Canadian Consulting Engineer

Webs, walls, and where’s the information?

Trying to find out information about construction projects these days is ... well, trying. It took me two months to put together the article about some of the venues being built for the 2015 Pan/Parapan Games in Toronto (p. 38). I was simply...

March 1, 2013   Canadian Consulting Engineer

Trying to find out information about construction projects these days is … well, trying. It took me two months to put together the article about some of the venues being built for the 2015 Pan/Parapan Games in Toronto (p. 38). I was simply trying to obtain straightforward information on what the buildings will look like and whether they have any outstanding engineering features. Still it took dozens of e-mails, interviews, text reviews and re-reviews, so that we didn’t get final “approval” until we were right down to the wire.

This kind of controlled access to information happens all the time, especially with P3 projects. Contractors don’t seem keen on promoting their projects, perhaps in deference to the wishes of their government and financier partners. I hear of strict protocols being set on what messages go out to the media.

Consequently, I have a file full of projects on which I have tried to find out more information than what was given in a press release or on the website, all to no avail. Examples across Canada include a large museum, an airport, and an infamously cancelled power generating plant (O.K., perhaps I can understand the silence on that one).

As a journalist I am happy to have technical content checked for accuracy, but I do have qualms about having entire articles reviewed and “approved” by project owners. Controlling the media is a good or a bad thing, depending on your point of view. In the last issue we published an article on how engineering companies need to manage how they deal with the media in a crisis. We called it “Damage Control.” But this month I’m looking at the issue from the other side, and I have to say it’s disturbing. Suffice it to say, that Democracy 101 teaches that a free and independent press, and the free flow of information, are the axes upon which our political, social and economic systems turn.

Living in the internet era, there has never been more information available to us. But the idea that this free-for-all platform has opened up the avenues of knowledge and truth is an illusion. On one hand the web allows any crank to post a far-out theory and have it believed. On the other hand it allows governments, corporations and organizations to put up walls and deflect enquiries. Websites are online brochures, and organizations naturally use them to present only their best faces to the world. It’s often impossible to penetrate any deeper. Big infrastructure project websites are packed with information, but that’s another problem. How do you know you have found the right page? Is the document up to date or superseded? You can spend hours uncovering the layers. It’s like being in a library, lost in the stacks and having to search through every book.

And, when you’re on the hunt for engineering information it is disconcerting to find that consultants are afraid to speak to the media. No wonder engineers don’t have a high profile. As long as they don’t insist on their right to talk about projects and promote themselves as the engineers, they will stay low in the public’s awareness. At present, the only time engineers do emerge into the limelight — witness the Elliot Lake and Charbonneau inquiries — is when there’s trouble.

Bronwen Parsons


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