Tag Archives: Summer Institute

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.

Crowdsourcing for better science and governance?

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Cornell University Lab of Ornithology’s E-Bird Web site allows citizen scientists to contribute data on birds for real scientific research as one novel application of crowdsourcing.

By Drew Bush

At Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology, scientists have long benefited from the legions of enthusiasts who find joy in observing and reporting the birds they see during their daily routines. In 2002, the lab worked with the United States National Audubon Society to launch eBird, an online database where scientists and amateur naturalists can submit real-time observations of the birds they see and their behavior. Since 2013, scientists have benefited from more than 100,000,000 observations and data for over 10,240 species in the program generated by more than 100,000 users.

Often hailed as an application of crowdsourcing that democratizes science by giving citizens the power to contribute, E-Bird is emblematic of a recent trend in applying crowdsourcing to problems outside the for-profit, business sectors where it began. In Canada, a new Community Fishers application allows citizen scientists to collect oceanographic data for Ocean Networks Canada and a number of Canadian cities use PlaceSpeak to collect public opinions on topics related to given locations. In the United States, this trend has led to the introduction of the Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act. The bill’s author, Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, wrote in a Wired article this past September that his bill makes explicit “that executive branch agencies, commissions, and all military branches have the explicit authority to make use of crowdsourcing and citizen science projects, utilizing the resourcefulness and innovation of the public to solve problems.”

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Geothink researcher Daren Brabham is an assistant professor at the University of Southern California School for Communication and Journalism.

Geothink researcher Daren Brabham, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California School for Communication and Journalism, has long worked on research that supports this development. He is also widely credited as being the first to publish scholarly research that utilizes the word crowdsourcing. (Although he himself notes that one-time Wired editor Jeff Howe actually coined the term in a June 2006 issue where he wrote about Threadless.)

“I’ve got this kind of crazy idea for a citizen science kind of hub, you know call it for lack of a better term a [United States] citizen science corps for instance, or a North American citizen science corps,” Brabham said. “It would be a big program where all these scientific organizations could host—and also museums and researchers at state universities—could host their challenges that they want online communities to go do and solve these problems and gather scientific data in the community or whatever it might be. To post those in one single hub and find a way to gamify that where people can earn badges or level ups or even prizes for donors, or whatever it might be, to get people engaged in helping these organizations.”

Brabham believes crowdsourcing represents not only a tool to help scientists or the government do their work, but an opportunity to redefine what it means to provide service to one’s country—which in the past has been synonymous with military service. He envisions a future where if the United States National Aeronautics Administration (NASA) needs help analyzing water levels or categorizing stars by galaxy, they could involve thousands of citizen scientists in the project much like E-Bird does today.

Today’s trends in crowdsourcing mirror the evolution of his work. In particular, Brabham’s early work focused on applying crowdsourcing to uses in government, non-profits, and in public health. Many of these uses have since become common with, for example, the United States Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies using DigitalGov to provide “information and services to the public anywhere and anytime.” In particular, one of its recent products, The Federal Community of Practice on Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science (CCS), works across the government to share lessons learned and develop best practices for designing, implementing, and evaluating crowdsourcing and citizen science initiatives.

Design Matters

Some of the key concerns for any crowdsourcing initiative, whether it be for urban planning, policy-making, or a for profit venture, is how to build a committed online community, sustain interest in it, and handle dissent amongst its users. Researchers on this subject seek to answer the question of what drives these communities to form and if design issues inhibit or accelerate this process.

For example, it’s difficult to know whether crowdsourced citizen science might succeed best if it involves primary school students in projects that count butterflies or instead utilizes iPhones to measure soil samples. It also helps to figure out why certain types of web-based platforms succeed at engaging communities while others have struggled. Brabham calls this type of assessment work “user-experience design,” which was a particular focus during Geothink’s 2015 Summer Institute.

In work he’s completed with other researchers, Brabham has found platforms that are easy to use, enjoyable, and have an intuitive interface have higher success rates. This may sound obvious but it’s more than just establishing a set of best practices for how all platforms should be designed. Instead, online sites must be organized according to the different tasks users are asked to complete or the different roles they might play.

For example, Brabham often talks about Threadless, a crowdsourced clothing and apparel site, and not just because his early involvement with it set him on his current research path after his now wife suggested he write a paper during his doctoral work applying this approach to sociocultural issues. In particular, he cites how Web sites like it give users a very clear idea of what audience it’s intended for, the activities the site allows users to undertake (shop, submit designs, or rate designs), and also includes a clear, user-friendly interface.

“I think when people are asked to contribute content or ideas or whatever it might be to a web site or organization in a crowdsourced arrangement, they really do care about how easy it is to convey their idea to you and figure out how it’s going to be used,” he said.

He points out that all too often researchers and critics focus on examining bad crowdsourcing initiatives rather than on what makes a given effort work. As crowdsourcing continues to be used in the public realm to help with citizen science efforts, paying attention to the details will become increasingly important. In particular, designers must provide users with multiple entry points, web sites with component parts organized based on tasks, and clear front pages that don’t overwhelm the average person.

A plethora of other issues surround both the implementation of crowdsourcing in public policy or for citizen science, and with its possible future uses. Brabham writes more about recent trends in the use of crowdsourcing in his recently published book: Crowdsourcing in the Public Sector. His earlier book, Crowdsourcing, is often cited for its importance in tracing crowdsourcing’s origins, future applications, and potential research paths.

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

Geothoughts Talks 1, 2, & 3: Three Talks to Remember from the 2015 Geothink Summer Institute

Our first three Geothoughts Talks come from the 2015 Summer Institute.

Our first three Geothoughts Talks come from the 2015 Summer Institute.

By Drew Bush

Geothink’s Summer Institute may have concluded over a month ago, but, for those of you who missed it, we bring you three talks to remember. Run as part of Geothink’s five-year Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) partnership grant, the Institute aimed to provide undergraduate and graduate students from the partnership and beyond with knowledge and training in theoretical and practical aspects of crowdsourcing.

Each day of the institute alternated morning lectures, panel discussions and in-depth case studies on topics in crowdsourcing with afternoon work sessions where professors worked with student groups one-on-one on their proposal to meet a challenge posed by the City of Ottawa. See our first post on this here.

The lectures featured Geothink Head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment; Robert Goodspeed, assistant professor of Urban Planning at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning; Daren Brabham, assistant professor in the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Journalistm and Communication; and Monica Stephens, assistant professor in the Department of Geography at State University of New York at Buffalo.

Below we present you with a rare opportunity to learn about crowdsourcing with our experts as they discuss important ideas and case studies. A short summary describes what each talk covers.


Geothoughts Talk One: In-Depth Case Studies in Crowdsourcing (1hr 3min)

Join Sieber and Brabham as they discuss two case studies that examine the actual application of crowdsourcing technologies and techniques to real-world situations. First Sieber describes the work of her Master’s Student Ana Brandusescu in applying crowdsourcing technologies to chronic community development issues in three places in Montreal, QC and Vancouver, BC. Next, Brabham discusses one of his first efforts to research the application of crowdsourcing technology to public transportation planning during a design contest he held for a bus stop at the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City, UT.


Geothoughts Talk Two: A Deeper Dive into Crowdsourcing: Advanced Topics in Crowdsourcing and Civic Crowdfunding (1hr 8min)

Goodspeed spends the morning covering three topics of inherent interest to anyone involved in crowdsourcing work. During this talk, he focuses in on three areas new to his own research including crowdfunding, formal crowdsourcing and the tool Ushahidi. Each of these topics helps prepare listeners for being a crowdsourcing professional.


Geothoughts Talk Three: Discussion on the Future of Crowdsourcing in the Public Sector (35 min)

Brabham and Goodspeed lead a discussion on where the future for crowdsourcing lies in the public sector. In particular, Goodspeed begins with an opening statement on how crowdsourcing can be used to help government agencies gain legitimacy by actually seeking input which can guide their actions. Brabham then challenges students to consider that crowdsourcing applications do fail and, even when they succeed, often can challenge whole professions that exist to collect the same data by other means.

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

City of Ottawa Selects Winner Out of Seven Student Designed Crowdsourcing Applications – Geothink Summer Institute Day 3

2015 Geothink Summer Institute students, faculty and staff after the conference concludes.

2015 Geothink Summer Institute students, faculty and staff after the conference concludes.

By Drew Bush

On day three the big issues discussed included using crowdsourcing in governance and the idea’s future in the public sector. By the end of the day, one of our student groups, GeoOne, had been crowned the winner by City of Ottawa officials and each of its members presented with a trophy in the image of Geothink’s logo, printed by a three-dimensional printer.

The winners, GeoOne, being presented their trophies by the Summer Institute's faculty.

The winners, GeoOne, being presented their trophies by the Summer Institute’s faculty.

But first, Daren Brabham, assistant professor in the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Journalistm and Communication, offered the students caution.

In a morning discussion, he reminded students not all crowdsourcing endeavours have been successes, and that flaws in some crowdsourced data mean it has limitations, as was pointed out on day two. Furthermore, one must consider traditional forms of data collection in comparison to crowdsourcing, he said, because whole institutions and professions exist to support such data collection’s objectivity.

For Brabham, however, this doesn’t mean crowdsourced data should be discredited. In fact, many aspects of the technology ensure it’s a very democratic way of making decisions and collecting data.

“It is easy to point to reasons why we shouldn’t be doing something, when you are in an established position of power and when you have a profession that you have built,” he said. “And I think this gets to maybe a more controversial point, and that’s—I see professionalism and the professions as really just ways to hold onto power.”

Check out more on Brabham’s views of the democratizing impact of crowdsourced data in the clip below:

The rest of the day leading up to the presentations was given over for students to fine-tune their pitches for the City of Ottawa and finalize their presentations themselves. Seven groups competed: GeoOne, GeoPlay, GeoWild, Grads Gone Ottawild, Ministry of Municipal Engagement, Terra Solutions and Wild VASS.

The excitement in the room before the first presenters began was palpable. This may have stemmed, in part, from the realization that the City of Ottawa and its citizens needed actual help rather than this being just some academic exercise. For some students, this meant the stakes were higher.

“It’s good that it’s rooted in something real,” Victoria Fast, a Ph.D. Candidate at Ryerson University in the Department of Environmental Applied Science and Management, said. “And I think that makes it more motivating to come up with something as good as possible because if they implement it, it improves how people are finding natural resources in their community and it can make things better for everybody.”

Each of the group’s proposals were designed to be used on mobile devices, a Web site, and often a combination of both. Many groups used maps to help citizens geo-locate themselves in relation to the city’s parks. However, how users were asked to contribute and in what forms varied greatly from one group’s app where users would vote on badges for particular uses at each park to another’s creation of ‘mad-lib’ story forms where users filled in the word for each park visit. Check out each of the student groups’ final presentations here:

GeoOne (Winner)

GeoPlay

GeoWild

Grads Gone Ottawild

Ministry of Municipal Engagement

Terra Solutions

Wild Vass

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.

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

A Deeper Dive into Crowdsourcing – Geothink Summer Institute Day 2

Time for each of the seven competing teams to meet and work on their proposals in the upstairs classroom of the Environment 3 Building at the University of Waterloo during Geothink's Summer Institute.

Time for each of the seven competing teams to meet and work on their proposals in the upstairs classroom of the Environment 3 Building at the University of Waterloo during Geothink’s Summer Institute.

By Drew Bush

Day two of Geothink’s Summer Institute began with a deeper dive into crowdsourcing led by Robert Goodspeed, assistant professor of Urban Planning at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. In the morning, he presented hot topics in his own research including crowdfunding, formal crowdsourcing and the crisis-mapping tool Ushahidi.

“In my world, within a planning project or a collaborative effort, these sort of structured tools can be plugged in,” he told students of his work in developing a visual preference tool to engage the public in more formal participatory community planning processes. “Technology is forcing us to rethink our methodologies, and rethink how we think things work.”

Each day of the institute alternated morning lectures, panel discussions and in-depth case studies on topics in crowdsourcing with afternoon work sessions where professors worked with student groups one-on-one on their submission to the City of Ottawa on day three.

Not sure what constitutes crowdsourcing? The goal of the institute, run as part of a five-year Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) partnership grant, was to provide undergraduate and graduate students from Geothink’s partners with knowledge and training in theoretical and practical aspects of crowdsourcing. See our post from day one to learn more about this important topic.

After some coffee, specific case studies brought home what crowdsourcing looks like in practice and the limitations of some crowd-sourced data due to demographic biases with gender amongst users who geo-reference data. Provided by Monica Stephens, assistant professor in the Department of Geography at State University of New York at Buffalo, and Daren Brabham,, assistant professor in the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Journalistm and Communication, these additional case studies gave insight into the types of research undertaken by Geothink researchers.

A random survey of users within many online mapping communities coupled with a look at interactions among members in specific communities proved revealing for Stephens.

“What became clear was that women were just as willing to socially tag, I was with so-and-so, but they weren’t willing to include the geographic information the way that men were,” Stephens told students in her case study on OpenStreetMap and other internet mapping communities. This simple fact, she demonstrated, has profound impacts on the types of features and attributes that get approved for inclusion on many maps.

Watch a clip of Stephens’s talk to find out how she conducted her research here:

For the students, the afternoon proved just as stimulating as all seven groups presented their initial concepts to the professors for feedback and guidance.

“I come from a GIS/Urban Planning background, and I found out about this through a professor,” said Alexa Hinves, a master’s student in Ryerson University’s Department of Geography who competed as a member of the group GeoPlay. “To me it’s just kind of incredible…you get to get together and do so many different activities. It’s not just you’re going to a conference and you’re listening to people for hours about what their interests are. But you are also sitting down and doing an intensive project and getting a lot of different perspectives.”

“You also get to think out of the box,” added her teammate, Ashley Zhang, a Ph.D. candidate at Waterloo University’s Department of Geography and Environmental Management.

Stay tuned for more iTunes podcasts from the Summer Institute here, check back on Geothink.ca for our last synopses 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 video content, get in touch with Drew Bush, Geothink’s digital journalist, at drew.bush@mail.mcgill.ca.

Laying Out the Challenge – Geothink Summer Institute Day 1

The main atrium of the Environment 3 Building at the University of Waterloo between sessions at Geothink's Summer Institute.

The main atrium of the Environment 3 Building at the University of Waterloo between sessions at Geothink’s Summer Institute.

By Drew Bush

The day began with a warm welcome from Geothink Head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment. By afternoon, the City of Ottawa had presented the 29 students attending Geothink’s Summer Institute at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada with the challenge of engaging its citizens with city natural areas.

Each day of the institute alternated morning lectures, panel discussions and in-depth case studies on topics in crowdsourcing with afternoon work sessions where professors worked with student groups one-on-one on their proposed solution to the City of Ottawa’s challenge. As the institute progressed, more time was given to the seven student groups to work on their solutions and prepare a final pitch to the city on day three.

The morning lecture topics ranged from “Conceptual Foundations in Crowdsourcing” to “The Future of Crowdsourcing in the Public Sector” and were taught or co-taught by Sieber, Robert Goodspeed, assistant professor of Urban Planning at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning; Daren Brabham, assistant professor in the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Journalistm and Communication; and Monica Stephens, assistant professor in the Department of Geography at State University of New York at Buffalo.

Not sure what constitutes crowdsourcing? The goal of the institute, run as part of a five-year Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) partnership grant, was to provide undergraduate and graduate students from Geothink’s partners with knowledge and training in theoretical and practical aspects of crowdsourcing. And that’s a topic Brabham has been studying, as he puts it modestly, for “several years.”

“And I’ve been trying to look at how to take this model, which I define as connecting organizations with online communities to mutually solve problems or produce goods,” he told Geothink. “Taking that model which as been used in business and a number of for profit endeavours and trying to translate it for governments, for non-profits, for public health.”

On Day 1, students at Geothink’s Summer Institute worked together to solve Ottawa’s crowdsourcing problem using the knowledge gained in earlier sessions as well as individual areas of expertise. Much like many real-world challenges that crowdsourcing has been used to address, the presentation from the City of Ottawa made clear that the problem the city faced was complex and multifaceted. Goodspeed helped to summarize some elements of what was expected of students.

“What a wonderful, rich context, I mean, who knows what the problem is?” he told students. “Is it that people are going to too many parks or the wrong parks, or which people are we talking about? We have no idea…And I think this is very typical for a lot of problem settings you’ll encounter. And, in that sense, almost any month they showed could have been itself a crowdsourcing application.”

Watch a clip of Goodspeed’s introduction here:

After they’d been given a chance to start discussing ideas for crowdsourcing applications in their groups, Sieber and Stephens helped students to begin thinking about the geographical aspects of the applications they were designing as well as technical limitations they might face.

“So, this is a summer institute on crowdsourcing, why do we even talk about geography?” Sieber told students later in the first day.  “Because most open data, most data that comes out of government has some geographic component in it somewhere. So it’s useful often to tie crowdsourcing to geography.”

“If nothing else, that implies there is a jurisdictional aspect to the way that people communicate with government, that is that people are bounded in place,” she added.

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.

Watch a clip of the presentation the City of Ottawa gave our students here (Beware, for the technophobic, it was conducted over videoconference).

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