Author Archives: Drew Bush

Geothink Co-Applicant, Colleague and Friend Leaves Behind Rich Legacy of Empowering Sustainable Urban Change at the Community Level

Alexander Aylett's research

Alexander Aylett’s research examined how cities’ use of digital technology, citizen-sensors, and open data could allow local communities, government leaders and private businesses to manage urban areas more sustainable.

By Drew Bush

Geothink Co-Applicant Alexander C.E. Aylett passed away on July 23, 2016 from cancer.

Geothink Co-Applicant Alexander C.E. Aylett passed away on July 23, 2016 from cancer.

Geothink Co-Applicant Alexander C.E. Aylett passed away on July 23, 2016 from cancer. A beloved son, husband and father, colleagues also remember him for his warmth and passion. His research empowered urban communities to engage with sustainable development through the use of digital technologies and open data.

His wife Luna, their two daughters, Inara and Aurora, her father Richard and his wife Claire, and his two brothers, Chris and Andrew, survive him. A memorial service was held in his honor on Sunday, July 31st at the Alfred Dallaire Memorial Lounge located in Montreal, Quebec.

“It’s a real loss to the community of people who want smart cities to help improve sustainability and environmental issues,” Geothink Co-Applicant Pamela Robinson, associate professor in Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, said.

“Alex was trying to make these ideas stick between the [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] CoLab and through ÉcoHackMtl,” she added. “He really wanted to do research that mattered and that made a difference. And to try to bridge the gap between academy and practice. So he was pushing forward on new work.”

Aylett’s research interrogated how cities’ use of digital technology, citizen-sensors, and open data could allow local communities, government leaders and private businesses to manage urban areas more sustainable. One outcome driven by these new mediums for exchanging information has been an enhanced capacity of cities to use citizens and resources to strategically tackle issues such as climate change.

“Alex was a wonderful person—intense, caring, and insightful into how to derive practical political solutions to urban sustainability,” Geothink Head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment, said. “He brought hackers, politicians, and environmentalists together to solve environmental and social problems through consensus and the pragmatic building of networks.”

Last February, Geothink spoke with Aylett about his work before writing an online article and podcast. We present previously unpublished excerpts of that audio interview here that capture the spirit of Aylett’s life and work. Find a written transcript at the end of this article.

Aylett joined the Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS) in July 2015 but had been actively pursuing research on these issues as a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow at MIT. Since 2009, he had published 12 papers with his most recent book chapter entitled “Relational Agency and the Local Governance of Climate Change: International Trends and an American Exemplar” in The Urban Climate Challenge: Re-thinking the Role of Cities in the Global Climate Regime (find a full citation at the end of this article).

He earned a master’s in comparative literature (2004) followed by a doctorate in human geography (2011) both from the University of British Columbia. At INRS, he was actively recruiting a new masters and doctoral student to join his research team. He firmly believed in partnership-based research, writing in his advertisements for students that “It makes for stronger research, and reduces the gap between research and action.”

His absence will also be deeply felt by the many communities where he led projects, particularly as the founder and co-director of ÉcoHackMtl.

“In a way, you could say his work already lives on by the fact the he was a part of a range of different stakeholders that were looking for ways to innovate using open data,” said Jean-Noé Landry, executive director of Open North. Landry collaborated closely with Aylett on several projects including ÉcoHackMtl and had supervised one of his graduate students at Open North.

“The values that bind us together are those that really kind of enable us to find strength in achieving our collective vision,” Landry added after describing values he shared with Aylett about open data and better governance. “And so, the fact is that we need to have leaders that step up, and put this stuff forward, and put in the time, and drive change. But we’re stronger when we’re empowering those around us.”

“That’s really at the core of the open data community. So, yes, we are losing a leader but I think his leadership was such that he was able to bring in more people to talk about the potential of data, to talk about potential innovation, to talk about the seriousness of urban sustainability issues and the potential of open data to resolve those issues. I think carrying that vision forward—obviously let’s not forget him. But we share the goals he advocated.”

Friends and family of Aylett have requested that instead of flowers, those wishing to show support may instead contribute to a fund to support the family’s immediate needs. Find it here: https://www.gofundme.com/2gbuq7w

Book Chapter Citation
Aylett, A. (2015) “Relational Agency and the Local Governance of Climate Change: International Trends and an American Exemplar.” in The Urban Climate Challenge: Re-thinking the Role of Cities in the Global Climate Regime. Eds. Craig Johnson, Noah Toly, Heike Schroeder. (Routledge). 12 pages.

TRANSCRIPT OF ORIGINAL AUDIO

[Geothink.ca theme music]

Alexander Aylett, I’m a professor of urban sustainability governance and innovation at the Center for Urbanization, Culture, and Society of the National Institute for Scientific Research or the proper French title is Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique in Montreal.”

“It’s really tricky to address a lot of the environmental impacts that are spread throughout the urban community. Right, sort of what people call collective action problems. And one of things that new technologies are very good at is building networked publics, right, coalitions of interest around—well I mean around all kinds of things. Around, you know, celebrity gossip and, you know, plastic surgery, you know, the biggest plastic surgery disasters. Ok, on the one hand fine. But also around much more meaningful stuff. Like green space. Like transit activism. Like creating community networks that are able to design and manage complex things. Like if you want to start talking about how you can manage a community energy transition, having good online platforms that are a tool that’s used in public mobilization and engagement strategies makes it possible to be more effective at the local level. But also then to scale up quite well from local action to action in other local areas either in the same city or in other cities.”

“I have a great example of that. There’s the 596-acres project. Do you know about it? It started in Brooklyn. And it’s a perfect example of how digital tools, open data and, then, a strong community mobilization that also works in the real world. Right this is not a 100 percent digital initiative. And I think that that’s why a lot of things fail. Is that they think that that digital is going to do all the work for them. But this is an example of how something can be very successful bridging digital and physical reality.”

“And what they do is that they have created an online map of all the vacant municipally owned land—well initially it started off in Brooklyn in New York City. And then a platform, sort of imagine a Facebook of sorts, which allowed people to say, ‘Oh yeah, I live around lot 77 at the corner of 5th and 22nd, and I’ve walked by that empty gravel lot my whole life. And I would love it if we could have a community garden there.’ And you post that. And then someone else who sees that lot and sees oh look someone else is already interested in doing a project here. ‘I wonder what it is?’ And they sign up too.”

“And so quite quickly you get clusters. You get networked group of local residents who might not know each other and who often don’t know each other otherwise that form online. But then meet in person and using data that they have taken from the New York City open data portal can identify which part of the municipality they need to contact if they want to propose a project—a citizen project to transform vacant land into a community asset. Whether it’s a park or a garden or, you know, some other maybe a market-space or that kind of thing.”

“And the stories that are coming out of that are interesting because they show that people will have walked past this space, some of them for 25 years, and always thought to themselves “ugh” we could do something so cool here if only I had some people to do it with me and I knew who I should contact if I wanted to get things done. And it’s another example of reducing barriers to action by providing access to just really key, strategic information.”

“So that’s what the open data does, that’s what the online portal does. It puts people in relationships with other neighbours but also with the city in a way that makes it possible to coordinate groups of people to start physically transforming their surroundings. And I think we’re going to see that same model applied to other tricky things.”

“Like if you’re trying to—well in Montreal for example—seven percent of our emissions, more or less, come from people who heat with fuel oil in their homes. And if you as an individual homeowner want to transition to electric heating or say geothermal or something more environmental, you can do that. But it’s a complex process. It’s expensive. And a lot of people begin the process of reflection and then decide not to just cause it’s all too daunting.”

“But in the same kind of way you could use data on energy consumption in neighbourhoods. Create a platform where residents who are all interested in shifting their homes onto a more sustainable fuel source could create groups and then collectively do a call for proposals. So that they could bid—so the companies could bid not on just one home but one 20 homes, for example, which would bring down the costs, which would simplify the process. And it would mean that instead of doing homes on a sort of a piecemeal fashion, you would be doing them on a community-by-community basis. And shifting the whole energy systems of a community.”

“And could you do that without the technology? Well, yeah, sure. You could have a leafleting campaign and you could have community volunteers that go out and knock on doors. And, actually, you’re probably still going to need all those things. But the adding on of layers of data and of cartography and of a good online interface and all that, I think just empowers people to do all that work more effectively and, then critically, for people elsewhere in the city to see what’s happening. And to understand how they can do something similar in their neighbourhood. And that’s traditionally sort of the Achilles heal of local action—which is that it’s hyper-local.”

“But new digital technologies give great local ideas legs by creating tools that are easily shareable and by creating inspiring examples that can travel. That can travel 10 blocks away or that can travel, you know, 100 km away, or can travel to the other side of the country. And so I think that example of effective local action and the speed at which things can travel and scale up is another exciting facet of the new technologies that we are seeing.”

[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 article, get in touch with Drew Bush, Geothink’s digital journalist, at drew.bush@mail.mcgill.ca.

Geothoughts 12: Can A Game Improve Regional and Urban Planning Processes?

A Minecraft version of Toronto’s CN Tower.

By Drew Bush

We’re very excited to present you with our 12th episode of Geothoughts. You can also subscribe to this Podcast by finding it on iTunes.

In this episode, we take a look at two Geothink researchers who are investigating how the popular video game Minecraft can be used to improve local and regional planning processes. In particular, we talk with Ryerson University Gold Medal award winner Lisa Ward Mathers, and Ryerson master’s student Jacky Li. Both have worked with Geothink Co-Applicant Pamela Robinson, associate dean in Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning.

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]

“We also wanted to build, how do you say, just an open web kind of thing where you can log on and start building away at the city of Toronto. So the vision was to have all of Toronto built in Minecraft and that’s where I came in. I tried to—they hired me to get the program up and going. But I didn’t know how to start. So my research basically consisted of how we would do something like this.”

That’s Ryerson University Master’s Student Jacky Li talking about his work with Minecraft. Li is a student with Geothink Co-Applicant Pamela Robinson, associate dean in Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning. Last summer, he interned with the City of Toronto’s Office of the Chief Planner.

Minecraft isn’t so much a game but rather a destination, a technical tool, and a cultural scene all rolled into one program. Children who use it can engineer complex machines; model the world in cube-like form; shoot and post YouTube videos of their work; and setup servers where they can hang out with their friends. The software, initially launched by Mojang (a Swedish game studio) in 2009, now boasts more than 100 million users. Microsoft recently bought it and Mojang for a record $2.5 billion.

“So I looked at examples of, in Sweden, they had really good one with between the architects and the government where they just focused on a suburb and they had users go in and start building. And then last summer, the graduating class of Niagara College [in Welland, Ontario] translated some GIS data into Minecraft. And I contacted them and they taught me how to do it.”

“Yeah so, at the end of it what I made for the city of Toronto was a report that said how to build like the sub-server thing, how to host it, and some potential programming they can do with children such as like a floor area ratio exercise where you can imagine density. So if you’re given solar power, how many blocks can you build different kinds of built forms depending on the criteria of the exercise . Yeah and just stuff like that.”

Li grew up as part of the Minecraft generation. For him, “It’s just a popular computer game where you basically craft things. It’s kind of like Lego, but on your computer, or on your Xbox or PlayStation, or on your mobile phone.”

His work was inspired by another student at Ryerson who wrote a report for the City of Toronto on the educational potential of a tool such as Minecraft that engages students with sometimes complex computer science in an immersive environment. Li is not alone in Geothink as a researcher working to determine how Minecraft can empower communities in urban planning decisions.

“From there I asked them specifically about different contexts within which Minecraft could potentially be used. Different scales, like for instance, a committee of adjustment or, you know, larger scales from there like an official plan review. I’m sort of asking what do you think, would this work in this context. What are your sort of initial impressions?”

That’s Lisa Ward Mather on her master’s research project she completed in 2014 at Ryerson University also with Robinson. She’s describing her work interviewing 12 planning officials to determine the usefulness of Minecraft for those working in regional and local urban planning.

In 2014, she graduated as the recipient of the Ryerson Gold Medal for her thesis work that was cited for combining academic proficiency with community engagement in a meaningful way.

“It wasn’t an interview with Minecraft experts by any means. A few of my respondents had encountered the game in a very, you know, not very intensive setting. I mean no one had really sat down and played extensively. But luckily Minecraft is a not a terribly difficult thing to explain to someone, especially with visuals. And I was able to get some really interesting observations from the people I spoke to.”

Her project interrogated whether planners felt open to using Minecraft and whether they thought it would engage the public. She also asked what possible benefits and obstacles they foresaw in specific applications. Her findings largely showed that it could be a useful tool for engaging the public in planning decisions, but obstacles such as it’s cost as well as the cost of equipment needed to support it could limit use.

Mather’s work did not stop after her graduation.

“I was in communication with a staff member from the office of the chief planner at the city of Toronto. And they, as you know, they are interested in trying new tools and using new tools in different ways, and engaging people in ways maybe they’re not used to being engaged. And so they were interested in seeing what could be done with the game.

“So, we, after some discussion, concluded that one possibility would be to have them send me some SketchUp files, Google SketchUp files, of a corridor in Toronto. And to produce a Minecraft world that had both what that corridor looks like right now, what it would like in the near future when there are more mid-rise buildings lining the sides of the streets, and then the in the far future when the entire corridor is lined with mid-rise buildings. So, I, after a fair amount of experimentation, and, uh, and this is something I had never done before. So I looked at what various tools that were available online and I was able to produce those three models within the same Minecraft world.”

“And I built a little rail car down the middle of the street so that the user rode from the present to the near future and then to the far future. And I made a movie of that which then they played at an event that they were holding from the Office of the Chief Planner.”

This small project has opened interesting possibilities for the City of Toronto to engage citizens with a unique tool like Minecraft. From Sweden to Canada, the Minecraft generation may one-day grow up to design the cities of the future.

[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.

 

Paper Spotlight: Examining Urban Reasoning Skills in the Age of Digital Cities

Smart citizens

Smart citizens of the future must develop the skillsets required to understand spatio-temporal interactions in dynamically linked urban networks of places according to Geothink Co-Applicant Stéphane Roche (Photo courtesy of http://www.i2cat.net/sites/default/files/smart-city.jpg).

By Drew Bush

In a paper published this past May, Geothink Co-Applicant Stéphane Roche posits that emerging smart cities require citizens to develop an urban intelligence that meshes material realities with digital information. In order to fully manage and engage with urban spaces, future smart citizens must develop the skillset required to understand spatio-temporal interactions in dynamically linked urban networks of places.

Stéphane Roche is a professor and vice dean of research for the Faculty of Forestry, Geography, and Geomatics at the University of Laval (Photo courtesy of www.scg.ulaval.ca).

Entitled Geographic information science III: Spatial thinking, interfaces and algorithmic urban places-Toward smart cities, the paper was published in Progress in Human Geography. Roche, a professor and vice dean of research for the Faculty of Forestry, Geography, and Geomatics at the University of Laval, has previously written two papers on the subject. The series of papers defines urban intelligence, the importance of spatial reasoning in smart cities, and the organization of digitally enabled cities.

“Most of the resources that are today available in order to help people to move in the city, are available—are digitally available,” Roche said. “[Yet] at the same time, mobility in the city is really grounded in the materiality. If you need to walk or if you need to take your bike, it’s an active kind of mobility. And if you don’t really know perfectly the places where you need to travel, you need to have the minimum capability to access information from different kinds of interfaces. Through your phone, through the Internet, through a different kind of display available in the city for example.”

Transportation presents but one case study for examining the integration of digital technology into physical urban places. Roche expands on this interaction to further define place as consisting of three elements: 1) A geographical location; 2) An event (such as an accident, festival, or meeting); and 3) A name. This, of course, means that two separate places could involve the same physical space but at different times.

As you may imagine, this type of insight takes time to develop. After reflecting on the existing literature in the field, along with his own previous work, Roche begins his first paper, Geographic Information Science I: Why does a smart city need to be spatially enabled? by emphasizing the importance of Geographic Information Science (GIS) to smart cities. He argues that the smart city is first and foremost a spatially enabled city.

His second paper, Geographic information science II: Less space, more places in smart cities, Roche advances the idea that modern cities consist of networks of connecting places, amends the very definition of place, and posits urban intelligence as the capability to understand how urban places are created and how they interact. Finally, his most recent third paper comes full circle to question why people who have developed urban intelligence necessarily also employ spatial learning and reasoning skills.

“Actually, what I’ve tried to do in this report is probably link what I define as the urban intelligence,” he said. “That means the capability of someone, people, or a group to understand the urban dynamic by using spatial skills and spatial thinking abilities. That means making the link between different components of the urban environment. So this is what I define as the urban intelligence. The capability of understanding what’s happened at the specific time and specific place.”

“The aim, ok, is to say in our current modern environment, there are multiple opportunities and tools and approaches that could help humans to improve their spatial thinking ability,” he added. “And these improvements will be more and more required if people want to engage. That means they will, there is no way to keep them engaged without spatial thinking abilities in this kind of new urban environment where everything is connected. Where everything is based on dynamic fluxes and mobilities. So if you are not able to understand how those dynamics work, you will have more and more difficulty in getting grounded in the place where you live.”

Please find links and abstracts to each paper mentioned in this article below:

Abstract 1
Geographic Information Science I: Why does a smart city need to be spatially enabled?
In this report I propose to examine the concept of the ‘smart city’ from the standpoint of spatial enablement. I analyse emerging research on smart cities, particularly those addressing the potential role of GISciences in the development and implementation of the concept of smart cities. I develop the idea that the intelligence of a city should be measured by its ability to produce favourable conditions to get urban operators (citizens, organizations, private companies, etc.) actively involved into sociospatial innovation dynamics. To obtain such a commitment, I believe that operators should be able to develop and mobilize (digital) spatial skills so that they could efficiently manage their spatiality. In other words, I argue that a smart city is first of all a spatially enabled city.

Abstract 2
Geographic information science II: Less space, more places in smart cities
This second report is dedicated to the concept of ‘place’ revisited in the context of smart cities. Some recent studies suggest that today’s digital cities rely more on an approach to the urban context based on a network of connected places than on an approach to the city built on areal spaces. Does it mean that there are more places and fewer spaces in spatially enabled cities? Is the intelligence of a city mainly related to its ability to sound out the genesis of urban places? These issues raise questions about the design of spatial models used to build GIS, as well as place-based urban design methods and tools. This second report explores these questions from the standpoint of GISciences.

Abstract 3
Geographic information science III: Spatial thinking, interfaces and algorithmic urban places—Toward smart cities
This third report examines interfaces as a key element enabling spatial skills, and development of new forms of digital spatialities for smart cities. Digital technology is becoming consubstantial to urban materiality, but map interfaces are particularly central tools for indexing (geographic) knowledge and expertise, accessing informational components of digital cities, and actively engaging digital dimensions of urban places.

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.

Minecraft to Educate Youth and Plan Better Cities

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Minecraft users envisioned the City of Stockholm in Sweden the way they wanted it to be using the popular game.

By Drew Bush

When the New York Times recently ran a ten page magazine story on The Minecraft Generation, it focused primarily on young users learning basics of computer science through their engagement with this software. For two Geothink researchers, harnessing youth enthusiasm for this tool is also central to helping cities make better planning decisions.

For the un-initiated, Minecraft isn’t so much a game but rather a destination, a technical tool, and a cultural scene all rolled into one program. Children who use it can engineer complex machines, model the world in cube-like form, shoot and post YouTube videos of their work, and setup servers to hang out on with their friends.

The software launched by Mojang (a Swedish game studio) in 2009 now boasts more than 100 million users. Microsoft recently bought it and Mojang for a record $2.5 billion.

Lisa Ward Mather studied Minecraft’s possible application to urban planning as a master’s student with Geothink Co-Applicant Pamela Robinson, associate dean in Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning. In 2014, she was recognized for community engagement in her thesis work with a Ryerson Gold Medal.

“It was basically an exploratory study, sort of, where I went and spoke to planners and engagement specialists and asked them to what degree and in what context they thought that Minecraft could be a useful tool for planners to use for engagement,” she said. “I interviewed twelve people and came up with some really rich responses, actually.”

Many of the experts she spoke with during her master’s research project were senior-level and had not necessarily had much, if any, experience actually working with the Minecraft program. To ensure they adequately understood the software, Mather created a video that explained the game, what it looked like and the various activities users could undertake. The video also featured unique projects.

“Such as something called Blockholm,” Mather said. “Which was, in the city of Stockholm, they brought in infrastructure related to Minecraft. And then they allowed or gave away plots of land within the Minecraft city for people to build what they thought the city should be. It was a project that was sort of a visioning project. And they ended up building things in real life and having a museum exhibit that people could wander around in.”

Educating Young Students in the Virtual Minecraft City of Toronto
Mather is not alone in researching the power of Minecraft to empower communities in urban planning decisions that can affect their daily lives. For an internship at the chief planner’s office with the City of Toronto, another one of Robinson’s students, Jacky Li, helped the city initiate an educational program that envisions the entire city built in Minecraft.

A master’s student from the University of Ryerson had written a report on how using Minecraft might be effective as an educational and planning tool for work with young children. For his own work during the summer of 2015, Li assessed the technical challenges the city would need to overcome to engage students in the school system in envisioning complete communities through Minecraft.

He describes the software as a “popular computer game where you basically craft things.” It’s analogous to “Lego,” he said, “but on your computer, or on your Xbox or PlayStation, or on your mobile phone.”

Li examined examples in Sweden of architects and city planners collaborating to better design a suburb and learned from users at Niagara College in Welland, Ontario how to translate GIS data into the program.

“At the end of it what I made for the city of Toronto was a report that said how to build like the sub-server, how to host it, and some potential programming they can do with children,” Li said. “Like a floor-area ratio exercise where you can imagine density. So if you’re given solar power, how many blocks can you build different kinds of built forms on depending on the criteria [of the power].”

Find a sample of the report Li wrote here.

The Minecraft Generation Becomes Today’s City Planners
Minecraft not only engages users with its simple design in educational settings but also in envisioning how to plan for future changes in a city. Both Mather and Li ask practical questions about the utility of a program like Minecraft beyond its entertainment value.

Mather’s master’s set the stage by asking planners about the obstacles and benefits to Minecraft to determine contexts in which such software might be useful. Since the conclusion of this work, she’s also found interest in her work from the chief planner’s office at the City of Toronto.

In a recent project she tested her own skills with Minecraft—something she had not done previously. The city sent her Google SketchUp files of a corridor in Toronto that she used to produce a Minecraft world. In particular, she created a 3-D model of what the corridor looked like now, in the near future with more mid-rise buildings and in the far future when it’s lined with such buildings.

“It was not a detailed world in the sense that the building didn’t have windows and stuff like that,” she said. “Because it was just a model that came from Sketchup, it was not a very detailed, the file I brought in was not, did not have that kind of nuance to it. Of course, bringing, the complexity of bringing something into Minecraft is you can’t necessarily determine the kind of material it’s made out of. Every individual part of the building would be the same material. So I ended up with a stone world, of the corridor and surrounding buildings.”

Even so, she found this small project very interesting and hopes to continue the work. Such research embraces the potential of new media in improving urban planning decisions. (For more, see our story on using open data to revolutionize urban planning decisions.)

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

 

Local News Map Will Be First To Highlight Disparities in Coverage Across Canada

The Local News Map launched by Geothink Co-Applicant Jon Corbett and Partner April Lindgren asks Canadian communities to report how news coverage has changed for them.

The Local News Map launched by Geothink Co-Applicant Jon Corbett and Partner April Lindgren asks Canadian communities to report how news coverage has changed for them.

By Drew Bush

The impact of newsroom cutbacks, consolidations, and closures across Canada will be the focus of a new crowdsourced online geoweb map. The public can contribute to it now—with the full map available online this June.

“The idea of the map is it will allow us to gather data that we haven’t been able to gather on our own just because there is so much data out there,” said Geothink Partner April Lindgren, an associate professor at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism, and founding director of the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre.

The map will be one part of a project (Election News, local information and community discourse: Is Twitter the new public sphere?) that’s headed by Jaigris Hodson, an assistant professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Royal Roads University. Geothink Co-Applicant Jon Corbett, an associate professor in Community, Culture and Global Studies at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan, helped design it with his graduate students in the Spatial Information for Community Engagement (SPICE Lab) using the GeoLive platform featured in previous Geothink research.

The project stems from a belief that Canadians who live in smaller cities, suburban municipalities, and rural areas typically have fewer media outlets to turn to for media coverage. For that reason, the project’s list of communities includes municipalities that have experienced a major disruption in local news sources (such as the closure of a daily newspaper or television station).

“What we did is we went back to 2008 and we tried to find all the instances where a local news organization had either closed or scaled back service or something new had been launched,” Lindgren told Geothink.ca in March while the map was being developed. “And so we populated the map as much as possible with information that we could find. But obviously there is lots and lots of other information out there that’s happened since 2008. And there’s probably lots of stuff going on right now that we don’t know about.”

“So the idea of the crowdsourcing is it will allow us to obviously draw upon the expertise and knowledge of the local news landscape of people who live in communities,” she added. “And they’ll be able to contribute those pieces of information to the map to make it more robust and comprehensive.”

The map can document gains, losses, service increases, and service reductions at local online, radio, television and newspaper outlets across the country. Now that the map is open to contributions, members of the public can add information about changes to the local news landscape in their own communities. The map’s administrators will verify user submitted content so that the map remains accurate.

For a closer look at this project and the map, check out our video where Corbett walks the user through a step-by-step view of the map and how to contribute, and Lindgren talks about the importance of this work.

Making the Map

Many researchers have looked at the critical information needs of communities on topics such as education, health, security and emergency responses, Lindgren said. This in turn led her to think about how we know if there is adequate media provision in Canadian communities, and where media have been lost or added. Still another related question is what online local news sites or social media have sprung up to fill any missing gaps.

Through attendance at last year’s Geothink Annual General Meeting in Waterloo, Lindgren was put in touch with Corbett. Eight months later, they had created a beta version of the map completed that included a couple hundred entries. Some emerging trends in the data include the consolidation and closure of community newspapers in Quebec and British Columbia.

“April had this idea that she wanted to better communicate information about how news media had changed over the period of the last eight years or so in Canada,” Corbett says of his meeting last May with Lindgren that began work by his lab to develop the map. “Because there really has been a lot of activity. Some newspapers have gotten larger. Others have closed down. There is a general move to web based media.”

His group has spent months ironing out the technical details of making this map presentable and ready for launch. Lindgren has provided feedback and advice on it through each stage.

“It’s been an awful lot more complicated than we originally intended precisely because there’s been so much activity and there’s so much difference in this type of activity across Canada,” Corbett added. “For example, we have four major types of media. We have newspaper, we have radio, we have TV, and we have the web. And then within each one of those different types, we have a whole series of other information we need to convey.”

For example, the newspaper category of the map alone contains free dailies, free weeklies, and paid newspapers. It also must contain a measure of how such types have either declined or increased in different localities through time.

“And so we see all of this sort of compounding levels of complexity around the data that we need to present,” he said. “Because of course one of the problems with maps—Maps to present information in an effective way require an awful lot of thought about the types of information being presented and how you actually present that type of information. It needs to be beautiful, it needs to be engaging, but it also needs to be informative.”

Corbett’s group has used color, typography, and more to make the map easily accessible to users. But he notes it is still a challenge to display all the transformations from January 2008 to the present. And the issue of time—as it’s portrayed in the map—will only become more important as users begin to use it to display events taking place during specific years.

Getting Involved

Lindgren and Corbett are both excited for the map’s launch and the public’s participation. Right now the map needs richer input on new online news sites launched in Canada, Lindgren said. This is an issue she plans to keep an eye on when users begin contributing in greater frequency to determine to what extent these organizations are viable and filling gaps left by the closure of local newspapers and television stations.

Lindgren also believes the map has wide appeal to specific communities including local governments, individual community members, and journalists. She points out that in coming weeks there is a number of ways for the public to get involved.

“First of all, when they add a piece of data, they can comment. Or they can comment on any other developments on the map that they want. And we’ve also incorporated a survey so that people can fill out the survey and tell us a little bit about where they go for their local news. Whether they feel adequately informed about various topics ranging from politics to education to other local issues.”

In case you missed it in the links above, find the map here to contribute your information: https://localnewsmap.geolive.ca/

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 11: 2016 Geothink Summer Institute Trains New Generation of Open Data Experts

Geothink's 2016 Summer Institute took place the second week of May at Ryerson University in Toronto with 35 students in attendance.

Geothink’s 2016 Summer Institute took place the second week of May at Ryerson University in Toronto with 35 students in attendance.

By Drew Bush

We’re very excited to present you with our 11th episode of Geothoughts. You can also subscribe to this Podcast by finding it on iTunes.

In this episode, we take a look at the just concluded 2016 Geothink Summer Institute. Students at this year’s institute learned difficult lessons about applying actual open data to civic problems through group work and interactions with Toronto city officials, local organizations, and Geothink faculty. The last day of the institute culminated in a writing-skill incubator that gave participants the chance to practice communicating even the driest details of work with open data in a manner that grabs the attention of the public.

Held annually as part of a five-year Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) partnership grant, each year the Summer Institute devotes three days of hands-on learning to topics important to research taking place in the grant. This year, each day of the institute alternated lectures and panel discussions with work sessions where instructors mentored groups one-on-one about the many aspects of open data.

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]

The 2016 Geothink Summer Institute wrapped up during the second week of May at Ryerson University in Toronto. Held annually as part of a five-year Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) partnership grant, each year the Summer Institute devotes three days of hands-on learning to topics important to research taking place in the grant.

The 35 students at this year’s institute learned difficult lessons about applying actual open data to civic problems through group work and interactions with Toronto city officials, local organizations, and Geothink faculty. The last day of the institute culminated in a writing-skill incubator that gave participants the chance to practice communicating even the driest details of work with open data in a manner that grabs the attention of the public.

On day one, students confronted the challenge of working with municipal open data sets to craft new applications that could benefit cities and their citizens. The day focused on an Open Data Iron Chef that takes it name from the popular television show of the same name. Geothink.ca spoke to the convener of the Open Data Iron Chef while students were still hard at work on their apps for the competition.

“Richard Pietro, OGT Productions and we try to socialize open government and open data.”

“You have such a variety of skill sets in the room, experience levels, ages, genders, ethnicities. I think it’s one of the most mixed sort of Open Data Iron Chefs that I’ve ever done. So I’m just excited to see the potential just based on that.”

“But I think they’re off to a great start. They’re definitely, you know, eager. That was clear from the onset. As soon as we said “Go,” everybody got into their teams. And it’s as though the conversation was like—as though they’ve been having this conversation for years.”

For many students, the experience was a memorable one. Groups found the competition interesting as they worked to conceptualize an application for most of the afternoon before presenting it the institute as a whole.

“More in general, just about the sort of the challenge we have today: It’s kind of interesting coming from like an academic sort of standpoint, especially in my master of arts, there is a lot of theory around like the potential benefits of open data. So it’s kind of nice to actually be working on something that could potentially have real implications, you know?”

That’s Mark Gill, a student in attendance from the University of British Columbia, Okanagan. His group worked with open data from the Association of Bay Area Governments Resilience Program to better inform neighborhoods about their level of vulnerability to natural hazards such as earthquakes, floods, or storms. The application they later conceptualized allowed users to measure their general neighborhood vulnerability. Specific users could also enter their socioeconomic data to gain their own individual vulnerability.

On day two, students heard from four members of Geothink’s faculty on their unique disciplinary perspectives on how to value open data. Here we catch up with Geothink Head Renee Sieber, an associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment, as she provided students a summary of methods for evaluating open data. Sieber started her talk by detailing many of the common quantitative metrics used including the counting of applications generated at a hackathon, the number of citizens engaged, or the economic output from a particular dataset.

“There’s a huge leap to where you start to think about how do you quantify the improvement of citizen participation? How do you quantify the increased democracy or the increased accountability that you might have. So you can certainly assign a metric to it. But how do you actually attach a value to that metric? So, I basically have a series of questions around open data valuation. I don’t have a lot of answers at this point. But they’re the sort of questions that I’d like you to consider.”

After hearing from the four faculty members, students spent the rest of the day working in groups to first create measures to value open data, and, second, role-play how differing sectors might use a specific type of data. In between activities on day two, students also heard from a panel of municipal officials and representatives of Toronto-based organizations working with open data. On day three, students transitioned to taking part in a writing-skills incubator workshop run by Ryerson University School of Journalism associate professors Ann Rahaula and April Lindgren. Students were able to learn from the extensive experience both professors have had in the journalism profession.

“I’m going to actually talk a little about, more broadly, about getting your message out in different ways, including and culminating with the idea of writing a piece of opinion. And, you know, today’s going to be mostly about writing and structuring an Op-ed piece. But I thought I want to spend a few minutes talking about the mechanics of getting your message out—some sort of practical things you can do. And of course this is increasingly important for all the reasons that Ann was talking about and also because the research granting institutions are putting such an emphasis on research dissemination. In other words, getting the results of your work out to organizations and the people who can use it.”

For most of her talk, Lindgren focused on three specific strategies.

“So, one is becoming recognized as an expert and being interviewed by the news media about your area of expertise. The second is about using Twitter to disseminate your work. And the third is how to get your Op-ed or your opinion writing published in the mainstream news media whether it’s a newspaper, an online site, or even if you’re writing for your own blog or the research project, or the blog of the research project that you’re working on.”

Both Lindgren and Rahaula emphasized how important it is for academics to share their work to make a difference and enrich the public debate. Such a theme is central to Geothink, which emphasizes partnerships between researchers and actual practitioners in government, private, and non-profit sectors. Such collaboration makes possible unique research that has direct impacts on civil society.

At the institute, this focus was illustrated by an invitation Geothink extended to Civic Tech Toronto for a hackathon merging the group’s members with Geothink’s students. Taking place on the evening of day two, the hack night featured a talk by Sieber and hands-on work on the issues Toronto citizens find most important to address in their city. Much like the institute itself, the night gave students a chance to apply their skills and knowledge to real applications in the city they were visiting.

[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 4, 5, 6, & 7: Four Talks to Remember from the 2016 Summer Institute

Peter Johnson was one of four Geothink Co-Applicants who gave presentations at the 2016 Geothink Summer Institute. Listen to their lectures here as podcasts.

Peter Johnson was one of four Geothink Co-Applicants who gave presentations on day two of the 2016 Geothink Summer Institute. Listen to their lectures here as podcasts.

By Drew Bush

Geothink’s Summer Institute may have concluded but, for those of you who missed it, we bring you four talks to remember. These lectures come from day two of the institute when four Geothink faculty members gave short talks on their different disciplinary approaches to evaluating open data.

The lectures feature Peter Johnson, an assistant professor at Waterloo University’s Department of Geography and Environmental Planning; Teresa Scassa, Canada Research Chair in Information Law at the University of Ottawa; Pamela Robinson, associate professor in Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning; And, Geothink Head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment.

Students at this year’s institute learned difficult lessons about applying actual open data to civic problems through group work and interactions with Toronto city officials, local organizations, and Geothink faculty. The last day of the institute culminated in a writing-skill incubator that gave participants the chance to practice communicating even the driest details of work with open data in a manner that grabs the attention of the public.

Held annually as part of a five-year Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) partnership grant, each year the Summer Institute devotes three days of hands-on learning to topics important to research taking place in the grant. This year, each day of the institute alternated lectures and panel discussions with work sessions where instructors mentored groups one-on-one about the many aspects of open data.

Below we present you with a rare opportunity to learn about open data with our experts as they discuss important disciplinary perspectives for evaluating the value of it. You can also subscribe to these Podcasts by finding them on iTunes.

Geothoughts Talk 4: Reflecting on the Success of Open Data: How Municipal Governments Evaluate Open Data Programs
Join Peter Johnson as he kicks off day two of Geothink’s 2016 Summer Institute by inviting students to dream that they are civil servants at the City of Toronto when the city receives a hypothetical “F” rating for its open data catalogue. From this starting premise, Johnson’s lecture interrogates how outside agencies, academics, and organizations evaluate municipal open data programs. In particular, he discusses problems with current impact studies such as the Open Data 500 and what other current evaluation techniques look like.

Geothoughts Talk 5: The Value of Open Data: A Legal Perspective

Teresa Scassa starts our fifth talk by discussing how those working in the discipline of law don’t usually participate in the evaluation of open data. While those in law don’t actually evaluate open data, however, legal statutes often are responsible for mandating such valuation, she argues. In particular, legal statutes often require specific types of data to be open. Furthermore, provisions in Canadian law such as the Open Courts Principle mean that many aspects of Canada’s legal system can be open-by-default.

Geothoughts Talk 6: Open Data: Questions and Techniques for Adding Civic Value
Pamela Robinson dispels the notion that open data derives value from economic benefits by instead discussing how such data can be used to fundamentally shift the relationship between civil society and institutions. She elaborates on this idea by noting that not all open data sets are created equal. Right now, she argues, the mixed ways in which open data is released can dramatically impact whether or not it’s useful to civic groups hoping to work with such data.

Geothoughts Talk 7: Measuring the Value of Open Data
In a talk that helps to summarize the previous three presenters, Renee Sieber discusses the different ways in which open data can be evaluated. She details many of the common quantitative metrics used—counting applications generated at a hackathon, the number of citizens engaged, or the economic output from a particular dataset—before discussing some qualitative indicators of the importance of a specific open data set. Some methods can likely capture certain aspects of open data better than others. She then poses a series of questions on how one can actually attach a value to the increased democracy or accountability gained by using open data.

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

Out of the Ivory Tower: Conveying Open Data Research to the General Public – Summer Institute Day 3

DSC_0595

Day three of Geothink’s 2016 Summer Institute featured Ann Rauhala and April Lindgren leading a writing-skills incubator workshop.

By Drew Bush

On day three, the students at Geothink’s 2016 Summer Institute shifted gears from working with open data to thinking about the importance of conveying their work to the public. The day alternated between interactive lectures on how to write a strong Op-ed piece for a newspaper and hands-on group work where students tried their own hand at writing gripping prose.

Ann Rahaula, an associate professor Ryerson University’s School of Journalism and associate director of the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre, started the day by talking about the importance of disseminating one’s research to a broader audience. Then she covered how to structure opinions pieces. She was followed by Geothink Partner April Lindgren, an associate professor at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism and founding director of the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre, who discussed how to think and write clearly about one’s research.

“You are already or are entering a world, let’s face it, of great privilege,” Rahaula told students. “You are lucky enough to be one of those people who gets to work with ideas and do exciting things that keep your brains moving. You are very fortunate. Part of the responsibility that comes with that privilege is your ability to communicate those ideas.”

“Because after all if what’s going on in the academy is not available or understood or appreciated in the public, we would still be, I don’t know, living in caves and reading the Globe and Mail,” she added. “And nothing else. Communicating these ideas will dramatically enhance your career no matter what your career is. It essentially raises your profile. It is actually, literally awarded in the academy. It is seen as knowledge translation.”

Over the first two days of the institute, students learned difficult lessons about applying actual open data to civic problems through group work and interactions with Toronto city officials, local organizations, and Geothink faculty. This last day of the institute represented the culmination of this work with open data.

Held annually as part of a five-year Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) partnership grant, each year the Summer Institute devotes three days of hands-on learning to topics important to research taking place in the grant. This year, each day of the institute alternated lectures and panel discussions with work sessions where instructors mentored groups one-on-one.

After her introduction to the importance of students being able to communicate their ideas to a wider audience, Rahaula detailed the ways in which students should be structuring any opinions that they write. The interactive lecture took students through examples of opinion pieces ranging from good to bad, with detailed analyses of what made them either effective or ineffective.

To see an excerpt of Rahaula’s talk on how to structure an Op-ed, check out this video:

Lindgren continued with a discussion of the important points students should consider in constructing any piece of writing to make it accessible and engaging to the reader.

“Sitting down to write does cause grief to quite a—well to most of us at some point in time,” Lindgren told students. “And a lot of us actually also think that there is something really mysterious and mystical about the writing process. You know, I have to be in the mood and the window blinds have to be down to a certain level, and the plants have to be in flower, and I have to have had this for breakfast, and then I can write.”

“Well, that’s maybe what you think,” she added. “But the truth is it’s like anything else. If you want to get better at it, you’ve got to sit down and you’ve got to practice it because you will improve with practice. Now having said all of that, there actually are some tricks of the trade to write in a clear and accessible way. And I’m going to talk about some of those today.”

For more of Lindgren’s talk, check out this excerpt:

For the students in attendance, the change in direction on the last day proved refreshing and taught them important new skills. For many, the nuanced and detailed coverage of best writing practices is not something that is often taught in their home departments. While working in groups, many mentioned learning important skills such as how to clearly organize an opinions piece, use Twitter to promote research, write captivating sentences, or pick the right time to propose an article to a publication.

“The third day, for me as a journalist, was like going back home from a trip,” Catalina Arango, from University of Ottawa, said. “I had the chance to bring all those new experiences and lessons and put them into practice using familiar tools. The almost colloquial tone of the presentations and the exercises allowed me to translate that ‘almost exclusively academic’ concept of open data to simple words. Words that people can understand and digest in order to see their real value.”

“I took skills learned in other latitudes and put them into action in my current context,” she added. “It was a super interesting experience.”

Stay tuned for more iTunes podcasts from the Summer Institute here, and, of course, watch more of our video clips (which we’ll be uploading in coming days) here.

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Geothink students, faculty, and staff at the 2016 Summer Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto.

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