Tag Archives: Ryerson University

New Ryerson University Class from parternship between Dr. Pamela Robinson and Civic Tech Toronto

Ryerson University has an exciting new class in The Chang School of Continuining Education. Geothink co-applicant Dr. Pamela Robinson (Ryerson University School of Urban and Regional Planning) has partnered with Civic Tech Toronto to create CVUP 110: Digital Government and Civic Tech. This is a non-credit university course aimed specifically at teaching civil servants about digital-driven change in the public sector. The course covers prototyping, human-centred design, and agile project management.

The course will be held during the Spring/Summer 2017 term, from 8 March to 19 April.

To find out more about the course, you can attend a free information session to be held on 9 February, or see the course description here.

Paper Spotlight: Fostering Citizen Trust in Municipal Government

Screen Shot 2016-08-15 at 8.56.32 AM

A new IMFG Perspectives paper posit five steps to foster citizen trust in Canadian municipalities.

By Drew Bush

In a new article, Geothink Co-Applicant Pamela Robinson and her co-author, Dina Graser, posit five steps to foster citizen trust in Canadian municipalities as they attempt to raise funds to cope with almost $400 billion of infrastructure deficit nationwide.

Pamela Robinson is an associate professor at Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning.

Pamela Robinson is an associate professor at Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning.

Published by the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance (IMFG) at University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, A Recipe for Fiscal Trust (No. 13) reviews literature on public trust in government. In September, the authors will host a seminar to elaborate on their work. (Check back here for details when they become available.)

“There’s no shortcuts,” Robinson, an associate professor at Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, said of the paper. “We have to stop thinking about civic engagement and relationship building between local government and members of the general public as discreet events and things that you tick-off, ‘Like, ok, I’ve done that.’ There are—the ways in which relationships are built and maintained and nurtured and cultivated is the active work of government.”

She sees this research as building upon previous Geothink research examining the ways in which civic hackathons reshape citizen-government interactions along with open data. Instead of interrogating how open data makes municipalities more accountable or transparent (or may fail to), this paper examines how it shapes levels of public trust in government. Robinson adds that data itself is not a panacea.

“Data is an input into our process but the data itself won’t give you trust or transparency,” she said. “You have to use the data embedded in broader processes of civic engagement. And so the portal is just the beginning—it’s not the end.”

Robinson warns that the longer municipalities wait to build trust and raise funds, the greater the challenge will be in terms of the huge backlog of municipal infrastructure work that needs to be completed. Particular challenges include governments strapped for resources and money, news cycles with shorter attention spans, and citizen fatigue with governmental processes. Yet, new transit lines or bridges require sustained community engagement.

“Not only is the process of maintaining good citizen-local government relationships really important and hard work,” Robinson said. “It’s going to require more and more attention. And it can’t be just that thing that those people over there do. It needs to be internalized.”

Find the executive summary and citation for the article below:

Citation
Graser, D. & Pamela, R. (2016) A Recipe for Fiscal Trust. IMFG Perspectives, No. 13, p. 1-20.

Executive Summary
Cities across Canada face an enormous infrastructure deficit. From 100-year-old water mains to transit systems in vital need of upgrading and expansion, Canadian infrastructure is widely recognized to be in dire straits. And while the majority of Canadians elected a new government that was prepared to run a deficit to fund infrastructure, these funds alone will not cover the investments needed.

Local governments need to make significant financial investments, too, and must raise revenues through taxes, user fees, and possibly new revenue tools. But before they can take these actions, they have to build trust to convince heir residents that new revenues are needed and will be spent wisely.

What does it mean to build trust? This paper examines the notion of trust and how governments can build it using:

  • Good information: relevant data made accessible to citizens and attractively packaged to enhance transparency;
  • Good communications: good stories that are well told, with relevant information distributed through a variety of channels (using open government tools and techniques);
  • Good engagement: inclusive and meaningful opportunities for dialogue about policy decisions to build the continuum of trust (using a variety of mechanisms);
  • Credibility: building an effective track record and controlling costs (through better performance benchmarking and other approaches);
  • Earmarking of funds: creating a dedicated fund that clearly links revenues raised to specific expenditures, and regularly reporting on the progress of projects funded.

This research shows that there are concrete and practical steps that cities can take to build fiscal trust – but there are no shortcuts. Trust-building is a long-term proposition that takes resources. Cities must invest the time and dedicate the resources to build trust through all of the steps outlined, and continue to do so as part of their regular activities.

Geothoughts 12: Can A Game Improve Regional and Urban Planning Processes?

A Minecraft version of Toronto’s CN Tower.

By Drew Bush

We’re very excited to present you with our 12th episode of Geothoughts. You can also subscribe to this Podcast by finding it on iTunes.

In this episode, we take a look at two Geothink researchers who are investigating how the popular video game Minecraft can be used to improve local and regional planning processes. In particular, we talk with Ryerson University Gold Medal award winner Lisa Ward Mathers, and Ryerson master’s student Jacky Li. Both have worked with Geothink Co-Applicant Pamela Robinson, associate dean in Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning.

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]

“We also wanted to build, how do you say, just an open web kind of thing where you can log on and start building away at the city of Toronto. So the vision was to have all of Toronto built in Minecraft and that’s where I came in. I tried to—they hired me to get the program up and going. But I didn’t know how to start. So my research basically consisted of how we would do something like this.”

That’s Ryerson University Master’s Student Jacky Li talking about his work with Minecraft. Li is a student with Geothink Co-Applicant Pamela Robinson, associate dean in Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning. Last summer, he interned with the City of Toronto’s Office of the Chief Planner.

Minecraft isn’t so much a game but rather a destination, a technical tool, and a cultural scene all rolled into one program. Children who use it can engineer complex machines; model the world in cube-like form; shoot and post YouTube videos of their work; and setup servers where they can hang out with their friends. The software, initially launched by Mojang (a Swedish game studio) in 2009, now boasts more than 100 million users. Microsoft recently bought it and Mojang for a record $2.5 billion.

“So I looked at examples of, in Sweden, they had really good one with between the architects and the government where they just focused on a suburb and they had users go in and start building. And then last summer, the graduating class of Niagara College [in Welland, Ontario] translated some GIS data into Minecraft. And I contacted them and they taught me how to do it.”

“Yeah so, at the end of it what I made for the city of Toronto was a report that said how to build like the sub-server thing, how to host it, and some potential programming they can do with children such as like a floor area ratio exercise where you can imagine density. So if you’re given solar power, how many blocks can you build different kinds of built forms depending on the criteria of the exercise . Yeah and just stuff like that.”

Li grew up as part of the Minecraft generation. For him, “It’s just a popular computer game where you basically craft things. It’s kind of like Lego, but on your computer, or on your Xbox or PlayStation, or on your mobile phone.”

His work was inspired by another student at Ryerson who wrote a report for the City of Toronto on the educational potential of a tool such as Minecraft that engages students with sometimes complex computer science in an immersive environment. Li is not alone in Geothink as a researcher working to determine how Minecraft can empower communities in urban planning decisions.

“From there I asked them specifically about different contexts within which Minecraft could potentially be used. Different scales, like for instance, a committee of adjustment or, you know, larger scales from there like an official plan review. I’m sort of asking what do you think, would this work in this context. What are your sort of initial impressions?”

That’s Lisa Ward Mather on her master’s research project she completed in 2014 at Ryerson University also with Robinson. She’s describing her work interviewing 12 planning officials to determine the usefulness of Minecraft for those working in regional and local urban planning.

In 2014, she graduated as the recipient of the Ryerson Gold Medal for her thesis work that was cited for combining academic proficiency with community engagement in a meaningful way.

“It wasn’t an interview with Minecraft experts by any means. A few of my respondents had encountered the game in a very, you know, not very intensive setting. I mean no one had really sat down and played extensively. But luckily Minecraft is a not a terribly difficult thing to explain to someone, especially with visuals. And I was able to get some really interesting observations from the people I spoke to.”

Her project interrogated whether planners felt open to using Minecraft and whether they thought it would engage the public. She also asked what possible benefits and obstacles they foresaw in specific applications. Her findings largely showed that it could be a useful tool for engaging the public in planning decisions, but obstacles such as it’s cost as well as the cost of equipment needed to support it could limit use.

Mather’s work did not stop after her graduation.

“I was in communication with a staff member from the office of the chief planner at the city of Toronto. And they, as you know, they are interested in trying new tools and using new tools in different ways, and engaging people in ways maybe they’re not used to being engaged. And so they were interested in seeing what could be done with the game.

“So, we, after some discussion, concluded that one possibility would be to have them send me some SketchUp files, Google SketchUp files, of a corridor in Toronto. And to produce a Minecraft world that had both what that corridor looks like right now, what it would like in the near future when there are more mid-rise buildings lining the sides of the streets, and then the in the far future when the entire corridor is lined with mid-rise buildings. So, I, after a fair amount of experimentation, and, uh, and this is something I had never done before. So I looked at what various tools that were available online and I was able to produce those three models within the same Minecraft world.”

“And I built a little rail car down the middle of the street so that the user rode from the present to the near future and then to the far future. And I made a movie of that which then they played at an event that they were holding from the Office of the Chief Planner.”

This small project has opened interesting possibilities for the City of Toronto to engage citizens with a unique tool like Minecraft. From Sweden to Canada, the Minecraft generation may one-day grow up to design the cities of the future.

[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.

 

Local News Map Will Be First To Highlight Disparities in Coverage Across Canada

The Local News Map launched by Geothink Co-Applicant Jon Corbett and Partner April Lindgren asks Canadian communities to report how news coverage has changed for them.

The Local News Map launched by Geothink Co-Applicant Jon Corbett and Partner April Lindgren asks Canadian communities to report how news coverage has changed for them.

By Drew Bush

The impact of newsroom cutbacks, consolidations, and closures across Canada will be the focus of a new crowdsourced online geoweb map. The public can contribute to it now—with the full map available online this June.

“The idea of the map is it will allow us to gather data that we haven’t been able to gather on our own just because there is so much data out there,” said Geothink Partner April Lindgren, an associate professor at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism, and founding director of the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre.

The map will be one part of a project (Election News, local information and community discourse: Is Twitter the new public sphere?) that’s headed by Jaigris Hodson, an assistant professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Royal Roads University. Geothink Co-Applicant Jon Corbett, an associate professor in Community, Culture and Global Studies at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan, helped design it with his graduate students in the Spatial Information for Community Engagement (SPICE Lab) using the GeoLive platform featured in previous Geothink research.

The project stems from a belief that Canadians who live in smaller cities, suburban municipalities, and rural areas typically have fewer media outlets to turn to for media coverage. For that reason, the project’s list of communities includes municipalities that have experienced a major disruption in local news sources (such as the closure of a daily newspaper or television station).

“What we did is we went back to 2008 and we tried to find all the instances where a local news organization had either closed or scaled back service or something new had been launched,” Lindgren told Geothink.ca in March while the map was being developed. “And so we populated the map as much as possible with information that we could find. But obviously there is lots and lots of other information out there that’s happened since 2008. And there’s probably lots of stuff going on right now that we don’t know about.”

“So the idea of the crowdsourcing is it will allow us to obviously draw upon the expertise and knowledge of the local news landscape of people who live in communities,” she added. “And they’ll be able to contribute those pieces of information to the map to make it more robust and comprehensive.”

The map can document gains, losses, service increases, and service reductions at local online, radio, television and newspaper outlets across the country. Now that the map is open to contributions, members of the public can add information about changes to the local news landscape in their own communities. The map’s administrators will verify user submitted content so that the map remains accurate.

For a closer look at this project and the map, check out our video where Corbett walks the user through a step-by-step view of the map and how to contribute, and Lindgren talks about the importance of this work.

Making the Map

Many researchers have looked at the critical information needs of communities on topics such as education, health, security and emergency responses, Lindgren said. This in turn led her to think about how we know if there is adequate media provision in Canadian communities, and where media have been lost or added. Still another related question is what online local news sites or social media have sprung up to fill any missing gaps.

Through attendance at last year’s Geothink Annual General Meeting in Waterloo, Lindgren was put in touch with Corbett. Eight months later, they had created a beta version of the map completed that included a couple hundred entries. Some emerging trends in the data include the consolidation and closure of community newspapers in Quebec and British Columbia.

“April had this idea that she wanted to better communicate information about how news media had changed over the period of the last eight years or so in Canada,” Corbett says of his meeting last May with Lindgren that began work by his lab to develop the map. “Because there really has been a lot of activity. Some newspapers have gotten larger. Others have closed down. There is a general move to web based media.”

His group has spent months ironing out the technical details of making this map presentable and ready for launch. Lindgren has provided feedback and advice on it through each stage.

“It’s been an awful lot more complicated than we originally intended precisely because there’s been so much activity and there’s so much difference in this type of activity across Canada,” Corbett added. “For example, we have four major types of media. We have newspaper, we have radio, we have TV, and we have the web. And then within each one of those different types, we have a whole series of other information we need to convey.”

For example, the newspaper category of the map alone contains free dailies, free weeklies, and paid newspapers. It also must contain a measure of how such types have either declined or increased in different localities through time.

“And so we see all of this sort of compounding levels of complexity around the data that we need to present,” he said. “Because of course one of the problems with maps—Maps to present information in an effective way require an awful lot of thought about the types of information being presented and how you actually present that type of information. It needs to be beautiful, it needs to be engaging, but it also needs to be informative.”

Corbett’s group has used color, typography, and more to make the map easily accessible to users. But he notes it is still a challenge to display all the transformations from January 2008 to the present. And the issue of time—as it’s portrayed in the map—will only become more important as users begin to use it to display events taking place during specific years.

Getting Involved

Lindgren and Corbett are both excited for the map’s launch and the public’s participation. Right now the map needs richer input on new online news sites launched in Canada, Lindgren said. This is an issue she plans to keep an eye on when users begin contributing in greater frequency to determine to what extent these organizations are viable and filling gaps left by the closure of local newspapers and television stations.

Lindgren also believes the map has wide appeal to specific communities including local governments, individual community members, and journalists. She points out that in coming weeks there is a number of ways for the public to get involved.

“First of all, when they add a piece of data, they can comment. Or they can comment on any other developments on the map that they want. And we’ve also incorporated a survey so that people can fill out the survey and tell us a little bit about where they go for their local news. Whether they feel adequately informed about various topics ranging from politics to education to other local issues.”

In case you missed it in the links above, find the map here to contribute your information: https://localnewsmap.geolive.ca/

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.

Out of the Ivory Tower: Conveying Open Data Research to the General Public – Summer Institute Day 3

DSC_0595

Day three of Geothink’s 2016 Summer Institute featured Ann Rauhala and April Lindgren leading a writing-skills incubator workshop.

By Drew Bush

On day three, the students at Geothink’s 2016 Summer Institute shifted gears from working with open data to thinking about the importance of conveying their work to the public. The day alternated between interactive lectures on how to write a strong Op-ed piece for a newspaper and hands-on group work where students tried their own hand at writing gripping prose.

Ann Rahaula, an associate professor Ryerson University’s School of Journalism and associate director of the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre, started the day by talking about the importance of disseminating one’s research to a broader audience. Then she covered how to structure opinions pieces. She was followed by Geothink Partner April Lindgren, an associate professor at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism and founding director of the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre, who discussed how to think and write clearly about one’s research.

“You are already or are entering a world, let’s face it, of great privilege,” Rahaula told students. “You are lucky enough to be one of those people who gets to work with ideas and do exciting things that keep your brains moving. You are very fortunate. Part of the responsibility that comes with that privilege is your ability to communicate those ideas.”

“Because after all if what’s going on in the academy is not available or understood or appreciated in the public, we would still be, I don’t know, living in caves and reading the Globe and Mail,” she added. “And nothing else. Communicating these ideas will dramatically enhance your career no matter what your career is. It essentially raises your profile. It is actually, literally awarded in the academy. It is seen as knowledge translation.”

Over the first two days of the institute, students 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. This last day of the institute represented the culmination of this work with open data.

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.

After her introduction to the importance of students being able to communicate their ideas to a wider audience, Rahaula detailed the ways in which students should be structuring any opinions that they write. The interactive lecture took students through examples of opinion pieces ranging from good to bad, with detailed analyses of what made them either effective or ineffective.

To see an excerpt of Rahaula’s talk on how to structure an Op-ed, check out this video:

Lindgren continued with a discussion of the important points students should consider in constructing any piece of writing to make it accessible and engaging to the reader.

“Sitting down to write does cause grief to quite a—well to most of us at some point in time,” Lindgren told students. “And a lot of us actually also think that there is something really mysterious and mystical about the writing process. You know, I have to be in the mood and the window blinds have to be down to a certain level, and the plants have to be in flower, and I have to have had this for breakfast, and then I can write.”

“Well, that’s maybe what you think,” she added. “But the truth is it’s like anything else. If you want to get better at it, you’ve got to sit down and you’ve got to practice it because you will improve with practice. Now having said all of that, there actually are some tricks of the trade to write in a clear and accessible way. And I’m going to talk about some of those today.”

For more of Lindgren’s talk, check out this excerpt:

For the students in attendance, the change in direction on the last day proved refreshing and taught them important new skills. For many, the nuanced and detailed coverage of best writing practices is not something that is often taught in their home departments. While working in groups, many mentioned learning important skills such as how to clearly organize an opinions piece, use Twitter to promote research, write captivating sentences, or pick the right time to propose an article to a publication.

“The third day, for me as a journalist, was like going back home from a trip,” Catalina Arango, from University of Ottawa, said. “I had the chance to bring all those new experiences and lessons and put them into practice using familiar tools. The almost colloquial tone of the presentations and the exercises allowed me to translate that ‘almost exclusively academic’ concept of open data to simple words. Words that people can understand and digest in order to see their real value.”

“I took skills learned in other latitudes and put them into action in my current context,” she added. “It was a super interesting experience.”

Stay tuned for more iTunes podcasts from the Summer Institute here, and, of course, watch more of our video clips (which we’ll be uploading in coming days) here.

DSC_0594

Geothink students, faculty, and staff at the 2016 Summer Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto.

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

Measuring the Value of Open Government Data – Summer Institute Day 2

 Day two of Geothink's 2016 Summer Institute began with short lectures on specific disciplinary perspectives on open data. Teresa Scassa, Canada Research Chair in Information Law at the University of Ottawa, gave a legal perspective on the value of open data.

Day two of Geothink’s 2016 Summer Institute began with short lectures on specific disciplinary perspectives on open data. Teresa Scassa, Canada Research Chair in Information Law at the University of Ottawa, gave a legal perspective on the value of open data.

By Drew Bush

Day two of the 2016 Summer Institute began with presentations from Geothink’s faculty that aimed to provide different disciplinary approaches to evaluating open data. Armed with this information, 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.

The morning began with 30-minute presentations from members of Geothink’s faculty. Peter Johnson, an assistant professor at Waterloo University’s Department of Geography and Environmental Planning, led off with a presentation on how municipal governments evaluate the success of their open data programs.

“This is the situation that we sort of find ourselves in when it comes to evaluating open data,” Johnson told students. “There’s this sort of world outside of government that’s bent on evaluating open data. And those are people like me, academics, those are non-profits, those are, you know, private sector organizations who are looking at open data and trying to understand how is it being used. So this is kind of, I think, a sign that open data has arrived a little bit. Right? It’s not just this sort of dusty, sort of nerdy cobweb in the corner of the municipal government basement. It’s something that other people are noticing and other people are taking an interest in.”

Johnson was followed by Teresa Scassa, Canada Research Chair in Information Law at the University of Ottawa, with a legal perspective on the value of open data. Pamela Robinson, associate professor in Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, gave a civic-oriented approach to the value of open data, one that was intentionally at odds with the private sector.

“I’ll be really blunt, I’m not that interested in making money from open data,” Robinson told students in regard to the common municipal reason for opening data. “It’s important but it’s not my thing. As an urban planner, my primary preoccupation is about citizen’s relationships with their government. And I’m interested in the proposition that open data as an input into open government can fundamentally shift the relationship between civil society and institutions.”

Finally, Geothink Head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment, provided a summary of the methods for evaluating open data.

Each of these short lectures were part of a comprehensive look at open data during the three-day institute. Students at this year’s institute learned difficult lessons about applying actual open data to civic problems and on how to evaluate the success of an open data program. 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.

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.

But many students struggled not only with thinking about how to evaluate the open data that they were working with, but also with how to determine the impact of any project that utilizes such an information source.

“I think a big challenge that I personally am facing is this idea of it’s supposed to have real improvement for society, it’s suppose to help society,” Rachel Bloom, from McGill University, said. “But we find that a lot of vulnerable populations actually won’t have access to these applications and the technology. So it’s kind of like trying to reconcile this idea of helping while also being aware that like maybe you are not actually reaching the population you are trying to help. Which is kind of what openness is about—is actually engaging the people personally.”

It is for such reasons that evaluating open data can be quite nuanced—an idea represented in student group presentations on the topic. The presentations varied greatly with some student groups choosing metrics based on the things that a community might value and then establishing an outside monitor to observe datasets and report back to the community. Other students established a workflow to harness citizen input to evaluate open data through instruments such as online surveys.

An afternoon panel comprised of local city officials and representatives from groups concerned with open data discussed the practical side of publishing, using, and evaluating open data as it stands today. The panel included Keith McDonald, former open data lead for City of Toronto; Bryan Smith, co-founder and Chief-Executive-Officer of ThinkData Works; Marcy Burchfield and Vishan Guyadeen, from The Neptis Foundation; And, Dawn Walker and Curtis McCord, Geothink students from University of Toronto who designed the Citizen’s Guide to Open Data.

Two of the primary concerns shared by panelists included the lack of standards for which differing municipalities provide open data, and the gap that exists between how open data is provided and what businesses or citizens require to actually use it. Smith spoke of how early visions of students and application developers using open data to radically transform life in cities have not scaled up to the national level particularly well.

“What we are seeing, which I don’t think anyone predicted, is the large companies—mostly companies that run a bunch of apps that probably everyone here has on their phones—are the ones who are the biggest purveyors of open data,” Smith told students. Issues with the type and quantity of data (as well as differences between how data is provided in different places) have limited other players and even some of these big developers too.

For more on this discussion, check out an excerpt of the panel discussion below. We pick up the discussion as the panelists talk about standards in relation to the Open Government Partnership.

In role-playing activities, students considered the issues raised by the panel as well as the practical problems citizens or other groups might face in finding the open data they require. Concluding presentations included those from students playing the role of real estate developers, non-profits concerned with democracy, and a bicycle food courier service.

Stay tuned for the full audio of each professors’ talk presented as podcasts here. Also check back on Geothink for a synopsis of day three, and, of course, watch more of our video clips (which we’ll be uploading in coming days) here.

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

Cooking up Open Data with the Iron Chef – Summer Institute Day 1

Richard Pietro and James Steenberg discuss one group's open data application with them at Geothink's 2016 Summer Institute.

Richard Pietro and James Steenberg discuss one group’s open data application with them at Geothink’s 2016 Summer Institute.

By Drew Bush

The 2016 Geothink Summer Institute kicked off on May 9 with introductions from Geothink Head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment, and Pamela Robinson, associate professor in Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning. By that afternoon, the 35 students attending had gotten their hands dirty conceptualizing applications for real open data.

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.

On day one, students learned about open data during an Open Data Iron Chef event with Toronto-based open data expert, Richard Pietro, who affectionately calls himself an open government and open data fanboy. He’s known for twice riding his motorcycle across Canada to raise awareness of open data, his film Open, and the company he founded OGT Productions. All of this work has led him to a unique view of open data and open government.

“It [open data and open government] allows people to customize their government,” Pietro said between sessions. “It’s as simple as that. And whenever anybody asks what it means: It just allows people to customize their government. Very similarly it does what social media did in 2004 to our relationships with our friends and companies and celebrities. Open data and open government is like social media but ten years ago.”

“It’s very new,” he added. “Some people understand its potential but nobody really understands how much it’s going to change everything about how people interact with their government and how government interacts with people. So it’s going to have incredible transformative powers.”

Watch a clip of Pietro introducing the Open Data Iron Chef event on day one here:

After Pietro’s introduction to open data, James Steenberg, a postdoctoral researcher at Ryerson University with Robinson, walked students through the different file types open data is often released in, what an actual data set might look like, and how to go about working with such data.

“I think it would be more useful if I just went through all the questions I would have if I was literally doing an Iron Chef by myself at home in the kitchen, which I did,” Steenberg told students. “Small apartment, my work desk happened to be pretty much in my kitchen, so I was able to draw some inspiration.”

“And I put together some slides and questions and answers based on just the questions I had starting from scratch,” he continued. “So going to the open data portal, downloading them, opening them up, what kind of file formats are we looking at and so forth. So that’s what I’m going to do today, I’m going to bounce around from a few different files as you saw. But basically I’d like to just develop my own civic app here of what I hope can be a useful function in the city.”

The majority of the day was then given over to students actually finding data they wished to work with (Pietro gave a wide variety of examples during his presentation), a close examination of their chosen datasets, and determining novel uses for which the data could be used to improve city services or better engage citizens. At the end of the day, students presented their proposals that included an analysis of gaps in open data (in availability and quality) and what data was needed to be able to create an open data solution to a chosen real-world problem.

For one student group, this meant taking a closer look at data pertaining to water main breaks within the City of Toronto. In particular, they hoped to determine if any spatial pattern existed with water main breaks in comparison to aspects of the built or natural environments that might influence this phenomenon. The group felt such data could be used to help predict future break sites and facilitate repair before a rupture occurs.

Experiences with this type of work within the group varied widely.

“I don’t have a lot of background in some of this mapping stuff, so I come at it from a very different perspective,” Shelley Cook, from the University of British Columbia, Okanagan, said.

Her group-mate, in contrast, felt quite comfortable with the project the group had chosen.

“So I’ve had a lot of experience doing research on sort of the geographic side of open data, looking at geographic content,” Edgar Baculi, from Ryerson University, added. “I like this activity. This is a great experience. One question that comes to mind right now is why the quality of the data isn’t what I want it to be. In the future, I’d like to see the quality of the data better released, better published from municipal governments to help better answer questions we have as citizens in the decision-making process and in making things better for everyone else.”

Stay tuned for more iTunes podcasts from the Summer Institute here, check back on Geothink for synopses of days two and three, and, of course, watch more of our video clips (which we’ll be uploading in coming days) here.

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

GIS on Campus: Join Claus Rinner for GIS Day at Ryerson

By Naomi Bloch


This Wednesday, November 18, marks the 16th annual GIS Day. Throughout the week, Geothink will present a series of posts looking at some of the ways in which our collaborators, partners, and friends around the world are critically examining and using GIS as a tool for civic engagement and understanding.
The community snapshots presented this week highlight diverse perspectives and uses for GIS. 

If you’re looking for a way to introduce friends to the wide-ranging sphere of GIS, look no further than Toronto’s Ryerson University campus on Wednesday.

Geothink’s Claus Rinner along with GIS and Map Librarian Dan Jakubek have a full afternoon of events scheduled for GIS Day. They’ve lined up three keynote presentations, each of which will explore very different GIS applications: Senior Landscape Ecologist Dr. Namrata Shrestha will discuss her work with the Toronto & Region Conservation Authority; Andrew Lyszkiewicz from the City of Toronto’s Information & Technology Division brings in the municipal GIS perspective; while the Toronto Star’s Matthew Cole and William Davis are on hand to cover the growing role of GIS, mapping, open data, and data analysis in the media.

Apart from keynotes, there will be a poster session, geovisualization project displays, as well as several practical demonstrations of GIS and geoweb tools in action. Neptis Foundation, a Geothink partner, is one of the participating organizations. According to the Neptis Foundation’s Adrien Friesen, he and colleague Vishan Guyadeen will be demonstrating their soon-to-be-launched geoweb platform, “an integrative web mapping tool for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, created to help residents, researchers and decision makers better understand what shapes our urban and rural environments. It allows users to select different spatial layers that they can overlay and view different infrastructure, political boundaries, and protected areas (among many other things), to visualize the region in which they live.”

A full itinerary of the afternoon’s events can be found on the Geospatial Map & Data Centre website. While you’re on campus, you might want to check out the Geospatial Map & Data Centre itself. Ryerson Library’s communal lab is a dedicated space designed to support collaborative work with GIS, data, and related geospatial and statistical software packages.

Date: Wednesday, November 18, 2015
Time: 1:00 pm–5:00 pm
Location: Library Building, LIB-489, 4th Floor, 350 Victoria Street

For more of Geothink’s GIS Day coverage, see:

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