By Drew Bush
Part 1 (of 2). This is the first in a two part series with the head of Geothink.ca, Renee Sieber, an associate professor in the Department of Geography and School of Environment at McGill University. In this first part, we talk with Sieber about Geothink itself; its vision, goal and design. In our next installment, we’ll pick up the story of how she sees civic participation in North America during an age of technological change.
Now in the second year of a five-year partnership research grant funded by the Canadian Government’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Geothink.ca involves 26 researchers and 30 partners in examining the implications of increasing two-way exchanges of locational information between citizens and governments. Yet the vision for this type of collaborative, cross-disciplinary project began years before.
“Geothink sprang from an idea that we’re in this period of huge technological change when it comes to our ability to communicate with cities as citizens, and cities’ ability to communicate with citizens,” Renee Sieber, the project’s head and an associate professor at McGill University, said. “So we have Yelp and Yelp allows us to communicate about restaurants and accommodations in cities. We have FourSquare which allows us to socially check-in and temporarily become mayors of places in cities.”
“It’s a very different world in which we can on a Saturday evening or an early Monday morning know what’s happening in our cities and comment on what’s happening in cities,” she added. “It’s technologies like sensors in road networks that allow cities to know how we’re travelling through a town, where we are meeting up with people to, for example, create dynamic neighbourhoods of where people congregate and want to see their friends to then create better urban design for cities. So the technology is really transforming the way we can have this interaction.”
It’s these types of technology-transformed interactions that Sieber and Geothink’s researchers will chart and begin to examine the implications of. In part, that’s because not all applications of new digital technologies have positive connotations. For example, these technologies make it easier for cities to conduct better surveillance of citizens since they can track people through the cell-phones they carry or by the places they check into.
Such privacy concerns have the potential to make people very uncomfortable, particularly because it means placing more trust in governments and technologies that could misuse or abuse this data. Other problems include the mistaken belief that new technologies mean more people can access and interact with their cities. While efforts to take some conversations or debates online might be advantageous to certain populations, it can also be disenfranchising to others, according to Sieber.
“Democracy can be very, very messy, and sometimes you need to get people who don’t necessarily agree with each other in the same room with each other,” Sieber said. “You can not necessarily rely totally on harvesting, for example, Tweets or Facebook posts to understand public sentiment. Democracy and perceptions about what a city should do are often much more textured than that.”
And that’s exactly why Geothink incorporates perspectives from different disciplines within academia including geography, law, communications, urban planning and computer science. For Sieber, the overall goal is to get a better handle on the diverse set of interactions that technology has made possible between cities and their citizens.
“But we also need to reach beyond the academy to businesses, to lots and lots of cities and representatives of cities about how they experience these changes in real-time, what technologies do they use, and how it has shifted their conversations with citizens,” Sieber said. “So what are they seeing on the ground? How are they engaging citizens via media-like hackathons, for example, where they’re bringing in coders? Are they seeing the same sorts of people, or do they think that participation is being extended and broadened, or does it seem to be just as narrow as it was before?”
If you have thoughts or questions about this article, get in touch with Drew Bush, Geothink’s digital journalist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.