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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.


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.

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.

Geothink Summer Institute to Kick Off May 9, 2016

Geothink’s 2016 Summer Institute will take place at Ryerson University in downtown Toronto.

By Drew Bush

Are you curious about the use of open data by municipalities and their citizens? Geothink’s 2016 Summer Institute will kick off May 9 to May 11 at Ryerson University in Toronto and combine practical data handling and communications skills with a unique breadth of critical discussions.

“We’re really excited about the structure this year, where students will be able to get their hands dirty with open data and then get to learn and interrogate how it’s made,” Geothink Project Manager Alexander Taciuk said.

The first day will be headed by the Open Data Iron Chef Richard Pietro and students will accelerate from learning the basics of open data to developing open data-fuelled solutions to real world problems. On the second day, lectures and discussions with open data experts will give students unique perspectives on and access to Toronto’s open data makers and doers. The final day will be a writing skill-incubator that combines writing tips “that no one ever teaches you in school” to teach how to communicate a clear message.

Hands-on group work will be interspersed with speakers exploring topics on local and Canadian issues. The Summer Institute aims to give all attendees a multifaceted perspective on the value of open data, and will include hands-on data exploration, hearing from Geothink professors and experts, and discussions with key members of the Toronto open data community.

“It’s essential that students appreciate the many definitions of open in open data and the numerous ways in which open data can be valued,” said Geothink Head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment. “This Summer Institute will give students approaches to measure quantifiable values like economic development and business intelligence as well as the less quantifiable values such as democracy, participation, transparency, and accountability.”

The institute will be held at one of the Ryerson planning studios at the Ryerson School of Urban and Regional Planning. It is open to Geothink students at all levels, undergrad to post-doc. If you are graduating this April, or starting new next term, you are also welcome to attend.

“I’m excited to be bringing the Geothink students together once again to tackle an idea from a variety of angles,” Suthee Sangiambut, Geothink Summer Institute organizer and newsletter editor, said. “I know the variety in expertise each student brings and I expect the Summer Institute to be a forum for ideas and a great collaborative learning experience. The more Geothink students present, the better the discussion will be. Guaranteed.”

The summer institute is hosted by Geothink, a five-year partnership grant awarded by the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) in 2012. The partnership includes researchers in different institutions across Canada, as well as partners in Canadian municipal governments, non-profits and the private sector. The expertise of our group is wide-ranging and includes aspects of social sciences as well as humanities such as: geography, GIS/geospatial analysis, urban planning, communications, and law.

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.