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

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

By Drew Bush

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crosspost: Open Data Standards Will Improve Public Information

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

By Rachel Bloom


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New International Open Data Standards Directory Launched by GovEx and Geothink Partnership

Geothink and the Center for Government Excellence (GovEx) at Johns Hopkins University launched a first-of-its-kind Open Data Standards Directory today that identifies and assembles standards for open data shared by governments.

By Sam Lumley

Geothink and the Center for Government Excellence (GovEx) at Johns Hopkins University launched a first-of-its-kind Open Data Standards Directory today that identifies and assembles standards for open data shared by governments. The new directory provides guidance on the best format for sharing specific types of data to ensure its interoperability across local, regional and national jurisdictions.

The site began as a Geothink project led by McGill University student Rachel Bloom and was supervised by Geothink Head Renee Sieber, an associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment. For her undergraduate honors research in the Department of Geography, Bloom developed a tool for searching and querying relevant open data standard for a diverse range of municipal open data. In partnership with GovEx, Julia Conzon and Nicolas Levy as McGill undergraduate students contributed to the project via visualizing and researching the directory.

Former McGill University student Rachel Bloom initiated the Open Data Standards Directory as her undergraduate honors project.

“I think one of the biggest challenges was providing this information in a way that was easily accessible in a dashboard format,” Bloom said. “It was difficult because the standards are complex and it’s hard to capture all of the desired information about them in an easy visual style based around our users.”

“The standards directory helps people not only know what’s out there,” she added. “But based on a systematic approach, it allows people to also evaluate the standard and help them on their decision of which one to adopt. So I think that’s really valuable.”

This initiative has been further developed by The Center for Government Excellence (GovEx) at Johns Hopkins University in partnership with Geothink and members of the open data community. It now represents the first ever international data standards directory. It helps governments provide data in formats that will most effectively support informed decision-making and the provision of services.

“There’s a serious need for coordination on how governments at all levels classify different types of open data,” Sieber said. “A collaboration with McGill University, this directory provides a comprehensive inventory of how data on transit, road construction, public facilities and more has been classified. It also allows evaluation of different standards to help guide governments in choosing the most useful ones.”

The project emphasizes a collaborative approach that opens a two-way dialogue with municipalities. This allows its creators to better understand what is valued within the decision-making process and to encourage the adoption of specific standards for how open data is released. Users around the world are able and encouraged to contribute additional information and update existing standards.

“Open data improves the lives of hundreds of millions of people, many incrementally and some dramatically,” Andrew Nicklin, GovEx Director of Data Practices, said. “Our new directory will encourage global standards for how data is organized for more effective production and consumption at scale. This will insure an even greater impact on the local government services level.”

Historically, city governments and others have faced several challenges in dealing with open data sets. Among these challenges is a lack of agreement and coordination on how data sets should be structured to best serve the public that are intended to be able to access them. The establishment and organisation of common standards can address this problem by encouraging practices that ensure data is accessible and usable by citizens. It can also ensure that datasets released by differing municipalities will be interoperable.

“The directory’s inventory helps simplify and demystify choices for governments and citizens by answering the question ‘what’s out there?’ but also takes it a step further by assessing the value of these standards to a city’s data provision,” said Jean-Noé Landry, Executive Director of OpenNorth, a Geothink partner in this work. “The directory allows us to align data practices, join up data, and enable emergent data uses. Data interoperability is one key to unlocking open data’s innovation potential and we believe this inventory is a very important step towards it.”

Currently there are over 60 standards on the directory from around the world and in multiple languages. GovEx hope to expand these efforts to continually broaden its range of standards, languages and user-bases.

To find out more about the open data standards directory project, you can listen to Geothink’s podcast on the initial project, catch an update on GovEx’s latest Datapoints podcast or visit the GovEx Beta Data Standards Directory website.

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If you have thoughts or questions about the article, get in touch with Sam Lumley, Geothink’s newsletter editor, at sam.lumley@mail.mcgill.ca.

SmartHalo Brings New Data to Smart Cities and Convenience to Riders

SmartHalo, a circular device that can be easily installed to provide both an anti-theft alarm and directions while biking, consists of a circular light that attaches to the handlebars of any bike (Image courtesy of SmartHalo).

By Drew Bush

Co-founder of the start-up SmartHalo, Xavier Peich wants to use technology to reinvent the bicycle and help it become the main means of transport in the cities of the future. He spoke at Geothink’s 2017 Summer Institute at McGill University in Montreal, QC.

Smart cities may one day enable urban planners to predict where bike lanes and traffic amelioration are needed most. This will partially be due to a new bike-ready navigation system that’s revolutionizing how cyclists find their way around urban areas worldwide.

SmartHalo, a circular device that can be easily installed to provide both an anti-theft alarm and directions while biking, consists of a circular light that attaches to the handlebars of any bike. The device’s inventors dream of how to make bikes as convenient as automobiles, and, in the process, reshape urban society.

“I’ve been biking for transport for a while now, probably about 15 years,” SmartHalo Co-Founder, Xavier Peich, told Geothink.ca at the 2017 Summer Institute at McGill University in Montreal, QC. “When I was younger, when I was doing my bachelors, I spent a year abroad in Paris as a student. And I traveled the whole year by bike. And I feel that I discovered the city so well just because I was biking all the time—perhaps better than some Parisians there. And I noticed that there were some places that I have been going often. And other places that I was just discovering.”

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

“And towards the end of the year, I sort of wanted to know, like hey, it would be neat to see a sort of heat map of like where I’ve been and are there places I go all the time,” he added. “So that was one thing. And the other thing is—and that was back then before smartphones—so it was a built difficult to find your way around town or especially a new city. And I found myself wanting to have a very simple interface that would connect to my phone to show me directions.”

The circular light on SmartHalo intuitively directs bikers as to what direction they should turn at an intersection by lighting up on that part of the circle, Peich said. He added that this device essentially puts biking around cities on par with cars in terms of safety (from theft) and convenience (in terms of navigation). Peich and many cycling advocates note biking has the additional benefits of saving you time on parking and improving your health. SmartHalo can also help direct bikers on accessible cyclist paths and safer routes.

“What brought us into choosing this interface, instead of like putting a map or just two arrows, actually comes from living in Europe and realizing that most cities around the world are not just like Montreal where it’s just left and right—most of the time it will be in diagonals,” Peich said. “So you have to design by thinking about that. Is there a way that we can show all types of directions? Well the circle is incredible simple. It’s perhaps the simplest form. But, then, you can show very complex information too.”

The potential uses for data from a device like SmartHalo are seemingly endless. Bikers using SmartHalo can help map parts of urban areas where smartphone carrying pedestrians and automobiles do not frequently go—yet cyclists may have occasion to do so. For example, more suburban and rural places may make ideal routes for cyclists on vacation or trying to get out of town but can often be dominated by traffic on a few main streets or nearby highways.

“Obviously, if you just commute to work from your house and you’re just doing that everyday, and you don’t go anywhere else, of course you know your way around,” Peich said. “But when you use the bike as your main mode of transportation, then you end up going to new places all the time. And this is when it sort of makes sense to try to see how a GPS or a navigation system would be applied to bikes.”

The circular light on SmartHalo intuitively directs bikers as to what direction they should turn at an intersection by lighting up on that part of the circle (Image courtesy of SmartHalo).

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

Geothoughts Talks 8, 9 & 10 – Three Talks to Remember from the 2017 Geothink Summer Institute

The 2017 Geothink Summer Institute on smart cities convened May 25 to May 27 on McGill University’s downtown campus in Montreal, Quebec.

By Drew Bush

Geothink’s Summer Institute may have concluded several months ago, but, for those of you who missed it, we bring you three talks to remember. Run as part of Geothink’s five-year Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) partnership research grant, the Institute aimed to provide undergraduate and graduate students with knowledge and training on the theme: “Smart City: Toward a Just City.”

Each day of the institute alternated morning lectures, panel discussions and in-depth case studies on topics in smart cities with afternoon work sessions where professors worked with student groups one-on-one on the eventual competition goal of developing and assessing the major principles guiding Montreal’s 2015-2017 Montréal Smart and Digital City Action Plan.

Hosted by Geothink Head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment, the Summer Institute’s faculty featured Geothink Co-Applicants Stéphane Roche, associate professor in University Laval’s Department of Geomatics; Pamela Robinson, associate professor in Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning; Rob Feick, associate professor in Waterloo University’s School of Planning; Teresa Scassa, Canada research chair in University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law; and Victoria Fast, an assistant professor at University of Calgary’s Department of Geography.

Below we present you with a rare opportunity to learn about smart cities with our experts as they discussed important ideas and case studies. A short summary describes what each talk covers.

Geothoughts Talk Eight: Day 1 Morning Panel Session on Smart Cities (1 hour 18 minutes)
Discussion began with introductions by Geothink Head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill’s School of Environment and Department of Geography. Presentations were given by Stephane Guidoin, open data chief advisor in Montreal’s Smart and Digital City Office and Geothink Co-Applicants Stéphane Roche, associate professor in University Laval’s Department of Geomatics; Pamela Robinson, associate professor in Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning; Rob Feick, associate professor in Waterloo University’s School of Planning; Teresa Scassa, Canada research chair in University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law; an Victoria Fast, an assistant professor at University of Calgary’s Department of Geography.

Geothoughts Talk Nine: Montreal City Council Chairman Harout Chitilian (22 minutes)
Later on the first day of the Summer Institute, Montreal City Council Chairman Harout Chitilian introduced students to the ways in which Montreal aims to blend open data, new tech and entrepreneurship to make Montreal a leader in smart cities. He spoke at the Institute even as outside McGill the city celebrated its 375th anniversary.

Geothoughts Talk Ten: Geothink Researcher Victoria Fast (43 minutes)
The first day continued with a talk from Victoria Fast, a former Geothink graduate student and now an Assistant Professor at University Calgary in the Department of Geography. In it she posed questions about accessibility and how smart cities may or may not benefit those who are most in need.

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

A New Narrative for Collecting Statistical Data: Statistics Canada’s Crowdsourcing Project

This is a guest post from Statistics Canada on their new initiative on crowdsourcing geospatial data

Statistics Canada’s crowdsourcing project offers an exciting new opportunity for the agency to collaborate with stakeholders and citizens to produce and share open data with the general public — that is to say, data that can be freely used and repurposed.

Data collection is evolving with technology; for example, paper-based and telephone surveys are increasingly replaced with online surveys. With an array of modern technologies that most Canadians can access, such as Web 2.0 and smartphones, a new mechanism for data sharing can be piloted through open data platforms that host online crowds of data contributors. This project provides insight into how Statistics Canada can adapt these modern technologies, particularly open source tools and platforms, to engage public and private stakeholders and citizens to participate in the production of official statistics.

For the pilot project, Statistics Canada’s goal is to collect quality crowdsourced data on buildings in Ottawa and Gatineau. The data include attributes such as each building’s coordinate location, address and type of use. This crowdsourced data can fill gaps in national datasets and produce valuable information for various Statistics Canada divisions.

On September 15, 2016, Statistics Canada launched a web page and communications campaign to inform and motivate the citizens of Ottawa and Gatineau to participate in the pilot project. This pilot project is governed and developed by Statistics Canada’s Crowdsourcing Steering Committee. Statistics Canada’s communications with the local OpenStreetMap (OSM) community and collaboration with stakeholders and municipalities have allowed the pilot project to succeed.

To crowdsource the data, the project uses OpenStreetMap, an open source platform that aims to map all features on the Earth’s surface through user-generated content. OSM allows anyone to contribute data and, under the Open Data Commons Open Database License (ODbL), anyone can freely use, disseminate and repurpose OSM data. In addition to the web page and campaign to encourage participation, Statistics Canada developed and deployed a customized version of OSM’s iD-Editor. This adapted tool allows participants to seamlessly add points of interest (POIs) and polygons on OSM. The platform includes instructions on how to sign up for OSM and how to edit, allowing anyone, whether tech-savvy or not, to contribute georeferenced data (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Snapshot of the customized version of OSM’s iD-Editor. Users can select a building or POI to see the attributes. Users can edit these attributes or they can create an entirely new point or area.

Statistics Canada has maintained communications with its stakeholders and participants through outreach, and has monitored contributions through dashboards. Outreach has taken place by communicating with the global and local OSM communities by using mailing lists and having local meetups, as well as by organizing webinars, presenting at local universities and participating in conferences associated with open data. Negotiation and collaboration with the City of Ottawa have also opened building footprints and addresses for contributors to add to the map.

The project has been monitored using an open source dashboard developed by Statistics Canada. The dashboard provides a timeline (currently covering August 2016 to February 15, 2017) that specifies the number of buildings mapped, the number of users and the average number of tags contributed on OSM in each target city. Furthermore, it shows the amount of certain building types (e.g., house, residential, commercial) and the number of missing address fields by percentage (Figure 2). In general, the dashboard highlights the increased OSM contributions in Ottawa and Gatineau since the initiation of the project.

Figure 2. The open source dashboard monitors the production of data on OSM within the pilot project’s geographic scope of Ottawa and Gatineau. In the image above, both Ottawa and Gatineau have been selected. As seen in the top graph, buildings mapped in both cities have increased since the project’s initiation.

In the second year of the pilot project, Statistics Canada intends to develop a mobile app that will allow contributors to map on the go. Outreach will be maintained and, as more data are collected, quality assessments will be conducted. Success has been derived through collaborations, learning and sharing ideas, and developing user-friendly open source tools. As the project expands over time, Statistics Canada will uphold these values and approaches to ensure both an open and collaborative environment.

If you are interested in participating in the project, visit Statistics Canada’s Crowdsourcing website for a tutorial or to start mapping. Feel free to contact us at statcan.crowdsource.statcan@canada.ca to subscribe to a distribution list for periodic updates or to ask questions about the project.