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You are here: Home FSF Events Richard Stallman and Joseph Potvin - "Two lessons from the Phoenix payroll puzzle: The value of software freedom & algorithm accessibility" (Ottawa, Canada)

Richard Stallman and Joseph Potvin - "Two lessons from the Phoenix payroll puzzle: The value of software freedom & algorithm accessibility" (Ottawa, Canada)

by Jeanne Rasata Contributions Published on Apr 13, 2018 03:07 PM
Ottawa, Canada
When Apr 30, 2018

from 08:00 AM to 10:30 AM
Where Sheraton Ottawa Hotel, Ottawa, Canada
Contact Name
  • What: A breakfast discussion led by Richard Stallman and Joseph Potvin: "Two Lessons from the Phoenix Payroll Puzzle: Software Freedom & Algorithm Accessibility."
  • Suggested registration contribution: $40, to be donated on site (buffet-style continental breakfast included).
  • Registration which is optional and can be done anonymously, will help us accommodate everyone who wishes to attend.

  • Language: The discussion will be bilingual (French and English).
  • Location: Penthouse Conference Room, Sheraton Ottawa Hotel, 150 Albert Street, Ottawa, ON, K1P 5G2, Canada.
  • Co-hosted by: Xalgorithms Foundation and the Free Software Foundation.

On April 30th, 2018, Richard Stallman, president of the Free Software Foundation, and Joseph Potvin, executive director of Xalgorithms Foundation, will lead a breakfast discussion: "Two lessons from the Phoenix Payroll Puzzle: Software freedom & algorithm accessibility."

For more than two years, the Canadian government's new payroll system, known as "Phoenix," has experienced a persistent stream of errors and omissions which have brought tens of thousands of employees financial hardship, tax complications, and stress which extends to their families and communities.

Throughout the country, Canadians naturally wonder: Why has Phoenix been so difficult to fix? Who can fix it? And why can't those who botched the implementation be replaced?

Canadian taxpayers have spent more than $1 billion on implementation and on relentless attempts to fix or stabilize this system. But the Canadian government does not have the source code for it and, due to restrictive licensing, can't change suppliers. Nobody beyond the original contractors are allowed to run a copy of the system independently, to study how it all works, to run tests on it, or to adapt it with improvements.

Lesson #1 from the Phoenix payroll puzzle is clear. A government can only safeguard its accountability to its citizens and employees by requiring free/libre license rights when outsourcing software to others, and by issuing free/libre license rights to others when creating software.

The Phoenix payroll debacle also demonstrates Lesson #2. A government using data-driven algorithms, for example to determine compensation, or to analyze HR data, or other functions, remains accountable to its stakeholders only when the algorithms are accessible. Transparency enables the people affected to easily validate whether the payments they receive are correct, or to ensure that their confidential data is being used appropriately. People have a right to determine whether they are being dealt with correctly. This is no different than the transparency which scientific publishers require from the authors of journal articles, to ensure that claimed results are reproduced through independent peer review.

As part of this event, Xalgorithms Foundation will also be making a formal announcement about "The paycheck target challenge." We're going to throw down the gauntlet, and claim that a free software community involving a diversity of organizations and individuals, can create and operate a faster, more reliable, more economical, and more respectful self-service portal for Canadian federal employee payroll validation than what the exclusive group of companies behind Phoenix are creating under restrictive terms. The free/libre "MyPayChecker / ChèqueMaPaye" service will implement digitized collective agreements. That means each computational clause, deduction, entitlement and notification requirement will be expressed in a generic executable form, and will be accessible online to empower both employees and payroll officers. Advance details and a media release will be provided at the 30 April morning event, ahead of wider publication.

Location: Penthouse Conference Room, Sheraton Ottawa Hotel, 150 Albert Street, Ottawa, ON, K1P 5G2, Canada

Registration, which can be done anonymously, while not required, is appreciated; it will help us ensure we can accommodate all the people who wish to attend.

A suggested registration contribution of $40 (to be made on-site) will help defray the costs of the venue and catering. Excess registration funds received for the event will be used by Xalgorithms Foundation towards the free/libre "MyPayChecker / ChèqueMaPaye" service. Direct contributions to support Xalgorithms Foundation can be made to Royal Bank of Canada Account #1079391, Transit #00006, Institution #003, or SWIFT #ROYCCAT2. For other arrangements, please write to

On-site registration and buffet-style continental breakfast will be open from 08:00. The public is encouraged to attend. This event will be bilingual (French and English).

Please fill out our contact form, so that we can contact you about future events in and around Ottawa.

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