Tag Archives: Summer Institute

Innovative Urban Planning Solutions and GPS Guided Biking – Summer Institute Day 3

Rachel Bloom, Julia Conzon and Elizabeth Barber took questions from the audience on day three of the Geothink 2017 Summer Institute after talking about their career paths post Geothink.

By Drew Bush

Geothink Co-Applicant Stéphane Roche, associate professor in University Laval’s Department of Geomatics, chats with students during a coffee break on day three of Geothink’s 2017 Summer Institute.

The third day of Geothink’s 2017 Summer Institute opened with Open North Executive Director Jean-Noé Landry discussing how Geothink’s collaborative approach begets research with practical applications for smart cities. A pair of Montreal entrepreneurs and a trio of former students elaborated on this perspective in their own subsequent presentations.

“We’re going to talk about enabling innovation,” Noe said to start the morning. “I’ve been following some of the conversations that you’ve been having with all these great folks that have come in over the course of the week…And today, you know, we’ve got an opportunity to look at a few people that have been able to do some great work.”

Two previous Geothink students followed with talks on their differing career trajectories after graduating from McGill University. Rachel Bloom is currently working as the project lead for Open North on Smart Open Cities; and Julia Conzon spoke of her work with open data at Statistics Canada. Elizabeth Barber, a master’s of public services student at University of Waterloo, talked about her summer work with the City of Montreal. They were preceded by Xavier Peich, a co-founder of SmartHalo, and Vincent Charles Hodder, a co-founder of Local Logic.

The theme of this year’s Institute was “Smart City: Toward a Just City.” An interdisciplinary group of faculty and students tackled many of the policy, legal and ethical issues related to smart cities. Each of the three days of the Summer Institute combined workshops, panel discussions and hands-on learning modules that culminated in a competition judged by Montreal city officials and tech entrepreneurs. The goal of the competition was for student groups to develop and assess the major principles guiding Montreal’s 2015-2017 Montréal Smart and Digital City Action Plan.

The last day provided ample time for students to work within their groups to analyze Montreal’s strategic plan in accordance with a research question assigned by one of the Summer Institute’s faculty members. It also provided time for faculty members who once had been students themselves to reminisce.

“I love the summer institute,” said Victoria Fast, an assistant professor at University of Calgary’s Department of Geography. She herself has participated in the previous summer institutes in 2016 and 2017 and had just recently made the transition to faculty.

“Actually, interestingly, something we haven’t touched upon yet is the synergy between all of them. You know, Institute number one in Waterloo was volunteered geographic information (VGI) and crowdsourcing, the second one in Toronto was crowdsourcing, and this one is smart cities. And all of those concepts are just so fundamentally embedded in each other. And for—I think students who have been to all of them really get this diverse and rich perspective on Geothink from these kind of very relevant topical areas.”

“This one, in particular, I really like from the student perspective, the employment opportunities is really great to hear,” Fast added about the presentations on life after Geothink. “The idea of social entrepreneur, social innovation. I think students in a university really need some hope about jobs and job prospects.”

The Summer Institute faculty, city officials and tech entrepreneurs helped to judge the work of each student group at the end of the day. But the real value lay in the new ideas and understandings each student gained.

One group explored which city services should be prioritized for digitization first while another determined how to quantify what appropriate inclusion of citizens in smart cities of the future might look like. Others examined what open data should be released by cities, the advantages of public Wi-Fi, and how cities can foster collaboration between innovators.

“We tried to develop sites for innovation learning,” Seyed Hossein Chavoshi, a PhD student from Laval University, said. “So there are many things actually we want to take into account. For example, there are the functionality and the design of the place where we want people, for example, to test apps that are actually developed by the municipality. So to do that and to find these places there are many aspects. The functionality is one of them. Another is the ethic. But the functionality is a core one of them—when you want to invite citizens from different cultures, from different groups, from different ages you have to find a place that can at least accommodate all different ages.”

Chavoshi added that he found this year’s Summer Institute quite informative.

“I’m so technical from an engineering point of view,” Chavoshi said. “But here we were so diverse. So like people from law and from a social geography background and [subjects] that, actually, they aren’t often gathered all together. So before that I didn’t actually know that we had to take into account all these aspects. But when I was here and I just listened to the other peoples’ points-of-view, from their background, it helped with when I want to, for example, develop something that can be fascinating to the citizens in a smart city.”

Geothink students, staff and faculty at the 2017 Summer Institute at McGill University in Montreal, QC.

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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.

Crosspost: Geothoughts on Geothink

An image of the Castlegar campus at Selkirk College with the Mir Centre for Peace visible on the right. (Photo courtesy of Karen Godbout.)

By Karen Godbout


This post originally appeared on the Rural Open Data site which reports on research taking place as part of a three year grant investigating open data best practices, policy and delivery options in southeastern British Columbia. The author is in the final year of her Bachelor’s of Geographic Information Science (BGIS) at Selkirk College and is currently working at the Selkirk Geospatial Research Centre.


I am presently completing a summer work term at the Selkirk Geospatial Research Centre, supporting its Rural Open Data study. In September, I will enter the final year of a BGIS, also at Selkirk. I came to GIS from a humanities background, after many years working in libraries. I am really fortunate to have been guided toward the possibilities for GIS within the humanities, like open government data, and will continue to focus in that area.

The Geothink Summer Institute (May 25-27, McGill University, Montreal) was a unique opportunity to meet and collaborate with fellow students from multiple provinces (Quebec, Ontario, Saskatchewan, B.C.) and academic disciplines (GIS, Geography, Law, Urban Planning), as well as varying levels of study (from undergrad to doctorate). The theme of this year’s institute was “Smart Cities – Just Cities.” While it certainly was not lacking in solid examples of policies and applications, most of the dialogue and problem solving at the institute centred on the emerging potential of smart cities. With so many standards yet to be developed, and so much infrastructure still to build, I came away with big ideas, concepts, and philosophies more than any other thing. I also learned why that is a good outcome. We stand in the enormously fortunate and powerful position of determining exactly what smart cities will be. If they are to be equitable, accessible, sustainable, social, and safe places, it will be determined by the questions we ask and answer right now.

X: What exactly is the meaning of ‘smart’ in the smart cities context? Primarily, the default concept of smart is the one developed centuries ago, meaning logical, well reasoned, and scientific. During the 1990s and 2000s, the social sciences transitioned into the idea of multiple intelligences. First, it was emotional intelligence. Then social intelligence. Eventually there were bodily, intuitive, and existential intelligences. It all became a little bit silly, which may be why we continue to return to the default. Still, there is value in considering different aspects of smart. Consider Artificial Intelligence (AI) for example. No matter how many algorithms are developed, or how much data is processed, ‘the rules’ will always limit machine learning. The elements of human consciousness that add up to smart remain a mystery, and I daresay the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. What is the algorithm for imagination? In the context of smart cities we must also ask, what is data? Again, the default is measurable and precise, facilitating all sorts of amazing, practical solutions to significant human problems. Yet humans remain unpredictable, and cities are messy. Much of what makes a place meaningful and livable for its citizens is not quantifiable. In determining the smart/just city, space must be included for the qualitative, the organic, and the random.

Y: What normative influences are smart cities to have upon the behaviour and expectations of citizens?  With smartphones, wireless, and up-to-the-minute GPS data, there comes an ability to control and personalize the urban environment more and more. Don’t want to wait in the rain for the bus? See when it’s 30 seconds away from the stop. Want the city to fill in that pothole? Submit a photo and see it move up the road-repair priorities list. Great stuff, right? The issue being, as individualized services increase, so do expectations, and the false perception that convenience is a right. The smart/just city must very intentionally cultivate engagement with the entire community, deliberately seeking inclusive input from the less enfranchised, whether it be due to language, income, age, or intellect. Fostering the communal spirit within cities will require a massive culture shift for some, and arouse the suspicion of many. The selling point is innovation. Just as in nature, diversity results in adaptability for cities. Variability creates opportunity for new ideas, social benefits, and economic growth.

Z: Can the smart cities model grow engagement and increase unity among communities?  Knowing more about someone or something brings it closer, makes it matter more. As the information age crashes into the big data minute, what any human being can know and care about becomes increasingly narrow, at least in any practical, useable way. Any group one identifies with is progressively exclusive, and may be more ideological than spatial. Constructing smart/just cities from the ground up, from grassroots neighbourhoods and villages, is the reasonable place to begin. But, generating a sense of unity among these will not simply happen once the end is achieved. Pre-existing government data, when made open, can help build community cohesion at every step, giving each group an equal voice and connecting the common links between them.

What will determine the smart city?  In this as in everything, the means matter.

Tackling The Thornier Issues Plaguing Smart Cities – Geothink Summer Institute Day 2

Day two of Geothink’s 2017 Summer Institute at McGill University in Montreal, QC featured presentations by faculty on the pressing issues facing smart cities.

By Drew Bush

On day two of Geothink’s 2017 Summer Institute at McGill University in Montreal, QC, students got their hands dirty investigating the important issues facing smart cities. Each group presented unique findings in answer to a question they were asked to investigate from the disciplines of law, geomatics and geography.

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.

Before undertaking their own research, students heard from Institute faculty with expertise in each of the areas they were asked to investigate during half-hour presentations. This began with a presentation on the online, participatory mapping tool, GeoLive, by Geothink Co-Applicant Jon Corbett, associate professor in University of British Columbia at Okanagan’s Department of Geography. He was followed by Geothink Co-Applicant Teresa Scassa, Canada research chair in University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law, who talked about the legal issues surrounding the development of applications (APPs) in smart cities. Geothink Co-Applicant Stéphane Roche, associate professor in University Laval’s Department of Geomatics, finished the morning by talking about ethics in smart cities.

“So law is in many respects about relationships, and certainly in this context is about relationships,” Scassa told students during her presentation. “And so one of the things you need to do when you are looking at and thinking about legal issues in this context is to think about what particular legal relationship or relationships you are talking about and you are thinking about. So, for example, a city may be thinking about entering into a contract with a particular service provider for a smart city’s service or a smart city’s APP. And that—there will be a relationship defined in legal terms between the city and the service provider at that point. And so that’s one relationship.”

“And there are going to have to be certain things worked out in the context of that particular relationship between the city and the service provider,” Scassa added. “The city that enters into a contract for that service may then also have a relationship with the users of that service. And so that’s another relationship. And it’s a relationship the city has to think about in terms of how it wants to define that relationship with its users.”

“There are two things that I really appreciate,” Geothink Co-Applicant Stéphane Roche, associate professor in University Laval’s Department of Geomatics, said. “The first one is the idea of talking about and thinking about smart cities without talking about smart cities. And that was the case this morning. And especially by—with the first presentation by [Jon Corbett]. I guess that what Jon has presented, you know, about participatory mapping for a community was and is really valuable for our reflection about smart cities.”

“It’s not a question of technology,” Roche added before noting that the second thing he appreciated was the interdisciplinarity of the presentations and students. “The main issue is involving community. The main issue is designing solutions that are in line with their view of space—[a community’s] view of their relationship with space.”

At the conclusion of the presentations, each student group was presented with a unique question that they had to answer. Questions were derived from each discipline and speaker’s presentation. They asked students to conduct research on how society should evaluate the usability and functionality of smart city APPs and how the additional data and APPs from a smart city create legal liability for cities that doesn’t fit within the policy structure that already exists.

“We are assessing the impact of like, I guess, the Geolive initiative,” Selasi Dokenoo, an undergraduate student at Ryerson University, said. “To clarify what it’s like and how do we assess the impact and benefits of this type of program.”

A different group worked with another site, iSearch Kelowna, for their question. The Web site makes use of open data to aid people in finding low-income rentals, supportive housing or emergency shelters within the City of Kelowna.

“For the exercise, the question is related to feedback,” Ali Afghanteloee, a doctoral student at Laval University, said. “Evaluating the functionality and usability of the web services about Kelowna. First of all, we’ve found out what is the criteria [for] evaluation. And, second, what are the tools to evaluate this kind of criteria. It’s just—we decided that, I think, that the quality criteria is very important because we decided that the user is very important. The usability. And spatially whether creating this site to find out what the services are—whether this is useable or not.”

The day concluded with each group presenting findings on what they had found during their research. For many, this proved enlightening and related well to their own work back at their home university.

Student groups worked on day two to answer research questions posed by the panelists about smart cities.

“Well, I’m interested in policy mobility,” Brennan Field, a doctoral student at University of Saskatchewan, said. “So it’s been interesting in the past few days just looking at how smart cities, in terms of an urban policy space, have become mobile and have been spreading. And so in the case of the Montreal it was interesting hearing [Harout Chitilian] speaking of how the police department is using open data to report crime. And then their initial reticence and then kind of opening up to it. So I was already familiar with that—basically that has been how police departments generally respond to that particular policy. The policy of open data related to reporting police activity.”

“And seeing how a lot of it is cross-overs between how open data as urban policy has become mobile and how smart cities as urban policy has become mobile,” Field added. “So there are a lot of similarities and cross-overs with my research. So that’s what I’ve learned.”

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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.

Bringing Smart Cities to an Interdisciplinary Group of Scholars – Geothink Summer Institute Day 1

A panel introduces the idea of a smart city to students at Geothink’s 2017 Summer Institute at McGill University in Montreal, QC.

By Drew Bush

The term smart cities can mean one thing to a scholar of geomatics and something entirely different to an urban planner. The morning panelists on the first day of Geothink’s 2017 Summer Institute at McGill University in Montreal, QC enlightened more than 30 students and visitors on their perspectives.

The panel kicked off the main theme of this year’s gathering: “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.

Discussion began with introductions by Geothink Head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill’s School of Environment and Department of Geography. Presentations were given by Stephane Guidoin, open data chief advisor in Montreal’s Smart and Digital City Office and Geothink Co-Applicants Stéphane Roche, associate professor in University Laval’s Department of Geomatics; Pamela Robinson, associate professor in Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning; Rob Feick, associate professor in Waterloo University’s School of Planning; Teresa Scassa, Canada research chair in University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law; and Victoria Fast, an assistant professor at University of Calgary’s Department of Geography.

“I work on the smart city and especially on the way digital technology, geospatial technology could improve the capability of citizens to be more engaged in cities,” Roche told students to begin the panel discussion. “And this is why for me, smart is really linked to citizen engagement.”

“Smart cities, for me, is based on four components,” he added. “The first one is digital, so that means the integration of engineering the urban systems, so it’s really about urban engineering and improving the efficiency of engineering structure for urban management. The second component is open, so a smart city means opening cooperation and participation. The third one is this idea of being able to give an answer for different issues based on the use of sensing, learning and sharing. This is the component where citizen engagement is really, really important. And the fourth one is this idea of urban innovation. A smart city is also really linked to this idea of innovation. Not only economical innovation but the way we build cities. And the way we build living space for people.”

Not all the panelists focused on citizen-engagement or new sensors being installed in cities. Robinson spoke on how urban planners talk about smart cities. She noted that the role of planners is to consider the public good and how this should be defined and protected in the development of smart cities in relation to issues of sustainability, equity and inclusion. Scassa noted that she teaches law and, therefore, she thinks of smart cities as sensor-laden cities that make much new data available. For her, this opens many new questions for governance processes and personal privacy.

Later in the day, Montreal City Council Chairman Harout Chitilian introduced students to the ways in which Montreal aims to blend open data, new tech and entrepreneurship to make Montreal a leader in smart cities. He spoke at the Institute even as outside McGill the city celebrated its 375th anniversary. In an interview afterwards, he offered a practical perspective on what being a smart city meant for Montreal residents.

“So first and foremost, you get accountability,” Chitilian said. “So you know where your tax dollars are going in terms of as far as the services are concerned. You know how your contracts are being managed as far as who it’s being given out to and what are the concentration of contracts in certain areas. And you also have accountability from your public safety/police forces that have now a transparent way of reporting a crime map from the city of Montreal.”

“And then now, bit-by-bit, on a service-by-service basis, you also have real-time data of the progress of the services that are delivered to you,” he added. “And we started with snow removal but there will be much more in years to come.”

After more in-depth presentations on civic engagement by Feick and Robinson, accessibility by Fast and free public Wi-Fi by Guidoin, the day transitioned into its first student activity. Groups were asked to answer three questions about McGill’s campus and enrolling as a student. The catch was that half the groups could use free campus Wi-Fi (which Chitilian had just announced as part of the city’s plan) and the other half could not use any online sources.

“I think it was a good chance to re-think about the internet that’s available in different places,” said Wonjun Cho, an undergraduate student at McGill. “I think it was personally easier to find many places using Internet and Wi-Fi. And, yeah, it would have been interesting if I had an experience in analogue as well to compare. But overall it was a lot of fun.”

As a resident of Montreal, Cho also felt strongly about the city’s move to install free public Wi-Fi.

“There are many tourists who visit Montreal every year,” Cho added. “And, especially international tourists, they often find a hard time to get place to place. And these days so many people use apps and Google maps and trip sites to find hotels. And it would definitely be an enhanced experience for visitors to Montreal. And also for people who live here because not many people have unlimited amounts of data on their cell phones.”

As the day drew to a close, students were led in a discussion by Sieber on what they knew about smart cities prior to their arrival and how the day’s events had changed their perspectives. In attendance were students of mixed disciplines ranging from geography and urban planning to law and geomatics.

“If you see what’s going on right now with the group work, getting students from different universities, from different parts of Canada—let’s face it from different disciplines—bringing together their own set of experiences and skills into a group learning situation, I think that’s a meaningful outcome as well,” Geothink Co-Applicant Jon Corbett, associate professor at University of British Columbia at Okanagan’s Department of Geography, said. “So I’m really happy to see how well the students seem to be getting on, how well they work together in small groups, and I think that, hopefully, will be laying the foundation for, you know, for future graduate students. So that when they go to conferences or, who knows, when they become academics, they will already have that relationship or those relationships in place.”

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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.

 

Geothink Summer Institute On Smart Cities Convenes May 25, 2017

The 2017 Geothink Summer Institute on smart cities will convene May 25 to May 27 on McGill University’s downtown campus in Montreal, Quebec. (Image courtesy of http://jeannesauve.org)

By Drew Bush

As 22 Geothink students pack their bags and get ready for this year’s three-day 2017 Summer Institute “Smart Cities: Toward a Just City” their host city (and Geothink partner) will be preparing as well. This year’s Summer Institute will kick-off May 25 to May 27 in Montreal as celebrations for the municipalities 375th anniversary shift into high gear.

The timing couldn’t be more serendipitous: Strategic plans overseen by Montreal’s Smart and Digital City Office call for making the municipality a world renowned leader among smart cities by 2017. This year’s Summer Institute will bring together an interdisciplinary group of students and faculty—from law, geography, planning and more—to learn about issues facing smart cities and meet with key leaders in Montreal’s work toward becoming a leader in this field.

“It’s essential that students appreciate the ways in which smart technology can lead to fairer and just city-citizen interactions,” said Geothink Head Renee Sieber, associate professor in McGill University’s Department of Geography and School of Environment. “Students in this Summer Institute will learn about accessibility in smart cities, the promotion of social justice in this new environment and the integration of technology into city processes.”

Each of the three days of the Summer Institute will combine workshops, panel discussions and hands-on learning modules that will culminate in a competition judged by city officials. The goal of the competition will be for student groups to develop novel uses for Montreal’s open data to improve accessibility in the city.

The first day of the Institute will introduce the idea of smart cities during a panel discussion with Sieber and Geothink Co-Applicants Jon Corbett, associate professor in University of British Columbia at Okanagan’s Department of Geography; Stéphane Roche, associate professor in University Laval’s Department of Geomatics; Pamela Robinson, associate professor in Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning; Rob Feick, associate professor in Waterloo University’s School of Planning; and Teresa Scassa, Canada Research Chair in University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law. Later that day, students will be introduced to the problem they are trying to solve and hear from Montreal City Council Chairman, M. Harout Chitilian.

On day two, students will learn about legal issues relating to smart cities from Scassa, ethical considerations from Roche and social justice issues from Corbett. Multiple sessions throughout the day will also be devoted to group work on projects.

Finally, on day three, two separate talks will be headlined by Jean-Noé Landry, executive director of Open North, and Xavier Peich, a co-founder of Smarthalo. After time to work on project presentations, the day will conclude with the competition.

“Students will be exposed to smart city issues from a variety of perspectives, including government, non-profits, local tech entrepreneurs, planners and, of course, academia,” Geothink Student Coordinator Suthee Sangiambutt said. “This is going to be a fun event. Student attendees are from all sorts of disciplines and there will be a great opportunity to learn new skills and perspectives around smart city problems.”

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 the 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.

“We’re really fortunate to have such an interdisciplinary group of students who can unpack the term ‘smart’ from multiple angles to better understand both the challenges and opportunities that cities face today,” Geothink Project Manager Sonja Solomun said.

If you have thoughts or questions about the article, get in touch with Drew Bush, Geothink’s guest 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.

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.