Tag Archives: vancouver

Using Open Data to Map Vancouver’s Trees

This week, in preparation for the International Open Data Hackathon on Saturday, the Vancouver Parks Board shared one neighborhood of its tree inventory database (that I’ve uploaded to Buzzdata) so that we could at least see how it might be leveraged by citizens.

What’s interesting is how valuable this data is already (and why it should be open). As it stands this data could be used by urban landscape students and architects, environmentalists, and of course academics and scientists. I could imagine this data would even be useful for analyzing something as obtuse as the impact of the tree’s Albedo effect on the city’s climate. Of course, locked away in the city’s data warehouse, none of those uses are possible.

However, as I outlined in this blog post, having lat/long data would open up some really fun possibilities that could promote civic engagement. People could adopt trees, care for them, water them, be able to report problems about a specific tree to city hall. But to do all this we need to take the city’s data and make it better – specifically, identify the latitude and longitude of each tree. In addition to helping citizens it might make the inventory more use to the city (if they chose to use it) as well as help out the other stakeholders I outlined above.

So here’s what I’ve scoped out would be ideal to do.

Goal

Create an app that would allow citizens to identify the latitude and longitude of trees that are in the inventory.

Data Background

A few things about the city’s tree inventory data. While they don’t have an actual long/lat for each individual tree, they do register trees by city address. (Again, you can look at the data yourself here.) But this means that we can narrow the number of trees down based on proximity to the user.

Process

So here is what I think we need to be able to do.

  1. Convert the addresses in the inventory into a format that can be located within Google Maps
  2. Just show the trees attached to addresses that are either near the user (on a mobile app), or near addresses that are currently visible within Google Maps (on a desktop app).
  3. Enable the user to add a lat/long to a specific tree’s identification number.

Awesome local superstar coder/punk rock star Duane Nickull whipped together a web app that would allow one to map lat/longs. So based on that, I could imagine at desktop app that allows you to map trees remotely. This obviously would not work for many trees, but it would work for a large number.

Tree-MApper-Screen-shot-11

You’ll notice in the right-hand corner, I’ve created an illustrative list of trees to choose from. Obviously, given the cross-section of the city we are looking at, it would be much longer, but if you were zoomed in all the way I could imagine it was no longer than 5-20.

I’ve also taken the city’s data and parsed it in a way that I think makes it easier for users to understand.

tree-language-parsed

This isn’t mind-blowing stuff, but helpful. I mean who knew that dbh (diameter at breast height) was an actual technical term when measuring tree diameters! I’ve also thrown in some hyperlinks (it would be nice to have images people can reference) so users can learn about the species and ideally, even see a photo to compare against.

Tree-Mapper-Screenshot-2

So, in short, you can choose a tree, locate it in Google Maps and assign a lat/long to it. In Google Maps where you can zoom even closer than ESRI, you could really pick out individual trees.

In addition to a desktop web app, I could imagine something similar for the iPhone where it locates you using the GPS, identifies what trees are likely around you, and gives you a list such as the one on the right hand side of the screenshot above, the user then picks a tree from the list that they think they’ve identified, stands next to the tree and then presses a button in the app that assigns the lat/long of where they are standing to that tree.

If you are in Vancouver Vote Open Data, Vote Vision

If you are a Vancouver resident tomorrow is election day. I’m hoping if you are a resident and a reader of this blog, you’ll consider voting for Vision Vancouver.

As many of you know just over two years ago the city launched Vancouver’s Open Data portal – the first of its kind in Canada and the second municipal open data portal in the World.

This didn’t happen by chance. It took leadership from politicians who were a) willing to see and grasp a good idea long before it was widely celebrated, and b) able to drive it through city hall. It is a testament to those leaders – and the city staff who worked on it – that the city went from talking about the idea to implementing it in less than 3 months.

I know this is not an issue that everyone cares about. Personally, I believe open data is going to play a critical role in helping us rethink how government works, enabling it to be more effective and efficient while also empowering citizens to better understand and contribute to policy discussions. All that isn’t going to capture people’s imagination as much as ensuring the garbage gets collected regularly and on time (that’s important too!), but I do think the open data issue is a proxy, something that shows which leaders are willing to engage in innovative approaches and work with new technologies.

So if you are in Vancouver and you care about this issue, please vote Vision tomorrow. This is the party that made open data happen in Vancouver – and cleared the way for it in Canada. (location of voting stations is available here)

How Architecture Made SFU Vancouver’s University

For those unfamiliar with Vancouver, it is a city that enjoys a healthy one way rivalry between two university: the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Simon Fraser University (SFU).

Growing up here I didn’t think much of Simon Fraser. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way, I mean it literally. SFU was simply never on my radar. UBC I knew. As high school students we would sneak out to its libraries to study for finals and pretend we were mature than we were. But SFU? It was far away. Too remote. Too inaccessible by public transit. Heck, too inaccessible by car(!).

And yet today when I think of Vancouver’s two universities UBC is the one that is never on my radar. After noticing that several friends will be on a panel tonight on How Social Media is Changing Politics at UBC’s downtown campus I was reminded of the fact that UBC has a downtown campus. It may be the most underutilized and unloved space in the University. This despite the fact it sits in the heart of Vancouver and under some of the most prime real estate in the city. In fact I don’t think I’ve actually ever been to UBC’s downtown campus.

In contrast I can’t count the number of time’s I’ve been to SFU’s downtown campus. And the reason is simple: architecture. It’s not that SFU simple invests in its downtown campus making it part of the university, it’s that it invested in Vancouver by building one of the most remarkable buildings in the city. If you are in Vancouver, go visit The Wosk Centre for Dialogue. It is amazing. Indeed, I feel so strongly about it, I included it in my top ten favourite places when Google Maps added me to their list of Lat/Long experts for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Photo by Bryan Hughes

What makes the Wosk Centre so fantastic? It seats 180 or so people in concentric circles, each with their own a mic. It may be the only place where I’ve felt a genuine conversation can take place with such a large group. I’ve seen professors lecture, drug addicts share stories, environmentalists argue among one another and friends debate one another, and it has always been eye opening. Here, in the heart of the city, is a disarming space where stakeholders, experts, citizens or anyone, can be gathered to share ideas and explore their differences in a respectful manner. Moreover, the place just looks beautiful.

Centre-for-dialogue-300x300

The building is a testament to how architecture and design can fundamentally alter the relationship between an institution and the city within which it resides. Without the Wosk Centre I’m confident SFU’s downtown presence would have meant much less to me. Moreover, I’m fully willing to agree that UBC is the better university. It ranks better in virtually ever survey, it has global ambitions that even achievable and likely does not want to be involved in the city. That’s a strategic choice I can, on one level, respect. But on a basic level, the Wosk Centre makes SFU relevant to Vancouverites and in doing so, allows the University to punch above its weight, at least locally. And that has real impact, at least for the city’s residents. But I think for the university as well.

Reading the always excellent Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From I can’t help but think the UBC is missing out on something larger. As Johnson observers, good ideas arise from tensions, from the remixing of other ideas, particularly those from disparate places. They rarely come from the deep thinker isolated out in the woods (UBC lies at the edge of Vancouver beyond a large park) or meditating on a mountain top (SFU’s core campus is atop a small mountain) but out of dense networks where ideas, hunches and thoughts can find one another. Quiet meditation is important. But so to is engagement. Being in the heart of a bustling city is perhaps a distraction, but that may be the point. Those distractions create opportunities, new avenues for exploration and, for universities concerned with raising money from their intellectual capital, to find problems in search of solutions. So raising a structure that is designed to explicitly allow tensions and conflicts to play out… I can’t help but feel that is a real commitment to growth and innovation in a manner that not only gives back to its host community, but positions one to innovate in a manner and pace the 21st century demands.

As such, the Wosk Centre, while maybe a shade formal, is a feat of architecture and design, a building that I hope enables a university to rethink itself, but that has definitely become a core part of the social infrastructure of the city and redrawn at least my own relationship with SFU.

Open Data Day – a project I'd like to be doing

As some readers and International Open Data Hackathon participants know, I’m really keen on developers reusing each others code. All too often, in hackathons, we like to build something from scratch (which can be fun) but I’ve always liked the idea of hackathons either spurring genuine projects that others can reuse, or using a hackathon as an excuse to find a project they’d like support and contribute to.

That’s why I’ve been really encouraging people to find open source projects out there that they’d find interesting and that will support others efforts. This is a big reason I’ve been thinking about MapIt and the Open Knowledge Foundation’s Where does my Money Go project.

In Vancouver, one project I’m eventually hoping we can contribute to is Adopt-a-Hydrant. A project out of Code for America, the great thing about Adopt-a-Hydrant is that it can be adapted to become an adopt an anything app. It’s the end goal of a project I’m hoping to plan out and start on during the Hackathon.

Here in Vancouver, I’ve been talking with the Parks Board around getting a database of all the cities trees opened up. Interestingly this dataset does not include location data (Lat/Long) for each tree… So what would initially be great is to build a mobile phone app that will show you a list of trees near the address the user is currently at, and then allow the user to use their phone’s GPS to add the lat/long data to the database. That way we can help augment the city’s database. Once you begin to add lat long data then you could map trees in Adopt-a-Hydrant and create an Adopt-a-Tree app. Citizens could then sign up to adopt a tree, offer to take care of it, maybe notify the parks board if something is wrong.

I consider this a fairly ambitious project, but it could end up engaging a number of stakeholders – students, arborists, retirees, and others – that don’t normally engage in open data.

I know that the crew organizing a hackathon in Hamilton, Ontario are also looking to create an instance of Adopt-a-Hydrant, which is awesome. We need to both track what worked and what didn’t work so that the kinks in Adopt-a-hydrant can be worked out. More users and developers like us will help refine it further.

If you are planning a hackathon for the Dec 3rd International Open Data Hackathon, please be sure to update the wiki, join the mailing list, and if you have a project your are planning on working on, please email the list, or me directly, I’d love to blog about it!

 

 

Using Open Data to drive good policy outcomes – Vancouver’s Rental Database

One of the best signs for open data is when governments are starting to grasp its potential to achieve policy objectives. Rather than just being about compliance, it is seen as a tool that can support the growth and management of a jurisdiction.

This why I was excited to see Vision Vancouver (in which I’m involved in generally, but was not involved in the development of this policy proposal) announced the other day that, if elected, it intends to create a comprehensive online registry that will track work orders and property violations in Vancouver apartments, highlighting negligent landlords and giving a new tool to empower renters.

As the press release goes on to state, the database is “Modeled after a successful on-line watchlist created by New York City’s Public Advocate, the database will allow Vancouver residents to search out landlords and identify any building or safety violations issued by the City of Vancouver to specific rental buildings.”

Much like the pieces I’ve written around restaurant inspection and product recall data, this is a great example of a data set, that when shared the right way, can empower citizens to make better choices and foster better behaviour from landlords.

My main hope is that in the implementation of this proposal, the city does the right thing and doesn’t create a searchable database on its own website, but actually creates an API that software developers and others can tap into. If they do this, someone may develop a mobile app for renters that would show you the repair record of the building you are standing in front of, or in. This could be very helpful for renters, one could even imagine an app where you SMS the postal code of a rental building and it sends you back some basic information. Also exciting to me is the possibility that a university student might look for trends in the data over time, maybe there is an analysis that my yield and insight that could help landlords mitigate against problems, and reduce the number of repairs they have to make (and so help reduce their costs).

But if Vancouver and New York actually structured the data in the same way, it might create an incentive for other cities to do the same. That might entice some of the better known services to use the data to augment their offerings as well. Imagine if PadMapper, in addition to allowing a prospective renter to search for apartments based on rent costs and number of rooms, could also search based on number of infractions?

pad-mapper-rental

That might have a salutary effect on some (but sadly not all) landlords. All an all an exciting step forward from my friends at Vision who brought open data to Canada.

Smarter Ways to Have School Boards Update Parents

Earlier this month the Vancouver School Board (VSB) released an iPhone app that – helpfully – will use push notifications to inform parents about school holidays, parent interviews, and scheduling disruptions such as snow days. The app is okay, it’s a little clunky to use, and a lot of the data – such as professional days – while helpful in an app, would be even more helpful as an iCal feed parents could subscribe to in their calendars.

That said, the VSB deserves credit for having the vision of developing an app. Positively, the VSB app team hopes to add new features, such as letting parents know about after school activities like concerts, plays and sporting events.

This is a great innovation and without a doubt, other school boards will want apps of their own. The problem is, this is very likely to lead to an enormous amount of waste and duplication. The last thing citizens want is for every school board to be spending $15-50K developing iPhone apps.

Which leads to a broader opportunity for the Minister of Education.

Were I the Education Minister, I’d have my technology team recreate the specs of the VSB app and propose an RFP for it but under an open source license and using phonegap so it would work on both iPhone and Android. In addition, I’d ensure it could offer reminders – like we do at recollect.net – so that people could get email or text messages without a smart phone at all.

I would then propose the ministry cover %60 percent of the development and yearly upkeep costs. The other 40% would be covered by the school boards interested in joining the project. Thus, assuming the app had a development cost of $40K and a yearly upkeep of $5K, if only one school board signed up it would have to pay $16K for the app (a pretty good deal) and $2K a year in upkeep. But if 5 school districts signed up, each would only pay $3.2K in development costs and $400 dollars a year in upkeep costs. Better still, the more that sign up, the cheaper it gets for each of them. I’d also propose a governance model in which those who contribute money for develop would have the right to elect a sub-group to oversee the feature roadmap.

Since the code would be open source other provinces, school districts and private schools could also use the app (although not participate in the development roadmap), and any improvements they made to the code base would be shared back to the benefit of BC school districts.

Of course by signing up to the app project school boards would be committing to ensure their schools shared up to date notifications about the relevant information – probably a best practice that they should be doing anyways. This process work is where the real work lies. However, a simple webform (included in the price) would cover much of the technical side of that problem. Better still the Ministry of Education could offer its infrastructure for hosting and managing any data the school boards wish to collect and share, further reducing costs and, equally important, ensuring the data was standardized across the participating school boards.

So why should the Ministry of Education care?

First, creating new ways to update parents about important events – like when report cards are issued so that parents know to ask for them – helps improve education outcomes. That should probably reason enough, but there are other reasons as well.

Second, it would allow the ministry, and the school boards, to collect some new data: professional day dates, average number of snow days, frequency of emergency disruptions, number of parents in a district interested in these types of notifications. Over time, this data could reveal important information about educational outcomes and be helpful.

But the real benefit would be in both cost savings and in enabling less well resourced school districts to benefit from technological innovation wealthier school districts will likely pursue if left to their own devices. Given there are 59 english school districts in BC, if even half of them spent 30K developing their own iPhone apps, then almost $1M dollars would be collectively spent on software development. By spending $24K, the ministry ensures that this $1M dollars instead gets spent on teachers, resources and schools. Equally important, less tech savvy or well equipped school districts would be able to participate and benefit.

Of course, if the City of Vancouver school district was smart, they’d open source their app, approach the Ministry of Education and offer it as the basis of such a venture. Doing that wouldn’t just make them head of the class, it’d be helping everyone get smarter, faster.

Links on Social Media & Politics: Notes from "We Want Your Thoughts #4"

Last night I had a great time taking the stage with Alexandra Samuel in Vancouver for “We Want Your Thoughts” at the Khafka coffee house on Main St. The night’s discussion was focused on Social Media – from chit chat to election winner – what next?” (with a little on the social media driven response to the riots thrown in for good measure).

Both Alex and I promised to post some links from our blogs for attendees so what follows is a list of some thoughts on the subject I hope everyone can find engaging.

On Social Media generally, probably the most popular post on this blog is this piece: Twitter is my Newspaper: explaining twitter to newbies. More broadly thinking about the internet and media, this essay I wrote with Taylor Owen is now a chapter in this university textbook on journalism. Along with this post as a sidebar note (different textbook), which has been one of my most read.

On the riots, I encourage you to read Alexandra Samuel’s post on the subject (After a Loss in Vancouver, Troubling Signals of Citizen Surveillance) and my counter thoughts (Social Media and Rioters) – a blogging debate! You can also hear me talk about the issue on an interview on CBC’s Cross Country Checkup on the issue (around hour 1).

On social media and politics, maybe some of the most notable pieces include a back forth between myself and Michael Valpy who felt that social media was ending our social cohesion and destroying democracy (obviously, this was pre-Middle East Riots and the proroguing Parliament debate). I responded with a post on why his arguments were flawed and that actually the reverse was true. He responded to that post in The Mark. And I posted response to that as well. It all makes for a good read.

Rob-Cottingham-graphic-summary

Rob Cottingham’s Visual Notes of the first 15 minutes

Then there were some pieces on Social Media and the Proroguing of Parliament. I had this piece in the Globe and then this post talking a little more about the media’s confused relationship with social media and politics.

Finally, one of the points I referred to several times yesterday was the problem of assuming social values won’t change when talking about technology adoption and its impact, probably the most explicit post I’ve written on the subject is this one: Why the Internet Will Shape Social Values (and not the other way around)

Finally, some books/articles I mentioned or on topic:

Everything Bad is Good for You by Steven Johnson

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly

Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky

The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World by Evgeny Morozov

The Inside Story of How Facebook Responded to Tunisian Hacks an article in the Atlantic by Alexis Madrigal

I hope this is interesting.