Author Archives: Naomi Bloch

Can Citizen Science Help Cities Address Climate Change?

Photo of people taking noise level readings.

Mapping for Change supports citizen science inquiries into environmental and social issues. Here, participants take noise level readings in regions around a London airport. Photo courtesy Mapping for Change.

By Naomi Bloch

If you were following the recent climate change talks in Paris, you may have noticed a recurring theme: policymakers acknowledging the leadership of subnational governments in addressing climate change. Canada’s own delegation to the conference included representatives from the Canadian Federation of Municipalities, as well as provincial and indigenous leaders.

While the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference focused on political negotiations, critics have been quick to remind legislators that more efforts are needed to involve citizens in decision-making. It’s hardly a new idea, but how can civic participation function at a global scale? Activities at the local level may hold the key. Municipalities often have established mechanisms to involve the public in deliberative activities. Cities and their citizens can also collaborate on the evidence-gathering needed to make informed decisions.

Geothink collaborator Muki Haklay is the director of the University College London’s Extreme Citizen Science group and a professor of Geographic Information Science in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering. In 2008, he co-founded Mapping for Change, an organization that uses participatory mapping and citizen science to address environmental and social issues in cities.

Headshot of Muki Haklay

Muki Haklay, professor of Geographic Information Science in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering, University College London.

“I see the value of citizen science as part of wider environmental democracy, going back to the Rio conference in 1992,” Haklay explained in an email interview with Geothink. Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development states that, at national levels, citizens should have “appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities.” At the community level, the Declaration calls for active and informed public participation in environmental decision-making processes.

Citizen science invites non-professionals to participate in data gathering and the production of new scientific knowledge. “I see citizen science as a new part of the picture,” said Haklay, “where people also participate in creating environmental information that will influence their lives.”

In Haklay’s view, citizen science has particular benefits that can complement traditional research. “The various changes that have occurred in society and technology mean that we can open environmental decision-making further and make it more inclusive and participatory.” As with all research, appropriate rigor and attention to methodology are required. “Not all data should come from citizen science,” said Haklay. “In terms of data quality, citizen science requires us to use appropriate quality assurance methods.”

Mapping for Change provides some helpful exemplars. One collaboration with local organizations has seen thirty different communities across London measuring and mapping air quality data for their neighbourhoods. “We used a whole range of methods: wipe samples, where we checked for heavy metals in dust on different surfaces; diffusion tubes which measure NO2 levels; and bio-indicators — lichens and leaves,” Haklay said. The project’s findings provide location-specific data that can help alert authorities to potential problem zones. “The local authority responded to the results by promising to do their own monitoring in the area and consider how they can manage the traffic in the area.”

Particularly when expensive equipment or lab analysis is needed, resource limitations can create challenges. However, Haklay points out some unique benefits. “Citizen science provides additional information about the context — local knowledge about the place where the monitoring is taking place,” said Haklay. “Participants can also put equipment in their own homes, which is complex for researchers or government agencies.” The citizen science water study in Flint, Michigan, is a good example of this.

Constraints, of course, are not just funding-related. “Not all people would want to do it, and not everyone will have the skills, though we need to consider how to help people in developing them,” Haklay said. “The limitations are the knowledge that people have, their perception of science and their own capabilities, and the abilities of those who manage citizen science projects to engage at such levels. We shouldn’t expect all scientists to be able to facilitate the whole process on their own.”

Haklay suggests that government agencies looking to incorporate citizen science in their data gathering processes should consult the report, Choosing and Using Citizen Science, produced by the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. The report reviews resource and management issues, political issues, as well as scientific issues.

The key to citizen science is that it can involve a range of activities. “Participants can help in setting the research question, create protocols that are suitable to their local culture and needs, analyze the information, participate in the production of reports and papers — in short, in everything,” Haklay said. “The value is in making science more open and more collaborative.”

Interested in learning more about Muki Haklay’s citizen science work? Follow him on Twitter: @mhaklay
If you have thoughts or questions about this article, get in touch with Naomi Bloch, Geothink’s digital journalist, at naomi.bloch2@gmail.com.

Citizen Science and Intellectual Property: A Guide for the Perplexed

citizen science image

Citizen scientists help researchers transcribe historical climate records and photograph natural phenomena.

By Naomi Bloch

The concept of the science hobbyist —­ the backyard astronomer staring up at the sky or the amateur ornithologist taking part in the annual Christmas bird count — is hardly a new one. What is notable today, however, is the scale and scope of new collaborations between research institutions and volunteer citizen scientists. These kinds of citizen science partnerships have inspired a new study by Geothink co-applicant Teresa Scassa and doctoral candidate Haewon Chung, called “Managing Intellectual Property Rights in Citizen Science: A Guide for Researchers and Citizen Scientists.”

Chung, now a Geothink Ph.D. student researcher at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law, is interested in intellectual property (IP) law with a particular focus on digital ethics. Scassa is a Canada Research Chair in Information Law at the University of Ottawa. The two researchers will participate in a panel discussion and launch of their new work at the Wilson Center Commons Lab, in Washington, D.C., on December 10.

Teresa Scassa head shot

Teresa Scassa, Canada Research Chair in Information Law at the University of Ottawa

“Part of the point of the guide is to encourage people to take a proactive approach and think about what they want to get out of the citizen science project, and what they need to get out of the citizen science project,” Scassa said. “For example, if you need to publish your research results, or if you need to keep your data confidential because you’ve got private sector funding that requires that, how do you structure the IP side of things so that you can do that?”

Citizen science, broadly construed, involves the participation of non-professional scientists in scientific data gathering and the production of new scientific knowledge. In the realm of Geothink, this generally takes place in the context of volunteered geographic information (VGI) and contributions to geographic knowledge. Some projects may involve volunteers helping with laborious tasks such as transcribing historical climate data. In other cases, participants may be sharing geocoded photos or video footage, recording audio, or producing text narratives. In countries like the U.S. and Canada, such original, creative efforts are inherently protected by copyright law — something participants themselves may not even realize.

Do you copy?

The 80-page report is divided into three parts, beginning with a concise review of relevant areas of intellectual property law including copyright, patent, trademark and trade secret law, as well as specific considerations involved in the protection of traditional knowledge. Though copyright law differs around the world, essentially copyright grants certain exclusive rights to the authors of creative works. These rights usually include the right to control how work is distributed, reproduced, and re-used. “It’s also significant because it arises inadvertently,” said Scassa.

Unlike other types of intellectual property such as patents, in many countries the creator is automatically granted copyright protections without taking any specific legal actions. “There are going to be copyright issues with respect to any website that’s created, and with respect to many different types of contributions that users might make, whether they’re text-based or photographs or video clips or whatever they might be,” Scassa said. “There are copyright issues with respect to compilations of data. And then, of course, those copyright issues are relevant if, for example, the researcher decides to publish in a closed access journal and the participants want access to those research results, and all these sorts of things.”

When institutional researchers initiate citizen science projects, there are commonly expectations regarding eventual publication of findings, data sharing, posting information online, as well as educational and civic aims. “Depending on the nature of the project, the users may expect to have total access to the research results — to any publications, but maybe also to all of the data that’s been gathered,” said Scassa. “So we encourage the researchers who are creating citizen science research projects to think about what the user community may be expecting from them in terms of the project design.”

Ethics and law in the balance

In the second section of the study, the authors explore some of the ethical issues that arise in light of IP law. This includes everything from appropriate attribution to uses of participants’ contributions as well as research output. “If you’re going to be collecting stories or traditional knowledge from a community, for example, then that’s going to result in some intellectual property,” Scassa said. “And the ethical requirements may be different from the bare legal requirements. Part of it is being aware of what the legal defaults are and how those might need to be altered in the context of the relationship that you have with your participants.”

Scassa notes that researchers’ relationship with citizen scientists is generally one among many. “Researchers at universities have a complex web of relationships,” Scassa said. “Their universities have IP policies; those IP policies might provide that all IP stemming from this research may belong to the university and not the researcher, so they may not be able to promise certain things in their projects. Their funders may have expectations, and their publishers may have expectations. They may also have expectations in terms of the ability, perhaps, at some point in the future to patent some of their research. So they have this complex web of relationships and their relationship with citizen scientists is one of those relationships. We encourage them to think about this web of relationships and these expectations and try and design accordingly.”

To help with this process, the third section of the study guides readers through the various types of licensing options that can be applied. The authors provide diverse examples from real-world citizen science projects both local and global, and a toolset to help project designers as well as participants understand their options. “We don’t want to create barriers,” Scassa said. “It’s a really complex area. We’re trying to make it as accessible and as useful as possible, just to try to get people thinking about these ideas.”

The Wilson Center panel discussion, “Legal Issues and Intellectual Property Rights in Citizen Science,” takes place at the Wilson Center Commons Lab, Washington, D.C., Wednesday, Dec. 10, 11am –12:30pm ET. There will be a live webcast of the event.

Interested in learning more about intellectual property law and citizen science? Reach out to Teresa Scassa on Twitter: @TeresaScassa.

If you have thoughts or questions about this article, get in touch with Naomi Bloch, Geothink’s digital journalist, at naomi.bloch2@gmail.com.

Mapping Inclusive Employment: Community Engagement on the Participatory Geoweb

Project partners exploring the interactive map

Participants were asked to draw pictures representing the five stakeholder groups. The drawings formed the basis for the icons used on the map markers. Photo courtesy the SpICE Lab (Spatial Information for Community Engagement)

 

By Naomi Bloch

In British Columbia, researchers have been using a crowdsourced mapping tool to capture positive employment experiences of individuals with intellectual disabilities. Geothink co-applicant Jon Corbett, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, is one of several UBC contributors to the participatory research project. Recently, the group published findings from its two-year pilot program.

The project is a collaboration between government agencies, the University of British Columbia, as well as self-advocates with intellectual disabilities and community partners. It demonstrates how government and citizens can employ the geoweb and participatory mapping to address community issues. “What we wanted to do specifically,” said Corbett, “was create a crowdsourced tool that would enable people to share their positive experiences, so that other people with intellectual disabilities and their family members and employers and also service providers could come to the site and they could actually see examples of positive employment. And so then they could emulate that, and they could strategize around that.”

This required developing an online environment that could engage all the identified stakeholder groups. To accomplish this, the initiative turned to the GeoLive participatory mapping tool, developed by Corbett’s Spatial Information for Community Engagement (SpICE) Lab. The GeoLive platform is a key component of a number of Geothink partner projects.

According to Corbett, GeoLive was initially conceived as a means to better support excluded and marginalized populations. “We know that when we share information on the cloud we have no idea how that information will be re-purposed, re-used, or stored,” Corbett said. “It can reappear in ways where we might least expect it in the future. So we wanted to get away from that and provide a certain level of guarantee that the information that people shared through the map is actually uniquely stored on our own servers, and should they wish to delete it they can delete it and it will be deleted forever.”

Corbett and GeoLive programmer Nick Blackwell are able to work directly with community members to customize the platform based on user needs. The software, which is built around the familiar Google Maps API,  is now used both by community groups as well as academic researchers. In the process of working with their inclusive employment partners, Corbett and his colleagues gained new insights regarding some of the usability challenges on the participatory geoweb. These included spatial literacy issues, the need to make the platform more mobile-friendly and less reliant on keyboard interaction, as well as accommodating users who have limited familiarity with today’s social media conventions.

Self advocates with intellectual disabilities and other stakeholders collaborated with Corbett’s team to design, evaluate, and further customize the online mapping tool. The group then worked with individuals and organizations throughout the province to collect stories of successful and inclusive employment. Over eighty narratives are now included on the map. While some markers have simple text descriptions, others include video, audio, as well as photos.

The map now serves as a shared space for community engagement. At the same time, university researchers associated with the project have been able to analyze the collected stories to identify some of the common features described in participants’ positive employment experiences. Map contributors discuss issues such as the challenges of finding a job, as well as the social and practical factors that create an enriching work environment. These findings are expected to help inform best practice guidelines that can support employment services for people with intellectual disabilities in the future.

The map is now public, and anyone can contribute their own relevant experiences or explore other people’s stories at http://www.mappinginclusiveemployment.ca/.

Reference: Hole, R., Corbett, J., Cook, S., & de Raaf, S. (2015). Mapping inclusive employment practices for individuals with developmental disabilities: A participatory research mapping project. The BC Centre for Employment Excellence, 32 pages.

If you have thoughts or questions about this article, get in touch with Naomi Bloch, Geothink’s digital journalist, at naomi.bloch2@gmail.com.

Spotlight on Recent Publications: Open Data and Official Language Regimes

screenshotCanadian  open government website

The bilingual federal Open Government portal

By Naomi Bloch

Teresa Scassa is a Geothink co-applicant researcher and Canada Research Chair in Information Law at the University of Ottawa. In a recently published paper, Scassa and co-author Niki Singh consider some of the challenges that arise for open data initiatives operating in multilingual regions. The authors use Canada’s federal open data initiative as a case study to examine how a government body in an officially bilingual jurisdiction negotiates its language obligations in the execution of its open data plan.

The article points out two areas for potential concern. First, private sector uses of government data could result in the unofficial outsourcing of services that otherwise would be the responsibility of government agencies, “thus directly or indirectly avoiding obligations to provide these services in both official languages.” Second, the authors suggest that the push to rapidly embrace an open data ethos may result in Canada’s minority language communities being left out of open data development and use opportunities.

According to Statistics Canada’s 2011 figures, approximately 7.3 million people — or 22 percent of the population — reported French as their primary language in Canada. This includes over a million residents outside of Quebec, primarily in Ontario and New Brunswick. Canada’s federal agencies are required to serve the public in both English and French. This obligation is formalized within Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as the Official Languages Act. Government departments are provided with precise guidelines and frameworks  to ensure that they comply with these regulatory requirements in all of their public dealings and communications.

Scassa and Singh reviewed the various components of the federal open data initiative since the launch of the program to determine how well it is observing bilingual requirements. The authors note that while the open data infrastructure as a whole largely adheres to bilingual standards, one departure is the initiative’s Application Programming Interface (API). An API provides a set of protocols and tools for software developers. In this case, the API supports automated calls for open data housed in government databases. According to the authors, “As this open source software is not developed by the federal government, no bilingualism requirements apply to it.” While professional developers may be accustomed to English software environments even if they are francophones, the authors point out that this factor presents an additional barrier for French-language communities who might wish to use open data as a civic tool.

In their analysis of the data portal’s “apps gallery,” Scassa and Singh observed that the majority of apps or data tools posted thus far are provided by government agencies themselves. These offerings are largely bilingual. However, at the time of the authors’ review, only four of the citizen-contributed apps supported French. In general, public contributions to the federal apps gallery are minimal compared to government-produced tools.

As part of their analysis, the authors also looked at the two Canadian Open Data Experience (CODE) hackathon events sponsored by the government in order to promote civic engagement with open data. Communications leading up to the events were provided in English and French. Government documentation also indicated strong participation from Quebec coders at the CODE hackathons, though native language of the coders is not indicated. Interestingly, the authors note, “In spite of the bilingual dimensions of CODE it has produced apps that are for the most part, English only.”

The 2015 event, which was sponsored by government but organized by a private company, had a bilingual website and application process. However, Scassa and Singh found that social media communications surrounding the event itself were primarily in English, including government tweets from the Treasury Board Secretariat. Given this, the authors question whether sufficient effort was made to attract French-Canadian minorities outside of Quebec, and if specific efforts may be needed to gauge and support digital literacy in these minority communities.

While it is still early days for Canada’s open data initiative, this case study serves to highlight the challenges of supporting an open data platform that can meet both legal obligations and broader ethical objectives. The authors conclude that, “In a context where the government is expending resources to encourage the uptake and use of open data in these ways, the allocation of these resources should explicitly identify and address the needs of both official language communities in Canada.”

Abstract

The open data movement is gathering steam globally, and it has the potential to transform relationships between citizens, the private sector and government. To date, little or no attention has been given to the particular challenge of realizing the benefits of open data within an officially bi- or multi-lingual jurisdiction. Using the efforts and obligations of the Canadian federal government as a case study, the authors identify the challenges posed by developing and implementing an open data agenda within an officially bilingual state. Key concerns include (1) whether open data initiatives might be used as a means to outsource some information analysis and information services to an unregulated private sector, thus directly or indirectly avoiding obligations to provide these services in both official languages; and (2) whether the Canadian government’s embrace of the innovation agenda of open data leaves minority language communities underserved and under-included in the development and use of open data.

Reference: Scassa, T., & Singh, Niki. (2015). Open Data and Official Language Regimes: An Examination of the Canadian Experience. Journal of Democracy & Open Government, 7(1), 117–133.

If you have thoughts or questions about this article, get in touch with Naomi Bloch, Geothink’s digital journalist, at naomi.bloch2@gmail.com.

GIS & the Global Community: Humanitarian Mapping

Image of KLL team on balcony of new headquarters

KLL team outside their new headquarters. Photo courtesy Kathmandu Living Labs.

By Naomi Bloch


Today, November 18, marks the 16th annual GIS Day. Throughout the week, Geothink has been presenting a series of posts looking at some of the ways in which our collaborators, partners, and friends around the world are critically examining and using GIS as a tool for civic engagement and understanding.
The community snapshots presented this week highlight diverse perspectives and uses for GIS. We conclude our series with the following piece on humanitarian mapping and OpenStreetMap.

This past March, Nama Budhathoki, a long-time contributor to OpenStreetMap, announced his candidacy for the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) Board of Directors. Budhathoki, the executive director of Nepal’s Kathmandu Living Labs (KLL), posted a manifesto that — in the months following Nepal’s April 25 earthquake — seemed beyond prescient. In it, he proposed his vision for HOT, and for the crowdsourced mapping community around the world.

Budhathoki’s principal message is two-fold. 1) Humanitarian mapping can be more effective by transitioning from being primarily a reactive community to one that encourages mapping communities to develop where they’re most needed — before crisis strikes. 2) A unique benefit of crowdsourced mapping stems from its role in community engagement and capacity building.

OpenStreetMap’s U.S. Chapter is a Geothink partner. Geothink recently caught up with Budhathoki while he was visiting Washington D.C. as the invited featured speaker at the launch of Mapping for Resilience: Turning Data into Decisions, a new program that aims to support geospatial data development in areas of need using OpenStreetMap.

Mapping as civic engagement

The challenge that KLL has been addressing for several years now in Kathmandu is the lack of decent spatial data and maps for the region. The small team has been tackling the problem by collaborating with educational institutions in Nepal, training students how to map their local environment in OpenStreetMap. In 2013, for example, they went out into the field to collect exposure data at the individual building level for over 2,000 schools, colleges and universities, as well as 350 health facilities in Kathmandu Valley. They mapped this data on OpenStreetMap so that the information could be downloaded and used by government and other organizations developing risk assessments and plans.

For Budhathoki, the act of mapping is a mechanism for engaging citizens and building local knowledge and awareness. “I keep emphasizing this, but I can’t stress it enough. Mapping is not just about the final product — you know, the map itself. The act of mapping is important; it’s about engaging the community,” Budhathoki said. “In the process of conducting these activities, you are talking to people in the community, sensitizing them to the issues, preparing them in advance to think about it.”

Budhathoki notes that one of the most important reasons to have active, capable mapping communities on the ground in high-risk regions is so that they can build trust within their communities before disaster strikes. “KLL has been working with the government, working with organizations in the community, and with different aid organizations for several years,” Budhathoki said. “So when the earthquake hit, we not only had the local knowledge and the capacity so that we could open the situation room within 24 hours of the earthquake, but we also had the trust of all these organizations. In my experience, this element of trust is very important.”

Mobilizing the global community

Within 48 hours following the first earthquake, over 1,500 mappers around the world had responded to the call to support Nepal. Kathmandu Living Labs coordinated the effort together with HOT. This October, KLL posted a timeline capturing the milestones of their six-month journey since April.

As is typically the case on crowdsourced projects, while some contributors signed on only briefly, other mappers dedicated themselves to the cause. These core mappers, Budhathoki believes, tended to be those with a longer history on OSM and HOT projects, because they typically have a better understanding of the types of commitments and challenges involved.

“In principle, because OSM is a crowdsourcing geo platform, it is by definition designed to have a low barrier to entry,” Budhathoki explained. “Anyone should be able to begin mapping. That’s in principle. But in reality, there are tasks that require more knowledge. So for example, users with more OpenStreetMap experience handle validation tasks.

“GIS experts anywhere in the world should be able to adapt to the OpenStreetMap environment even if it is new for them. For GIS experts, OSM is a pretty simple tool, generally. They can contribute expertise that is useful, that contributes to quality of the information. But not everyone is comfortable in a crowdsourced environment.”

Where local meets global

Geothink co-applicant Claus Rinner, a professor and chair of Ryerson University’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, coordinated several Mapping for Nepal workshops in Toronto after the first quake struck. Rinner worked with a group of students with varying degrees of mapping experience as well as local GIS professionals to help map the affected areas. Following his experiences, he posted some reflections regarding the current slippery boundaries between traditional GIS and OpenStreetMap as a crowdsourced mapping platform — and highlighted the need for more formal education opportunities that incorporate OSM as a tool. More recently, Rinner noted that high school students have been expressing an interest in Ryerson’s mapping events for Nepal. “My main observation here is that OSM/HOT mapping is a type of community activity that uses the students’ study-related expertise,” Rinner said, “rather than being something that anyone could do.”

Budhathoki sees the work of the global OSM community as valuable on a number of levels, but also highlights the importance of local knowledge. “Virtual mappers without advanced knowledge can do fundamental tasks like mapping the road network,” Budhathoki said, “but then who can provide the name of the road? It’s the local community. And different countries categorize roads differently, so it is difficult to know what road is a highway, for example. You can’t just assume this based on the width of the road.

“So, local understanding is always going to be important — particularly in these situations, where the information is needed by humanitarian organizations and is being used on the ground right away.”

If you have any questions for Nama or the KLL team, you can reach them on Twitter here: @KTMLivingLabs

To get a quick sense of KLL and OSM’s work in Nepal since April, check out the Kathmandu Living Labs: Six-Months of Earthquake Response timeline.


If you have thoughts or questions about this article, get in touch with Naomi Bloch, Geothink’s digital journalist, at naomi.bloch2@gmail.com.

GIS on Campus: Join Claus Rinner for GIS Day at Ryerson

By Naomi Bloch


This Wednesday, November 18, marks the 16th annual GIS Day. Throughout the week, Geothink will present a series of posts looking at some of the ways in which our collaborators, partners, and friends around the world are critically examining and using GIS as a tool for civic engagement and understanding.
The community snapshots presented this week highlight diverse perspectives and uses for GIS. 

If you’re looking for a way to introduce friends to the wide-ranging sphere of GIS, look no further than Toronto’s Ryerson University campus on Wednesday.

Geothink’s Claus Rinner along with GIS and Map Librarian Dan Jakubek have a full afternoon of events scheduled for GIS Day. They’ve lined up three keynote presentations, each of which will explore very different GIS applications: Senior Landscape Ecologist Dr. Namrata Shrestha will discuss her work with the Toronto & Region Conservation Authority; Andrew Lyszkiewicz from the City of Toronto’s Information & Technology Division brings in the municipal GIS perspective; while the Toronto Star’s Matthew Cole and William Davis are on hand to cover the growing role of GIS, mapping, open data, and data analysis in the media.

Apart from keynotes, there will be a poster session, geovisualization project displays, as well as several practical demonstrations of GIS and geoweb tools in action. Neptis Foundation, a Geothink partner, is one of the participating organizations. According to the Neptis Foundation’s Adrien Friesen, he and colleague Vishan Guyadeen will be demonstrating their soon-to-be-launched geoweb platform, “an integrative web mapping tool for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, created to help residents, researchers and decision makers better understand what shapes our urban and rural environments. It allows users to select different spatial layers that they can overlay and view different infrastructure, political boundaries, and protected areas (among many other things), to visualize the region in which they live.”

A full itinerary of the afternoon’s events can be found on the Geospatial Map & Data Centre website. While you’re on campus, you might want to check out the Geospatial Map & Data Centre itself. Ryerson Library’s communal lab is a dedicated space designed to support collaborative work with GIS, data, and related geospatial and statistical software packages.

Date: Wednesday, November 18, 2015
Time: 1:00 pm–5:00 pm
Location: Library Building, LIB-489, 4th Floor, 350 Victoria Street

For more of Geothink’s GIS Day coverage, see:

If you have thoughts or questions about this story, get in touch with Naomi Bloch, Geothink’s digital journalist, at naomi.bloch2@gmail.com.

 

GIS in the City: Toronto on the Map

Map of Toronto school nutrition program distributionBy Naomi Bloch


This Wednesday, November 18, marks the 16th annual GIS Day. Throughout the week, Geothink will present a series of posts looking at some of the ways in which our collaborators, partners, and friends around the world are critically examining and using GIS as a tool for civic engagement and understanding.
The community snapshots presented this week highlight diverse perspectives and uses for GIS. 

If you make your way to Toronto’s City Hall on Wednesday, you’ll discover that the City is displaying a slideshow of some pretty interesting maps, just above the 3D model of the downtown core. The big-screen projection, set up for Geography Awareness Week and GIS Day, showcases some of the ways that Toronto’s municipal divisions are using GIS to tackle urban issues.

These same projects can also be perused at your leisure via a new City of Toronto GIS Day landing page. The City of Toronto is one of Geothink’s municipal partners.

City of Toronto's Ventilation Index map. All images © City of Toronto 1998-2015. Used with permission.

City of Toronto’s Ventilation Index map. All images © City of Toronto 1998-2015. Used with permission.

The breadth of projects may surprise Toronto residents. Take the Environment and Energy Division’s (EED) Ventilation Index. The EED is mapping the city to get a full spatial understanding of areas known as “urban canyons,” narrow open spaces confined between built spaces that contribute to ground-level pollution — a problem most noticeable to pedestrians in the city. The higher the ventilation index, the greater the level of pollution. The Ventilation Index researchers’ goal is to try to identify “how the City’s changing building profile may have growing adverse effects at ground level and how to mitigate and adapt to the rapidly growing City.”

The City’s uses of GIS extend beyond urban planning or trying to understand how urban design impacts the environment. The Department of Public Health, for example, is employing GIS to better understand the distribution and funding of school nutrition programs. In 2014, 160,000 Toronto students participated in breakfast, snack and lunch programs, provided in schools and community sites throughout the city. Public Health has mapped the locations where student nutrition programs were in effect in 2014, with each site categorized based on the funding source behind the program. Incorporating census data such as the Low Income Measure, they’ve identified where meal programs are located relative to the City’s designated Neighbourhood Improvement Areas. This spatial mapping of school nutrition programs helps the City to understand which communities remain under-served and where additional funding should be allocated.

Want to know more about how the City of Toronto is using GIS? Head to Metro Hall on Friday, Nov. 20, anytime between 8:00 am and 3:00 pm. A few staff members from the City’s Geospatial Competency Centre will be on hand to answer questions.

For more of Geothink’s GIS Day coverage, see:

If you have thoughts or questions about this story, get in touch with Naomi Bloch, Geothink’s digital journalist, at naomi.bloch2@gmail.com.

 

An Expert’s View on Civic Participation on the Geoweb

By Naomi Bloch


As an early warm-up to our November 23 Twitter chat — What does meaningful civic participation on the geoweb look like? — we asked Geothink Head Renee Sieber to share her perspective. Here are a few highlights.


word cloud

More access, more communication

I think we’re in an environment where we’ve really broadened opportunities for citizens to participate through social media, through these various kinds of devices that we have, so I think it’s very exciting.

It’s an opportunity for citizens to be engaged when they don’t necessarily have the time to attend a meeting. So they can both watch city activities online through their own dashboards or they can communicate as issues arise. Perhaps cities may wish to create polls of online sentiment; they want to alert citizens of emergency situations or of interesting happenings in the city.  —R.S.


Citizen–City connection

We can have citizens more fully engaged as members of the city in reporting, in monitoring events in real-time. People generally point to open 311 applications. Open 311 comes from an old telephone service where you could dial a short number, 311, and you could report a nuisance complaint. This has moved online. So the prototypical example is the pothole. You can report the pothole, you can report a missing street sign. This can be enormously helpful to cities because they have more real-time information for problems in the infrastructure. So that’s another kind of engagement.  —R.S.


Hackathons

… Citizens can find new and unusual ways to use data that comes out of cities, in ways that cities had never thought about before. So it’s a very exciting way for people—particularly techies—to get into the mechanisms of governance and the mechanisms of government.

So I think that this is a great time to engage physically and digitally about what’s happening in your own cities. There are obviously challenges that are paired with that.  —R.S.


Digital divides

One way that we frame technology is by saying that, “It’s so easy now that anyone can participate.” The flipside of that, unfortunately, is that if you cannot participate it’s your fault: “We made it easy for you, so if you don’t want to participate — or if you cannot or you didn’t choose to participate — in that particular poll, well, we can’t be responsible if we didn’t hear your voice.”

But that ignores all sorts of reasons that people cannot participate. The digital divide and digital inequities have not gone away, they merely shift and hide. So we can be relatively sure that a lot of people have e-mail, but in parts of rural Canada we can’t always be sure that people will have sustainable connections to the Internet, to broadband connections, to connections of a sufficient speed, to connections that persist over time as opposed to connections that drop out in the middle of an e-mail transmission or a call. That’s a real challenge if all of a sudden you decide to move a good portion of your citizen activity online; you cut out a large number of people.

We may say, “Oh great, we can build all these apps for smart phones.” Well, that of course presumes that people own smart phones, that people have data plans on smart phones, that people have sufficiently high speed connections on their phones so that they can transmit, upload and download data quite quickly. We can’t make those kinds of assumptions.  —R.S.


Persistent social divides & inequities

You have to couple that with persistent digital divides and divides in general. Why are we assuming that illiteracy has been abolished in North America? We know that people still are illiterate. The hallmark of these technologies is that they’re increasingly relying on the written word. You have a phone, and you think we’re going to interact with the phone via voice. But increasingly people use their phones with text. Well, if you can’t read then you can’t participate. If you cannot see, you cannot participate. So we have all sorts of inequities based on disabilities.

So we have to be in tune to that, even as we trumpet the increased advantages and increased opportunities for people to participate. There will be people who will still find it extraordinarily challenging. Obviously people are working on solutions, but we have to be mindful of this in our rush to embracing digital engagement completely.   —R.S.


Public space meets proprietary space

In terms of technologies and processes that are shaping these conversations, obviously social media and social networks have been incredibly important. We almost take for granted now that cities have Facebook pages—that departments in cities have Facebook pages. But that’s an odd concept when you step back and you think about it. That, (a) a city should have social media, and (b) that cities need to attach themselves to a specific proprietary network.

But the fact that cities are socially engaged via these platforms, that they actually spend the resources and see the need to have Facebook pages that are updated, that they have Twitter accounts, that they have YouTube channels, that they may be increasingly looking at applications like Meerkat and Periscope to allow for live streaming—that they may be incredibly concerned that applications like Meerkat and Periscope may be used to inadvertently live stream a conversation that they heretofore thought was private—I think these technologies have rapidly transformed the way that cities feel they must now be engaged with the public.

These technologies absolutely have technological implications and they have institutional implications as well. You have to have a person who updates your Facebook accounts. That takes some time to do. You may have to find someone who automates posting not only on Facebook, but to LinkedIn, to Twitter—that automation may require a systems administrator or coder employed by the city. The fact that cities now employ social media people, these are job titles that we did not see before: open data architects, CTO [chief technology officer] positions in cities. These are processes that have changed in cities.
—R.S.


Progress is not always made to measure

I think that in the future cities will increasingly start to grapple with what succeeds and fails. I think we’re in a publishing mode right now. I think that cities are doing all they can to keep up. So, the city has to publish as much data as it can on an open data platform. They have to engage in as many social media platforms as they can. I think they will increasingly need to take hard looks at what succeeds and what fails.

It is by no means easy to evaluate these platforms in terms of success and failure. What is an effective Facebook profile? How do you measure that? Do you measure it with “likes”? OK, that’s one very technical way of measuring it, but what does a “like” tell you about meaningful engagement? It might not tell you a lot.

So it’s easy to take the low-hanging fruit of measurements to determine whether platforms are successful or not. That may not be the right way to go. Cities are increasingly looking at analytics and predictive analytics to gauge the success of these various platforms and their engagement. But once again, that tends to based on what can easily be quantified.  —R.S.


Humanizing the city

A lot of engagement between cities and citizens is much more longitudinal. It happens slowly over time. Cities and citizens build up trust. Distrust is easily gained, and very hard to get rid of.

I’ve been talking about cities as these homogeneous unions. But there are people in cities; there are citizens employed by cities, and often it is the ways that individuals in city governments reach out to individual citizens or groups of citizens, building up those linkages—using these technological platforms to heterogenize the city [that builds trust].

So, we begin to see the city and we see government as people engaging, just like you. They’re engaging with you, as opposed to being just The State (and you always must have this opinion about The State, or be in opposition to The State, or protest The State).

So [citizens can] use these technologies to sort of reach in, and stop looking at it as a monolith and more as a group of people who really are in city government because they wanted to work with citizens; they wanted to work on issues that were important and very close to the people who live in their cities.  —R.S.

 Join us for our #Geothink Twitter chat on civic participation on the geoweb: Monday, November 23 at 1 p.m. Eastern Time.