A Summer Student Exchange to McGill University

This is a guest post from Geothink student Qing Lu (Lucy), University of Waterloo, under Professor Peter Johnson. She writes about her recent experience in a Geothink student exchange.

By Qing Lu (Lucy)

In the middle of August, I had the opportunity to visit McGill University via the Geothink Summer Exchange Programme. Approaching the completion of my graduation thesis, I thought Dr. Renee Sieber and her team could help me identify the gaps of my research and add new insights. Dr. Sieber is the Principal Investigator of Geothink and her research on public participation and the geoweb, which is related to my research on municipal government mobile applications for 311 service requests. My research aims to determine the characteristics of communication channel use and identify advantages and challenges of the mobile app channel. Since my research is a new area that does not have an abundance of prior studies for reference, insights and opinions from experts and peers are important. I hoped to hear their perspectives on the potentials and issues of 311 apps for municipalities, more specifically, the impacts of 311 apps on efficiency of governments as well as on citizen engagement. Luckily, I got to meet our Geothink Student Coordinator, Peck Sangiambut, who has also looked at citizen engagement via civic apps (including a 311 service request app), under Dr. Sieber.

On the first day, I did a presentation for Dr. Sieber and her team. I presented my research on 311 apps and results of analysis of 311 requests in the City of Edmonton. A paper about this is published in the Urban Planning journal. In addition, I presented results of interviews with six municipalities about their perspectives on 311 app usage. Instead of a regular presentation that starts with presentation and wraps up with questions, it was a lively discussion that everyone exchanged opinions and ideas in the process of presentation, and we ended up an hour over our originally scheduled time! Dr. Sieber and her team were very outspoken and many of their points worth pondering. One of the things that I ignored in my research is the geographic offsets of 311 data obtained in open data catalogue. To protect the privacy of reporters, the locations of reported incidents are likely to be shifted from their actual geographic locations, for example, a tree pruning request points to the centre of a building. Therefore, the results of my spatial analysis of 311 data contain bias caused by inaccurate locations. In addition, efficiency could conflict with engagement when we know newly-introduced channels such as mobile apps are more efficient than telephone calls. Some people, especially the elderly, would be left behind if municipalities simply seek to maximise operational efficiency and perhaps reduce staffing for traditional channels of communication (such as telephone hotlines).

student exchange presentation

Presenting research results at the Department of Geography, McGill University

For the second day, Dr. Sieber’s team and I went to a panel discussion called GIS Without GIS: Spatial Technologies for Social Change. This was part of the World Social Forum and included discussion of the roles open data, mapping, and open source tools in producing social change. The invited speakers shared their opinions and experiences working with open data. This discussion inspired me to look at the open data aspect of my research as some municipalities publish the 311 data on the open data catalogue while others do not. It would be interesting to investigate if the openness of 311 reports impact citizens’ engagement.

This trip has provided me with the opportunity to communicate my research findings with people who work in the same field. I also got a deeper understanding of research – research is not only finding answers to questions but also seeking questions to be answered. In my research, I have found that there is a trend that mobile app use for citizens to contact governments is increasing and telephone calls are decreasing, and responses from municipalities show that mobile apps are more efficient and cost-saving. However, the question remains that if the governments should give up traditional communication channels and turn to newly-introduced ones. As the communication channels involve both citizens and governments, citizens’ perspectives on the multiple channels should also be considered when evaluating the channels. I am deeply interested in these questions, and I will investigate them in my future research.

My sincere thanks to Geothink for giving the opportunity to go on a summer exchange at the University of Waterloo. Thank you to Dr. Renee Sieber for hosting me and sharing your valuable comments and opinions. Thank you to Sonja and Peck for organizing everything well. To the Geothink community members: please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have further questions or if you are considering going on a summer exchange yourself.

Lucy (Qing) Lu is a Master’s student under the supervision of Dr. Peter Johnson in the Department of Geography and Environmental Management at University of Waterloo. Her research focuses on municipal government mobile applications, 311 services and e-government.
Lucy can be reached by email at q25lu@uwaterloo.ca.