Category Archives: Geothink News

Geothink Award Winner’s Research Brings Focus to City of Kelowna’s Homelessness Plan and Services to Those in Need

The iSearch Kelowna website is designed to assist individuals looking for low-income rentals, supportive housing or emergency shelters in the City of Kelowna.

By Drew Bush

One of the major challenge faced by anyone who finds themselves homeless involves finding shelter at places operated by a multitude of religious, goverment and nonprofit organizations. Thanks to the doctoral work of one Geothink student, that task just became a bit easier for those struggling with it in the City of Kelowna.

Shelley Cook, a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of British Columbia (UBC)-Okanagan, has worked with Geothink Co-Applicant Jon Corbett, an associate professor at UBC-Okanagan’s Department of Community, Culture and Global Studies, to design iSearch Kelowna. Via the app and website, individuals seeking low-income rentals, emergency shelter and drop-in services are able to search for live, user-specific information about resource availability within the city of Kelowna.

Shelley Cook, a University of British Columbia-Okanagan Ph.D. Candidate, developed the iSearch Kelowna site for her dissertation work.

“As we’ve moved out of phase one of our project, its morphing into another phase as it’s getting picked up as an important tool to inform this homelessness strategy, and people are running with it,” Cook said. In fact, this past summer the City of Kelowna decided to make iSearch Kelowna a central part of their strategy on homelessness. This highlighted Cook’s developing collaboration with the city on a project already supported by a team of reseachers, funders and partner organizations.

“It’s what we anticipated as what could happen and it’s lined up that way,” Cook said. “We’re maximising the benefit of the work that we’ve done, which is fantastic. It’s really in a strange way in its infancy, in terms of where it’s going to end up going, because it keeps evolving. So that’s been fantastic also.”

Cook’s work was recently recognized through Geothink’s first Dr. Alexander Aylett Scholarship in Urban Sustainability and Innovation (La Bourse Dr. Alex Aylett en Durabilité Urbaine et Innovation). The award was established in Aylett’s memory to provide vital support to graduate students sharing Aylett’s passion for, and commitment to, sustainable urban development.

Early feedback on iSearch Kelowna indicates that it is already providing users with a sense of ownership and advocacy over their own well-being and simplifying access to shelter information.

“It’s really about promoting empowerment, a greater sense of fairness and equity on the distribution of resources,” Cook said. “What we’ve done in terms of evaluation is directly talk to people who were formerly homeless or struggling with issues of maintaining adequate safe housing for themselves. That’s the one big thing they’ve talked about. And there’s lots of different elements around the interface that make it really usable and accessible.”

Speaking with Geothink during the Summer 2017 Summer Institute, Corbett added that issues of social and spatial justice motivate the research he and Cook have undertaken.

“There’s I think 84 different organizations that work on social justice related issues in and around the City of Kelowna,” Corbett said. “Which is kind of shocking because the population of Kelowna is only 185,000 people. So the fact that you’ve got 84 different organizations working is indicative of how serious the problem really is.”

He noted that the city and funding organizations for these services had started to notice that each individual service providers was acting in isolation. As a result, there was no centralized place to find specific services across the city such as a hot meal or housing if you are over 55-years-old.

The initial tool Corbett envisioned was going to be aimed at service-providers using real-time data to help coordinate where to send homeless people for specific services. That evolved as Corbett and Cook began discussing the project with the City of Kelowna. It now includes portals for a variety of different types of users—including the homeless themselves.

“For us, it’s been a whole set of reasonable technical challenges,” Corbett added. “But we’ve also been dealing obiviously with this very, very important social question.”

There are also endless applications for how the open data collected as a part of the project can make services more accessible and comprehensive for those in need. One worry has always been how to make what is a digital application accessible to a population that might not always have internet access.

“The main branch of the Kelowna library, a main point around Kelowna’s homeless community, has a dedicated monitor station during opening hours, is accessible for people to be able to search,” Cook said. “So it’s really about promoting service equity, and a greater sense of fairness and equity around the distribution of resources.”

“They now possess the knowledge,” she added of the homeless people using the site. “And what we know is they didn’t have the knowledge of all of [the city’s services]. So what that does is—the creating these forms of open data—opens up services to people and creates a more level playing field. Which is an incredibly powerful use of tools like this and was one thing that we weren’t necessarily anticipating.”

In the future, Cook plans to include more types of homeless services in the database and expand the site and offerings to other cities that have already expressed an interest in it.

“The final piece is an awareness raising and an ongoing partnership,” Cook said. “We’re doing presentations where communities have an interest in British Columbia and Alberta at this point. We can be of assistance in helping them develop a similar process and mentoring in that way.”

For Corbett and Cook, this means getting the project into the hands of city officials where it will live and exist for the community in perpetuity.

“So from the perspective of urban sustainability, we’re seeing municipalities, more so than in the past, getting involved with complex social issues like homelessness, and taking a lead role around these things,” Cook said. “Having a technological backbone that can help function not only to generate important information but to help people come together under a collective virtual umbrella. That’s a very powerful way to maximise and sustain existing community resources, and find innovative ways to create linkages and partnerships through tools and technology like iSearch Kelowna.”

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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.

Geothink Student Shelley Cook Awarded Dr. Alexander Aylett Graduate Scholarship in Urban Sustainability and Innovation for Her Work Empowering Homeless Populations

Shelley Cook, a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of British Columbia (UBC)-Okanagan, will be the recipient of Geothink’s first Dr. Alexander Aylett Scholarship in Urban Sustainability and Innovation (La Bourse Dr. Alex Aylett en Durabilité Urbaine et Innovation).

By Sam Lumley

Shelley Cook, a University of British Columbia-Okanagan Ph.D. Candidate and the first Geothink Dr. Alexander Aylett scholarship recipient.

Shelley Cook, a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of British Columbia (UBC)-Okanagan, will be the recipient of Geothink’s first Dr. Alexander Aylett Scholarship in Urban Sustainability and Innovation (La Bourse Dr. Alex Aylett en Durabilité Urbaine et Innovation). Her project empowers homeless populations in the city of Kelowna by building new connections with homeless service providers such as community housing organizations.

“I think It’s hard for me to articulate how much it means to me,” Cook said of this honour. “I’m utterly blown away by the privilege.”

Cook’s research was recognized because it closely aligns with the late Dr. Aylett’s vision for urban sustainability. His legacy for creative and durable solutions to social justice issues in cities lives on in Cook’s work. Dr. Aylett passed away on July 23, 2016 from cancer leaving behind a rich legacy of research into how cities can provide solutions on topics such as climate change and social justice using digital technology and open data.

Geothink’s Dr. Alexander Aylett Scholarship in Urban Sustainability and Innovation was established in his memory, to provide vital support to graduate students sharing Aylett’s passion for, and commitment to, sustainable urban development.

“I think after spending my entire career working with extremely marginalized populations, I think it’s difficult work,” Cook said. “And it’s work that I’ve seen over the years—you know, people working with the most vulnerable in society—it’s work that’s often not acknowledged. So I think, for me, I’m utterly blown away by the privilege and the fact that it is for work that is helping people who are the most vulnerable in the community. And I just feel incredibly honored in that respect.”

The award recognizes exceptional research contributing to the field of urban sustainability, and represents one way in which Dr. Aylett’s work is continuing to generate innovative, far-reaching impacts.

“Alex was an exceptional person and his presence seems to continue to surround those who knew and loved him,” Richard Aylett, his father, said. “And so, it is important that an award in his name goes to a project of value.”

Alex’ family is equally honoured to award Cook’s research noting in a e-mail to Geothink that “her work on mapping resources for homelessness in British Columbia corresponds with volunteer work that Alex did for street youth in Vancouver and is thus very appropriate.”

Cook’s work addresses an important issue faced by many communities where homeless populations are not able to efficiently locate suitable temporary shelter. Housing seekers and service providers have often lacked access to centralised, searchable information on gender-specific services, housing location and capacity.

Geothink Co-Applicant Alexander C.E. Aylett who passed away July of last year.

To confront this problem, Cook developed the i-Search Kelowna web map application (app). Supervised by Geothink Co-Applicant Jon Corbett, an associate professor in Community, Culture and Global Studies at UBC-Okanagan, Cook’s work is also supported by a team of researchers, funders and partners. Via the app, individuals seeking low-income rentals, emergency shelter and drop-in services are able to search for live, user-specific information about resource availability within the city of Kelowna.

Early feedback on the tool indicates that it is already providing users with a sense of ownership and advocacy over their own well-being and simplifying access to shelter information.

“It’s really about promoting empowerment, a greater sense of fairness and equity on the distribution of resources,” Cook said.

The project mirrors past volunteer work undertaken by Aylett that supported marginalised communities and contributed to his vision of cities as thriving, safe, and inspiring places for everyone to live. These are all values which Cook shares in her own work.

Cook emphasizes that partnerships formed between researchers, municipalities, businesses and community members are crucial to the development and durability of the project. By deeply routing themselves in the community, the researchers have made sure that their work has progressed to meet evolving needs and issues.

“I think again diverse groups with common interests can come together and create something that benefits the broader community,” Cook explains.

“Homelessness takes different forms over time, so we needed to make sure this tool was responsive and continuously informing strategies and approaches to the long-term issues,” she adds.

In this respect, the project has so far enjoyed a large amount of success. The City of Kelowna has embraced the platform to not only provide housing services but to inform its homelessness strategies and decision-making processes.

The generous support from the Dr. Alexander Aylett Scholarship in Urban Sustainability and Innovation is invaluable for ensuring continued commitment to the idea of cities as sustainable and equitable sites for innovation and development.

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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.

Geothink&Learn Webinar Series Kicks off Ultimate Year of the Partnership Research Grant

When Geothink Co-Applicant Pamela Robinson kicked off the inaugural Geothink&Learn on Pokémon Go and governance live to the public this past Wednesday, October 4, it marked a new phase in the five-year Geothink partnership research grant.

By Drew Bush

When Geothink Co-Applicant Pamela Robinson kicked off the inaugural Geothink&Learn on Pokémon Go and governance live to the public this past Wednesday, October 4, it marked a new phase in the five-year Geothink partnership research grant. Five panelists shared insight on the broader implications of the popular augmented reality game that captured the screens of smartphone users last spring, Pokémon Go. The panel was followed by a lively discussion between participants and panelists during a question and answer session.

“In the final year of our five-year partnership grant, our original themes have emerged into concrete research collaborations and products,” Geothink Head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment, said. “As a result, we’re inviting the Geothink community and the public at large to come learn with our experts, think about what they’ve just heard, and discuss online with our community.”

The first Geothink&Learn featured a dynamic panel from Canada and the United States with interdiscplinary perspectives on Pokémon Go and its implications for governance, social equity, legal issues and urban planning. Robinson, an associate professor in Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning and the associate dean for Graduate Studies and Strategic Services, convened the session. Speakers included Sieber; Tenille Brown, adjunct professor and doctoral candidate in the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law; Nick Seaver, assistant professor in Tufts University’s Department of Anthropology; and Adriana de Souza e Silva, associate professor at the Department of Communication at North Carolina State University.

Missed the first Geothink&Learn? Don’t worry you can watch the full webinar below on YouTube. Check out the new Geothink&Learn section on our home page for an archive of all talks and to make sure you don’t miss our upcoming panels and topics.

“These short online webinars—most will be only an hour—are intended to bring together our grant’s co-applicants, partners, collaborators, students and public to learn and share,” Geothink Project Manager Sonja Solomun, said. “We’re really excited to have dynamic panelists for our first two Geothink&Learns this October and November on Pokémon Go and the Future of Open Data. We invite you to register in advance as we publish each monthly webinar on our Web site.”

Talks are planned for each of the upcoming months until the Geothink grant concludes this coming April. The next talk, this November 14, will focus on the future of open data and be convened by Geothink Co-Applicant Peter Johnson, an associate professor in University of Waterloo’s Department of Geography and Environmental Management. It will feature Geothink Partners Jean-Noé Landry, executive director of Open North, and Marcy Burchfield, executive director of the Neptis Foundation; and, Co-Applicants Robinson and Teresa Scassa, a Canada Research Chair in Information Law at the University of Ottawa.

Other projects in the final year of the grant include a call for papers (submissions due October 7) for two books that will represent the culimination of much of the grant’s research. The first book will focus on Locating Power & Justice in the Geoweb and the call can be found here. The second will focus on The Future of Open Data and the call can be found here.

Geothink is a five-year partnership research grant funded by Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Composed of 26 researchers and 30 partners, the grant examines the implications of increasing two-way exchanges of locational information between citizens and governments and the way in which technology shapes, and is shaped by, this exchange.

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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.

 

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 Conversations 3: Defining Smart Cities and the Human Relationship to New Decision-Making Processes

Geothink Co-Applicant Stéphane Roche, associate professor in University Laval’s Department of Geomatics, chats with students during a coffee break at Geothink’s 2017 Summer Institute at McGill University in Montreal, QC.

By Drew Bush

One of the hallmarks of any academic conference are the conversations that take place in-between sessions, in hallways and over meals. In our third Geothink Conversations, we aim to give you a flavor of these discussions at Geothink’s now concluded 2017 Summer Institute.

The theme of this year’s Institute was “Smart City: Toward a Just City.” An interdisciplinary group of faculty and students tackled many of the policy, legal and ethical issues related to smart cities. Each of the three days of the Summer Institute combined workshops, panel discussions and hands-on learning modules that culminated in a competition judged by Montreal city officials and local tech entrepreneurs.

The topic of our conversation was how to make sure human concerns remain paramount in the design of increasingly digital smart cities. It features Open North Executive Director Jean-Noé Landry; Geothink Co-Applicant Stéphane Roche, associate professor in University Laval’s Department of Geomatics; and, Victoria Fast, an assistant professor at University of Calgary’s Department of Geography. And, of course, I’m Drew Bush and I’ll be helping steer the conversation along.

To start us off, Roche got the conversation rolling on how to understand smart cities as a transition from urban living as it has been portrayed since the early 18th century to a new type of city based upon social organization and community that is aided by open data and digital technology.

Thanks for tuning in. And we hope you subscribe with us at Geothoughts on iTunes.

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

Geothoughts 14: Toward A Just Smart City at Geothink’s 2017 Summer Institute

Geothink students, staff and faculty at the 2017 Summer Institute at McGill University in Montreal, QC.

By Drew Bush

We’re very excited to present you with our 14th episode of Geothoughts. You can also subscribe to this Podcast by finding it on iTunes.

In this episode, we take a look back at Geothink’s 2017 Summer Institute at McGill University in Montreal, QC from May 25-27. The theme of this year’s Institute was “Smart City: Toward a Just City.” An interdisciplinary group of faculty and students tackled many of the policy, legal and ethical issues related to smart cities.

Each of the three days of the Summer Institute combined workshops, panel discussions and hands-on learning modules that culminated in a competition judged by Montreal city officials and tech entrepreneurs. The goal of the competition was for student groups to develop and assess the major principles guiding Montreal’s 2015-2017 Montréal Smart and Digital City Action Plan.

Thanks for tuning in. And we hope you subscribe with us at Geothoughts on iTunes. A transcript of this original audio podcast follows.

TRANSCRIPT OF AUDIO PODCAST

Welcome to Geothoughts. I’m Drew Bush.

[Geothink.ca theme music]

“Smart cities, what do we even need humans for anymore? As you can see from this morning’s panel, smart cities are more than urban engineering, they’re more than the sensors, they’re more than efficiency. Part of going beyond these things, part of creating empathy—my provocation at the beginning of the break—was…is to engage citizens. And how we actually do that, and how we actually do that in the context of a smart city will be discussed by Pamela Robinson and Rob Feick.”

That’s Geothink Head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill’s School of Environment and Department of Geography, addressing Geothink’s 2017 Summer Institute that just concluded this past May 2017. She was kicking off the afternoon presentations and work sessions on day one of Geothink’s annual Summer Institute this year held at McGill University in Montreal, QC from May 25-27. The theme: “Smart City: Toward a Just City.”

Each of the three days of the Summer Institute combined workshops, panel discussions and hands-on learning modules that culminated in a competition judged by Montreal city officials and tech entrepreneurs. The goal of the competition was for student groups to develop and assess the major principles guiding Montreal’s 2015-2017 Montréal Smart and Digital City Action Plan.

To start off the afternoon’s work, Rob Feick, an associate professor in Waterloo University’s School of Planning, discussed the idea of civic participation.

“All right, all right, so we’re going to take a few minutes and talk about this idea of civic engagement and how we might conceptualize that in the smart city context. How it might be different from how we think about engagement and civic participation in the pre smart city world. Ok. So. Interesting times: We have a lot of problems. That isn’t meant to get you depressed. I want you to be thinking of this as challenges. So there a lot of interesting, tough challenges that all of us need to apply ourselves to in one way or another.”

Pamela Robinson, associate professor in Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, added to this call for action by presenting the work of her graduate students who created an evaluative framework for smart cities as part of Geothink.

“Ok. So I’m asking everyone to dig into your blue bags and pull out the piece of paper that looks like this. And I’m going to transition from Rob’s talk about broad ways of thinking about civic engagement in the smart city to transitioning to a tool that was created by graduate students of mine as part of this project last fall as part of Geothink. And we wanted to share it for a couple of reasons. One, one of the challenges I think when you bring people together of different disciplinary backgrounds is that people have different ways of talking about the same kinds of issues.”

“And one of the things we hope that you’ll have kind of expanded capacity over the course of this two and a half days is you’re going to learn how to listen and talk to each other slightly differently. And one of the ways we want to accelerate that is by giving you something to think about. The other reason I want to bring it forward is I’m really proud of the work these students did. And I think it’s a good way of showing you as students inside this grant that your work can make a difference.”

This theme of empowering the next generation of academics and practitioners to build more just and sustainable smart cities of the future was woven throughout the three days of sessions. It grew more tangible later in the first day when students heard from Montreal City Council Chairman Harout Chitilian. In an interview after his talk, he expressed a need for people to hire who possess unique skillsets and competencies important to designing services for smart cities such as his.

“Process improvement is a very complex and difficult task. Like I said, technology is the easy part. And process improvement takes those skillsets that I mentioned [in my talk]. For example, you know, very talented project and program managers that can put in place transformational projects to rethink the services of the city of Montreal. You need to have also different competencies—not only technological. But, for example, legal backgrounds, regulatory backgrounds—to make sure that your future new and improved processes comply with the legislation and the and regulatory framework in which that you are operating in. So, biggest challenge, bar none for me, is to hire, to retain, and to train the best skilled workers. Because skillsets, competency is the main ingredient to achieving all these different exciting initiatives.”

In Montreal, plans include improving the cities smart offerings in a variety of areas that require trained workers.

“I think we need to make very strong progress in the transit domain, so have real-time data of all the transit assets of the city of Montreal. We need to also have real-time data, like I said, for beach goers. For using the different beaches now. The portals are setting up. There is one in Verdun. So environments—so water quality data, air quality data. So that is very very important going forward. And last but not least for me, we also need to have democracy related data that is available to our citizens. For example, how your elected official voted on a certain subject.”

Chitilian set the stage for the three-day Institute but its faculty and participants kept each talk and activity lively and engaging. Thanks to Geothink’s five-year length as a grant, many relationships have been shaped by years of collaboration between co-applicants, collaborators, partners and students. As a result, the Summer Institute can be a good time to reflect.

For one former Geothink graduate student who is now an assistant professor in the Department of Geography at University of Calgary, that means considering the progress Geothink has made educating her peers on topics such as smart cities, open data, crowdsourcing and volunteered geographic information. Those have been the topics of the four summer institutes hosted by the grant—each of which Victoria Fast has attended.

“Actually, interestingly, something we haven’t touched upon yet is the synergy between all of them. You know, Institute number one in Waterloo was volunteered geographic information (VGI) and crowdsourcing, the second one in Toronto was crowdsourcing, and this one is smart cities. And all of those concepts are just so fundamentally embedded in each other. And for—I think students who have been to all of them really get this diverse and rich perspective on Geothink from these kind of very relevant topical areas.”

[Geothink.ca theme music]

[Voice over: Geothoughts are brought to you by Geothink.ca and generous funding from Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.]

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

Geothoughts Talks 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.

Innovative Urban Planning Solutions and GPS Guided Biking – Summer Institute Day 3

Rachel Bloom, Julia Conzon and Elizabeth Barber took questions from the audience on day three of the Geothink 2017 Summer Institute after talking about their career paths post Geothink.

By Drew Bush

Geothink Co-Applicant Stéphane Roche, associate professor in University Laval’s Department of Geomatics, chats with students during a coffee break on day three of Geothink’s 2017 Summer Institute.

The third day of Geothink’s 2017 Summer Institute opened with Open North Executive Director Jean-Noé Landry discussing how Geothink’s collaborative approach begets research with practical applications for smart cities. A pair of Montreal entrepreneurs and a trio of former students elaborated on this perspective in their own subsequent presentations.

“We’re going to talk about enabling innovation,” Noe said to start the morning. “I’ve been following some of the conversations that you’ve been having with all these great folks that have come in over the course of the week…And today, you know, we’ve got an opportunity to look at a few people that have been able to do some great work.”

Two previous Geothink students followed with talks on their differing career trajectories after graduating from McGill University. Rachel Bloom is currently working as the project lead for Open North on Smart Open Cities; and Julia Conzon spoke of her work with open data at Statistics Canada. Elizabeth Barber, a master’s of public services student at University of Waterloo, talked about her summer work with the City of Montreal. They were preceded by Xavier Peich, a co-founder of SmartHalo, and Vincent-Charles Hodder, a co-founder of Local Logic.

The theme of this year’s Institute was “Smart City: Toward a Just City.” An interdisciplinary group of faculty and students tackled many of the policy, legal and ethical issues related to smart cities. Each of the three days of the Summer Institute combined workshops, panel discussions and hands-on learning modules that culminated in a competition judged by Montreal city officials and tech entrepreneurs. The goal of the competition was for student groups to develop and assess the major principles guiding Montreal’s 2015-2017 Montréal Smart and Digital City Action Plan.

The last day provided ample time for students to work within their groups to analyze Montreal’s strategic plan in accordance with a research question assigned by one of the Summer Institute’s faculty members. It also provided time for faculty members who once had been students themselves to reminisce.

“I love the summer institute,” said Victoria Fast, an assistant professor at University of Calgary’s Department of Geography. She herself has participated in the previous summer institutes in 2016 and 2017 and had just recently made the transition to faculty.

“Actually, interestingly, something we haven’t touched upon yet is the synergy between all of them. You know, Institute number one in Waterloo was volunteered geographic information (VGI) and crowdsourcing, the second one in Toronto was crowdsourcing, and this one is smart cities. And all of those concepts are just so fundamentally embedded in each other. And for—I think students who have been to all of them really get this diverse and rich perspective on Geothink from these kind of very relevant topical areas.”

“This one, in particular, I really like from the student perspective, the employment opportunities is really great to hear,” Fast added about the presentations on life after Geothink. “The idea of social entrepreneur, social innovation. I think students in a university really need some hope about jobs and job prospects.”

The Summer Institute faculty, city officials and tech entrepreneurs helped to judge the work of each student group at the end of the day. But the real value lay in the new ideas and understandings each student gained.

One group explored which city services should be prioritized for digitization first while another determined how to quantify what appropriate inclusion of citizens in smart cities of the future might look like. Others examined what open data should be released by cities, the advantages of public Wi-Fi, and how cities can foster collaboration between innovators.

“We tried to develop sites for innovation learning,” Seyed Hossein Chavoshi, a PhD student from Laval University, said. “So there are many things actually we want to take into account. For example, there are the functionality and the design of the place where we want people, for example, to test apps that are actually developed by the municipality. So to do that and to find these places there are many aspects. The functionality is one of them. Another is the ethic. But the functionality is a core one of them—when you want to invite citizens from different cultures, from different groups, from different ages you have to find a place that can at least accommodate all different ages.”

Chavoshi added that he found this year’s Summer Institute quite informative.

“I’m so technical from an engineering point of view,” Chavoshi said. “But here we were so diverse. So like people from law and from a social geography background and [subjects] that, actually, they aren’t often gathered all together. So before that I didn’t actually know that we had to take into account all these aspects. But when I was here and I just listened to the other peoples’ points-of-view, from their background, it helped with when I want to, for example, develop something that can be fascinating to the citizens in a smart city.”

Geothink students, staff and faculty at the 2017 Summer Institute at McGill University in Montreal, QC.

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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.