Tag Archives: cities

Guide Provides Citizens Access to Open Data Literacy

The Geothink Citizen’s Guide for Open Data found at citizens-guide-open-data.github.io

By Drew Bush

Screenshot of the Geothink Citizen’s Guide to Open Data link on Geothink.ca.

You may have noticed a new banner gracing the front right portion of the Geothink.ca Web site starting last month. Click on it and it will take you to a key deliverable of this five-year partnership research grant funded by Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

The Geothink Citizens Guide to Open Data was created by Curtis McCord and Dawn Walker, Geothink doctoral students in University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information, in collaboration with Geothink Co-Applicant Leslie Regan Shade, professor and associate dean for research in the faculty. It was first presented at Geothink’s 2016 Summer Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto when the duo were master’s students speaking on a panel.

“There’s actually still a big barrier where a lot of individual people aren’t using open data,” Walker said. “So we’re like in this moment, of saying, ‘Ok, open data has been lauded for all this potential promise.’ But it’s not exactly being used proportionally in the ways that are expected. From my experience, I’ve just seen a lot of companies or people who have very strong technical capabilities being able to work with open data. But there’s a lot of people who maybe have questions about their city or country that maybe open data can speak to. But like don’t—like wouldn’t even know to engage with it as a question you could ask of data. Or even know that open data would be a place they could go look to see.”

“These sorts of guides kind of help think about what those bridges could be,” Walker added. “And [they] address some of the literacies and capabilities required to even start to understand that you can ask questions that open data can answer.”

The Guide’s goal is to “provide citizens with tools to understand what makes up open data (OD), how it can be used in their communities, and where to find it.” Set up similarly to a Wiki page with drop-down menus, it consists of four sections on the right-hand bar entitled “Citizens Stories,” “Citizen Guide,” “Additional Resources,” and “About this Guide.”

The home page for the Guide notes that “People across Canada use technology that makes use of data as part of their daily lives” and increasingly are “starting to think about creative ways that this technology and data can be used to address issues they face in their communities and cities.” It adds that civic technology constitutes instances where “citizens come together to identify problems in their society or their community and solve them with data, computers, or expertise. Many kinds of data and their uses come up when we talk about open data and we’re going to know about them at the end of this guide.”

“It’s in no way kind of settled, right?” McCord said of the Guide. “We really intended this to be kind of a living document that people could update with their own stories or their own insights. We’re really open to ideas about how the kind of like stewardship of this thing might work. I mean, I’m much less committed to the content of the guide than I am to the idea that it can exist and be cared for. I’d rather it be everybody else’s ideas on their than mine. Because in a way, that shows it’s like kind of actually being put to work.”

McCord added that anyone interested in contributing can edit the guide by following simple instructions to use GitHub found at the bottom “Change This Guide!” link on the site. They can also e-mail the authors by clicking the “Feedback” link. Such contributions will represent the next step in the guide’s release to the public.

According to Shade, the first steps began directly as a result of her work with Geothink.

“The project began with my interest in exploring facets of data literacy, and more particularly with an interest in unpacking elements of open data for people and communities that were curious about it but not conversant with how to use open data,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Alexander Taciuk, our former [Geothink] Project Manager, was instrumental in encouraging me to pursue this project. And key to the project’s vision was the tremendous teamwork of Curtis McCord and Dawn Walker who worked on the Guide while finishing up their Master of Information degrees.”

“Curtis and Dawn wrote and designed the bulk of the Guide while also convening a small group within Geothink and locally to give advice on the content,” she added.

This year Shade engaged new students to continue work on several facets of the Guide including University of Toronto Master of Information students Dal Singh, Nicole Stradiotto and Mari Zhou and doctorate student Camille-Mary Sharp.

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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.

Paper Spotlight: The Cost(s) of Geospatial Open Data

Five Geothink researchers published a new paper in Transactions in GIS this past January that reflected on four years of research into how geospatial open data can impact the relationship between government, its citizens and the private sector.

By Drew Bush

In their article published this past January, five Geothink researchers reflected on four years of research into how geospatial open data can impact the relationship between government, its citizens and the private sector. In it, they examine how geospatial open data poses challenges for civic participation related to subsidizing the private sector, being provisioned equally across geography and user type, and in increasing corporate influence on government.

Published by Transactions in GIS, the article entitled “The Cost(s) of Geospatial Open Data” concludes with the development of critical questions to guide governments that provide open data in addressing costs related to constituency, purpose, enablement, protection, and priorities.

A key table from the “The Cost(s) of Geospatial Open Data” which lays out the critical questions in each of these areas for municipalities.

“What we were trying to do is to push the conversation of ‘value’ for open data beyond the typical areas of transparency, economic innovation, and service to citizens, and look more at what the generation of value can create in terms of additional costs,” Geothink Co-Applicant Peter Johnson, the paper’s first author and an associate professor in the University of Waterloo’s Department of Geography and Environmental Management, wrote in an e-mail. “So, for example, we talk about how there is a lot of interest in how open data can promote transparency, which is a great outcome. However, this can’t be conflated with more durable challenges like citizen participation and citizen engagement.”

“Simply putting open data out there won’t move the needle on those,” he added. “Rather, government must continue to work hard and use open data to help further those ends, but not as a replacement.”

Johnson’s co-authors on the paper were Geothink Principal Investigator Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment; Geothink Co-Applicant Teresa Scassa, Canada research chair in Information Law at the University of Ottawa; Geothink Collaborator Monica Stephens, assistant professor at The State University of New York, Buffalo; and Geothink Co-Applicant Pamela Robinson, the associate dean for Ryerson University’s Faculty of Community Services and an associate professor in the School of Urban and Regional Planning.

They note in the paper that their research funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada has evolved to examine the costs of open data that have emerged, and shown that “spatial is special” and that the broader open data research community that “draws upon a different set of assumptions and literatures, would benefit from the lessons learned in GIScience.” The paper then goes on to create “a framework that details direct and indirect costs created through the process of government open data provision, drawn from the perspectives of our key informants in municipal governments. Many of the indirect costs are external to the providing organization and are not always clear or straightforward.”

“Open data may enable a kind of smoke and mirrors that obscures a government’s actual commitment to citizen participation, transparency and accountability,” said Sieber. “The challenges of using open data as a platform for citizen participation and engagement can be exacerbated where insufficient government resources are deployed to ensure that open data sets are properly prepared for release.”

Johnson agreed.

“We are just holding our hands up and saying ‘Wait, this is more complicated than you think,’” he wrote. “Especially when we think of issues like protection of privacy for health or financial data, there are a lot of things to think through in parallel to just ‘How are we going to use (exploit) this data?’ So, for future research on this topic, I think that there is a lot to be done. Who is using open data and what are the ups and downs of using it?”

The Cost(s) of Geospatial Open Data
Abstract
The provision of open data by governments at all levels has rapidly increased over recent years. Given that one of the dominant motivations for the provision of open data is to generate ‘value’,both economic and civic, there are valid concerns over the costs incurred in this pursuit. Typically, costs of open data are framed as internal to the data providing government. Building on the strong history of GIScience research on data provision via spatial data infrastructures, this article considers both the direct and indirect costs of open data provision, framing four main areas of indirect costs: citizen participation challenges, uneven provision across geography and user types, subsidy of private sector activities, and the creation of inroads for corporate influence on government. These areas of indirect cost lead to the development of critical questions, including constituency, purpose, enablement, protection, and priorities. These questions are posed as a guide to governments that provide open data in addressing the indirect

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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.

Can Citizen Science Help Cities Address Climate Change?

Photo of people taking noise level readings.

Mapping for Change supports citizen science inquiries into environmental and social issues. Here, participants take noise level readings in regions around a London airport. Photo courtesy Mapping for Change.

By Naomi Bloch

If you were following the recent climate change talks in Paris, you may have noticed a recurring theme: policymakers acknowledging the leadership of subnational governments in addressing climate change. Canada’s own delegation to the conference included representatives from the Canadian Federation of Municipalities, as well as provincial and indigenous leaders.

While the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference focused on political negotiations, critics have been quick to remind legislators that more efforts are needed to involve citizens in decision-making. It’s hardly a new idea, but how can civic participation function at a global scale? Activities at the local level may hold the key. Municipalities often have established mechanisms to involve the public in deliberative activities. Cities and their citizens can also collaborate on the evidence-gathering needed to make informed decisions.

Geothink collaborator Muki Haklay is the director of the University College London’s Extreme Citizen Science group and a professor of Geographic Information Science in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering. In 2008, he co-founded Mapping for Change, an organization that uses participatory mapping and citizen science to address environmental and social issues in cities.

Headshot of Muki Haklay

Muki Haklay, professor of Geographic Information Science in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering, University College London.

“I see the value of citizen science as part of wider environmental democracy, going back to the Rio conference in 1992,” Haklay explained in an email interview with Geothink. Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development states that, at national levels, citizens should have “appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities.” At the community level, the Declaration calls for active and informed public participation in environmental decision-making processes.

Citizen science invites non-professionals to participate in data gathering and the production of new scientific knowledge. “I see citizen science as a new part of the picture,” said Haklay, “where people also participate in creating environmental information that will influence their lives.”

In Haklay’s view, citizen science has particular benefits that can complement traditional research. “The various changes that have occurred in society and technology mean that we can open environmental decision-making further and make it more inclusive and participatory.” As with all research, appropriate rigor and attention to methodology are required. “Not all data should come from citizen science,” said Haklay. “In terms of data quality, citizen science requires us to use appropriate quality assurance methods.”

Mapping for Change provides some helpful exemplars. One collaboration with local organizations has seen thirty different communities across London measuring and mapping air quality data for their neighbourhoods. “We used a whole range of methods: wipe samples, where we checked for heavy metals in dust on different surfaces; diffusion tubes which measure NO2 levels; and bio-indicators — lichens and leaves,” Haklay said. The project’s findings provide location-specific data that can help alert authorities to potential problem zones. “The local authority responded to the results by promising to do their own monitoring in the area and consider how they can manage the traffic in the area.”

Particularly when expensive equipment or lab analysis is needed, resource limitations can create challenges. However, Haklay points out some unique benefits. “Citizen science provides additional information about the context — local knowledge about the place where the monitoring is taking place,” said Haklay. “Participants can also put equipment in their own homes, which is complex for researchers or government agencies.” The citizen science water study in Flint, Michigan, is a good example of this.

Constraints, of course, are not just funding-related. “Not all people would want to do it, and not everyone will have the skills, though we need to consider how to help people in developing them,” Haklay said. “The limitations are the knowledge that people have, their perception of science and their own capabilities, and the abilities of those who manage citizen science projects to engage at such levels. We shouldn’t expect all scientists to be able to facilitate the whole process on their own.”

Haklay suggests that government agencies looking to incorporate citizen science in their data gathering processes should consult the report, Choosing and Using Citizen Science, produced by the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. The report reviews resource and management issues, political issues, as well as scientific issues.

The key to citizen science is that it can involve a range of activities. “Participants can help in setting the research question, create protocols that are suitable to their local culture and needs, analyze the information, participate in the production of reports and papers — in short, in everything,” Haklay said. “The value is in making science more open and more collaborative.”

Interested in learning more about Muki Haklay’s citizen science work? Follow him on Twitter: @mhaklay
If you have thoughts or questions about this article, get in touch with Naomi Bloch, Geothink’s digital journalist, at naomi.bloch2@gmail.com.

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.

Moving Forward with Canadian Census Data

By Naomi Bloch


Chloropleth maps of National Household Survey global non-response data at the dissemination-area level courtesy Scott Bell. Global non-response rates > 50% resulted in suppression of data for that spatial unit. All maps are classified using a quantile classification scheme.


As we move forward (and backward) with the 2016 return of Canada’s long-form census, questions remain for everyone who uses Statistics Canada’s key socio-economic data. Researchers, local government agencies, community organizations, and industry will still need to use data collected via the 2011 National Household Survey and understand how to reconcile that information with long-form census data.

Concerns regarding the reliability of NHS data stem from the lower response rates that resulted from the non-mandatory nature of the 2011 survey. The overall response rate for the survey decreased from 94 percent in 2006 to 69 percent in 2011. Media attention has centred on the fact that Statistics Canada chose not to release survey data for 25 percent of all census subdivisions because response rates for those spatial units were too low. A key question is whether the regions for which we have no reliable data share certain socio-economic characteristics — and if so, how this might impact service provision.

Geothink co-applicant researcher Scott Bell, a professor of Geography and Planning at University of Saskatchewan, has been studying and mapping the spatial patterns of the National Household Survey’s global non-response rates. His work examines various geographic levels, and considers response rate patterns relative to several socio-economic variables. Bell found that across the 15 cities he studied, there are many commonalities between areas where response rates are similar.

In this video interview, Bell discusses his research and its implications.

For more from Scott Bell, see also: The Long-term Impacts of the Short-Lived National Household Survey

If you have thoughts or questions about this video interview, get in touch with Naomi Bloch, Geothink’s digital journalist, at naomi.bloch2@gmail.com.

Geothoughts 4: Have We Broadened the Audience? Civic Participation in an Age of Digital Technology

Geothoughts 4 examines how civic participation is changing with the advent of geospatial digital technologies.

Geothoughts 4 examines how civic participation is changing with the advent of geospatial digital technologies.

By Drew Bush

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

This podcast examines how civic participation is changing with the advent of geospatial digital technologies that allow for cities to collect many forms of data on their citizens and for citizens to communicate with cities and about all that happens within them. We interview Geothink’s Head Renee Sieber, Associate Professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment, to find out her opinions on this subject.

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

This week we sit down with Geothink Head Renee Sieber to discuss how geospatial digital technology continues to reshape citizen interactions with cities. Sieber is an associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment.

[Geothink.ca theme music]

Welcome to Geothoughts. I’m Drew Bush.

“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. 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 neighborhoods 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.”

For example, governments can now know if you visit certain parks, go to certain places for coffee, and meet certain friends while doing either. So, theoretically at least, they can now design urban spaces and cities themselves to be safer, more vibrant, and better suited to the range of activities taking place in these places.

“Indeed, we can customize the city to individual desires. Well, that seems both incredibly convenient and incredibly Orwellian at the same time.”

Now in the third year of a five-year partnership research grant funded by the Canadian Government’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Geothink involves 26 researchers and 30 partners in examining the implications of increasing two-way exchanges of locational information between citizens and governments.

“Cities are facing tremendous budget cuts, so they may not, they literally may not have the money to have lengthy public meetings. They may need to respond quite rapidly to challenges, so they may not have the time. So it is in everyone’s best interest to try to create smooth yet meaningful interactions, and we have technologies to do that—both technologies in terms of your phone and also technologies in the imbedded infrastructure of cities. But how is that going to affect a very deep meaningful conversation, and in deep meaningful ways that cities respond to the needs of their residents and the needs of factors outside their municipalities?”

That’s where the interdisciplinary research of Geothink’s team and collaborators as well as its partnerships with many cities come in, said Sieber. All of these new interactions and ways of governing or being a citizen require research to be better understood.

“Well it’s a really exciting time. 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. They can communicate as issues arise. They can, perhaps cities may wish to create polls of online sentiment or they want to alert citizens of emergency situations or of interesting happenings in a city.”

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, according to Sieber. 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, Sieber added.

However, that doesn’t mean that more digital opportunities haven’t translated into more opportunities for citizens to interact with their cities and their services.

“I think we are in an environment in which we have really broadened opportunities for citizens to participate through social media, through these various kinds of devices that we have. So I think its very exciting and also we can have citizens more fully engaged as members of the city in reporting in monitoring events in real time.”

However, Sieber cautions that we must remember technology is not a panacea.

“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. 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.”

[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.