Author Archives: Drew Bush

SmartHalo Brings New Data to Smart Cities and Convenience to Riders

SmartHalo, a circular device that can be easily installed to provide both an anti-theft alarm and directions while biking, consists of a circular light that attaches to the handlebars of any bike (Image courtesy of SmartHalo).

By Drew Bush

Co-founder of the start-up SmartHalo, Xavier Peich wants to use technology to reinvent the bicycle and help it become the main means of transport in the cities of the future. He spoke at Geothink’s 2017 Summer Institute at McGill University in Montreal, QC.

Smart cities may one day enable urban planners to predict where bike lanes and traffic amelioration are needed most. This will partially be due to a new bike-ready navigation system that’s revolutionizing how cyclists find their way around urban areas worldwide.

SmartHalo, a circular device that can be easily installed to provide both an anti-theft alarm and directions while biking, consists of a circular light that attaches to the handlebars of any bike. The device’s inventors dream of how to make bikes as convenient as automobiles, and, in the process, reshape urban society.

“I’ve been biking for transport for a while now, probably about 15 years,” SmartHalo Co-Founder, Xavier Peich, told Geothink.ca at the 2017 Summer Institute at McGill University in Montreal, QC. “When I was younger, when I was doing my bachelors, I spent a year abroad in Paris as a student. And I traveled the whole year by bike. And I feel that I discovered the city so well just because I was biking all the time—perhaps better than some Parisians there. And I noticed that there were some places that I have been going often. And other places that I was just discovering.”

Check out a video of SmartHalo Co-Founder Xavier Peich talking about SmartHalo at the 2017 Geothink Summer Institute in the second half of this video also featuring Local Logic Co-Founder Vincent-Charles Hodder.

“And towards the end of the year, I sort of wanted to know, like hey, it would be neat to see a sort of heat map of like where I’ve been and are there places I go all the time,” he added. “So that was one thing. And the other thing is—and that was back then before smartphones—so it was a built difficult to find your way around town or especially a new city. And I found myself wanting to have a very simple interface that would connect to my phone to show me directions.”

The circular light on SmartHalo intuitively directs bikers as to what direction they should turn at an intersection by lighting up on that part of the circle, Peich said. He added that this device essentially puts biking around cities on par with cars in terms of safety (from theft) and convenience (in terms of navigation). Peich and many cycling advocates note biking has the additional benefits of saving you time on parking and improving your health. SmartHalo can also help direct bikers on accessible cyclist paths and safer routes.

“What brought us into choosing this interface, instead of like putting a map or just two arrows, actually comes from living in Europe and realizing that most cities around the world are not just like Montreal where it’s just left and right—most of the time it will be in diagonals,” Peich said. “So you have to design by thinking about that. Is there a way that we can show all types of directions? Well the circle is incredible simple. It’s perhaps the simplest form. But, then, you can show very complex information too.”

The potential uses for data from a device like SmartHalo are seemingly endless. Bikers using SmartHalo can help map parts of urban areas where smartphone carrying pedestrians and automobiles do not frequently go—yet cyclists may have occasion to do so. For example, more suburban and rural places may make ideal routes for cyclists on vacation or trying to get out of town but can often be dominated by traffic on a few main streets or nearby highways.

“Obviously, if you just commute to work from your house and you’re just doing that everyday, and you don’t go anywhere else, of course you know your way around,” Peich said. “But when you use the bike as your main mode of transportation, then you end up going to new places all the time. And this is when it sort of makes sense to try to see how a GPS or a navigation system would be applied to bikes.”

The circular light on SmartHalo intuitively directs bikers as to what direction they should turn at an intersection by lighting up on that part of the circle (Image courtesy of SmartHalo).

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If you have thoughts or questions about the article, get in touch with Drew Bush, Geothink’s digital journalist at drew.bush@mail.mcgill.ca

Geothoughts Conversations 3: Defining Smart Cities and the Human Relationship to New Decision-Making Processes

Geothink Co-Applicant Stéphane Roche, associate professor in University Laval’s Department of Geomatics, chats with students during a coffee break at Geothink’s 2017 Summer Institute at McGill University in Montreal, QC.

By Drew Bush

One of the hallmarks of any academic conference are the conversations that take place in-between sessions, in hallways and over meals. In our third Geothink Conversations, we aim to give you a flavor of these discussions at Geothink’s now concluded 2017 Summer Institute.

The theme of this year’s Institute was “Smart City: Toward a Just City.” An interdisciplinary group of faculty and students tackled many of the policy, legal and ethical issues related to smart cities. Each of the three days of the Summer Institute combined workshops, panel discussions and hands-on learning modules that culminated in a competition judged by Montreal city officials and local tech entrepreneurs.

The topic of our conversation was how to make sure human concerns remain paramount in the design of increasingly digital smart cities. It features Open North Executive Director Jean-Noé Landry; Geothink Co-Applicant Stéphane Roche, associate professor in University Laval’s Department of Geomatics; and, Victoria Fast, an assistant professor at University of Calgary’s Department of Geography. And, of course, I’m Drew Bush and I’ll be helping steer the conversation along.

To start us off, Roche got the conversation rolling on how to understand smart cities as a transition from urban living as it has been portrayed since the early 18th century to a new type of city based upon social organization and community that is aided by open data and digital technology.

Thanks for tuning in. And we hope you subscribe with us at Geothoughts on iTunes.

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If you have thoughts or questions about this podcast, get in touch with Drew Bush, Geothink’s digital journalist, at drew.bush@mail.mcgill.ca.

Geothoughts 14: Toward A Just Smart City at Geothink’s 2017 Summer Institute

Geothink students, staff and faculty at the 2017 Summer Institute at McGill University in Montreal, QC.

By Drew Bush

We’re very excited to present you with our 14th episode of Geothoughts. You can also subscribe to this Podcast by finding it on iTunes.

In this episode, we take a look back at Geothink’s 2017 Summer Institute at McGill University in Montreal, QC from May 25-27. The theme of this year’s Institute was “Smart City: Toward a Just City.” An interdisciplinary group of faculty and students tackled many of the policy, legal and ethical issues related to smart cities.

Each of the three days of the Summer Institute combined workshops, panel discussions and hands-on learning modules that culminated in a competition judged by Montreal city officials and tech entrepreneurs. The goal of the competition was for student groups to develop and assess the major principles guiding Montreal’s 2015-2017 Montréal Smart and Digital City Action Plan.

Thanks for tuning in. And we hope you subscribe with us at Geothoughts on iTunes. A transcript of this original audio podcast follows.

TRANSCRIPT OF AUDIO PODCAST

Welcome to Geothoughts. I’m Drew Bush.

[Geothink.ca theme music]

“Smart cities, what do we even need humans for anymore? As you can see from this morning’s panel, smart cities are more than urban engineering, they’re more than the sensors, they’re more than efficiency. Part of going beyond these things, part of creating empathy—my provocation at the beginning of the break—was…is to engage citizens. And how we actually do that, and how we actually do that in the context of a smart city will be discussed by Pamela Robinson and Rob Feick.”

That’s Geothink Head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill’s School of Environment and Department of Geography, addressing Geothink’s 2017 Summer Institute that just concluded this past May 2017. She was kicking off the afternoon presentations and work sessions on day one of Geothink’s annual Summer Institute this year held at McGill University in Montreal, QC from May 25-27. The theme: “Smart City: Toward a Just City.”

Each of the three days of the Summer Institute combined workshops, panel discussions and hands-on learning modules that culminated in a competition judged by Montreal city officials and tech entrepreneurs. The goal of the competition was for student groups to develop and assess the major principles guiding Montreal’s 2015-2017 Montréal Smart and Digital City Action Plan.

To start off the afternoon’s work, Rob Feick, an associate professor in Waterloo University’s School of Planning, discussed the idea of civic participation.

“All right, all right, so we’re going to take a few minutes and talk about this idea of civic engagement and how we might conceptualize that in the smart city context. How it might be different from how we think about engagement and civic participation in the pre smart city world. Ok. So. Interesting times: We have a lot of problems. That isn’t meant to get you depressed. I want you to be thinking of this as challenges. So there a lot of interesting, tough challenges that all of us need to apply ourselves to in one way or another.”

Pamela Robinson, associate professor in Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, added to this call for action by presenting the work of her graduate students who created an evaluative framework for smart cities as part of Geothink.

“Ok. So I’m asking everyone to dig into your blue bags and pull out the piece of paper that looks like this. And I’m going to transition from Rob’s talk about broad ways of thinking about civic engagement in the smart city to transitioning to a tool that was created by graduate students of mine as part of this project last fall as part of Geothink. And we wanted to share it for a couple of reasons. One, one of the challenges I think when you bring people together of different disciplinary backgrounds is that people have different ways of talking about the same kinds of issues.”

“And one of the things we hope that you’ll have kind of expanded capacity over the course of this two and a half days is you’re going to learn how to listen and talk to each other slightly differently. And one of the ways we want to accelerate that is by giving you something to think about. The other reason I want to bring it forward is I’m really proud of the work these students did. And I think it’s a good way of showing you as students inside this grant that your work can make a difference.”

This theme of empowering the next generation of academics and practitioners to build more just and sustainable smart cities of the future was woven throughout the three days of sessions. It grew more tangible later in the first day when students heard from Montreal City Council Chairman Harout Chitilian. In an interview after his talk, he expressed a need for people to hire who possess unique skillsets and competencies important to designing services for smart cities such as his.

“Process improvement is a very complex and difficult task. Like I said, technology is the easy part. And process improvement takes those skillsets that I mentioned [in my talk]. For example, you know, very talented project and program managers that can put in place transformational projects to rethink the services of the city of Montreal. You need to have also different competencies—not only technological. But, for example, legal backgrounds, regulatory backgrounds—to make sure that your future new and improved processes comply with the legislation and the and regulatory framework in which that you are operating in. So, biggest challenge, bar none for me, is to hire, to retain, and to train the best skilled workers. Because skillsets, competency is the main ingredient to achieving all these different exciting initiatives.”

In Montreal, plans include improving the cities smart offerings in a variety of areas that require trained workers.

“I think we need to make very strong progress in the transit domain, so have real-time data of all the transit assets of the city of Montreal. We need to also have real-time data, like I said, for beach goers. For using the different beaches now. The portals are setting up. There is one in Verdun. So environments—so water quality data, air quality data. So that is very very important going forward. And last but not least for me, we also need to have democracy related data that is available to our citizens. For example, how your elected official voted on a certain subject.”

Chitilian set the stage for the three-day Institute but its faculty and participants kept each talk and activity lively and engaging. Thanks to Geothink’s five-year length as a grant, many relationships have been shaped by years of collaboration between co-applicants, collaborators, partners and students. As a result, the Summer Institute can be a good time to reflect.

For one former Geothink graduate student who is now an assistant professor in the Department of Geography at University of Calgary, that means considering the progress Geothink has made educating her peers on topics such as smart cities, open data, crowdsourcing and volunteered geographic information. Those have been the topics of the four summer institutes hosted by the grant—each of which Victoria Fast has attended.

“Actually, interestingly, something we haven’t touched upon yet is the synergy between all of them. You know, Institute number one in Waterloo was volunteered geographic information (VGI) and crowdsourcing, the second one in Toronto was crowdsourcing, and this one is smart cities. And all of those concepts are just so fundamentally embedded in each other. And for—I think students who have been to all of them really get this diverse and rich perspective on Geothink from these kind of very relevant topical areas.”

[Geothink.ca theme music]

[Voice over: Geothoughts are brought to you by Geothink.ca and generous funding from Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.]

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If you have thoughts or questions about this podcast, get in touch with Drew Bush, Geothink’s digital journalist, at drew.bush@mail.mcgill.ca.

Geothoughts Talks 8, 9 & 10 – Three Talks to Remember from the 2017 Geothink Summer Institute

The 2017 Geothink Summer Institute on smart cities convened May 25 to May 27 on McGill University’s downtown campus in Montreal, Quebec.

By Drew Bush

Geothink’s Summer Institute may have concluded several months ago, but, for those of you who missed it, we bring you three talks to remember. Run as part of Geothink’s five-year Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) partnership research grant, the Institute aimed to provide undergraduate and graduate students with knowledge and training on the theme: “Smart City: Toward a Just City.”

Each day of the institute alternated morning lectures, panel discussions and in-depth case studies on topics in smart cities with afternoon work sessions where professors worked with student groups one-on-one on the eventual competition goal of developing and assessing the major principles guiding Montreal’s 2015-2017 Montréal Smart and Digital City Action Plan.

Hosted by Geothink Head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment, the Summer Institute’s faculty featured Geothink Co-Applicants Stéphane Roche, associate professor in University Laval’s Department of Geomatics; Pamela Robinson, associate professor in Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning; Rob Feick, associate professor in Waterloo University’s School of Planning; Teresa Scassa, Canada research chair in University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law; and Victoria Fast, an assistant professor at University of Calgary’s Department of Geography.

Below we present you with a rare opportunity to learn about smart cities with our experts as they discussed important ideas and case studies. A short summary describes what each talk covers.

Geothoughts Talk Eight: Day 1 Morning Panel Session on Smart Cities (1 hour 18 minutes)
Discussion began with introductions by Geothink Head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill’s School of Environment and Department of Geography. Presentations were given by Stephane Guidoin, open data chief advisor in Montreal’s Smart and Digital City Office and Geothink Co-Applicants Stéphane Roche, associate professor in University Laval’s Department of Geomatics; Pamela Robinson, associate professor in Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning; Rob Feick, associate professor in Waterloo University’s School of Planning; Teresa Scassa, Canada research chair in University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law; an Victoria Fast, an assistant professor at University of Calgary’s Department of Geography.

Geothoughts Talk Nine: Montreal City Council Chairman Harout Chitilian (22 minutes)
Later on the first day of the Summer Institute, Montreal City Council Chairman Harout Chitilian introduced students to the ways in which Montreal aims to blend open data, new tech and entrepreneurship to make Montreal a leader in smart cities. He spoke at the Institute even as outside McGill the city celebrated its 375th anniversary.

Geothoughts Talk Ten: Geothink Researcher Victoria Fast (43 minutes)
The first day continued with a talk from Victoria Fast, a former Geothink graduate student and now an Assistant Professor at University Calgary in the Department of Geography. In it she posed questions about accessibility and how smart cities may or may not benefit those who are most in need.

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If you have thoughts or questions about these podcasts, get in touch with Drew Bush, Geothink’s digital journalist, at drew.bush@mail.mcgill.ca.

Guide Provides Citizens Access to Open Data Literacy

The Geothink Citizen’s Guide for Open Data found at citizens-guide-open-data.github.io

By Drew Bush

Screenshot of the Geothink Citizen’s Guide to Open Data link on Geothink.ca.

You may have noticed a new banner gracing the front right portion of the Geothink.ca Web site starting last month. Click on it and it will take you to a key deliverable of this five-year partnership research grant funded by Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

The Geothink Citizens Guide to Open Data was created by Curtis McCord and Dawn Walker, Geothink doctoral students in University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information, in collaboration with Geothink Co-Applicant Leslie Regan Shade, professor and associate dean for research in the faculty. It was first presented at Geothink’s 2016 Summer Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto when the duo were master’s students speaking on a panel.

“There’s actually still a big barrier where a lot of individual people aren’t using open data,” Walker said. “So we’re like in this moment, of saying, ‘Ok, open data has been lauded for all this potential promise.’ But it’s not exactly being used proportionally in the ways that are expected. From my experience, I’ve just seen a lot of companies or people who have very strong technical capabilities being able to work with open data. But there’s a lot of people who maybe have questions about their city or country that maybe open data can speak to. But like don’t—like wouldn’t even know to engage with it as a question you could ask of data. Or even know that open data would be a place they could go look to see.”

“These sorts of guides kind of help think about what those bridges could be,” Walker added. “And [they] address some of the literacies and capabilities required to even start to understand that you can ask questions that open data can answer.”

The Guide’s goal is to “provide citizens with tools to understand what makes up open data (OD), how it can be used in their communities, and where to find it.” Set up similarly to a Wiki page with drop-down menus, it consists of four sections on the right-hand bar entitled “Citizens Stories,” “Citizen Guide,” “Additional Resources,” and “About this Guide.”

The home page for the Guide notes that “People across Canada use technology that makes use of data as part of their daily lives” and increasingly are “starting to think about creative ways that this technology and data can be used to address issues they face in their communities and cities.” It adds that civic technology constitutes instances where “citizens come together to identify problems in their society or their community and solve them with data, computers, or expertise. Many kinds of data and their uses come up when we talk about open data and we’re going to know about them at the end of this guide.”

“It’s in no way kind of settled, right?” McCord said of the Guide. “We really intended this to be kind of a living document that people could update with their own stories or their own insights. We’re really open to ideas about how the kind of like stewardship of this thing might work. I mean, I’m much less committed to the content of the guide than I am to the idea that it can exist and be cared for. I’d rather it be everybody else’s ideas on their than mine. Because in a way, that shows it’s like kind of actually being put to work.”

McCord added that anyone interested in contributing can edit the guide by following simple instructions to use GitHub found at the bottom “Change This Guide!” link on the site. They can also e-mail the authors by clicking the “Feedback” link. Such contributions will represent the next step in the guide’s release to the public.

According to Shade, the first steps began directly as a result of her work with Geothink.

“The project began with my interest in exploring facets of data literacy, and more particularly with an interest in unpacking elements of open data for people and communities that were curious about it but not conversant with how to use open data,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Alexander Taciuk, our former [Geothink] Project Manager, was instrumental in encouraging me to pursue this project. And key to the project’s vision was the tremendous teamwork of Curtis McCord and Dawn Walker who worked on the Guide while finishing up their Master of Information degrees.”

“Curtis and Dawn wrote and designed the bulk of the Guide while also convening a small group within Geothink and locally to give advice on the content,” she added.

This year Shade engaged new students to continue work on several facets of the Guide including University of Toronto Master of Information students Dal Singh, Nicole Stradiotto and Mari Zhou and doctorate student Camille-Mary Sharp.

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If you have thoughts or questions about the article, get in touch with Drew Bush, Geothink’s digital journalist, at drew.bush@mail.mcgill.ca.

Paper Spotlight: The Cost(s) of Geospatial Open Data

Five Geothink researchers published a new paper in Transactions in GIS this past January that reflected on four years of research into how geospatial open data can impact the relationship between government, its citizens and the private sector.

By Drew Bush

In their article published this past January, five Geothink researchers reflected on four years of research into how geospatial open data can impact the relationship between government, its citizens and the private sector. In it, they examine how geospatial open data poses challenges for civic participation related to subsidizing the private sector, being provisioned equally across geography and user type, and in increasing corporate influence on government.

Published by Transactions in GIS, the article entitled “The Cost(s) of Geospatial Open Data” concludes with the development of critical questions to guide governments that provide open data in addressing costs related to constituency, purpose, enablement, protection, and priorities.

A key table from the “The Cost(s) of Geospatial Open Data” which lays out the critical questions in each of these areas for municipalities.

“What we were trying to do is to push the conversation of ‘value’ for open data beyond the typical areas of transparency, economic innovation, and service to citizens, and look more at what the generation of value can create in terms of additional costs,” Geothink Co-Applicant Peter Johnson, the paper’s first author and an associate professor in the University of Waterloo’s Department of Geography and Environmental Management, wrote in an e-mail. “So, for example, we talk about how there is a lot of interest in how open data can promote transparency, which is a great outcome. However, this can’t be conflated with more durable challenges like citizen participation and citizen engagement.”

“Simply putting open data out there won’t move the needle on those,” he added. “Rather, government must continue to work hard and use open data to help further those ends, but not as a replacement.”

Johnson’s co-authors on the paper were Geothink Principal Investigator Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment; Geothink Co-Applicant Teresa Scassa, Canada research chair in Information Law at the University of Ottawa; Geothink Collaborator Monica Stephens, assistant professor at The State University of New York, Buffalo; and Geothink Co-Applicant Pamela Robinson, the associate dean for Ryerson University’s Faculty of Community Services and an associate professor in the School of Urban and Regional Planning.

They note in the paper that their research funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada has evolved to examine the costs of open data that have emerged, and shown that “spatial is special” and that the broader open data research community that “draws upon a different set of assumptions and literatures, would benefit from the lessons learned in GIScience.” The paper then goes on to create “a framework that details direct and indirect costs created through the process of government open data provision, drawn from the perspectives of our key informants in municipal governments. Many of the indirect costs are external to the providing organization and are not always clear or straightforward.”

“Open data may enable a kind of smoke and mirrors that obscures a government’s actual commitment to citizen participation, transparency and accountability,” said Sieber. “The challenges of using open data as a platform for citizen participation and engagement can be exacerbated where insufficient government resources are deployed to ensure that open data sets are properly prepared for release.”

Johnson agreed.

“We are just holding our hands up and saying ‘Wait, this is more complicated than you think,’” he wrote. “Especially when we think of issues like protection of privacy for health or financial data, there are a lot of things to think through in parallel to just ‘How are we going to use (exploit) this data?’ So, for future research on this topic, I think that there is a lot to be done. Who is using open data and what are the ups and downs of using it?”

The Cost(s) of Geospatial Open Data
Abstract
The provision of open data by governments at all levels has rapidly increased over recent years. Given that one of the dominant motivations for the provision of open data is to generate ‘value’,both economic and civic, there are valid concerns over the costs incurred in this pursuit. Typically, costs of open data are framed as internal to the data providing government. Building on the strong history of GIScience research on data provision via spatial data infrastructures, this article considers both the direct and indirect costs of open data provision, framing four main areas of indirect costs: citizen participation challenges, uneven provision across geography and user types, subsidy of private sector activities, and the creation of inroads for corporate influence on government. These areas of indirect cost lead to the development of critical questions, including constituency, purpose, enablement, protection, and priorities. These questions are posed as a guide to governments that provide open data in addressing the indirect

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If you have thoughts or questions about the article, get in touch with Drew Bush, Geothink’s digital journalist, at drew.bush@mail.mcgill.ca.

Innovative Urban Planning Solutions and GPS Guided Biking – Summer Institute Day 3

Rachel Bloom, Julia Conzon and Elizabeth Barber took questions from the audience on day three of the Geothink 2017 Summer Institute after talking about their career paths post Geothink.

By Drew Bush

Geothink Co-Applicant Stéphane Roche, associate professor in University Laval’s Department of Geomatics, chats with students during a coffee break on day three of Geothink’s 2017 Summer Institute.

The third day of Geothink’s 2017 Summer Institute opened with Open North Executive Director Jean-Noé Landry discussing how Geothink’s collaborative approach begets research with practical applications for smart cities. A pair of Montreal entrepreneurs and a trio of former students elaborated on this perspective in their own subsequent presentations.

“We’re going to talk about enabling innovation,” Noe said to start the morning. “I’ve been following some of the conversations that you’ve been having with all these great folks that have come in over the course of the week…And today, you know, we’ve got an opportunity to look at a few people that have been able to do some great work.”

Two previous Geothink students followed with talks on their differing career trajectories after graduating from McGill University. Rachel Bloom is currently working as the project lead for Open North on Smart Open Cities; and Julia Conzon spoke of her work with open data at Statistics Canada. Elizabeth Barber, a master’s of public services student at University of Waterloo, talked about her summer work with the City of Montreal. They were preceded by Xavier Peich, a co-founder of SmartHalo, and Vincent-Charles Hodder, a co-founder of Local Logic.

The theme of this year’s Institute was “Smart City: Toward a Just City.” An interdisciplinary group of faculty and students tackled many of the policy, legal and ethical issues related to smart cities. Each of the three days of the Summer Institute combined workshops, panel discussions and hands-on learning modules that culminated in a competition judged by Montreal city officials and tech entrepreneurs. The goal of the competition was for student groups to develop and assess the major principles guiding Montreal’s 2015-2017 Montréal Smart and Digital City Action Plan.

The last day provided ample time for students to work within their groups to analyze Montreal’s strategic plan in accordance with a research question assigned by one of the Summer Institute’s faculty members. It also provided time for faculty members who once had been students themselves to reminisce.

“I love the summer institute,” said Victoria Fast, an assistant professor at University of Calgary’s Department of Geography. She herself has participated in the previous summer institutes in 2016 and 2017 and had just recently made the transition to faculty.

“Actually, interestingly, something we haven’t touched upon yet is the synergy between all of them. You know, Institute number one in Waterloo was volunteered geographic information (VGI) and crowdsourcing, the second one in Toronto was crowdsourcing, and this one is smart cities. And all of those concepts are just so fundamentally embedded in each other. And for—I think students who have been to all of them really get this diverse and rich perspective on Geothink from these kind of very relevant topical areas.”

“This one, in particular, I really like from the student perspective, the employment opportunities is really great to hear,” Fast added about the presentations on life after Geothink. “The idea of social entrepreneur, social innovation. I think students in a university really need some hope about jobs and job prospects.”

The Summer Institute faculty, city officials and tech entrepreneurs helped to judge the work of each student group at the end of the day. But the real value lay in the new ideas and understandings each student gained.

One group explored which city services should be prioritized for digitization first while another determined how to quantify what appropriate inclusion of citizens in smart cities of the future might look like. Others examined what open data should be released by cities, the advantages of public Wi-Fi, and how cities can foster collaboration between innovators.

“We tried to develop sites for innovation learning,” Seyed Hossein Chavoshi, a PhD student from Laval University, said. “So there are many things actually we want to take into account. For example, there are the functionality and the design of the place where we want people, for example, to test apps that are actually developed by the municipality. So to do that and to find these places there are many aspects. The functionality is one of them. Another is the ethic. But the functionality is a core one of them—when you want to invite citizens from different cultures, from different groups, from different ages you have to find a place that can at least accommodate all different ages.”

Chavoshi added that he found this year’s Summer Institute quite informative.

“I’m so technical from an engineering point of view,” Chavoshi said. “But here we were so diverse. So like people from law and from a social geography background and [subjects] that, actually, they aren’t often gathered all together. So before that I didn’t actually know that we had to take into account all these aspects. But when I was here and I just listened to the other peoples’ points-of-view, from their background, it helped with when I want to, for example, develop something that can be fascinating to the citizens in a smart city.”

Geothink students, staff and faculty at the 2017 Summer Institute at McGill University in Montreal, QC.

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If you have thoughts or questions about the article, get in touch with Drew Bush, Geothink’s digital journalist, at drew.bush@mail.mcgill.ca.

Crosspost: Geothoughts on Geothink

An image of the Castlegar campus at Selkirk College with the Mir Centre for Peace visible on the right. (Photo courtesy of Karen Godbout.)

By Karen Godbout


This post originally appeared on the Rural Open Data site which reports on research taking place as part of a three year grant investigating open data best practices, policy and delivery options in southeastern British Columbia. The author is in the final year of her Bachelor’s of Geographic Information Science (BGIS) at Selkirk College and is currently working at the Selkirk Geospatial Research Centre.


I am presently completing a summer work term at the Selkirk Geospatial Research Centre, supporting its Rural Open Data study. In September, I will enter the final year of a BGIS, also at Selkirk. I came to GIS from a humanities background, after many years working in libraries. I am really fortunate to have been guided toward the possibilities for GIS within the humanities, like open government data, and will continue to focus in that area.

The Geothink Summer Institute (May 25-27, McGill University, Montreal) was a unique opportunity to meet and collaborate with fellow students from multiple provinces (Quebec, Ontario, Saskatchewan, B.C.) and academic disciplines (GIS, Geography, Law, Urban Planning), as well as varying levels of study (from undergrad to doctorate). The theme of this year’s institute was “Smart Cities – Just Cities.” While it certainly was not lacking in solid examples of policies and applications, most of the dialogue and problem solving at the institute centred on the emerging potential of smart cities. With so many standards yet to be developed, and so much infrastructure still to build, I came away with big ideas, concepts, and philosophies more than any other thing. I also learned why that is a good outcome. We stand in the enormously fortunate and powerful position of determining exactly what smart cities will be. If they are to be equitable, accessible, sustainable, social, and safe places, it will be determined by the questions we ask and answer right now.

X: What exactly is the meaning of ‘smart’ in the smart cities context? Primarily, the default concept of smart is the one developed centuries ago, meaning logical, well reasoned, and scientific. During the 1990s and 2000s, the social sciences transitioned into the idea of multiple intelligences. First, it was emotional intelligence. Then social intelligence. Eventually there were bodily, intuitive, and existential intelligences. It all became a little bit silly, which may be why we continue to return to the default. Still, there is value in considering different aspects of smart. Consider Artificial Intelligence (AI) for example. No matter how many algorithms are developed, or how much data is processed, ‘the rules’ will always limit machine learning. The elements of human consciousness that add up to smart remain a mystery, and I daresay the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. What is the algorithm for imagination? In the context of smart cities we must also ask, what is data? Again, the default is measurable and precise, facilitating all sorts of amazing, practical solutions to significant human problems. Yet humans remain unpredictable, and cities are messy. Much of what makes a place meaningful and livable for its citizens is not quantifiable. In determining the smart/just city, space must be included for the qualitative, the organic, and the random.

Y: What normative influences are smart cities to have upon the behaviour and expectations of citizens?  With smartphones, wireless, and up-to-the-minute GPS data, there comes an ability to control and personalize the urban environment more and more. Don’t want to wait in the rain for the bus? See when it’s 30 seconds away from the stop. Want the city to fill in that pothole? Submit a photo and see it move up the road-repair priorities list. Great stuff, right? The issue being, as individualized services increase, so do expectations, and the false perception that convenience is a right. The smart/just city must very intentionally cultivate engagement with the entire community, deliberately seeking inclusive input from the less enfranchised, whether it be due to language, income, age, or intellect. Fostering the communal spirit within cities will require a massive culture shift for some, and arouse the suspicion of many. The selling point is innovation. Just as in nature, diversity results in adaptability for cities. Variability creates opportunity for new ideas, social benefits, and economic growth.

Z: Can the smart cities model grow engagement and increase unity among communities?  Knowing more about someone or something brings it closer, makes it matter more. As the information age crashes into the big data minute, what any human being can know and care about becomes increasingly narrow, at least in any practical, useable way. Any group one identifies with is progressively exclusive, and may be more ideological than spatial. Constructing smart/just cities from the ground up, from grassroots neighbourhoods and villages, is the reasonable place to begin. But, generating a sense of unity among these will not simply happen once the end is achieved. Pre-existing government data, when made open, can help build community cohesion at every step, giving each group an equal voice and connecting the common links between them.

What will determine the smart city?  In this as in everything, the means matter.