whole different level of learning and practicing research and analysis skills.