Author Archives: Drew Bush

Reflections on the First Geothink Grant: Checking in With Geothink’s Community of Innovators

Image result for montreal bridge construction

A new bridge is currently under construction next to Montreal’s Champlain Bridge. With Local Logic’s innovative approach, future planning decisions about bridges could be informed through detailed analysis of their impact on surrounding roads and neighborhoods.

By Drew Bush

When Local Logic co-founder and CEO Vincent Charles Hodder stopped by Geothink’s 2017 Summer Institute last year at McGill University in Montreal, QC, his presentation was a highlight for many of the students, faculty, and staff in attendance. Hodder’s company applies an innovative approach to improving the policies and practices of governments and their citizens through the use of urban geospatial data and modeling.

“We call ourselves urban planners turned data scientists,” Hodder told Geothink last summer. “So we’re really at the intersection of planning, data, data science, and then technology.”

Hodder told students his company was born out of his master’s work in McGill University’s School of Urban Planning and collaboration with students and faculty. At the time, the Canada Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Geothink partnership grant did not exist. But it would have been quite useful during his studies, he noted.

“Having people think about these issues while they’re in school I think is really important,” Hodder said. “And I think there is a lot of space for innovation in terms of cities, in terms of smart cities, and in using technology and having an impact on cities. So much so that we actually started a Meet-Up group in Montreal called Cities and Tech.”

Hodder and his colleagues have done more than start this group. His company has more than 15 full-time staff—including a former Geothink student. In the past few years, Local Logic has also expanded on its initial contributions to improving how urban development takes place or citizens choose their lodging. (His company’s approach allows you to know things like if your next prospective host on Airbnb might be located on a quiet or noisy street.)

Local Logic’s new ventures have moved beyond private real estate to focus on impacting municipal and urban planning and policy. He argues that his company stands at a crossroads. Their task is to redefine how governments create and present physical projects and accompanying policies so that individual citizens will better understand the impacts on their own lives.

“A lot of times these very large investments in public transportation, for example, are hard to understand for the citizen because it’s really difficult to kind of see the concrete impact on your life and on your daily activities,” Hodder said. “So, using our data we’ll be able to bring it down to that level of analysis and really see the difference in terms of, you know, housing values, lifestyle, and access to specific modes of transportation.”

“[Local Logic] mak[es] it much easier for people to understand the type of impact it will have on their lives,” he added. “For them, the citizens, to be able to make better decisions on whether or not to support these initiatives.”

Hodder’s company takes urban geospatial data collected in cities from now ubiquitous sensors and digital technologies such as smartphones. From this data, he and his colleagues work to painstakingly build models of urban spaces. This work starts with each individual street segment. On each street segment, coders must input all types of attributes relevant to a given project. These might include the width of streets, the height of buildings, the tree canopy, or how streets connect to adjoining infrastructure.

The resulting model has held a 94 percent confidence rate when applied to practical situations. It has been used to determine how best to place Bixi Bike locations in Montreal and to help housing developers better understand the needs of their potential customers. Future work may even evolve to include decision-makers in the federal government.

“We thought, what if we applied this way of analyzing the city to these kind of more macro issues as well,” Hodder said. “And then we realized there was this huge opportunity and there’s all this data available.”

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

Take a not-so-hypothetical situation as an example. Imagine one day that city officials in Quebec City and surrounding regions are planning a new bridge to cross from the North Shore to the South Shore of the Saint Lawrence River. Wouldn’t it be beneficial for governmental officials and their citizens to know how an automobile bridge versus one meant for bus rapid transit or rail affects traffic in surrounding neighborhoods and roads?

Local Logic’s effort to bring together academic researchers and stakeholders (who use technology to tackle urban problems) reflects an aim shared with the now concluding Geothink partnership research grant. The company’s work mirrors many of the lessons learned by Geothink’s researchers, students, and nonprofit, industry, and municipal partners. This helped to make Hodder’s presentation last summer quite compelling.

“It’s exciting to say,” he said. “But maybe we’ll have a real impact on the ways that cities are actually being built.”

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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: Open Data Standards Will Improve Public Information

Geothink and the Center for Government Excellence (GovEx) at Johns Hopkins University launch a first-of-its-kind international Open Data Standards Directory this past November.

By Rachel Bloom


This post originally appeared on Policy Options Politiques. Rachel Bloom is project manager of Open Smart Cities in Canada at OpenNorth, Canada’s leading nonprofit that specializes in open data and civic technologies. She was project lead of Geothink’s Open Data Standards Project.


Canadians who rely on public transit know how uncomfortable it is to wait outside for a bus on the coldest day of winter. Some Canadians are turning to transit apps that display information about bus locations in real time on their phones to avoid the cold.

What people who use those apps might not know is that an array of legal, institutional and technical obstacles had to be overcome before that information ended up on their phones. It journeyed from the public transit agency that collected it to the app developer that repurposed it so it could be displayed on a mobile interface. This seamless way of providing data, in a medium that is automatic and easy to read, has made such apps extremely successful.

How do the data make that journey? Could the technology be replicated to improve access to all kinds of city data? And could the technology be put to use not just for innovative services but also to support more transparent and interactive governance?

Data standards can provide public data in a manner that allows them to be shared automatically across disparate systems and to be open and relatively easy to repurpose. When it comes to public transit information, the most commonly applied standard is the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS). The standard was collaboratively developed by the City of Portland’s Transit Agency, TriMet, which provided the data, and Google, the developer of the script that exported the data into the open format to be repurposed. The initiative arose partly from a perceived need by a civil servant to make transit directions as easily accessible as driving directions. Thanks to the relative simplicity of the format, hundreds of jurisdictions worldwide have adopted the standard and now provide raw data about transit schedules openly online.

Since the launch of GTFS in 2005, other data specifications intended for adoption by multiple jurisdictions as a standard have emerged for different types of data that deliver government-derived information (such as service requests, budgets and traffic incidents). When multiple municipalities adopt the same sets of standards for their data, suddenly such data are comparable and discoverable. Tools that have been useful in one jurisdiction can then be scaled up for multiple jurisdictions. For instance, Yelp displays food inspection data in multiple cities with the help of LIVES, an open data standard for restaurant inspection data.

To help more cities standardize their open data, Geothink, a Canadian geospatial and open data research partnership, and the Center for Government Excellence, affiliated with Johns Hopkins University, have collaborated to release the first-ever Open Data Standards Directory. The online site intends to help cities publish open data online by providing a systematic approach to assessing standards based on a set of metrics. The directory communicates a wide array of information about each standard, including its background characteristics (name, publisher, publisher reputation, etc.), its ability to make certain types of data interoperable, the degree to which it’s open to use and transparent to others, its maintenance and development over time and how it specifies the standard’s and the data set’s terms of use. This set of metrics will inform judgments that assist providers of open data in their decisions to reject or adopt standards.

Governments at the international, national, regional and civic levels are increasingly opening their high-value data via online catalogues that publish data sets under open licences and machine-readable formats. In Canada, Ontario and the City of Edmonton have adopted the International Open Data Charter. The charter provides an aspirational set of principles for releasing open data, including the idea that they be comparable and interoperable. This goal aids not only the publication of open data but also the coordination necessary to provide the data in ways that are useful. Yet making data truly open is no easy task. There are different approaches to tackling interoperability. Furthermore, an array of complex coordination and technical challenges come with standardizing data to ensure that data will be interoperable.

News about Alphabet Inc.’s Sidewalk Lab in Toronto has brought to the forefront a debate over what role the private sector should play as local governments promote embedding technologies (such as sensors and cameras) that collect and act on data into public spaces. While proponents of the project are voicing their excitement about the urban project and its technological solutions, some are more critical of it and are drafting a list of crucial questions for project administrators and the city related to project governance, data access and data governance, public engagement, inclusivity, privacy law and the technology’s hard infrastructure. As both private and public organizations work to become more digitally connected and more data driven, it is critical to pause and reflect on who develops and maintains these technologies and to consider their purpose and proposed value.

Technologies that act on and automate public data provided by the government and used to govern should be developed in consultation with many types of stakeholders. The release of the Open Data Standards Directory (which I helped to create) makes this approach a reality. The aim is to educate people more broadly about what data standards are and how they can help data remain accessible to cities and their citizens. Otherwise, you may find yourself left out and waiting for your bus in the cold.

Geothink Award Winner’s Research Brings Focus to City of Kelowna’s Homelessness Plan and Services to Those in Need

The iSearch Kelowna website is designed to assist individuals looking for low-income rentals, supportive housing or emergency shelters in the City of Kelowna.

By Drew Bush

One of the major challenge faced by anyone who finds themselves homeless involves finding shelter at places operated by a multitude of religious, goverment and nonprofit organizations. Thanks to the doctoral work of one Geothink student, that task just became a bit easier for those struggling with it in the City of Kelowna.

Shelley Cook, a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of British Columbia (UBC)-Okanagan, has worked with Geothink Co-Applicant Jon Corbett, an associate professor at UBC-Okanagan’s Department of Community, Culture and Global Studies, to design iSearch Kelowna. Via the app and website, individuals seeking low-income rentals, emergency shelter and drop-in services are able to search for live, user-specific information about resource availability within the city of Kelowna.

Shelley Cook, a University of British Columbia-Okanagan Ph.D. Candidate, developed the iSearch Kelowna site for her dissertation work.

“As we’ve moved out of phase one of our project, its morphing into another phase as it’s getting picked up as an important tool to inform this homelessness strategy, and people are running with it,” Cook said. In fact, this past summer the City of Kelowna decided to make iSearch Kelowna a central part of their strategy on homelessness. This highlighted Cook’s developing collaboration with the city on a project already supported by a team of reseachers, funders and partner organizations.

“It’s what we anticipated as what could happen and it’s lined up that way,” Cook said. “We’re maximising the benefit of the work that we’ve done, which is fantastic. It’s really in a strange way in its infancy, in terms of where it’s going to end up going, because it keeps evolving. So that’s been fantastic also.”

Cook’s work was recently recognized through Geothink’s first Dr. Alexander Aylett Scholarship in Urban Sustainability and Innovation (La Bourse Dr. Alex Aylett en Durabilité Urbaine et Innovation). The award was established in Aylett’s memory to provide vital support to graduate students sharing Aylett’s passion for, and commitment to, sustainable urban development.

Early feedback on iSearch Kelowna indicates that it is already providing users with a sense of ownership and advocacy over their own well-being and simplifying access to shelter information.

“It’s really about promoting empowerment, a greater sense of fairness and equity on the distribution of resources,” Cook said. “What we’ve done in terms of evaluation is directly talk to people who were formerly homeless or struggling with issues of maintaining adequate safe housing for themselves. That’s the one big thing they’ve talked about. And there’s lots of different elements around the interface that make it really usable and accessible.”

Speaking with Geothink during the Summer 2017 Summer Institute, Corbett added that issues of social and spatial justice motivate the research he and Cook have undertaken.

“There’s I think 84 different organizations that work on social justice related issues in and around the City of Kelowna,” Corbett said. “Which is kind of shocking because the population of Kelowna is only 185,000 people. So the fact that you’ve got 84 different organizations working is indicative of how serious the problem really is.”

He noted that the city and funding organizations for these services had started to notice that each individual service providers was acting in isolation. As a result, there was no centralized place to find specific services across the city such as a hot meal or housing if you are over 55-years-old.

The initial tool Corbett envisioned was going to be aimed at service-providers using real-time data to help coordinate where to send homeless people for specific services. That evolved as Corbett and Cook began discussing the project with the City of Kelowna. It now includes portals for a variety of different types of users—including the homeless themselves.

“For us, it’s been a whole set of reasonable technical challenges,” Corbett added. “But we’ve also been dealing obiviously with this very, very important social question.”

There are also endless applications for how the open data collected as a part of the project can make services more accessible and comprehensive for those in need. One worry has always been how to make what is a digital application accessible to a population that might not always have internet access.

“The main branch of the Kelowna library, a main point around Kelowna’s homeless community, has a dedicated monitor station during opening hours, is accessible for people to be able to search,” Cook said. “So it’s really about promoting service equity, and a greater sense of fairness and equity around the distribution of resources.”

“They now possess the knowledge,” she added of the homeless people using the site. “And what we know is they didn’t have the knowledge of all of [the city’s services]. So what that does is—the creating these forms of open data—opens up services to people and creates a more level playing field. Which is an incredibly powerful use of tools like this and was one thing that we weren’t necessarily anticipating.”

In the future, Cook plans to include more types of homeless services in the database and expand the site and offerings to other cities that have already expressed an interest in it.

“The final piece is an awareness raising and an ongoing partnership,” Cook said. “We’re doing presentations where communities have an interest in British Columbia and Alberta at this point. We can be of assistance in helping them develop a similar process and mentoring in that way.”

For Corbett and Cook, this means getting the project into the hands of city officials where it will live and exist for the community in perpetuity.

“So from the perspective of urban sustainability, we’re seeing municipalities, more so than in the past, getting involved with complex social issues like homelessness, and taking a lead role around these things,” Cook said. “Having a technological backbone that can help function not only to generate important information but to help people come together under a collective virtual umbrella. That’s a very powerful way to maximise and sustain existing community resources, and find innovative ways to create linkages and partnerships through tools and technology like iSearch Kelowna.”

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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.

Geothink&Learn Webinar Series Kicks off Ultimate Year of the Partnership Research Grant

When Geothink Co-Applicant Pamela Robinson kicked off the inaugural Geothink&Learn on Pokémon Go and governance live to the public this past Wednesday, October 4, it marked a new phase in the five-year Geothink partnership research grant.

By Drew Bush

When Geothink Co-Applicant Pamela Robinson kicked off the inaugural Geothink&Learn on Pokémon Go and governance live to the public this past Wednesday, October 4, it marked a new phase in the five-year Geothink partnership research grant. Five panelists shared insight on the broader implications of the popular augmented reality game that captured the screens of smartphone users last spring, Pokémon Go. The panel was followed by a lively discussion between participants and panelists during a question and answer session.

“In the final year of our five-year partnership grant, our original themes have emerged into concrete research collaborations and products,” Geothink Head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment, said. “As a result, we’re inviting the Geothink community and the public at large to come learn with our experts, think about what they’ve just heard, and discuss online with our community.”

The first Geothink&Learn featured a dynamic panel from Canada and the United States with interdiscplinary perspectives on Pokémon Go and its implications for governance, social equity, legal issues and urban planning. Robinson, an associate professor in Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning and the associate dean for Graduate Studies and Strategic Services, convened the session. Speakers included Sieber; Tenille Brown, adjunct professor and doctoral candidate in the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law; Nick Seaver, assistant professor in Tufts University’s Department of Anthropology; and Adriana de Souza e Silva, associate professor at the Department of Communication at North Carolina State University.

Missed the first Geothink&Learn? Don’t worry you can watch the full webinar below on YouTube. Check out the new Geothink&Learn section on our home page for an archive of all talks and to make sure you don’t miss our upcoming panels and topics.

“These short online webinars—most will be only an hour—are intended to bring together our grant’s co-applicants, partners, collaborators, students and public to learn and share,” Geothink Project Manager Sonja Solomun, said. “We’re really excited to have dynamic panelists for our first two Geothink&Learns this October and November on Pokémon Go and the Future of Open Data. We invite you to register in advance as we publish each monthly webinar on our Web site.”

Talks are planned for each of the upcoming months until the Geothink grant concludes this coming April. The next talk, this November 14, will focus on the future of open data and be convened by Geothink Co-Applicant Peter Johnson, an associate professor in University of Waterloo’s Department of Geography and Environmental Management. It will feature Geothink Partners Jean-Noé Landry, executive director of Open North, and Marcy Burchfield, executive director of the Neptis Foundation; and, Co-Applicants Robinson and Teresa Scassa, a Canada Research Chair in Information Law at the University of Ottawa.

Other projects in the final year of the grant include a call for papers (submissions due October 7) for two books that will represent the culimination of much of the grant’s research. The first book will focus on Locating Power & Justice in the Geoweb and the call can be found here. The second will focus on The Future of Open Data and the call can be found here.

Geothink is a five-year partnership research grant funded by Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Composed of 26 researchers and 30 partners, the grant examines the implications of increasing two-way exchanges of locational information between citizens and governments and the way in which technology shapes, and is shaped by, this exchange.

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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.

 

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 first 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.