Category Archives: Academic Output

Augmented Reality in Real Life: Evaluating the Potential of New Digital Tools for Use in Municipal Planning Practice

By: Laura Brown, Natalia Dmuchowska, Brodie Johnson, Teresa Liu, Corinna Prior, Matthew Zentner

Pokémon Go was a phenomenon that swept the world this past summer. Cities around the globe experienced an influx of citizens into their public spaces as everyone tried to ‘catch-em-all.’ Crazed Pokémon trainers wandered the city swiping their phones and battling to win gyms, ultimately searching for the coveted Pikachu. The significance of these movements within the urban environment has been covered here.

The game is based on augmented reality (AR) technology that overlays a game world on top of a live map of the city, creating new ways for players to interact with the spaces around them. While other applications like Google Maps and Foursquare use similar technology, it was Pokémon GO that became the first game to achieve widespread success.

Over the last three months, a group of graduate researchers from the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Ryerson University also caught the PokéFever and sought to explore more serious aspects of the game. Working with clients from the City of Toronto Manager’s Office and Public Consultation Unit, their research investigates the challenges that municipalities face in working with new and emerging technologies and how urban planners might be able to use similar technology to consult and engage with the public. The potential of AR technology such as Pokémon GO to alter the behaviour of people in real space presents both opportunities to attract people to certain locations and animate space, as well as concerns regarding public safety and security, and inequities arising from disparities in access.

Pokémon GO Findings
Conducting an exploratory analysis into the relationship between game data and demographic data, the team first investigated the distribution of PokéStops and PokéGyms throughout Toronto. In the game, PokéStops are locations where players receive items necessary for gameplay, and players may join one of three teams and “battle” for possession of PokéGyms. For their research, however, the team was interested in these landmarks as fixed locations that draw players to visit them in the real world. In addition, the locations of these markers were selected based on the Google database as well as player suggestions from a previous AR game by the same developer called Ingress. According to the developer, the markers that were frequented most by Ingress players became Gyms in Pokémon GO, and the others became PokéStops.

While 90% of people within the city lived within a five-minute walk of game elements, access varies significantly in terms of density, disproportionately making the game play experience much richer in the downtown core. Whereas overcrowding in open spaces and parks became the focus of media attention, there was actually a much higher concentration of game elements along major corridors like Queen Street. Narrowing our boundaries to just the downtown core, however, did reveal higher concentrations of gyms and stops in open spaces. These results were surprising and suggest the different forms that the public realm takes across the city.

Figure 1. Indicators of concentrated play spaces in the City of Toronto, as represented by the fixed landmarks in Pokémon GO (PokéStops and Gyms)

Public Realm
As we moved through our analysis, something meaningful emerged. We started to think about Stops and Gyms as indicators of concentrated play spaces. The map below depicts what happens when you remove the road lines – clusters of dots begin to reflect desire paths into areas of the public realm that were appropriated for game play. Rather than simply revealing the distribution of the game throughout the urban fabric, the placement of the Stops and Gyms hint at the fine-grained spaces that interconnect more formal “Open Spaces” across the city. This may contribute to a more nuanced view of the public realm, in addition to the more obvious areas defined by parks and open spaces.

Figure 2. PokéStops and Gyms in the City of Toronto, without road lines

Because many of the Stop and Gym locations were user generated and determined on the basis of usage (based on Niantic’s previous AR game Ingress), they may serve as indicators of where players might want to linger and occupy the public realm, as well as landmarks that hold cultural significance. While we recognize that this data only reflects a segment of the public, we think it might be possible for city planners to use this data in their analyses of streetscapes and cultural heritage, to better visualize existing public assets. Further it provides insight into how citizens use spaces in the city.

Augmented Reality and Planning
Current public consultation and engagement practices with citizens and stakeholders are predicated on in-person interaction, although they are increasingly occurring through online and other platforms. AR technology can draw people to new spaces and change the way they move around the city. Harnessing AR could bring new opportunities for reaching different demographics in the places where they live, work, and play.

We looked at the potential of using augmented reality technology to enhance development proposal signs through geo-location and visualization. Imagine walking down a street and receiving a notification on your smartphone for a nearby development proposal. By clicking it on it, the user is guided to the location where they are shown a visualization of the project conveniently through their phone. This would provide more meaningful information about the size and scale of the project, allowing people to see the full extent of the proposal in human scale and in context, while reviewing specific details right then and there.

Figure 3. Application of AR technology for visualization of a development project. Source: Augment

Finally, augmented reality can be used as a platform for public education and collaboration between community groups to enhance heritage planning and the public realm. This could potentially transform the whole city into a new type of living museum without borders, inspiring people to feel greater ownership over the city and its heritage.

Evaluating Technology for Planning
It is also necessary to understand how emerging technologies are created, implemented, and used. We have created an evaluative framework that explores the different areas planners must be aware of when evaluating new technology, an overview of which is shown in the figure below. These include the technical aspects and requirements (such as the platform of the technology), opportunities for greater engagement (ways to break down barriers like language and visual or auditory impairment), and potential inequalities and liabilities (such as data security concerns and differing abilities to access technology). Most importantly, this assessment allows planners to determine the usefulness of a technology in their daily planning practice.

Figure 4. Evaluative framework for planners for examining new technologies

The continually changing world of technology creates new opportunities that have the potential to enhance the way people interact with their city and the processes that govern it. We feel that planners are well placed to harness these emerging technologies to augment their cities in real life.

Although the Pokémon craze has since died down, it provided us with a unique opportunity to discover the potential of emerging technologies. We look forward to seeing what the future has in store for cities and for urban planners.

The full evaluative framework and results from the Pokémon GO analysis will be posted to the Geothink website shortly.

For more information please feel free to contact us at teampokeplan@gmail.com. Team PokéPlan is comprised of Laura Brown, Natalia Dmuchowska, Brodie Johnson, Teresa Liu, Corinna Prior and Matthew Zentner.

Thank you to our supervisor and Geothink co-applicant Dr. Pamela Robinson (Ryerson University, School of Urban and Regional Planning) and our clients at the City of Toronto!

On the Hunt for Social Justice and Empowerment

By Logan Cochrane, Mark Gill, Jon Corbett

The participatory geoweb has the potential to transform relations of power – who contributes and names places, what is excluded and labeled. This transformation can occur through newfound opportunities for engagement and giving voice to spatially relevant issues. In the 1990s, GIScience recognized this potential and made explicit the importance that social issues would, and should take within the discipline and practice. Geothink did likewise, making social justice one of its key themes. While Web 2.0 and the geoweb has promised greater forms of equality, particularly through supporting user generated content, we know that maps remain value-laden, and are embedded with particular power relations that are not necessarily equally distributed. Social justice is a term that describes the equitable distribution of resources, opportunities, and privileges within society. Amidst the Web 2.0 enthusiasm, we were interested in how issues of social justice are being addressed within the context of the geoweb in academic literature. You might be surprised what we found.

We first set out to take stock of the current state of GIScience literature (Cochrane et al, 2016). Using the ten most highly ranked academic journals by GIScientists. We assessed ten years of literature. We narrowed the more than 14,000 articles published from 2005 to 2014 to those having some relationship to the geoweb and/or crowdsourcing, using broad and inclusive terms. Of the resulting sub-set, we searched for social justice, and terms related to it, for example empowerment. We found that only three articles engaged explicitly with social justice . Even more surprising, terms related to social justice (empowerment, marginalization, social change, environmental justice, spatial justice, etc), were limited to the marginal periphery of these top tier journals. In other words, these ideas tended not to be the main content of the research. We argue that GIScience runs the risk of missing important insights , as mapmakers around the world are engaged in practice, but ignored in top tier GIScience journals.

Finding that social justice was more likely to be a footnote than a substantial focus of the research endeavour or engagement, we then wondered about empowerment. We had searched for it in the original article, but wanted to expand the search (adding ten more years of journals, 1996-2014, and using an open search rather than specific journals) and go into more detail (Corbett, Cochrane and Gill, 2016). Empowerment is of particular interest for GIScience because so many assume the use of the participatory geoweb results in empowerment. While the usage of the term has increased with time, the concept was consistently ill-defined and insufficiently measured. Amazingly, almost one quarter (24%) of the articles that mentioned “empowerment” were not included in the main text, but in places such as the works cited list or an endnote. Even of those that did engage with the concept in a substantial way, only a minority defined the term, fewer still explained how they measured it, and only five listed the specific metrics. We argue that researchers should make a greater effort to adequately define what they mean by “empowerment” and provide a way to actually assess how projects are providing that particular empowerment.

These two papers act as key reference points for those interested in the participatory geoweb. While our papers do not negate the potential for positive impacts, they highlight the fact that research commonly does not engage with social justice, and when terms like empowerment are used, they are often not defined or cannot justify claims of positive impact. As Web 2.0 technologies encourage people to take part in creating knowledge, through maps or otherwise, we need researchers to study how participatory and crowdsourcing approaches to map making intersect with issues of social justice. Based on these findings, we hope to draw attention to this important aspect of GIScience which has long been identified as a crucial area of research.

Dr. Corbett's research team are tackling issues of empowerment via the geoweb and have developed tools such as GeoLive

Dr. Corbett’s research team are tackling issues of empowerment via the geoweb and have developed tools such as GeoLive

For more information, see the two papers this post was based on:
Cochrane, L., Corbett, J., Evans, M. and Gill, M. 2016. Searching for Social Justice in GIScience Publications. Cartography and Geographic Information Science http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15230406.2016.1212673

Corbett, J., Cochrane, L. and Gill, M. 2016. Powering Up: Revisiting Participatory GIS and Empowerment. The Cartographic Journal http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00087041.2016.1209624

Paper Spotlight: Fostering Citizen Trust in Municipal Government

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A new IMFG Perspectives paper posit five steps to foster citizen trust in Canadian municipalities.

By Drew Bush

In a new article, Geothink Co-Applicant Pamela Robinson and her co-author, Dina Graser, posit five steps to foster citizen trust in Canadian municipalities as they attempt to raise funds to cope with almost $400 billion of infrastructure deficit nationwide.

Pamela Robinson is an associate professor at Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning.

Pamela Robinson is an associate professor at Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning.

Published by the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance (IMFG) at University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, A Recipe for Fiscal Trust (No. 13) reviews literature on public trust in government. In September, the authors will host a seminar to elaborate on their work. (Check back here for details when they become available.)

“There’s no shortcuts,” Robinson, an associate professor at Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, said of the paper. “We have to stop thinking about civic engagement and relationship building between local government and members of the general public as discreet events and things that you tick-off, ‘Like, ok, I’ve done that.’ There are—the ways in which relationships are built and maintained and nurtured and cultivated is the active work of government.”

She sees this research as building upon previous Geothink research examining the ways in which civic hackathons reshape citizen-government interactions along with open data. Instead of interrogating how open data makes municipalities more accountable or transparent (or may fail to), this paper examines how it shapes levels of public trust in government. Robinson adds that data itself is not a panacea.

“Data is an input into our process but the data itself won’t give you trust or transparency,” she said. “You have to use the data embedded in broader processes of civic engagement. And so the portal is just the beginning—it’s not the end.”

Robinson warns that the longer municipalities wait to build trust and raise funds, the greater the challenge will be in terms of the huge backlog of municipal infrastructure work that needs to be completed. Particular challenges include governments strapped for resources and money, news cycles with shorter attention spans, and citizen fatigue with governmental processes. Yet, new transit lines or bridges require sustained community engagement.

“Not only is the process of maintaining good citizen-local government relationships really important and hard work,” Robinson said. “It’s going to require more and more attention. And it can’t be just that thing that those people over there do. It needs to be internalized.”

Find the executive summary and citation for the article below:

Citation
Graser, D. & Pamela, R. (2016) A Recipe for Fiscal Trust. IMFG Perspectives, No. 13, p. 1-20.

Executive Summary
Cities across Canada face an enormous infrastructure deficit. From 100-year-old water mains to transit systems in vital need of upgrading and expansion, Canadian infrastructure is widely recognized to be in dire straits. And while the majority of Canadians elected a new government that was prepared to run a deficit to fund infrastructure, these funds alone will not cover the investments needed.

Local governments need to make significant financial investments, too, and must raise revenues through taxes, user fees, and possibly new revenue tools. But before they can take these actions, they have to build trust to convince heir residents that new revenues are needed and will be spent wisely.

What does it mean to build trust? This paper examines the notion of trust and how governments can build it using:

  • Good information: relevant data made accessible to citizens and attractively packaged to enhance transparency;
  • Good communications: good stories that are well told, with relevant information distributed through a variety of channels (using open government tools and techniques);
  • Good engagement: inclusive and meaningful opportunities for dialogue about policy decisions to build the continuum of trust (using a variety of mechanisms);
  • Credibility: building an effective track record and controlling costs (through better performance benchmarking and other approaches);
  • Earmarking of funds: creating a dedicated fund that clearly links revenues raised to specific expenditures, and regularly reporting on the progress of projects funded.

This research shows that there are concrete and practical steps that cities can take to build fiscal trust – but there are no shortcuts. Trust-building is a long-term proposition that takes resources. Cities must invest the time and dedicate the resources to build trust through all of the steps outlined, and continue to do so as part of their regular activities.

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.

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.

Getting a Better Handle on Geosocial Data with Geothink Co-Applicant Robert Feick

 Images and text from sites like Flickr (the source of this image) provide geosocial data which University of Waterloo Associate Professor Robert Feick and his graduate students work to make more useful to planners and citizens.

Images and text from sites like Flickr (the source of this image) provide geosocial data that University of Waterloo Associate Professor Robert Feick and his graduate students work to make more useful to planners and citizens.

By Drew Bush

A prevailing view of volunteered geographic information (VGI) is that large datasets exist equally across North American cities and spaces within them. Such data should therefore be readily available for planners wishing to use it to aid in decision-making. In a paper published last August in Cartography and Geographic Information Science, Geothink Co-Applicant Rob Feick put this idea to the test.

He and co-author Colin Robertson tracked Flickr data across 481 urban areas in the United States to determine what characteristics of a given city space correspond to the most plentiful data sets. This research allowed Feick, an associate professor in the University of Waterloo’s School of Planning, to determine how representative this type of user generated data are across and within cities.

The paper (entitled Bumps and bruises in the digital skins of cities: Unevenly distributed user-generated content across U.S. urban areas) reports that coverage varies greatly between downtown cores and suburban spaces, as may be expected, but also that such patterns differ markedly between cities that appear similar in terms of size, function and other characteristics.

“Often it’s portrayed as if these large data resources are available everywhere for everyone and there aren’t any constraints,” he told Geothink.ca recently about this on-going research. Since these data sets are often repurposed to learn more about how people perceive places, this misconception can have clear implications for those working with such data sets, he added.

“Leaving aside all the other challenges with user generated data, can we take an approach that’s been piloted let’s say in Montreal and assume that’s it going to work as well in Hamilton, or Calgary, or Edmonton and so on?” he said. Due to variations in VGI coverage, tools developed in one local context may not produce the same results elsewhere in the same city or in other cities.

The actual types of data used in research like Feick’s can vary. Growing amounts of data from social media sites such as Flickr, Facebook, and Twitter, and transit or mobility applications developed by municipalities include geographic references. Feick and his graduate students work to transform such large datasets—which often include many irrelevant (and unruly) user comments or posts—into something that can be useful to citizens and city officials for planning and public engagement.

“My work tends to center on two themes within the overall Geothink project,” Feick said. “I have a longstanding interest in public engagement and participation from a GIS perspective—looking at how spatial data and tools condition and, hopefully, improve public dialogue. And the other broad area that I’m interested in is methods that help us to transform these new types of spatial data into information that is useful for governments and citizens.”

“That’s a pretty broad statement,” he added. “But in a community and local context, I’m interested in both understanding better the characteristics of these data sources, particularly data quality, as well as the methods we can develop to extract new types of information from large scale VGI resources.”

Applying this Research Approach to Canadian Municipalities

Much of Feick’s Geothink related research at University of Waterloo naturally involves work in the Canadian context of Kitchener, Waterloo, and the province of Ontario. He’s particularly proud of the work being done by his graduate students, Ashley Zhang and Maju Sadagopan. Both are undertaking projects that are illustrative of Feick’s above-mentioned two areas of research focus.

Many municipalities offer Web map interfaces that allow the public to place comments in areas of interest to them. Sadagopan’s work centres on providing a semi-automated approach for classifying these comments. In many cases, municipal staff have to read each comment and manually view where the comment was placed in order to interpret a citizen’s concerns.

Sadagopan is developing spatial database tools and rule-based logic that use keywords in comments as well as information about features (e.g. buildings, roads, etc.) near their locations to filter and classify hundreds of comments and identify issues and areas of common concern. This work is being piloted with the City of Kitchener using data from a recent planning study of the Iron Horse Trail that that runs throughout Kitchener and Waterloo.

Zhang’s work revolves around two projects that relate to light rail construction that is underway in the region of Waterloo. First, she is using topic modeling approaches to monitor less structured social media and filter data that may have relevance to local governments.

“She’s doing work that’s really focused on mining place-based and participation related information from geosocial media as well as other types of popular media, such as online newspapers and blogs, etc.,” Feick said. “She has developed tools that help to start to identify locales of concern and topics that over space and time vary in terms of their resonance with a community.”

“She’s moving towards the idea of changing public feedback and engagement from something that’s solely episodic and project related to something that could include also this idea of more continuous forms of monitoring,” he added.

To explore the data quality issues associated with VGI use in local governments, they are also working on a new project with Kitchener that will provide pedestrian routing services based on different types of mobility. The light rail project mentioned above has disrupted roadways and sidewalks with construction in the core area and will do so until the project is completed in 2017. Citizen feedback on the impacts of different barriers and temporary walking routes for people with different modes of mobility (e.g. use of wheelchairs, walkers, etc.) will be used to study how to gauge VGI quality and develop best practices for integrating public VGI into government data processes.

The work of Feick and his students provides important insight for the Geothink partnership on how VGI can be used to improve communication between cities and their citizens. Each of the above projects has improved service for citizens in Kitchener and Waterloo or enhanced the way in which these cities make and communicate decisions. Feick’s past projects and future research directions are similarly oriented toward practical, local applications.

Past Projects and Future Directions

Past projects Feick has completed with students include creation of a solar mapping tool for Toronto that showed homeowners how much money they might make from the provincial feed-in-tariff that pays for rooftop solar energy they provide to the grid. It used a model of solar radiation to determine the payoff from positioning panels on different parts of a homeowner’s roof.

Future research Feick has planned includes work on how to more effectively harness different sources of geosocial media given large data sizes and extraneous comments, further research into disparities in such data between and within cities, and a project with Geothink Co-Applicant Stéphane Roche to present spatial data quality and appropriate uses of open data in easy-to-understand visual formats.

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.

Abstract of Paper mentioned in the above article:

Bumps and bruises in the digital skins of cities: Unevenly distributed user-generated content across U.S. urban areas
Abstract
As momentum and interest builds to leverage new user-generated forms of digital expression with geographical content, classical issues of data quality remain significant research challenges. In this paper we highlight the uneven textures of one form of user-generated data: geotagged photographs in U.S. urban centers as a case study into representativeness. We use generalized linear modeling to associate photograph distribution with underlying socioeconomic descriptors at the city-scale, and examine intra-city variation in relation to income inequality. We conclude with a detailed analysis of Dallas, Seattle, and New Orleans. Our findings add to the growing volume of evidence outlining uneven representativeness in user-generated data, and our approach contributes to the stock of methods available to investigate geographic variations in representativeness. We show that in addition to city-scale variables relating to distribution of user-generated content, variability remains at localized scales that demand an individual and contextual understanding of their form and nature. The findings demonstrate that careful analysis of representativeness at both macro and micro scales simultaneously can provide important insights into the processes giving rise to user-generated datasets and potentially shed light into their embedded biases and suitability as inputs to analysis.

 

Geothink at the 2016 Annual Meeting of the American Association of Geographers

By Drew Bush

From March 29 to April 2, 2016, Geothink’s students, co-applicants, and collaborators presented their research and met with colleagues at the now concluded 2016 Association of American Geographers (AAG) Annual Meeting in San Francisco, CA. Over the week, Geothinkers gave 11 presentations, organized six sessions, chaired five sessions, and were panellists on four sessions. See who attended here.

“This year’s AAG provided a great opportunity to get geographically diverse Geothinkers together,” Victoria Fast, a recently graduated doctoral student in Ryerson University’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, wrote in an e-mail to Geothink.ca. “I can’t think of a better place for a meeting about a special journal issue on open data; there are so many fresh, uncensored ideas flying around the conference, both inside and outside of sessions.”

Of particular note for Fast was Panel Session 1475 Gender & GIScience (see her Geothink.ca guest post here). Panelists in the session included Geothink Head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment; And, Geothink collaborator Sarah Elwood, a professor in University of Washington’s Department of Geography.

Others agreed.

“A panel on gender and GIScience was refreshing and enlightening,” Geothink Co-Applicant Scott Bell, a professor of Geography and Planning at University of Saskatchewan, wrote to Geothink.ca.

“My presentation was in a day long symposium on human dynamism,” he added. “It summarized a recently published Geothink aligned paper on human mobility tracking and active transportation (published in the International Journal of Geographical Information Science). It seemed to go over pretty well, I’m glad I was in the day-long event as the room was packed most of the day.”

For others, the high cost of the location meant they couldn’t stay for a full week or attend every single session. Still they reported good turnout by members of the Geothink team.

“This year we did not organize a specific panel or panels, or specific sessions to showcase Geothink work,” wrote Geothink Co-Applicant Teresa Scassa, Canada Research Chair in Information Law and professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa. “This meant that our presentations were dispersed across a variety of different sessions, on different days of the week.”

Many Geothinkers were also intimately involved in running parts of the conference.

“This was a standout AAG for me,” wrote Geothink researcher Alexander Aylett, a professor and researcher at the Institut national de la recherche scientifique, who ran three sessions (Find an overview of what Aylette’s sessions did at www.smartgreencities.org). In collaboration with Andrés Lluque-Ayla from Durham University we ran a full day of sessions on the overlap between “Smart” and “Sustainable” cities.   We had some excellent presentations—including one from fellow Geothinker Pamela Robinson—and a strong turn out throughout the whole day. (Even at 8 AM, which was a shock to me!).”

For some students, it was the first time they had attended the meeting or presented their own research.

“This was my first time at the AAG,” said Geothink Newsletter Editor, Suthee Sangiambut, a maser’s student in McGill University’s Department of Geography with Sieber. “I was quite excited to be at the event and was able to meet all kinds of geographers, all of whom had different ideas on what geography exactly is.”

“It was great to see how global events of the past years were shaping our discussions on the Geoweb, privacy, surveillance, national identity, immigration, and more,” he added. “Those at the Disrupt Geo session were able to hear perspectives from private sector and civil society sides, which was quite refreshing and is something I would like to see more of in the future.”

The AAG annual meeting has been held every year since the association’s founding in 1904. This year’s conference included more than 9,000 attendees.

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. We also want to thank Victoria Fast for her willingness to share photos from the 2016 AAG Annual Meeting.

Please find an abstract for the presentation mentioned in this article below.

Leveraging Sensor Networks to Study Human Spatial Behavior

Abstract:
In the past decade society has entered a technological period characterized by mobile and smart computing that supports input and processing from users, services, and numerous sensors. The smartphones that most of us carry in our pockets offer the ability to integrate input from sensors monitoring various external and internal sources (e.g., accelerometer, magnetometer, microphone, GPS, wireless internet, Bluetooth). These relatively raw inputs are processed on the phones to provide us with a seemingly unlimited number of applications. Furthermore, these raw inputs can be integrated and processed in ways that can offer novel representations of human behavior, both dissagregate and aggregate. As a result, new opportunities to examine and better understand human spatial behaviour are available. An application we report here involved monitoring of a group of people over an extended period of time. Monitoring is timed at relatively tightly spaced intervals (every 2 minutes). Such a research setting lends itself to both planned and natural experiments; the later of which emerge as a result of the regular and on going nature of data collection. We will report on both a natural experiment  and planned observations resulting from 3 separate implementations of our smartphone based observations. The natural experiment that emerged in the context of our most recent month-long monitoring study of 28 participants using mobile phone-based ubiquitous sensor monitoring will be our focus, but will be contextualized with related patterns from earlier studies. The implications for public health and transportation planning are discussed.

Inside Geothink’s Open Data Standards Project: Standards For Improving City Governance

By Rachel Bloom

Rachel Bloom is a McGill University undergraduate student and project lead for Geothink’s Open Data Standards Project.

In February, I led a Geothink seminar with city officials to introduce the results of our open data standards project we began approximately one year earlier. The project was started with the objective of assisting municipal publishers of open data in standardizing their datasets. We presented two spreadsheets: the first was dedicated to evaluating ‘high-value’ open datasets published by Canadian municipalities and the second consisted of an inventory of open data standards applicable to these types of datasets.

Both spreadsheets enable our partners who publish open data to know what standards exist and who uses them for which datasets. The project I lead is motivated by the idea that well-developed data standards for city governance can grant us the luxury of not having to think about the compatibility of technological components. When we screw in a new light bulb or open a web document we assume that it will work with the components we have (Guidoin and McKinney 2012). Technology, whether it refers to information systems or manufactured goods, relies on standards to ensure its usability and dissemination.

Municipal governments that publish open data look to the importance of standards for improving the usability of their data. Unfortunately, even though ‘high-value’ datasets have increasingly become available to the public, these datasets currently lack a consensus about how they should be structured and specified. Such datasets include crime statistics and annual budget data that can provide new services to citizens when municipalities open such datasets by publishing them to their open data catalogues online. Anyone can access such datasets and use the data however they wish without restriction.

Civic data standards provide agreements about semantic and schematic guidelines for structuring and encoding the data. Data standards specify technical data elements such as file formats, data schemas, and unique identifiers to make civic data interoperable. For example, most datasets are published in CSV or XML formats. CSV structures the data in columns and rows, while XML encapsulates the data in a hierarchical tree of <tags>.

They also specify common vocabularies in order to clarify interpretation of the data’s meanings. Such vocabularies could include, for example, definitions for categories of expenditure in annual budget data. Geothink’s Open Data Standards Project offers publishers of open data an opportunity to improve the usability and efficiency of their data for consumers. This makes it easier to share data across municipalities because the technological components and their meanings within systems will be compatible.

Introducing Geothink’s Open Data Standards Project
No single, clear definition of an open data standard exists. In fact, most definitions of an ‘open data standard’ follow two prevailing ideas: 1) Standards for open data; 2) And, open standards for data. Geothink’s project examines and relates together both of these prevailing ideas (Table 1). The first spreadsheet, the ‘Adoption of Open Data Standards By Cities’, considers open data and its associated data standards. The second spreadsheet, the ‘Inventory of Open Data Standards,’ considers the process of open standardization. In other words, we were curious about what standards are currently being applied to open municipal data, and how to break down and document open standards for data in a way that is useful to municipalities looking to standardize their open data.

Table 1: Differences between ‘open data’ standards and open ‘data standards’

Requires open data Requires open standard process
Evaluation of ‘High-Value’ Datasets Yes No
Inventory of Open Data Standards No Yes

The project’s evaluation of datasets relates to standards for open data. Standards for open data refer to standards that, regardless of how they are developed and maintained, can be applied to open data. Open data, according to the Open Knowledge Foundation (2014), consists of raw digital data that should be freely available to anyone to use, repurposable and re-publishable as users wish, and absent mechanisms of control like restrictive licenses. However, the process of developing and maintaining standards for open data may not require transparency nor include public appeals for its development.

To discover what civic data standards are currently being used, the first spreadsheet, Adoption of Open Data Standards By Cities, evaluates ‘high value’ datasets specific to 10 domains (categories of datasets such as crime, transportation or or service requests) in the open data catalogues for the cities of Vancouver, Toronto, Surrey, Edmonton and Ottawa. The types of data were chosen based on the Open Knowledge Foundation’s choice of datasets considered to provide greatest utility for the public. The project’s spreadsheet notes salient structuring and vocabulary of each dataset; such as the name, file format, schema, and available metadata. It especially notes which data standards these five municipalities are using for their open data (if any at all).

With consultation from municipal bodies and organizations dedicated to publishing open data, we developed a second spreadsheet, Inventory and Evaluation of Open Data Standards,  that catalogues and evaluates 22 open data standards that are available for domain-specific data. The rows of this spreadsheet indicate individual data standards. The columns of this spreadsheet evaluate background information and quality for achieving optimal interoperability for each of the listed standards. Evaluating the quality of the standard’s performance, such as whether the standard is transferable to multiple jurisdictions, is an important consideration for municipalities looking to optimally standardize their data. Examples of open data standards in this inventory are BLDS for building permit data and the Budget Data Package for annual budget data.

The project’s second spreadsheet is concerned with open standards for data. Open standards, as opposed to closed standards, requires a collaborative, transparent, and consensus-driven process to maintain its development (Palfrey and Gasser, 2012). Therefore, open standards honor a commitment to processes of transparency, due process, and rights of appeal. Similarly to open data, open standards resist processes of unchecked, centralized control (Russell, 2014) . Open data standards make sure that end users do not get locked into a specific technology. In addition, because open standards are driven by consensus, they are developed according to the needs and interests of participatory stakeholders. While we provide spreadsheets on both, our project advocates implementing open standards for open data.

In light of the benefits of open standardization, the metrics of the second spreadsheet note the degree of openness for each standard. Such indicators of openness include multi-stakeholder participation and a consensus-driven process. Openness may be observed through the presence of online forums to discuss suggestions or concerns regarding the standard’s development and background information about each standard’s publishers. In addition, open standards use open licenses that dictate the standards may be used without restriction and repurposable for any use. Providing this information not only allows potential implementers to be aware of what domain-specific standards exist, but also allows them to gauge how well the standard performs in terms of optimal interoperability and openness.

Finally, an accompanying white paper explains the two spreadsheets and the primary objective of my project for both publishers and consumers of open data. In particular, it explains the methodology, justifies chosen evaluations, and notes the project’s results.  In addition, this paper will aid in navigating and understanding both of the project’s spreadsheets.

Findings from this Project
My work on this project has led me to conclude that the majority of municipally published open datasets surveyed do not use civic data standards. The most common standard used by municipalities in our survey was the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) for transit data and the Open311 API for service request data. Because datasets across cities and sectors vary formats and structure, differences in them coupled with a lack of cohesive definitions for labeling indicate standardization across cities will be a challenging undertaking. Publishers aiming to extend data shared among municipalities would benefit from collaborating and agreeing on standards for domain-specific data (as is the case with GTFS).

Our evaluation of 22 domain-specific data standards also shows standards do exist across a variety of domains. However, some domains, such as budget data, contain more open data standards than others. Therefore, potential implementers of standards must reconcile which domain-specific standard best fits their objectives in publishing the data and providing the most benefits for public good.

Many of standards also contain information for contacting the standard’s publishers along with online forums for concerns or suggestions. However, many still full information regarding their documentation or are simply in early draft stages. This means that although standards exist, some of these standards are in their early stages and may not be ready for implementation.

Future Research Pathways
This project has room for growth so that we can better our partners who publish and use open data decide how to go about adopting standards. To accomplish this goal, we could add more cities, domains, and open standards to the spreadsheets. In addition, any changes made to standards or datasets in the future must be updated.

In terms of the inventory of open data standards, it might be beneficial to separate metrics that evaluate openness of a standard from metrics that evaluate interoperability of a standard. Although we have emphasized the benefits of open standardization in this project, it is evident that some publishers of data do not perceive openness as crucial for the successfulness of a data standard in achieving optimal interoperability.

As a result, my project does not aim to dictate how governments implement data standards. Instead, we would like to work with municipalities to understand what is valued within the decision-making process to encourage adoption of specific standards. We hope this will allow us to provide guidance on such policy decisions. Most importantly, to complete such work, we ask Geothink’s municipal partners for input on factors that influence the adoption of a data standard in their own catalogues.

Contact Rachel Bloom at rachel.bloom@mail.mcgill.ca with comments on this article or to provide input on Geothink’s Open Data Standards Project.

References
Guidoin, Stéphane and James McKinney. 2012. Open Data, Standards and Socrata. Available at http://www.opennorth.ca/2012/11/22/open-data-standards.html. November 22, 2012.
Open Knowledge. Open Definition 2.0. Opendefinition.org. Retrieved 23 October 2015, from http://opendefinition.org/od/2.0/en/
Palfrey, John Gorham, and Urs Gasser. Interop: The promise and perils of highly interconnected systems. Basic Books, 2012.
Russell, Andrew L. Open Standards and the Digital Age. Cambridge University Press, 2014.