Tag Archives: open data

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.


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
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


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.


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.

Rural open data: more than just a technical issue

By Suthee Sangiambut

The conversation around open data is most commonly found at the city level. Ian Parfitt, GIS instructor and Coordinator of Selkirk College’s Selkirk Geospatial Research Centre, has a project looking at open data for rural communities. Parfitt’s past challenges in gaining access to data led to his project, which is helping to develop open data for planning in rural British Columbia. In an interview, Parfitt talked about issues of scale at both demand and supply sides for open data in the region stating that, “in the smaller communities, even digitisation is an issue. Some small communities still use paper maps.” Regarding the digital divide, internet connectivity in rural Canada lags behind larger urban centres, but it is unclear whether the pool of skills to draw upon is smaller than in cities says Parfitt. However, he noted that “if there is a divide in skills amongst users, that is likely to change.” The province of British Columbia is in the process of making programming an integral part of the school curriculum while initiatives such as CODE BC, supported by the provincial government, connect teachers with teaching material. Parfitt also notes that rural tech communities, such as in Nelson, BC are continuing to grow.

Some of the disparities between urban and rural data collection are due to population – larger population centres with more institutions and infrastructure simply produce more data. With economies of scale and an economic stimulus, it makes sense to have real-time data collection and analysis. Cities are also host to more consumers of data of all kinds. Parfitt says that it is “all about scale. Since federal institutions are interested in data they can roll out nationwide, and local governments focus on their own scales, rural areas tend to get left behind. At the same time, national and sub-national decision makers tend to be quite far away.”

Without the resources of federal government or a large municipality, rural areas face relatively high, and potentially unjustifiable costs when it comes to geospatial data collection and analysis. However, for Parfitt, rural data collection is more than just a cost issue. While he agreed that “centralization would help in certain cases”, particularly when it comes to the work on data standards of his own research group, Parfitt also emphasised that empowerment and autonomy are important to keep decision-making local. This ensures that “data serves some purpose and that those purposes are determined locally.” This, he admits, can be difficult when rural governments produce data in collaboration with other levels of government. The needs of rural communities can also be very different from urban communities such as risks of natural hazards, “we live in a mountainous area with big lakes. The transportation system is fragile. When only one road goes along the lake, a single fire or landslide could isolate the community.” For this reason, Parfitt’s research group is focusing on open data for planning around natural hazards.

Putting open data into the regional context, Dr. Jon Corbett (Geothink co-applicant, University of British Columbia Okanagan) says it is “completely different usership. Often, data has not been collected and archived because the needs for up-to-date information are not the same as in cities.” Therefore, rural data tends to be more static. However, Corbett continued, “this does not mean that legislators aren’t still subject to the same demands and requirements for participation, engagement, and informed decision-making.”

The effects of data release may also be different in rural areas says Corbett, “industry around land, such as resource extraction, use data often created and curated by government. If that data is made available, it would be good. On the other hand, look at issues around pipelines and dams. If we made that data available, it could even have adverse effects. Data for countermapping is a good idea, but sometimes that process can be appropriated by all kinds of groups, particularly those already in power.” Corbett highlighted that rural open data brings up even more issues of contention when put in context with First Nations, who need access to data to support land claims and review resource extraction proposals.

To address the above issues, Parfitt’s project is looking to collaborate with regional districts to make data available across communities. Key questions being asked are, “who is producing data, why, and how?” For more information on Ian Parfitt’s research group, visit the Selkirk Geospatial Research Centre website.

Dr. Corbett offered up some food for thought, “in the spirit of sharing government data, why don’t we expand our data repositories and include those outside government?”

Leveraging Open Data: International perspectives presented at URISA’s GIS-Pro 2016 conference

This is a cross-post from Geothink co-applicant Dr. Claus Rinner‘s website, written by Geothink student Sarah Greene, Ryerson University. Sarah is Candidate for the Master’s of Spatial Analysis at Ryerson University. Her research focusses on open data.

By Sarah Greene

This past week, URISA held its 54th annual GIS-Pro conference in Toronto, bringing together GIS professionals and businesses from around the world. The conference provided many interesting sessions including one focused entirely on open data. This session, titled “Leveraging Open Data”, included government as well as private sector perspectives.

The session began with a presentation from the Government of North Carolina, discussing the importance of metadata. They are currently collaborating with a number of agencies to create and share a metadata profile to help others open up their data and understand how to implement the standards suggested. They have produced a living document which can be accessed through their webpage.

The next speaker at the session represented Pitkin County in Colorado. They represent an open data success story with a number of great resources available for download on their website including high quality aerial imagery. An important aspect to their open data project was their engagement with their local community to understand what data should be opened, and then marketing those datasets which were released.

The Government of Ontario was also present as this session, presenting on the current status of open data for the province. The Ontario Government promotes an Open by Default approach and currently has over 500 datasets from 49 agencies available to download through their portal. They are working towards continuing to increase their open datasets available.

A presentation by MapYourProperty provided an interesting perspective from the private sector using open data to successfully run their business. They heavily depend on visualizing open data to provide a web-based mapping application for the planning and real estate community to search properties, map zoning information and create a due diligence report based on the information found. This is one example of many that exist in the private sector of open data helping build new companies, or help existing companies thrive.

Lastly, a representative from Esri Canada’s BC office wrapped up the session reminding us all of the importance of opening data. This included highlighting the seemingly endless benefits to open data, including providing information to help make decisions, supporting innovation, creating smart cities and building connections. Of course, open data is big business for Esri too, with the addition of ArcGIS Open Data as a hosted open data catalog to the ArcGIS Online platform.

This session showcased some great initiatives taking place in Canada and the United States that are proving the importance of opening up data and how this can be done successfully. It is exciting to see what has been taking place locally and internationally and it will be even more exciting to see what happens in the future, as both geospatial and a-spatial data products continue to become more openly available.

A talk at the GIS Pro 2016 conference. Photo credit: Claus Rinner

A talk at the GIS Pro 2016 conference. Photo credit: Claus Rinner

See the original post here

Open Data and Urban Forests – What’s Next?

This is a guest post from Geothink Post Doctoral researcher James Steenberg, Ryerson University School of Urban and Regional Planning, working with Dr. Pamela Robinson.

By James Steenberg, PhD

I recently had the opportunity to go on a Geothink summer exchange at the University of Waterloo hosted by Dr. Peter Johnson, a Geothink co-applicant and Assistant Professor at Waterloo’s Department of Geography and Environmental Management. The main goal of the exchange was to learn about open data and open government from Dr. Johnson with the ultimate goal of writing a collaborative paper on the potential role of open data in municipal urban forestry.

I wrote about my experiences during the exchange in a previous post, and subsequently left Waterloo with an open question on open data – can the open data/open government movement also be embraced in urban forestry? I would like to justify this question with two contrasting tales of cities.


The first tale is about Toronto, more specifically about a neighbourhood in Toronto called Harbord Village where I conducted some of my PhD field research. The neighbourhood and its residents association are quite active in the stewardship of their urban forest. They even undertook a citizen science initiative to inventory and assess all 4,000 of their trees. I re-measured some of their tree inventory in 2014 with the purpose of identifying social and ecological drivers of urban forest vulnerability (e.g., tree mortality). Soon after, my current Geothink supervisor Dr. Pamela Robinson and I began to speculate that a key agent of change was housing renovation. Where we noted incidences of tree mortality, there were often shiny new home additions or driveways where once a tree stood. Fortunately, the City of Toronto’s open data portal includes building permit data and we were able to test this theory. We did indeed find that building permits (i.e., housing renovation) significantly predicted higher rates of tree mortality.

Municipal urban forestry departments are responsible for planting, maintaining, and removing trees on public land, as well as protecting and sustaining the urban forest resource on public and private land through various policies and regulations. However, it’s important to note that urban forestry is plagued by management challenges due to the limited space and harsh growing conditions of cities. Simply put, trees frequently die when they’re not supposed to – often for unknown reasons – and practitioners are continuously seeking out ways to reduce unnecessary tree mortality. Our findings suggest that urban foresters aren’t talking to urban planners when they should be, or vice versa. Urban planners collect data describing where building renovation occurs. Urban foresters collect data describing where city trees are dying and being removed. Blending these datasets has revealed that better coordination and horizontal data sharing across branches of government might help keep public trees alive. More broadly, these findings indicate an inefficiency in municipal service provision – the provision of the beneficial ecosystem services that public trees provide to city residents. What other urban forest inefficiencies might open data reveal?

The Harbord Village tree inventory and corresponding volunteered geographic information (VGI)


The second tale is about Edmonton and paints a different picture. I stumbled across one of Edmonton’s approaches to urban forestry during my summer exchange while learning about the various open data programs across Canada. Their urban forestry branch has used Open Tree Map – a web-based application for participatory tree mapping – in their yegTreeMap project so that “individuals, community groups, and government can collaboratively create an accurate and informative inventory of the trees in their communities”. In short, citizens in Edmonton that feel the urge to participate in municipal urban forestry can do so by downloading tree inventory data, using the data to their heart’s content (e.g., community-based stewardship programs), and entering new data into the City’s database.

This approach to what I’ve started calling ‘open urban forestry’ could conceivably improve citizen engagement with municipal government and its urban forestry programs. Much of the urban forest resource is situated on private residential property that the city doesn’t have direct access to, so citizen engagement in stewardship activities is a key piece of the puzzle. Moreover, urban tree inventories are notoriously fickle when it comes to data, being both expensive to generate and quick to become out-of-date and obsolete. Crowdsourcing a city’s tree inventory could conceivably provide better data to support decision-making in urban forestry, such as where to plant trees, what species to plant, and where trees are in decline or hazardous.

Edmonton’s yegTreeMap user interface on Open Tree Map

I have been very fortunate to be able to incubate these ideas with guidance from Dr. Robinson and her knowledge of urban planning and citizen engagement. Moreover, it was because of my Geothink summer exchange with Dr. Johnson at the University of Waterloo and his knowledge of open data and open government that I arrived at my current line of thinking on the benefits of open data and crowdsourcing for urban forestry. My next steps forward will be to think critically about these ideas as well. What are the environmental justice implications around who gets to participate in open urban forestry? Crowdsourcing tree inventories through open data programs may provide better data, but do they simultaneously justify the under-funding of municipal urban forestry programs? I’m excited to develop these collaborative ideas over the coming weeks and to hopefully answer my open question on open data.

My sincere thanks to Geothink for giving me the opportunity to go on a summer exchange at the University of Waterloo. Thank you Dr. Peter Johnson for hosting me at the Department of Geography and Environmental Management and for introducing me to your students and colleagues.

To the Geothink community members: please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have further questions or if you are considering going on a summer exchange yourself.

James Steenberg is a postdoctoral researcher under the supervision of Dr. Pamela Robinson at Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning. His research focuses on the ecology and management of the urban forest. James can be reached by email – james.steenberg@ryerson.ca – and on Twitter – @JamesSteenberg

Geothink Co-Applicant, Colleague and Friend Leaves Behind Rich Legacy of Empowering Sustainable Urban Change at the Community Level

Alexander Aylett's research

Alexander Aylett’s research examined how cities’ use of digital technology, citizen-sensors, and open data could allow local communities, government leaders and private businesses to manage urban areas more sustainable.

By Drew Bush

Geothink Co-Applicant Alexander C.E. Aylett passed away on July 23, 2016 from cancer.

Geothink Co-Applicant Alexander C.E. Aylett passed away on July 23, 2016 from cancer.

Geothink Co-Applicant Alexander C.E. Aylett passed away on July 23, 2016 from cancer. A beloved son, husband and father, colleagues also remember him for his warmth and passion. His research empowered urban communities to engage with sustainable development through the use of digital technologies and open data.

His wife Luna, their two daughters, Inara and Aurora, her father Richard and his wife Claire, and his two brothers, Chris and Andrew, survive him. A memorial service was held in his honor on Sunday, July 31st at the Alfred Dallaire Memorial Lounge located in Montreal, Quebec.

“It’s a real loss to the community of people who want smart cities to help improve sustainability and environmental issues,” Geothink Co-Applicant Pamela Robinson, associate professor in Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, said.

“Alex was trying to make these ideas stick between the [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] CoLab and through ÉcoHackMtl,” she added. “He really wanted to do research that mattered and that made a difference. And to try to bridge the gap between academy and practice. So he was pushing forward on new work.”

Aylett’s research interrogated how cities’ use of digital technology, citizen-sensors, and open data could allow local communities, government leaders and private businesses to manage urban areas more sustainable. One outcome driven by these new mediums for exchanging information has been an enhanced capacity of cities to use citizens and resources to strategically tackle issues such as climate change.

“Alex was a wonderful person—intense, caring, and insightful into how to derive practical political solutions to urban sustainability,” Geothink Head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment, said. “He brought hackers, politicians, and environmentalists together to solve environmental and social problems through consensus and the pragmatic building of networks.”

Last February, Geothink spoke with Aylett about his work before writing an online article and podcast. We present previously unpublished excerpts of that audio interview here that capture the spirit of Aylett’s life and work. Find a written transcript at the end of this article.

Aylett joined the Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS) in July 2015 but had been actively pursuing research on these issues as a Banting Postdoctoral Fellow at MIT. Since 2009, he had published 12 papers with his most recent book chapter entitled “Relational Agency and the Local Governance of Climate Change: International Trends and an American Exemplar” in The Urban Climate Challenge: Re-thinking the Role of Cities in the Global Climate Regime (find a full citation at the end of this article).

He earned a master’s in comparative literature (2004) followed by a doctorate in human geography (2011) both from the University of British Columbia. At INRS, he was actively recruiting a new masters and doctoral student to join his research team. He firmly believed in partnership-based research, writing in his advertisements for students that “It makes for stronger research, and reduces the gap between research and action.”

His absence will also be deeply felt by the many communities where he led projects, particularly as the founder and co-director of ÉcoHackMtl.

“In a way, you could say his work already lives on by the fact the he was a part of a range of different stakeholders that were looking for ways to innovate using open data,” said Jean-Noé Landry, executive director of Open North. Landry collaborated closely with Aylett on several projects including ÉcoHackMtl and had supervised one of his graduate students at Open North.

“The values that bind us together are those that really kind of enable us to find strength in achieving our collective vision,” Landry added after describing values he shared with Aylett about open data and better governance. “And so, the fact is that we need to have leaders that step up, and put this stuff forward, and put in the time, and drive change. But we’re stronger when we’re empowering those around us.”

“That’s really at the core of the open data community. So, yes, we are losing a leader but I think his leadership was such that he was able to bring in more people to talk about the potential of data, to talk about potential innovation, to talk about the seriousness of urban sustainability issues and the potential of open data to resolve those issues. I think carrying that vision forward—obviously let’s not forget him. But we share the goals he advocated.”

Friends and family of Aylett have requested that instead of flowers, those wishing to show support may instead contribute to a fund to support the family’s immediate needs. Find it here: https://www.gofundme.com/2gbuq7w

Book Chapter Citation
Aylett, A. (2015) “Relational Agency and the Local Governance of Climate Change: International Trends and an American Exemplar.” in The Urban Climate Challenge: Re-thinking the Role of Cities in the Global Climate Regime. Eds. Craig Johnson, Noah Toly, Heike Schroeder. (Routledge). 12 pages.


[Geothink.ca theme music]

Alexander Aylett, I’m a professor of urban sustainability governance and innovation at the Center for Urbanization, Culture, and Society of the National Institute for Scientific Research or the proper French title is Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique in Montreal.”

“It’s really tricky to address a lot of the environmental impacts that are spread throughout the urban community. Right, sort of what people call collective action problems. And one of things that new technologies are very good at is building networked publics, right, coalitions of interest around—well I mean around all kinds of things. Around, you know, celebrity gossip and, you know, plastic surgery, you know, the biggest plastic surgery disasters. Ok, on the one hand fine. But also around much more meaningful stuff. Like green space. Like transit activism. Like creating community networks that are able to design and manage complex things. Like if you want to start talking about how you can manage a community energy transition, having good online platforms that are a tool that’s used in public mobilization and engagement strategies makes it possible to be more effective at the local level. But also then to scale up quite well from local action to action in other local areas either in the same city or in other cities.”

“I have a great example of that. There’s the 596-acres project. Do you know about it? It started in Brooklyn. And it’s a perfect example of how digital tools, open data and, then, a strong community mobilization that also works in the real world. Right this is not a 100 percent digital initiative. And I think that that’s why a lot of things fail. Is that they think that that digital is going to do all the work for them. But this is an example of how something can be very successful bridging digital and physical reality.”

“And what they do is that they have created an online map of all the vacant municipally owned land—well initially it started off in Brooklyn in New York City. And then a platform, sort of imagine a Facebook of sorts, which allowed people to say, ‘Oh yeah, I live around lot 77 at the corner of 5th and 22nd, and I’ve walked by that empty gravel lot my whole life. And I would love it if we could have a community garden there.’ And you post that. And then someone else who sees that lot and sees oh look someone else is already interested in doing a project here. ‘I wonder what it is?’ And they sign up too.”

“And so quite quickly you get clusters. You get networked group of local residents who might not know each other and who often don’t know each other otherwise that form online. But then meet in person and using data that they have taken from the New York City open data portal can identify which part of the municipality they need to contact if they want to propose a project—a citizen project to transform vacant land into a community asset. Whether it’s a park or a garden or, you know, some other maybe a market-space or that kind of thing.”

“And the stories that are coming out of that are interesting because they show that people will have walked past this space, some of them for 25 years, and always thought to themselves “ugh” we could do something so cool here if only I had some people to do it with me and I knew who I should contact if I wanted to get things done. And it’s another example of reducing barriers to action by providing access to just really key, strategic information.”

“So that’s what the open data does, that’s what the online portal does. It puts people in relationships with other neighbours but also with the city in a way that makes it possible to coordinate groups of people to start physically transforming their surroundings. And I think we’re going to see that same model applied to other tricky things.”

“Like if you’re trying to—well in Montreal for example—seven percent of our emissions, more or less, come from people who heat with fuel oil in their homes. And if you as an individual homeowner want to transition to electric heating or say geothermal or something more environmental, you can do that. But it’s a complex process. It’s expensive. And a lot of people begin the process of reflection and then decide not to just cause it’s all too daunting.”

“But in the same kind of way you could use data on energy consumption in neighbourhoods. Create a platform where residents who are all interested in shifting their homes onto a more sustainable fuel source could create groups and then collectively do a call for proposals. So that they could bid—so the companies could bid not on just one home but one 20 homes, for example, which would bring down the costs, which would simplify the process. And it would mean that instead of doing homes on a sort of a piecemeal fashion, you would be doing them on a community-by-community basis. And shifting the whole energy systems of a community.”

“And could you do that without the technology? Well, yeah, sure. You could have a leafleting campaign and you could have community volunteers that go out and knock on doors. And, actually, you’re probably still going to need all those things. But the adding on of layers of data and of cartography and of a good online interface and all that, I think just empowers people to do all that work more effectively and, then critically, for people elsewhere in the city to see what’s happening. And to understand how they can do something similar in their neighbourhood. And that’s traditionally sort of the Achilles heal of local action—which is that it’s hyper-local.”

“But new digital technologies give great local ideas legs by creating tools that are easily shareable and by creating inspiring examples that can travel. That can travel 10 blocks away or that can travel, you know, 100 km away, or can travel to the other side of the country. And so I think that example of effective local action and the speed at which things can travel and scale up is another exciting facet of the new technologies that we are seeing.”

[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.]


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

Geothoughts 11: 2016 Geothink Summer Institute Trains New Generation of Open Data Experts

Geothink's 2016 Summer Institute took place the second week of May at Ryerson University in Toronto with 35 students in attendance.

Geothink’s 2016 Summer Institute took place the second week of May at Ryerson University in Toronto with 35 students in attendance.

By Drew Bush

We’re very excited to present you with our 11th episode of Geothoughts. You can also subscribe to this Podcast by finding it on iTunes.

In this episode, we take a look at the just concluded 2016 Geothink Summer Institute. Students at this year’s institute learned difficult lessons about applying actual open data to civic problems through group work and interactions with Toronto city officials, local organizations, and Geothink faculty. The last day of the institute culminated in a writing-skill incubator that gave participants the chance to practice communicating even the driest details of work with open data in a manner that grabs the attention of the public.

Held annually as part of a five-year Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) partnership grant, each year the Summer Institute devotes three days of hands-on learning to topics important to research taking place in the grant. This year, each day of the institute alternated lectures and panel discussions with work sessions where instructors mentored groups one-on-one about the many aspects of open data.

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


Welcome to Geothoughts. I’m Drew Bush.

[Geothink.ca theme music]

The 2016 Geothink Summer Institute wrapped up during the second week of May at Ryerson University in Toronto. Held annually as part of a five-year Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) partnership grant, each year the Summer Institute devotes three days of hands-on learning to topics important to research taking place in the grant.

The 35 students at this year’s institute learned difficult lessons about applying actual open data to civic problems through group work and interactions with Toronto city officials, local organizations, and Geothink faculty. The last day of the institute culminated in a writing-skill incubator that gave participants the chance to practice communicating even the driest details of work with open data in a manner that grabs the attention of the public.

On day one, students confronted the challenge of working with municipal open data sets to craft new applications that could benefit cities and their citizens. The day focused on an Open Data Iron Chef that takes it name from the popular television show of the same name. Geothink.ca spoke to the convener of the Open Data Iron Chef while students were still hard at work on their apps for the competition.

“Richard Pietro, OGT Productions and we try to socialize open government and open data.”

“You have such a variety of skill sets in the room, experience levels, ages, genders, ethnicities. I think it’s one of the most mixed sort of Open Data Iron Chefs that I’ve ever done. So I’m just excited to see the potential just based on that.”

“But I think they’re off to a great start. They’re definitely, you know, eager. That was clear from the onset. As soon as we said “Go,” everybody got into their teams. And it’s as though the conversation was like—as though they’ve been having this conversation for years.”

For many students, the experience was a memorable one. Groups found the competition interesting as they worked to conceptualize an application for most of the afternoon before presenting it the institute as a whole.

“More in general, just about the sort of the challenge we have today: It’s kind of interesting coming from like an academic sort of standpoint, especially in my master of arts, there is a lot of theory around like the potential benefits of open data. So it’s kind of nice to actually be working on something that could potentially have real implications, you know?”

That’s Mark Gill, a student in attendance from the University of British Columbia, Okanagan. His group worked with open data from the Association of Bay Area Governments Resilience Program to better inform neighborhoods about their level of vulnerability to natural hazards such as earthquakes, floods, or storms. The application they later conceptualized allowed users to measure their general neighborhood vulnerability. Specific users could also enter their socioeconomic data to gain their own individual vulnerability.

On day two, students heard from four members of Geothink’s faculty on their unique disciplinary perspectives on how to value open data. Here we catch up with Geothink Head Renee Sieber, an associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment, as she provided students a summary of methods for evaluating open data. Sieber started her talk by detailing many of the common quantitative metrics used including the counting of applications generated at a hackathon, the number of citizens engaged, or the economic output from a particular dataset.

“There’s a huge leap to where you start to think about how do you quantify the improvement of citizen participation? How do you quantify the increased democracy or the increased accountability that you might have. So you can certainly assign a metric to it. But how do you actually attach a value to that metric? So, I basically have a series of questions around open data valuation. I don’t have a lot of answers at this point. But they’re the sort of questions that I’d like you to consider.”

After hearing from the four faculty members, students spent the rest of the day working in groups to first create measures to value open data, and, second, role-play how differing sectors might use a specific type of data. In between activities on day two, students also heard from a panel of municipal officials and representatives of Toronto-based organizations working with open data. On day three, students transitioned to taking part in a writing-skills incubator workshop run by Ryerson University School of Journalism associate professors Ann Rahaula and April Lindgren. Students were able to learn from the extensive experience both professors have had in the journalism profession.

“I’m going to actually talk a little about, more broadly, about getting your message out in different ways, including and culminating with the idea of writing a piece of opinion. And, you know, today’s going to be mostly about writing and structuring an Op-ed piece. But I thought I want to spend a few minutes talking about the mechanics of getting your message out—some sort of practical things you can do. And of course this is increasingly important for all the reasons that Ann was talking about and also because the research granting institutions are putting such an emphasis on research dissemination. In other words, getting the results of your work out to organizations and the people who can use it.”

For most of her talk, Lindgren focused on three specific strategies.

“So, one is becoming recognized as an expert and being interviewed by the news media about your area of expertise. The second is about using Twitter to disseminate your work. And the third is how to get your Op-ed or your opinion writing published in the mainstream news media whether it’s a newspaper, an online site, or even if you’re writing for your own blog or the research project, or the blog of the research project that you’re working on.”

Both Lindgren and Rahaula emphasized how important it is for academics to share their work to make a difference and enrich the public debate. Such a theme is central to Geothink, which emphasizes partnerships between researchers and actual practitioners in government, private, and non-profit sectors. Such collaboration makes possible unique research that has direct impacts on civil society.

At the institute, this focus was illustrated by an invitation Geothink extended to Civic Tech Toronto for a hackathon merging the group’s members with Geothink’s students. Taking place on the evening of day two, the hack night featured a talk by Sieber and hands-on work on the issues Toronto citizens find most important to address in their city. Much like the institute itself, the night gave students a chance to apply their skills and knowledge to real applications in the city they were visiting.

[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.]


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.