Tag Archives: Geothink

Geothoughts 15: Reflections from Geothink’s Researchers at the Conclusion of the Grant

2015 Geothink Summer Institute students, faculty and staff

By Sam Lumley

We’re excited to present our 15th episode of Geothoughts. You can also subscribe to this Podcast by finding it on iTunes.

In this episode, we take a look back over five years of fruitful Geothink research. We spoke to Geothink Head Renee Sieber, Co-Applicants Rob Fieck, Daniel Paré and Stéphane Roche, and Geothink students Rachel Bloom and Edgar Baculi about their most memorable experiences with the grant.

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 Sam Lumley.

[Geothink.ca theme music]

“The Geothink grant that was funded by the social science and humanities research council of Canada is coming to an end. We have done great work in terms of creating new theories, new frameworks, new applications, new data sets new collaborations.”

That was Geothink Head Renee Sieber, an associate professor at McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment. Funded by Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Geothink partnership grant has involved 26 researchers and 30 partners, while also training more than 100 students. As the grant wraps up, we’ve been hearing from our researchers and students as they reflect on their involvement in the grant over the past five years.

We started off by speaking to former Geothink student Rachel Bloom about her most memorable experiences with the grant.

“I was the lead of Geothink’s Open Data Standards project when I was a student at McGill University. The most memorable Geothink experience would have to be designing a survey that I delivered to open data publishers at cities in north america about open-data standards. It’s memorable because it was a really challenging process due to my research topic being so new. And it also helped me develop my skills as a researcher for the future.”

The Geothink grant has brought together researchers from many different backgrounds and from different parts of the world. It was this point that Geothink co-applicant Rob Feick, an associate professor in Waterloo University’s School of Planning, emphasised while talking about the influence of Geothink on his own work.

“My research has really benefited from my work with Geothink in a few ways, one of which is Geothink is really a multi disciplinary network. It’s a network of people that span disciplines from geography, law, planning and a host of others. And having these different types of expertise around the table has really helped ground my research.”

“It’s also very applied work we’re working with local regional governments on problems that matter to people, both problems that matter to people right now and those that people are seeing both in the research community and in applied context, coming down the pipe in future years. So one of the ways, just using special data quality as of those areas that a number of us have been looking at and that that I have really benefited from in my exposure in Geothink, is understanding that it is far less of a technical matter and it’s a combination of technical and a social and governance matter, and we’re starting to understand that something that we thought was relatively simple, of spatial data quality, is much more complex.”

This interdisciplinary approach was also highlighted by Sieber, as being essential to  exploring how interactions between citizens and government are mediated by technology.

“It’s been marvelous in terms of the interdisciplinary of bringing together geographers lawyers, people in the private sector, people in government to work on issues of what’s happening to the conversations between citizens and cities. And on how can we make sure the technology is not an impediment, but actually enhances that conversation”

Working alongside people from different academic fields can help to offer a broader perspective on the big issues facing citizens and governments.  It also led some Geothink researchers to shift their own own research interests. This was the case for Geothink Co-Applicant Stéphane Roche, an associate professor in University Laval’s Department of Geomatics, who talked about his focus moving from the technical to the ethical over the course of the grant.

“My main interest within Geothink was more about social inclusion within a smart city context, spatial justice and ethics, which was quite far from what I was supposed to do at the beginning. So in my case, the move was quite big. Geothink is as a network different sectors, different disciplines, different expertise, and working on these issues around the relationship between spatial and social justice, cities and technology. And that that was really remarkable. I really enjoyed and appreciated the the dynamism and the motivation of our group of students, some of them coming from law, some others from engineering some from social science. And it was really rich in term of interaction.”

Throughout the grant new partnerships and opportunities have emerged, and co-applicant Daniel Paré, an associate professor in the University of Ottawa’s Department of Communication and School of Information Studies, highlighted his new collaborations with the Open Government Partnership.

“My involvement with Geothink has influenced my research in so much as it has opened the door towards getting to work with OGP partnership. So based on my Geothink work in open data and open government, that’s transformed, if you will, into the role with the OGP. Where I’m responsible for overseeing assessments of the implementation of Ontario’s Open Data Action Plan.”

We went on to ask Paré about his most memorable experiences as part of the grant.

“I think the most memorable experience has been working with the great team that was put together, and that includes our great team of students that are brought together every year in terms of the student based meetings and such. So for me that’s always been a highlight of the team actually getting together physically and meeting over a period of three to four days. That’s been key; those sessions always been so rich on multiple levels.”

Opportunities for collaboration and exchange were facilitated by the four Geothink summer institutes. Many collaborators and partners emphasised how helpful it was to bring researchers, partners and students together under one roof. Feick pointed to 2015 Summer Institute held at McGill University as being his most memorable moment.

“I’ve had a lot of memorable moments in this in this project over the years, but I think the one that sticks with me the most was at a summer institute that we had for the Geothink students here at waterloo. The summer institutes are opportunities where students from a variety of different universities could come together and work on an applied problem and learn about a particular aspect of geospatial information and its interfacing with society.”

“Students in this particular summer institute had the task of developing an application. We had teams of students that hadn’t met before that came together over the course of a week and put together some really fantastic applications. And these applications, I think, spurred a lot of their own research that they were going to continue on with, but also was really interesting to see how again the different perspectives that the students brought, along with those people that were assisting them through the SI, actually came to fruition.”

The summer institutes also stood out to former Geothink student Edgar Baculi, now a graduate researcher in Ryerson’s Department of Geography.

“We have all these disciplines and I remember benefing greatly from talking to the economics student, sociologist, communication and journalism students on the topic open data and it opened my mind to the idea of, if we’re talking about open data it’s not just going to be the GIS people who are going to benefit or the academics, it’s going to be the sociology students, it’s going to be a journalist from the Toronto Star, it’s going to be all these people who need to understand what open-data is from their perspective and from other perspectives.”

“So, I would say, Geothink was very important in letting me know the inside from other perspectives. And as for networking, that’s a lot of disciplines to go through, and we were all from across canada, and I think actually a few of us were from the States, if I remember correctly, so it was a great networking experience. Many of them are still friends of mine on twitter and LinkedIn, so, great experience.”

The five-year Geothink Partnership Grant may be coming to its conclusion, but the research and its applications will continue. We asked Sieber what lay in store for Geothink’s research themes, the community the partnership helped to foster and the grant’s continuing work.

“We have transformed, I’m happy to say, the lives of over 100 students. I’d like to think that we transformed the lives of many people in the public sector and the private sector across canada. I know it has certainly transformed my life. It has transformed the life of the researchers involved in this project.”

“So while this grant ends, that doesn’t mean that Geothink as a concept, and a research trajectory has ended. Many of our apps will live on beyond us. Certainly our research and our own research trajectories have been changed as a result, so that work’s going to go on even after the grant ends. And, of course, we’re also looking for new grants to pursue this research!”

[Geothink.ca theme music]

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

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If you have thoughts or questions about this podcast, get in touch with Sam Lumley, Geothink’s digital journalist, at sam.lumley@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.

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.

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.

Crosspost: Geothoughts on Geothink

An image of the Castlegar campus at Selkirk College with the Mir Centre for Peace visible on the right. (Photo courtesy of Karen Godbout.)

By Karen Godbout


This post originally appeared on the Rural Open Data site which reports on research taking place as part of a three year grant investigating open data best practices, policy and delivery options in southeastern British Columbia. The author is in the final year of her Bachelor’s of Geographic Information Science (BGIS) at Selkirk College and is currently working at the Selkirk Geospatial Research Centre.


I am presently completing a summer work term at the Selkirk Geospatial Research Centre, supporting its Rural Open Data study. In September, I will enter the final year of a BGIS, also at Selkirk. I came to GIS from a humanities background, after many years working in libraries. I am really fortunate to have been guided toward the possibilities for GIS within the humanities, like open government data, and will continue to focus in that area.

The Geothink Summer Institute (May 25-27, McGill University, Montreal) was a unique opportunity to meet and collaborate with fellow students from multiple provinces (Quebec, Ontario, Saskatchewan, B.C.) and academic disciplines (GIS, Geography, Law, Urban Planning), as well as varying levels of study (from undergrad to doctorate). The theme of this year’s institute was “Smart Cities – Just Cities.” While it certainly was not lacking in solid examples of policies and applications, most of the dialogue and problem solving at the institute centred on the emerging potential of smart cities. With so many standards yet to be developed, and so much infrastructure still to build, I came away with big ideas, concepts, and philosophies more than any other thing. I also learned why that is a good outcome. We stand in the enormously fortunate and powerful position of determining exactly what smart cities will be. If they are to be equitable, accessible, sustainable, social, and safe places, it will be determined by the questions we ask and answer right now.

X: What exactly is the meaning of ‘smart’ in the smart cities context? Primarily, the default concept of smart is the one developed centuries ago, meaning logical, well reasoned, and scientific. During the 1990s and 2000s, the social sciences transitioned into the idea of multiple intelligences. First, it was emotional intelligence. Then social intelligence. Eventually there were bodily, intuitive, and existential intelligences. It all became a little bit silly, which may be why we continue to return to the default. Still, there is value in considering different aspects of smart. Consider Artificial Intelligence (AI) for example. No matter how many algorithms are developed, or how much data is processed, ‘the rules’ will always limit machine learning. The elements of human consciousness that add up to smart remain a mystery, and I daresay the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. What is the algorithm for imagination? In the context of smart cities we must also ask, what is data? Again, the default is measurable and precise, facilitating all sorts of amazing, practical solutions to significant human problems. Yet humans remain unpredictable, and cities are messy. Much of what makes a place meaningful and livable for its citizens is not quantifiable. In determining the smart/just city, space must be included for the qualitative, the organic, and the random.

Y: What normative influences are smart cities to have upon the behaviour and expectations of citizens?  With smartphones, wireless, and up-to-the-minute GPS data, there comes an ability to control and personalize the urban environment more and more. Don’t want to wait in the rain for the bus? See when it’s 30 seconds away from the stop. Want the city to fill in that pothole? Submit a photo and see it move up the road-repair priorities list. Great stuff, right? The issue being, as individualized services increase, so do expectations, and the false perception that convenience is a right. The smart/just city must very intentionally cultivate engagement with the entire community, deliberately seeking inclusive input from the less enfranchised, whether it be due to language, income, age, or intellect. Fostering the communal spirit within cities will require a massive culture shift for some, and arouse the suspicion of many. The selling point is innovation. Just as in nature, diversity results in adaptability for cities. Variability creates opportunity for new ideas, social benefits, and economic growth.

Z: Can the smart cities model grow engagement and increase unity among communities?  Knowing more about someone or something brings it closer, makes it matter more. As the information age crashes into the big data minute, what any human being can know and care about becomes increasingly narrow, at least in any practical, useable way. Any group one identifies with is progressively exclusive, and may be more ideological than spatial. Constructing smart/just cities from the ground up, from grassroots neighbourhoods and villages, is the reasonable place to begin. But, generating a sense of unity among these will not simply happen once the end is achieved. Pre-existing government data, when made open, can help build community cohesion at every step, giving each group an equal voice and connecting the common links between them.

What will determine the smart city?  In this as in everything, the means matter.

Tackling The Thornier Issues Plaguing Smart Cities – Geothink Summer Institute Day 2

Day two of Geothink’s 2017 Summer Institute at McGill University in Montreal, QC featured presentations by faculty on the pressing issues facing smart cities.

By Drew Bush

On day two of Geothink’s 2017 Summer Institute at McGill University in Montreal, QC, students got their hands dirty investigating the important issues facing smart cities. Each group presented unique findings in answer to a question they were asked to investigate from the disciplines of law, geomatics and geography.

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.

Before undertaking their own research, students heard from Institute faculty with expertise in each of the areas they were asked to investigate during half-hour presentations. This began with a presentation on the online, participatory mapping tool, GeoLive, by Geothink Co-Applicant Jon Corbett, associate professor in University of British Columbia at Okanagan’s Department of Geography. He was followed by Geothink Co-Applicant Teresa Scassa, Canada research chair in University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law, who talked about the legal issues surrounding the development of applications (APPs) in smart cities. Geothink Co-Applicant Stéphane Roche, associate professor in University Laval’s Department of Geomatics, finished the morning by talking about ethics in smart cities.

“So law is in many respects about relationships, and certainly in this context is about relationships,” Scassa told students during her presentation. “And so one of the things you need to do when you are looking at and thinking about legal issues in this context is to think about what particular legal relationship or relationships you are talking about and you are thinking about. So, for example, a city may be thinking about entering into a contract with a particular service provider for a smart city’s service or a smart city’s APP. And that—there will be a relationship defined in legal terms between the city and the service provider at that point. And so that’s one relationship.”

“And there are going to have to be certain things worked out in the context of that particular relationship between the city and the service provider,” Scassa added. “The city that enters into a contract for that service may then also have a relationship with the users of that service. And so that’s another relationship. And it’s a relationship the city has to think about in terms of how it wants to define that relationship with its users.”

“There are two things that I really appreciate,” Geothink Co-Applicant Stéphane Roche, associate professor in University Laval’s Department of Geomatics, said. “The first one is the idea of talking about and thinking about smart cities without talking about smart cities. And that was the case this morning. And especially by—with the first presentation by [Jon Corbett]. I guess that what Jon has presented, you know, about participatory mapping for a community was and is really valuable for our reflection about smart cities.”

“It’s not a question of technology,” Roche added before noting that the second thing he appreciated was the interdisciplinarity of the presentations and students. “The main issue is involving community. The main issue is designing solutions that are in line with their view of space—[a community’s] view of their relationship with space.”

At the conclusion of the presentations, each student group was presented with a unique question that they had to answer. Questions were derived from each discipline and speaker’s presentation. They asked students to conduct research on how society should evaluate the usability and functionality of smart city APPs and how the additional data and APPs from a smart city create legal liability for cities that doesn’t fit within the policy structure that already exists.

“We are assessing the impact of like, I guess, the Geolive initiative,” Selasi Dokenoo, an undergraduate student at Ryerson University, said. “To clarify what it’s like and how do we assess the impact and benefits of this type of program.”

A different group worked with another site, iSearch Kelowna, for their question. The Web site makes use of open data to aid people in finding low-income rentals, supportive housing or emergency shelters within the City of Kelowna.

“For the exercise, the question is related to feedback,” Ali Afghanteloee, a doctoral student at Laval University, said. “Evaluating the functionality and usability of the web services about Kelowna. First of all, we’ve found out what is the criteria [for] evaluation. And, second, what are the tools to evaluate this kind of criteria. It’s just—we decided that, I think, that the quality criteria is very important because we decided that the user is very important. The usability. And spatially whether creating this site to find out what the services are—whether this is useable or not.”

The day concluded with each group presenting findings on what they had found during their research. For many, this proved enlightening and related well to their own work back at their home university.

Student groups worked on day two to answer research questions posed by the panelists about smart cities.

“Well, I’m interested in policy mobility,” Brennan Field, a doctoral student at University of Saskatchewan, said. “So it’s been interesting in the past few days just looking at how smart cities, in terms of an urban policy space, have become mobile and have been spreading. And so in the case of the Montreal it was interesting hearing [Harout Chitilian] speaking of how the police department is using open data to report crime. And then their initial reticence and then kind of opening up to it. So I was already familiar with that—basically that has been how police departments generally respond to that particular policy. The policy of open data related to reporting police activity.”

“And seeing how a lot of it is cross-overs between how open data as urban policy has become mobile and how smart cities as urban policy has become mobile,” Field added. “So there are a lot of similarities and cross-overs with my research. So that’s what I’ve learned.”

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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.

Bringing Smart Cities to an Interdisciplinary Group of Scholars – Geothink Summer Institute Day 1

A panel introduces the idea of a smart city to students at Geothink’s 2017 Summer Institute at McGill University in Montreal, QC.

By Drew Bush

The term smart cities can mean one thing to a scholar of geomatics and something entirely different to an urban planner. The morning panelists on the first day of Geothink’s 2017 Summer Institute at McGill University in Montreal, QC enlightened more than 30 students and visitors on their perspectives.

The panel kicked off the main theme of this year’s gathering: “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.

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; and Victoria Fast, an assistant professor at University of Calgary’s Department of Geography.

“I work on the smart city and especially on the way digital technology, geospatial technology could improve the capability of citizens to be more engaged in cities,” Roche told students to begin the panel discussion. “And this is why for me, smart is really linked to citizen engagement.”

“Smart cities, for me, is based on four components,” he added. “The first one is digital, so that means the integration of engineering the urban systems, so it’s really about urban engineering and improving the efficiency of engineering structure for urban management. The second component is open, so a smart city means opening cooperation and participation. The third one is this idea of being able to give an answer for different issues based on the use of sensing, learning and sharing. This is the component where citizen engagement is really, really important. And the fourth one is this idea of urban innovation. A smart city is also really linked to this idea of innovation. Not only economical innovation but the way we build cities. And the way we build living space for people.”

Not all the panelists focused on citizen-engagement or new sensors being installed in cities. Robinson spoke on how urban planners talk about smart cities. She noted that the role of planners is to consider the public good and how this should be defined and protected in the development of smart cities in relation to issues of sustainability, equity and inclusion. Scassa noted that she teaches law and, therefore, she thinks of smart cities as sensor-laden cities that make much new data available. For her, this opens many new questions for governance processes and personal privacy.

Later in the day, 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. In an interview afterwards, he offered a practical perspective on what being a smart city meant for Montreal residents.

“So first and foremost, you get accountability,” Chitilian said. “So you know where your tax dollars are going in terms of as far as the services are concerned. You know how your contracts are being managed as far as who it’s being given out to and what are the concentration of contracts in certain areas. And you also have accountability from your public safety/police forces that have now a transparent way of reporting a crime map from the city of Montreal.”

“And then now, bit-by-bit, on a service-by-service basis, you also have real-time data of the progress of the services that are delivered to you,” he added. “And we started with snow removal but there will be much more in years to come.”

After more in-depth presentations on civic engagement by Feick and Robinson, accessibility by Fast and free public Wi-Fi by Guidoin, the day transitioned into its first student activity. Groups were asked to answer three questions about McGill’s campus and enrolling as a student. The catch was that half the groups could use free campus Wi-Fi (which Chitilian had just announced as part of the city’s plan) and the other half could not use any online sources.

“I think it was a good chance to re-think about the internet that’s available in different places,” said Wonjun Cho, an undergraduate student at McGill. “I think it was personally easier to find many places using Internet and Wi-Fi. And, yeah, it would have been interesting if I had an experience in analogue as well to compare. But overall it was a lot of fun.”

As a resident of Montreal, Cho also felt strongly about the city’s move to install free public Wi-Fi.

“There are many tourists who visit Montreal every year,” Cho added. “And, especially international tourists, they often find a hard time to get place to place. And these days so many people use apps and Google maps and trip sites to find hotels. And it would definitely be an enhanced experience for visitors to Montreal. And also for people who live here because not many people have unlimited amounts of data on their cell phones.”

As the day drew to a close, students were led in a discussion by Sieber on what they knew about smart cities prior to their arrival and how the day’s events had changed their perspectives. In attendance were students of mixed disciplines ranging from geography and urban planning to law and geomatics.

“If you see what’s going on right now with the group work, getting students from different universities, from different parts of Canada—let’s face it from different disciplines—bringing together their own set of experiences and skills into a group learning situation, I think that’s a meaningful outcome as well,” Geothink Co-Applicant Jon Corbett, associate professor at University of British Columbia at Okanagan’s Department of Geography, said. “So I’m really happy to see how well the students seem to be getting on, how well they work together in small groups, and I think that, hopefully, will be laying the foundation for, you know, for future graduate students. So that when they go to conferences or, who knows, when they become academics, they will already have that relationship or those relationships in place.”

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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.