Category Archives: Events

Geothink Summer Institute On Smart Cities Convenes May 25, 2017

The 2017 Geothink Summer Institute on smart cities will convene May 25 to May 27 on McGill University’s downtown campus in Montreal, Quebec. (Image courtesy of http://jeannesauve.org)

By Drew Bush

As 22 Geothink students pack their bags and get ready for this year’s three-day 2017 Summer Institute “Smart Cities: Toward a Just City” their host city (and Geothink partner) will be preparing as well. This year’s Summer Institute will kick-off May 25 to May 27 in Montreal as celebrations for the municipalities 375th anniversary shift into high gear.

The timing couldn’t be more serendipitous: Strategic plans overseen by Montreal’s Smart and Digital City Office call for making the municipality a world renowned leader among smart cities by 2017. This year’s Summer Institute will bring together an interdisciplinary group of students and faculty—from law, geography, planning and more—to learn about issues facing smart cities and meet with key leaders in Montreal’s work toward becoming a leader in this field.

“It’s essential that students appreciate the ways in which smart technology can lead to fairer and just city-citizen interactions,” said Geothink Head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment. “Students in this Summer Institute will learn about accessibility in smart cities, the promotion of social justice in this new environment and the integration of technology into city processes.”

Each of the three days of the Summer Institute will combine workshops, panel discussions and hands-on learning modules that will culminate in a competition judged by city officials. The goal of the competition will be for student groups to develop novel uses for Montreal’s open data to improve accessibility in the city.

The first day of the Institute will introduce the idea of smart cities during a panel discussion with Sieber and Geothink Co-Applicants Jon Corbett, associate professor in University of British Columbia at Okanagan’s Department of Geography; Stéphane Roche, associate professor in University Laval’s Department of Geomatics; Pamela Robinson, associate professor in Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning; Rob Feick, associate professor in Waterloo University’s School of Planning; and Teresa Scassa, Canada Research Chair in University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law. Later that day, students will be introduced to the problem they are trying to solve and hear from Montreal City Council Chairman, M. Harout Chitilian.

On day two, students will learn about legal issues relating to smart cities from Scassa, ethical considerations from Roche and social justice issues from Corbett. Multiple sessions throughout the day will also be devoted to group work on projects.

Finally, on day three, two separate talks will be headlined by Jean-Noé Landry, executive director of Open North, and Xavier Peich, a co-founder of Smarthalo. After time to work on project presentations, the day will conclude with the competition.

“Students will be exposed to smart city issues from a variety of perspectives, including government, non-profits, local tech entrepreneurs, planners and, of course, academia,” Geothink Student Coordinator Suthee Sangiambutt said. “This is going to be a fun event. Student attendees are from all sorts of disciplines and there will be a great opportunity to learn new skills and perspectives around smart city problems.”

The summer institute is hosted by Geothink, a five-year partnership grant awarded by the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) in 2012. The partnership includes researchers in different institutions across Canada, as well as partners in Canadian municipal governments, non-profits and the private sector. The expertise of the group is wide-ranging and includes aspects of social sciences as well as humanities such as geography, GIS/geospatial analysis, urban planning, communications, and law.

“We’re really fortunate to have such an interdisciplinary group of students who can unpack the term ‘smart’ from multiple angles to better understand both the challenges and opportunities that cities face today,” Geothink Project Manager Sonja Solomun said.

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

Geothink at the Spatial Knowledge and Information Canada conference

By Suthee Sangiambut

This past February, we had the pleasure of viewing new research from Geothink academics and students at the Spatial Knowledge and Information (SKI) Canada conference in Banff, Alberta. This two-day conference is special as it addresses a variety of issues ranging from Geographic Information Systems (GIS) techniques and tool-building to applied spatial statistics, particularly in the context of Canadian social issues.

Geothink Head, Dr. Renee Sieber, delivered the keynote address. She spoke on the “10 Things You Should Know About Engagement, Volunteerism, and Participation in Geospatial Technologies” and gave insights on how social theory and geospatial technologies coexist. She cautioned against treating technology as a black box and taking technical tools for granted, particularly if we do not completely understand them. Application of technology does not necessarily result in more or better participation. This is one of the potential issues of the drive towards data-driven decision making, particularly if we dispense with processes of democratic participation.

This year, Geothink co-applicant Dr. Scott Bell (University of Saskatchewan) presented findings on Local patterns of national household survey non-response in Canadian cities. He highlighted methodological issues with government collection of census data, such as the Global Non-response Rate (GNR) variable. Some cities which are very small but with a high GNR can be excluded from the final results due to issues of spatial autocorrelation and edge effects. City growth is also problematic for normalising census data to make comparisons, particularly when different divisions grow at different rates. Dr. Bell’s research team developed a variety of models to predict non-response and found correlations of non-response rates with other social variables such as whether the respondent was a renter or aboriginal in origin.

Geothink student Lauren Arnold (University of British Columbia Okanagan) spoke of The Potential Role of Open Data for Public Engagement in Environmental Assessment. Environmental assessments are highly dependent on spatial analysis and require datasets at very large spatial and temporal scales to calculate and predict cumulative effects of actions for the environment, society, and economy. Open data has the potential to address issues of public participation in environmental assessments and bring in more citizen involvement, improve transparency, and potentially even decision-making. Contextualising open data within Public Participation GIS (PPGIS), Arnold argued that open data can be another catalyst for integration of PPGIS into public consultation and decision-making processes.

Suthee Sangiambut (McGill University) presented an alternative view of his Master’s research findings. Looking at open data flow in civic apps, he noted that data undergoes transformations within government, at the developer, and in between. Data transformations are often done outside of government by data re-users, but the choices government makes in how it collects or distributes data will affect data reuse down the line. He also demonstrated that open data consumed through apps are not an exact one-to-one representation of data used in government and users should be aware that open data still represents a curation of sorts.

Shelley Cook (University of British Columbia Okanagan) won joint first prize for student presentations. She presented on The Temporal and Spatial Aspects of Homeless Social Capital and gave an in-depth look at how homeless is controlled by legislative and spatial tools, such as ‘red zones’, in Kelowna, BC. She found that the size of a homeless person’s geographic footprint (their coverage of the city) is related to their social capital; smaller activity spaces allow for less social capital. Homeless geographic footprint is also inversely related to dependency on services. However, once the homeless are provided housing, their geographic footprint shrinks.

Finally, Brennan Field (University of Saskatchewan) presented on Policy Mobility of Police Interactions Open-Data. Such policies cover data collected on police interactions with the public such as vehicle stops and fines. His research will look at how these data policies are spread across jurisdictions and departments, and how they are translated to the operational level.

This 5-9 April 2017, Geothinkers will be at the American Association of Geographers (AAG) annual meeting in Boston. For a list of presentations and panels to attend, see the programme guide here. We will be tweeting for the duration of the conference on Twitter (@geothinkca).

Geothink Programme Guide for the American Association of Geographers (AAG) 2017 Annual Meeting

By Suthee Sangiambut

The Annual Meeting of the American Association of Geographers will be in Boston, MA from 5 April to 9 April 2017

The Annual Meeting of the American Association of Geographers will be in Boston, MA from 5 April to 9 April 2017

Geothink once again has a strong presence at the American Association of Geographers (AAG) Annual Meeting, this time to be held in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. Make sure not to miss two very special sessions: The Dark Side of Open Data Part One and Part Two, organized by our very own Geothink co-applicants.
See below for a compiled list of Geothink co-applicant and student presentations, discussions, and panel appearances. You can also search the programme here.

Remember to tweet at us (@geothinkca) and use #geothink and #AAG2017 conference tags.

Wednesday 5 April 08:00 – 09:40
1117 Information geographies: Social dimensions of Web 2.0 cartographies
Location: Room 206, Hynes, Second Level

08:00 Laura Garcia is presenting Are individuals responsible for their own privacy in the geoweb

Wednesday 5 April 08:00 – 09:40
1123 Emerging Field Methods for Environmental Perceptions and Behavior
Location: Room 303, Hynes, Third Level

08:00 Edward Millar is chairing the session and presenting on The Cottage Effect: Investigating Spatial Bias in Citizen Science Using a Comparative Analysis

Wednesday 5 April 12:40 – 14:20
1457 The Dark Side of Open Data – Part One
Location: Gardner A, Sheraton, Third Floor

Pamela Robinson, Peter Johnson, and Teresa Scassa are organizers. Peter Johnson is chairing the session.
12:40 Suthee Sangiambut and Laura Garcia are Interrogating the open in open data from interdisciplinary perspectives
13:00 Renee Sieber is unveiling Façades of Openness in Government
13:20 Elizabeth Judge and Tenille Brown are presenting “Tort, Open Data, and the Geoweb: A Framework for Assessing Negligence”
13:40 March Burchfield is detailing When a mandate for transparency and open data culture is not quite ready for prime time
14:00 Jon Corbett and Shelley Cook explain How open is your redlining policy? Exploring geospatial data sharing tools to improve homeless service provision in British Columbia, Canada.


Wednesday 5 April 14:40 – 16:20
1557 The Dark Side of Open Data – Part Two
Location: Gardner A, Sheraton, Third Floor

Pamela Robinson, Peter Johnson, and Teresa Scassa are organizers. Renee Sieber is chairing the session.
15:00 Peter Johnson presents on Municipal Open Data: A Slow Death?
15:20 Teresa Scassa presents Government use of georeferenced social media data and analytics: challenges for transparent and open government
15:40 Keira Webster and Pamela Robinson present Fostering the ‘Time is Now’ Mentality: the Role of Open Data in Urban Climate Resilience
16:00 Pamela Robinson presents Unlocking the Civic Potential of Open Data: Whose job is it?


Wednesday 5 April 16:40 – 18:20
1633 Spatial Decision Support Across Disciplines: Scholarship, Pedagogy and Practice
Location: Room 313, Hynes, Third Level

Rob Feick is a panellist

Thursday 6 April 15:20 – 17:00
2591 Urban-economic perspectives on technology
Location: Nantucket, Marriott, Fourth Floor

Renee Sieber is a discussant

Friday 7 April 13:20 – 15:00
3441 Big data and data privacy
Location: Liberty C, Sheraton, Second Floor

14:20 Rob Feick will speak on The spatial disconnect problem

Saturday 8 April 13:20 – 15:00
4469 Symposium on Human Dynamics in Smart and Connected Communities: Whither ‘human dynamics’ within geography?
Location: Regis, Marriott, Third Floor

Renee Sieber is a discussant

Saturday 8 April 15:20 – 17:00
4586 Trees in the City 3: Social and Ecological Influences in the Urban Forest
Location: Salon I, Marriott, Fourth Floor

16:20 James Steenberg is presenting Counter-intuitive Relationships Between Housing Renovation, Socioeconomic Status, and Urban Forest Ecosystems

Saturday 8 April 17:20 – 19:00
4638 Digital \\ Human \\ Labour 5: Panel
Location: Independence East, Sheraton, Second Floor

Renee Sieber is a discussant

Sunday 9 April 16:00 – 17:40
5583 Learning and Applying Tools in Geography: Interdisciplinary Applications of GIS
Location: Exeter, Marriott, Third Floor

Renee Sieber and Jon Corbett are panellists

If you have any feedback on this article, please get in touch – suthee.sangiambut@mail.mcgill.ca

Leveraging Open Data: International perspectives presented at URISA’s GIS-Pro 2016 conference

This is a cross-post from Geothink co-applicant Dr. Claus Rinner‘s website, written by Geothink student Sarah Greene, Ryerson University. Sarah is Candidate for the Master’s of Spatial Analysis at Ryerson University. Her research focusses on open data.

By Sarah Greene

This past week, URISA held its 54th annual GIS-Pro conference in Toronto, bringing together GIS professionals and businesses from around the world. The conference provided many interesting sessions including one focused entirely on open data. This session, titled “Leveraging Open Data”, included government as well as private sector perspectives.

The session began with a presentation from the Government of North Carolina, discussing the importance of metadata. They are currently collaborating with a number of agencies to create and share a metadata profile to help others open up their data and understand how to implement the standards suggested. They have produced a living document which can be accessed through their webpage.

The next speaker at the session represented Pitkin County in Colorado. They represent an open data success story with a number of great resources available for download on their website including high quality aerial imagery. An important aspect to their open data project was their engagement with their local community to understand what data should be opened, and then marketing those datasets which were released.

The Government of Ontario was also present as this session, presenting on the current status of open data for the province. The Ontario Government promotes an Open by Default approach and currently has over 500 datasets from 49 agencies available to download through their portal. They are working towards continuing to increase their open datasets available.

A presentation by MapYourProperty provided an interesting perspective from the private sector using open data to successfully run their business. They heavily depend on visualizing open data to provide a web-based mapping application for the planning and real estate community to search properties, map zoning information and create a due diligence report based on the information found. This is one example of many that exist in the private sector of open data helping build new companies, or help existing companies thrive.

Lastly, a representative from Esri Canada’s BC office wrapped up the session reminding us all of the importance of opening data. This included highlighting the seemingly endless benefits to open data, including providing information to help make decisions, supporting innovation, creating smart cities and building connections. Of course, open data is big business for Esri too, with the addition of ArcGIS Open Data as a hosted open data catalog to the ArcGIS Online platform.

This session showcased some great initiatives taking place in Canada and the United States that are proving the importance of opening up data and how this can be done successfully. It is exciting to see what has been taking place locally and internationally and it will be even more exciting to see what happens in the future, as both geospatial and a-spatial data products continue to become more openly available.

A talk at the GIS Pro 2016 conference. Photo credit: Claus Rinner

A talk at the GIS Pro 2016 conference. Photo credit: Claus Rinner

See the original post here

The State of the Map 2016

Recently graduated Geothink student Julia Conzon (McGill University) has recently returned from the State of the Map conference in Brussels, on a travel grant. Julia was able to meet individuals interested in different social, political, and technical components of OpenStreetMap, which solidified her beliefs that the success of volunteered geographic information relies on both social and technical fields. Julia’s interests in mapping include: increasing diversity to reduce the digital divide and harnessing government support.

SOTM group photo (photo by Tatiana Van Campenhout)

SOTM group photo (photo by Tatiana Van Campenhout)

By Julia Conzon

I recently attended the State of the Map (SOTM) in Brussels, Belgium. SOTM is a conference that discusses various social, political, and technical components of OpenStreetMap (OSM), a mapping website that aims to map all of Earth’s landscapes, such as social and physical infrastructures. You may wonder, doesn’t Google already do this? In short, yes, Google has done an efficient job producing Google Maps and its associated routing/navigation software; but it still has its limitations. First, Google Maps has several unmapped locations. As addressed by SOTM’s keynote speaker Allan Mustard, US Ambassador to Turkmenistan, if you compare the map of Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, between Google Maps and OSM, you will certainly see a difference (Figure 1). Secondly, Google’s spatial data is not open, which hampers equality and empowerment. Thanks to Ambassador Mustard’s initiative to use OSM, he and several Ashgabat locals have mapped out the remote city and now the citizens can use this open spatial data for various socio-economic purposes. For example, prior to the OSM maps, Ashgabat taxi drivers did not know where all the gas stations were located. Now, with a local map openly accessible to all citizens, Ambassador Mustard says taxi drivers are more efficient at navigation. In short, OSM provides an open-source platform that allows worldwide internet users to contribute geographic features of anywhere from anywhere, which then can be freely downloaded by anyone to use.

Figure 1. Differences in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan between OSM (left) and Google Maps (right) (screenshots from OSM and Google Maps)

Figure 1. Differences in Ashgabat between OSM (left) and Google Maps (right) (screenshots from OSM and Google Maps)

Government Support
As seen with Ambassador Mustard, there are some within government who do support crowdsourced mapping initiatives. With Federal funding, Statistics Canada has announced a pilot crowdsourcing project starting in October 2016 to use OSM’s platform to crowdsource building data. It was also exciting to see the government presence at the conference (such as a member of Statistics Canada) and government partnerships such as between Etalab (a French government organisation) and OSM France.

Through one of the Birds of a Feather (BoF) discussions I participated in, it is apparent that OSM’s platform is positively reshaping certain government’s perceptions on how to produce open data. However, a presentation from Usman Latif, a journalist from Pakistan and the founder of Open Humanitarians (formerly DigitalHumanitarians.pk), reminded the SOTM audience that not all governments are democratizing their data. In Pakistan, broad laws have made unauthorised mapping activities by locals illegal. Usman risks penalties if he encourages local mapping, but he explained that to follow the law, he encourages students and youth to map parts of the world outside Pakistan and “to be a part of a global humanitarian society.” Usman’s goal is to proliferate a vibrant community of humanitarian mappers in Pakistan who can eventually use their mapping skills to participate in the global humanitarian society, particularly in disaster response. With Pakistan prone to earthquakes and floods, Usman hopes these educated Pakistanis will contribute to domestic disaster responses once Pakistan opens up local mapping. With this mindset, Usman now educates university students in Pakistan on using OSM. Although not all governments are supportive of open spatial data, Usman’s goals illustrate how educating locals about OSM and encouraging them to contribute to global (digital) humanitarian society can promote local empowerment, something I believe is a worthwhile alternative.

Smart Cities
Apart from social and political components of OSM, many presentations also addressed technical components; more specifically, new automated tools for OSM users. Some of these tools can be used to promote smart cities. Christian Quest and Michel Blancard from Etalab presented OpenSolarMap (view Figure 2). This presentation discussed using machine learning to identify which rooftops throughout France are most suitable for solar panel instalment based on rooftop aspect direction (north, south, west, east, or flat). Although there are still some variables that are excluded (e.g., solar intensity or rooftop angle), the software does highlight a more efficient methodology.

etalab-visualisation

Figure 2. Etalab’s map visualization of rooftop directions (photo by Julia Conzon).

There were also three presentations proposing different methods to map indoor areas. Indoor data can be used for a series of smart city applications, such as geomarketing. For instance, a mobile app could link indoor routing with a store’s product information to direct a customer to the product they want in the store while also encouraging them to pass by other similar products. Although each presentation proposed slightly different methodologies to map out indoor areas, all three shared similar concerns on mapping certain features, such as whether a stairway takes you up or down a floor. There were also different stances on opening up the indoor data to the public. For example, French National Railway Company (SNCF) have mapped the interiors of all popular stations in Paris; but, instead of this data being openly accessible to the public, they combined their data with OSM data to create an app that provides maps of these stations’ interiors. Unfortunately, this app is not available for free, which disappointed myself and my neighbouring audience members. On the other hand, Roland Olbricht’s and Roland Wagner’s workshop taught the audience how to map building interiors with OpenStationMap, which is an OSM project that aims to incorporate indoor mapping onto OSM’s station polygons. As Google Maps has also introduced indoor mapping, Carto Cité’s presentation on indoor mapping reminded the audience, ‘We can’t leave it all to Google’ (Figure 3). If we leave indoor mapping to a few corporations, data accessibility may be restricted for commercial interests.

Figure 3. Indoor mapping efforts should not be undertaken by only a few actors

Figure 3. Indoor mapping efforts should not be undertaken by only a few actors (screenshot from YouTube)

Conclusion
Overall, the State of the Map presented two trends: collaborative learning and machine learning. The latter trend reflects discussions on automation of mapping processes, while the former trend reflects discussions on on-the-ground mapping with locals. Although these trends seem diverging, OSM’s platform is capable of incorporating both. As OSM Foundation’s Mikel Maron mentioned, it is about being “a part of the database.” Whether it be building technical tools to ease mapping complex areas or educating locals to contribute geospatial data, both trends aim to provide open geospatial data for all to use.

This collaborative environment has ultimately encouraged me to sustain the initiative for open spatial data. With the knowledge I have gained from the conference, I will introduce several new activities to Maptime MTL. Feel free to contact me at juliaconzon@gmail.com or maptimemtl@gmail.com if you are interested in participating or collaborating. You can also connect with me on Twitter @julconz and LinkedIn.

Notes from the GIScience Conference 2016

Last month, Geothink took part in the GIScience 2016 conference in Montreal, a biennial conference for academics in the field of GIS and geography. Geothink was present as a sponsor. Additionally, multiple Geothink academics were present to engage in academic discussion, and members of Geothink were also involved in the organisation of the conference.
One of our volunteers, Lesley Johnson, reports her experience of the conference.

By Lesley Johnson

The 9th installment of the International GIScience conference was held in Montreal (27-30 September) – the first time the conference has been held in Canada. The conference was ambitious as it covered a lot of ground in 4 days: from a workshop on Machine Learning on Tuesday, to the impact of human intention on geospatial data quality on Thursday, and then finally to the definition and meaning of GIScience itself on Friday.

Perhaps the overarching goal of the conference was to put the sheer breadth of this challenging, shapeshifting, but most of all, exciting, field of study into perspective. How do we categorize GIScience? Where does it fall in the tree of science? Is it indeed a discipline in its own right?

To answer these questions, over 250 attendees from across the globe came together to debate these questions and find out about the latest advances in the field. The conference kicked off on Tuesday with hands-on workshops (“Understanding Spatial Data (big and Small) with Visual Analytics”, “Machine learning methods for spatial and temporal analysis”). Attendees in the Machine Learning tutorial were taught by University College of London’s James Haworth on how to use Support Vector Machine regressions to analyze datasets; an important skill for any budding or experienced GIScientist to have in their back pocket.

Wednesday’s schedule was packed full of exciting and diverse sessions. Following the keynote on the “Internet of Mobile Things”, the Cognition and Place session was held, where attendees were asked to think about “place” beyond the positivist notion of “space”. The importance of spatial scale and cell resolution was also emphasized and re-examined in the Raster Models and Modelling session, moderated by Memorial University’s Rodolphe Devillers. Barbara Buttenfield’s research “measuring distance as the horse runs” was especially interesting, as I had personally never heard of the term before. Differences in spatial resolution can affect distance calculations. Even at local scales, it is important to account for factors such as the curvature of terrain.

img_20160929_111925

Thursday’s keynote on “Artistry in GIScience” by Deniis Hlynsky (Rhode Island School of Design) sparked many an interesting conversation. It pushed scientists to think outside of the academic box, and think about what great beauty there is in the phenomena that we study everyday: from starlings flying across the sky each wing beat captured and superimposed, to cartographic design. Does GIScience always need to be about …science? Can GIArt be a discipline in its own right?

As the conference came to a close on Friday, a final panel of GIScientists was brought together and were asked by Dr. Renee Sieber, one of the main conference organizers, “what is GIScience?” The question led to other questions, such as “Does the title of a researcher determine their funding opportunities, or does the research speak for itself regardless?” and “What name would bring the most attention to a higher education program: spatial data sciences or geographic information sciences?” As a graduate student, most of the conversation seemed pointless: Can’t we just do research and not worry about the semantics of it? I then realized that gaining funding and disseminating your research are crucial to doing research after graduate school. Maybe I do indeed need to think about the implications of the title on my business card a bit more.

Collaboration is also needed between the Geographic Information Systems and the Geographic Information Science; between those who are engaged in GIScience questions (such as those relating to spatial data accuracy), and those who use Geographic Information Systems software for specific domain questions.

Finally, congratulations go to Dr. Renee Sieber, for receiving the Canadian Association of Geographers Lifetime Achievement and GIScience Excellence Award!

The conference was, in short, wide in scope and ambitious in its depth. It achieved its goal of bringing GIScientists (or spatial data analysts, if you will) from across the globe, and pushing the definition of GIScience itself. Needless to say, I look forward to the tenth installment of the GIScience conference – hopefully I’ll have figured out what to call myself by then.

Twitter Chat: Civic Participation on the Geoweb

We Grow Food Trading Table ...   #FoodisFree #WeGrowFood

For her Ph.D. research, Victoria Fast explored how urban food assets can be crowdsourced onto the geoweb — civic participation in action.

All cylinders were firing by the time we wrapped up our Nov. 23 Twitter chat on meaningful civic participation on the geoweb. There were many parallel conversations that we hope will continue among participants and the wider Geothink community into the future. Here we share a few highlights, as well as a transcript of the chat.

  • We should ask what criteria define “civic participation”? Even passive or unknowing involvement may qualify as meaningful participation.
  • Intermediaries (infomediaries) are major mediators of the geoweb — leading projects, supporting learning, and providing citizens with tools and open data access. Librarians were identified as important infomediaries.
  • The geoweb can enable citizen participation on all levels of ‘meaning’. Yet we need to be mindful of who is being left out & not blame the excluded.
  • There can be different benefits from short-term engagements such as hackathons and long-term involvement such as contributing to OpenStreetMap. But both can trigger enduring civic interest.
  • It can be useful to consider when geoweb contributions using open data do not qualify as civic participation.
  • Both time-decay (sustainability) and distance-decay (activities concentrating around intermediary’s location) are issues that can affect civic participation on the geoweb.

Transcript

 

 

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.