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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 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.]

###

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 13: A conversation with Open North and Ajah on the challenges for open data advocacy

By Peck Sangiambut

ajah-and-open-north

Geothoughts is back! In this episode of the podcast we sit down with two Geothink research partners, Open North and Ajah, to talk about the challenges they face in Canada’s current open data and open government environment. Jean-Noe Landry (of Open North) and Michael Lenczner (of Ajah) are some of the original advocates for open data in Montreal and continue on their mission to bring positive change and innovation to government. Our guests spoke of their background advocating for open data in the (now closed) non-profit, Montreal Ouvert, and the current challenges they face in their respective organisations. They stressed the need for well-defined missions for advocacy, and for continued support from government and non-governmental funders.

We also have a new host, and some new intro music. If you have feedback on this podcast, please contact me at suthee.sangiambut@mail.mcgill.ca

Thank you for tuning in. We hope you subscribe to Geothoughts on iTunes, and follow us on Twitter @geothinkca

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.

TRANSCRIPT OF AUDIO PODCAST

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.

Geothoughts 10: Governing Makerspaces in Toronto with Jordan Bowden

A McGill University undergraduate has undertaken unique research on the governance of Toronto’s Makerspaces.

By Drew Bush

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

In this episode, we examine a project funded by McGill University Arts Undergraduate Research Internship Award (ARIA) and Geothink. In it, one student has found a huge variance between the types of Makerspaces found in Toronto. The city’s groups represent what McGill University Undergraduate Jordan Bowden calls a unique Canadian evolution of the Makerspace concept. He worked with Geothink Head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment.

A Makerspace is a place where people come together and share commonly owned tools, equipment, or software to learn new skills. They can be for profit, they can be non-profit, they can be run by a group of individuals, or by larger institutions like universities or libraries. First popular in China and other Asian countries, these do-it-yourself (DIY) spaces where people can gather to create, invent, and learn have also spread to the United States and, more recently, Canada. Many of Canada’s Makerspaces face little formal regulation and differ greatly from their formulations than in other countries.

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]

“So Makerspaces, there are a lot of different terms that have sort of been in the same sphere as Makerspaces, ranging from Hackerspaces to Hacklabs to Fablabs to even some shared studio spaces which are less formal. All of kind have been put underneath the umbrella term of a Makerspace. And a Makerspace basically is a place where people come together and use commonly owned tools.”

That’s McGill University Undergraduate Jordan Bowden on his unique yearlong honours thesis project investigating how governance works in 10 different Toronto Makerspaces. He’s a long-time participant in the work being done in Makerspaces. He also recently completed his thesis for Geothink Head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment.

“They can be for profit, they can be non-profit, they can be run by a group of individuals, or by larger institutions like universities or libraries. So in my research, I find that there is a huge variance of the practices between spaces that were using this term. Especially in Toronto which is where my research is focused. There was, there was just a huge variety of Makerspaces. I studied about 10 Makerspaces in my research. And some of them are run just groups of artists who are using commonly owned tools. Others were run by the local library and really focused on sort of entrepreneurship and that sort of thing.”

Still confused about how to define a Makerspace? You might not be alone, as the concept has varied and evolved as it has spread globally.

“So, yeah, I mean the term itself has only really emerged over the past four to five years I’d say. And before then, like Hackerspaces and Hacklabs, have like that term itself has a much longer history stretching all the way back to the 1990s. The main distinction there is that Hacklabs and Hackerspaces are often focused more on computers. Whereas Makerspaces can be focused really on any sort of production be it computers or woodworking or metalworking and that sort of thing.”

Bowden says that the question of how such spaces are governed in Canada is an entirely new one. And he adds that it’s crucial: What Makerspaces can actually do is greatly affected by how they are run.

“Within each Makerspace, some Makerspaces have sort of formal committees wherein makers are actually involved in the running of the space in every aspect. Whereas others are pretty much governed by a handful of people. Be they like a single executive director at a non-profit organization or like multiple actors in a for profit Makerspace. So it’s, yeah, there’s a lot there. My paper covers a lot of different examples of this. Yeah, there’s a lot of different actors involved.”

The project took Bodwen a great deal of time to research, conduct field work for, and then write about in the fall and winter of this academic year.

“I’ve been working on it basically since last summer. I did field research in Toronto over August of last year where I conducted 10 different interviews. I used nine in my research. And I also did observation at different Makerspaces around the city, and went to maker related events and did observation there as well.”

Not every hypothesis that Bowden hoped to explore panned out in the Canadian context of Toronto.

“I though there would be governmental actors involved, but I really found, I kept on trying to snowball and finding more people to interview. But it people kept on saying the same people I had already interviewed. So it was like who else should I interview? And then I would get the same answers from multiple people. So I realized the scene was pretty small. So instead I did more in depth interviews. They were each about 30 minutes to an hour long each.”

This work led Bowden to author a 63-page honours thesis entitled “Governance of Makerspaces in Toronto, Canada.” Find this paper at the McGill University library soon.

[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.

Geothoughts 9: Geothink Project Measures Open Data Standards for Consumer and Publisher Uses

Geothink's Open Data Standards Project helps publishers and consumers better use open data.

Geothink’s Open Data Standards Project helps publishers and consumers better use open data.

By Drew Bush

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

In this episode, we examine a Geothink project on open data that officially kicked off in February 2015 with a Geothink teleconference call. Project lead Rachel Bloom, an undergraduate student in the Geothink Rapid Response Think Tank at McGill University, began this research one year ago. She worked with Geothink Head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment.

It recently culminated in a white paper written on two spread sheets (1) an examination of high-value open datasets Canadian cities use; And (2) an inventory of open data standards published by open data providers. Listen in as Bloom explains to partners who publish open data how to know what standards exist and who uses them for which datasets.

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]

“This project is about investigating open data domain specific standards at the Canadian municipal level, which I guess is kind of a mouthful. But basically I’ve created two spreadsheets to figure out how Canadian municipalities are publishing their data and how the level of conformity is per the guidelines for open data standards.”

That’s Rachel Bloom, an undergraduate student in Geothink’s Rapid Response Think Tank at McGill University, talking about domain specific data from sectors like transportation and city budgets. She’s working with Geothink Head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment.

“To begin this project I chose ten domains to focus on. These domains came from open knowledge foundation spreadsheets. They are considered high value, and I thought these were interesting. I thought they were important to public use. So I chose them as the basis to create these spreadsheets.”

In late February, Bloom conducted a teleconference for the project’s partners in several Canadian cities. In it, Bloom discusses the project, each spreadsheet, and answers questions from those on the call. She starts with the first spreadsheet.

“It’s called ‘Adoption of Open Data Standards By Cities.’ So what we did for this is we have the 10 domains on the side on the y-axis, and then we have kind of nested between these certain metrics of how the municipality names the dataset, the file format, the structuration of the data, any metadata associated with the dataset or description of the data, and if theses data sets for each domain are already using specific data standards—open data standards. And these were taken from each municipality’s open data catalogues.”

“And it helped for eventually comparing whether the ways that data is being published is even kind of compatible with the semantic and schematic guidelines dictated by available open data standards.”

Participants then examined a specific example from the spreadsheet, building permits for the City of Toronto. The call then proceeded to the next spreadsheet developed.

“It’s called ‘Inventory and Evaluation of Open Data Standards.’ Here we have on the y-axis these are individual open data standards that are kind of domain specific so they are pegged to certain domains and they cover the ten domains used for the other table. Though there is two extra domains…the metrics you find kind of on the top, are an innovation on my part. They were chosen by me based on the demand of data publishers and consumers I found in my research which came from all different types of mediums.

“I’ve even read e-mail correspondences of people talking about what they want when they are structuring their datasets. They also come from reinforcing that these standards are open. So what does it mean to be open? They have to be open, they have to be consensus driven, they have to have to multi-stakeholder participation so theirs metrics have to account for that.”

Bloom again takes participants through a specific example, this time a budget data package, going through all the metrics to give participants a sense of the quality of standard in terms of making data interoperable. When she finishes, Linda Low, Open data lead for the City of Vancouver, interrupts her to ask:

“Rachel can you talk a little about the criteria for whether or not it’s open or not again, it’s whether multi-stakeholders contribute to it, and there was something else too, right, that you said?

“So when we talk about multi-stakeholders we’re talking about people who contribute that are from different facets of society. So the private sector, the public sector, civil societies, and also the obvious which is that open implies that there should be no royalties or fees associated with using the standard. It should be repurposable, they should be able to extend it how they wish, it should have a license that is open so that there is legal ramification for using the standard as you please. You’re right it’s not explicitly mentioned which of these kind of contribute to defining openness but all of these are good fundamental metrics for an open standard I would think.”

The teleconference proceeds as Bloom and the call’s participants discuss the spreadsheets and white paper, stopping to elaborate on specific examples or details in more depth. Toward the end of the 40-minute call, Bloom shares the vision and goals for this project.

“There’s metrics that can help publishers, but there’s also metrics that can help consumers who would want to voice how they want to structure the data which is really part of the open process. So I think it can be used as multiple, for multiple purposes, really so it’s flexible in that way. So I’m not sure if there’s a very specific way of using it cause it really depends on the goals of the person using the resource.”

She’s followed-up by Sieber who firsts asks a question and then provides insight into how the project’s goals were determined.

“A standard is likely to be viewed much differently if you want to do something for internal government use like business intelligence as oppose to external use. And depending upon the audience, if you’re doing something for realtors it might be viewed quite differently than if you’re trying to do it for, I don’t know, low information voters.”

At the conclusion, Low offers the municipal publishers perspective on how constantly updated and revised standards make it hard to know which one a municipality should adopt in differing domains such as city budgets, crime statistics, or waste removal services.

“When do we say this is justifiable for us without doing a whole bunch of research and wasting the effort afterward. That was the thing I always keep struggling about.”

Bloom doesn’t hesitate with an answer.

“There are so many options too and ways of approaching it. I mean, I don’t know–it’s really about the interests of the person who is publishing the data and the goals. I think at the end of the day, it’s going to, different governments are going to have reconcile what their goals are and how they want to go about it. Which is the hardest part.”

This project is ongoing and next steps will continue to look at the landscape of open data standards in Canada.

[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.

Gethoughts 8: How Technology is Reshaping Citizen Interactions on Climate Change

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Hydro Quebec is setting up a new circuit of public electric charging stations, one of many changes in the works as cities across Canada prepare for more environmentally friendly futures.

By Drew Bush

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

In this episode, we examine what role Canada’s cities play in international solutions to climate change as well as how new technologies shape interactions in neighbourhoods and between neighbours on environmental issues. In it, we talk with Geothink researcher Alexander Aylett, a professor and researcher at the Institut national de la recherche scientifique.

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]

Last week on Geothink.ca, we brought you a look at how open data and digital technology are reshaping the way cities plan for sustainable futures and how to act on issues such as climate change. Today we dive deeper into the changes taking place locally and internationally on this topic.

“One of the things I’m most excited about here in Montreal, is electrification of mobility in the city. So something in the order of 40 percent of Montreal’s GHG emissions come from moving people and things around in the city. Trucks, cars, trains—to a certain extent—all of those things. And what we’re seeing now is a real scaling up of, I guess, work that’s been happening over the past four or five years to electrify as much of that as we can.”

That’s the opinion of one expert who has been studying these issues from his office in Montreal, Quebec. We spoke with him over Skype this month.

“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.”

Aylett believes the time has come for changes that make transit, buildings, and energy more efficient in cities. That’s because cities can play an outsized role in confronting the important environmental issues of today by mixing a curious blend of new technology, empowered citizen groups, and long-term planning. The first signs heralding these changes are here.

“So we have Hydro Quebec that’s setting up la route verte où route bleu of publicly accessible charging points. And it started of with like two, three, four, five and you know now we’re aiming for a few thousand in the city within the next couple of years. And we’re seeing the launch of things like Téo taxi, where there is going to be, their plan, is—if I’m right about their deadlines—by next December is to have something like 2,000 new electric vehicles on the roads of Montreal. So a big private player dramatically increasing the number of electric vehicles that we’ve got on the roads. Similar action happening in big players like CommunAuto.” 

Such changes are not purely financial. Cultural shifts have occurred before in Montreal. Not long ago when the city began planning for the introduction of Bixi bike sharing, they didn’t tinker around the margins. Instead they created many more bike paths that were safer for riders and that have since been adopted by many residents. On environmental issues like climate change a similar transition may soon take place.

“We’ll see gas burning vehicles sort of being retired. New institutional players like taxis, for example, buying electric. Private citizens buying electric. But also private citizens realizing that the increased convenience of smart taxi services like Uber, and Téo, and Car-to-go, and other car sharing networks means that people don’t need to have a private vehicle in a lot of cases anymore. People who are sort of on the borderline zone of needing a car regularly but not every morning for their commute I think will be in a position to just abandon the private automobile in favor of convenient access to different mobility providers.”

Such changes would bode well for those who would see Canada reduce greenhouse gas emissions or GHGs. More cooperation is needed between actions taken by cities and those being coordinated on national and international levels. The 2015 Paris Agreement and the prominent role of cities in it means such a future is not just possible but likely, according to Aylett.

“Coming out of COP21 what we have is a much more open understanding of the fact that cities are a critical partner for states, provinces, and national governments. And I think—and this is why it’s such an exciting period right now, like particularly this next sort of six months—I think that we what we should be seeing is more effective partnerships between those different players. More funding coming down especially in Canada given the commitments our government has to fund urban infrastructure projects…Spreading from city to city to city effective interventions into different aspects of our urban environmental footprints. That’s fantastic.”

In a future where cities help solve climate change, different cities will each contribute a piece of the solution. In Montreal it may be innovations in transport technology and the manner in which individuals book transit, Vancouver may continue leading in green building efforts that incorporate “reach codes” so each step in efficiency serves to enhance the next, and Toronto may utilize new models and data to better plan where to locate parks and green roofs.

Some technological changes will undoubtedly allow citizens to contribute their expertise and opinions to solutions while others will focus on overcoming small barriers in daily life that could have a dramatic impact on environmental issues such as climate change.

“Basically we’re talking about reducing friction and reducing barriers to use where the simplicity of jumping into your car, and driving somewhere—even if in the end it creates congestion, it’s an un-enjoyable experience—it’s almost a knee-jerk reaction for some people because it’s so simple. And the public transit in some situations is more complex because you need to transfer, you need to use, maybe you need to use Bixi and the Metro and the bus. Things that are when you look at it seems more complicated. But having an interface like Transit App that just lays it all out for you means that from a user point of view, it reduces the barrier to switching from one type of behavior—driving in your car—to another type of behavior—which is getting there by any other, you know, means of mobility.”

“And the next phase of that, and this is something that we’re seeing already being considered in some places, like Singapore for example, is just to stop charging people for individual modes of transportation and start charging people for reaching their destination. And so the difference would be you open up your app, for example, and say, ‘I’m here and I need to get there.’ And the application uses smart open data about different modes of transportation to calculate for you a couple of different routes and charges you for the route. And so you just pay to get from your house to school or from your house to work or from your house to the art gallery.”

But that’s not all. New information technologies and open data platforms have a habit of helping citizens to organize to solve problems. Environmental issues like climate change are no different once the right data sets and support are in place.

“If you wanted 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 other cities.”

Aylett believes that such networked communities can bring together individuals who may have never known each other on topics of mutual concern. Such collaborative work can lead to a snowballing effect where changes to how cities respond to environmental issues might some day become inevitable.

[Geothink.ca theme music]

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

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

 

 

Geothoughts Conversations 2: The Nature of Democracy in the Age of Open Data

Geothoughts Conversations 2 explores the nature of democracy in an age of open data.

Geothoughts Conversations 2 explores the nature of democracy in an age of open data.

By Drew Bush

The largest grant investigating two-way exchanges of locational information between citizens and their city governments, Geothink makes possible countless collaborations and discussions. This month, Geothoughts Conversations brings you a look at one such conversation that took place this past January on the wintry downtown campus of McGill University in Montreal, QC.

We sat down with Geothink head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment, and Daniel Paré, associate professor in the Department of Communication and School of Information Studies at the University of Ottawa, where he also serves as an associate director at the Institute for Science, Society, and Policy.

The topics: The nature of democracy and public participation and, later, how city platforms that utilize open data impact democratic processes and citizen engagement. Often hailed as a panacea for making government transparent and the political process more open and inclusive, Paré and Sieber discuss the inaccuracies in this narrative along with how open data has changed the roles of cities and citizens in today’s democracies.

To start us off Sieber dispels the idea that democracy itself requires public participation and discusses the wide spectrum of democractic systems that exist.

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

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.