We Shouldn’t (and No Longer Need To) Trade Privacy for Public Input

This is a guest blog post by Tamara Little, founder and owner of Coast Communications and Public Affairs

Remember the good old days – a few months ago even – when project proponents and governments thought social media was the best way to engage with citizens and could do it for free? Well, it turns out these “free” tools may not be effective for consultation and weren’t free at all. They traded the public’s privacy for their input.

Governments, businesses and organizations have been relying on social media, particularly Facebook, for “two-way” communication and engagement. But it turns out they were simply pushing the cost to their citizens and stakeholders, who were paying with their personal data. Many of these online tools purported to be about community, but they were about data collection and ad sales.

The good news is there are solutions to protect privacy, build trust and hear directly from people. You can create solutions that are based on privacy by design, where protecting privacy is the default. You can can require authenticated users (who still retain their privacy). Custom-built solutions like PlaceSpeak don’t trade your data and put people first when asking for their input.

PlaceSpeak is a Vancouver-based creative tech solution that helps organizations create more effective, authentic civic engagement. The software may have a cost, but that cost is borne by the project proponent, not the citizens that are being consulted.

PlaceSpeak’s customers know that trust in social media tools is going down (#DeleteFacebook) as we all learn words like “trolls”, “bots”, and “algorithm”. A little bit of coding can now skew the outcome of our most important public questions, be they legislative changes or how to deal with housing affordability. Were the people who were consulted on the new infrastructure project from that jurisdiction? Or was it manipulated by bots controlled by special interests that don’t reflect the community? We just don’t know anymore.

We participate in a public consultation, but where does our information really go? Privacy is something we are only now starting to really value. The European Union has now made privacy rights fundamental rights for its residents with the implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Our own federal government recently released the Order in Council wording to cover privacy breach reporting, active this November.

If you are a municipal government or organization consulting the public – don’t let your hard work get undone by relying on old tools that were duct-taped together to listen to people while really selling data. Invest in your relationships with your publics and go with best practices – pay the price up front for platforms like PlaceSpeak that let us truly listen and engage on the issues that matter in our communities. All while protecting privacy.


Tamara Little is a 20-year public affairs and corporate communications professional and owner of Coast Communications and Public Affairs. She is the former President of the Public Affairs Association of Canada BC Chapter, and is an Advisor for PlaceSpeak. She is interested in privacy issues, including how to manage corporate reputation in the event of a privacy breach. Visit the Coast Comms privacy breach workshop for more information.