Empowering communities to manage their water supply

As part of the project “Geoweb and Community Development in Quebec“, two teams of McGill School of the Environment students spent the fall term 2010 working with a community-based watershed monitoring agency CDRN (Corporation de développement de la rivière Noire) to explore the potential for the Geoweb to serve as a conduit for citizen participation in watershed management. These student groups developed two tools, conducted a series of workshops with community members, and produced reports and instructional materials. McGill Public Affairs produced a short film about the group activities that gives an excellent overview of the project and the potential for the Geoweb in a community development context.



Make your own user-contributed map with Crowdmap.com

One of the most exciting Geoweb developments of 2010 has to be www.crowdmap.com, a fully packaged, hosted, user-contributed mapping solution produced by the non-profit tech company Ushahidi. You may have heard of Ushahidi, the developers of collaborative map-making technology first used to gather reports of violence from cell phone users during the 2007 Kenyan election. This technology has since been used in many other crisis mapping situations, from the earthquake in Haiti, to the recent New York snowstorm.

Briefly, both the Ushahidi and the Crowdmap.com platforms allow users to contribute spatially-referenced data, such as comments, observations, photos, or other hyperlinked media to a map. Of course you can do this with Google Maps, particularly Google MyMap or with sites developed with the Google Maps API. Crowdmap provides a near-instant, no-coding setup that improves on a Google Map because it can accept data coming from wide variety of input methods and requires no login. We all know that logins are a huge impedance to participation (though there are benefits as well), but the ability to accept input from web users, SMS/text message, twitter #hashtag, and email makes Crowdmap a potentially very powerful tool.

Ushahidi and Crowdmap were originally targeted towards crisis mapping, however there are countless uses for the Crowdmap platform. I just checked the Ushahidi twitter stream and one that jumped out at me is the ATM mapping in Manchester, NH implementation. Setting up this site was as simple and creating a user account and ticking several preference boxes. Another crisis-related use of Crowdmap that is starting to trend on twitter is the Queensland floods map.

Any way that you can think of mobilizing a community to address some spatially-related issue, Crowdmap can help. How are you currently using (or planning to use) Crowdmap?

Social Economy Enterprises and Rural Tourism

The social economy has long been an interest of mine. As a former employee of MEC, one of Canada’s largest and most successful consumer cooperatives, I’ve experienced first-hand the advantages (and challenges) of the ‘third sector’ (not-for-profit, co-op, volunteer organizations, etc.).

Last year, I decided to turn my interest in the social economy into a presentation at the 2009 Canadian Association of Geographers Annual Meeting at Carleton University. I had always been struck by the possibility of social economy enterprises (check here for a great list from the Canadian Social Economy Hub) within rural or remote areas where capital may be scarce. I began to do some research on existing tourism-related social economy enterprises and while there are a few prominent ones, I was surprised at how few references I found. My presentation for the CAG conference described many of the Canadian examples that I could find and theorized that there are two main roles that social economy enterprises can play in rural tourism development:

1) Supportive, such as financing, tourism association, advertising co-op. There are many of examples of co-operative tourism associations across Canada, but one standout example is the Viking Trail Tourism Association in Newfoundland and Labrador.

2) Direct product delivery, such as operating an attraction). There are not as many examples of this category, but another excellent one is North Caribou Farm Tours (FARMED) in BC.

I was then invited by Dr. Rhonda Koster, from Lakehead University to develop this presentation into a paper for publication in the Journal of Rural and Community Development (JRCD). It is a modest paper, more of a literature review and outline for further studies, but nevertheless, I hope that it can start to bring the rural tourism and social economy literatures closer together. JRCD is an open access journal, so you can download the paper here.

Vespucci Summer Institute 2010

The eighth edition of the Vespucci Summer Institute for the Advancement of Geographic Information Science was held from June 14th to June 18th, near beautiful Florence, Italy. The goals and purpose of the Summer Institute are outlined on the Vespucci website (www.vespucci.org):
“The Summer Institute is aimed at researchers from the university, commercial, and government sectors. It provides an inspiring and productive opportunity for peer-to-peer interaction with leading international experts in the field. Participants will:
  • Learn the state of the art in the topic areas
  • Understand and explore tomorrow’s research and market challenges
  • Be challenged to think laterally outside their daily work setting
  • Present their own work and ideas to receive feedback and advice
  • Get one-on-one access to experts in a relaxed and productive setting
  • Improve presentation and team work skills
  • Return home refreshed and newly motivated”
Family photo overlooking Florence
The themes for this year’s Summer Institute was “Interfacing Social and Environmental Modeling” with presentations by two teams, the first led by Gilberto Camara, from the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE), who focused on the use of spatial models to combat perceived misconceptions about the degree and extent of Amazonian deforestation, and the second was led by Henk Scholten and Eduardo Dias representing Vrije University, who focused on integrating scientific wildfire models with emergency response systems.
Both instruction teams framed their respective presentations around specific models that integrated social and environmental variables. In his lectures, Dr. Camara drew from many classic examples, such as Schelling’s segregation model, to demonstrate a basic approach to modeling with cellular automata. He then presented TerraME (www.terrame.org), an open-source GIS/modeling environment developed by the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research. Students were given time to follow a tutorial using sample data to familiarize themselves with the benefits and constraints of TerraME. Students then worked in groups to develop a hypothetical approach to modeling change dynamics in the Amazon.
Similarly, Dr. Scholten and Dr. Dias built their lectures on the use of the FARSITE fire model (www.farsite.org). Participants were given a self-paced tutorial to familiarize themselves with FARSITE. Then, working in groups, students developed a hypothetical model to represent the flow of information and decision steps used in an emergency management system. Dr. Scholten and Dr. Dias then presented their own comprehensive work on developing an emergency management system in the Netherlands, using the EAGLE system developed in collaboration with Microsoft.
I attended this event as one of 28 participants. The majority of attendees came from the United States, with 18 representatives from a variety of universities. The remaining 10 students hailed from institutions in Canada (2), Brazil (2), Germany (5), and the European Community Joint Research Centre (1). The experience level of attendees was varied, including recent master’s graduates, PhD students of all levels, and a small handful of postdoctoral and industry researchers. For me, the greatest benefit to attending the Vespucci Summer Institute was the opportunity to meet these other students and discuss the similarities and differences between our research. These conversations occurred informally over breaks for espresso and lunch, as well as at the two formal group dinners. I was struck by the incredible diversity represented in the group of attendees – in addition to many typical “GIScientists”, there were individuals with backgrounds in fields such as political science, sociology, robotics, engineering, computer science, public health, and ecology. I found that each participant had an important viewpoint and the opportunity to access this “collective intelligence”, even just in an informal setting, was one of the most valuable aspects of the week. I have no doubt that I will stay in touch with many of these fellow participants, and look forward to future collaboration as our careers progress.
Statue of Amerigo Vespucci near the Uffizi gallery, Florence
The 2010 Vespucci Summer Institute was a very memorable experience. The setting was very comfortable and the technologies presented by the instructors showed important applications of GIScience tools in diverse areas. Most important however, were the unstructured networking opportunities that occurred between students and also between students and instructors. Considering that I spend much of my work time in front of a computer screen, it is easy to forget the benefits that come from face-to-face communication. For this reason, the Vespucci Summer Institute was a strong reminder that one conversation over coffee can produce much more than dozens of emails.
I would like to thank the Summer Institute organizers Michael Gould, Max Craglia, David Mark, and Werner Kuhn, for their efforts in making the Vespucci Institute happen. I would also like to thank the generosity of the GEOIDE Network in providing funding without which I would not have been able to attend.

The Participatory GeoWeb

A recent post on the Quebec government GéoInfo site gives a good general outline of my current project investigating the use of Geoweb technologies within community development in the region of Acton, Quebec. The article is in French, but for you non French speakers, it describes the recent interest in using geospatial Web 2.0 platforms, such as Google Maps as a way to increase community participation within economic development. The region of Acton, located in the Monteregie between Montreal and Quebec City, is a perfect setting for this project, with many complex and often competing issues, such as agricultural diversification, tourism development, water management and quality, and negotiating the impact of stringent government land use regulations. This is an area that is both unique in its outward looking activities (see the excellent economic development web site), and also typical of many regions in Quebec and Canada that are struggling with rapid economic, social, and environmental challenges.

For this project we are liberating small amounts of government geospatial data and providing this data and tools to community members within an economic development context. This process will serve as a pilot project for other regions of Quebec to determine the benefits of the Geoweb for increasing community participation in decision-making. How does the Geoweb enhance or constrain the ability of citizens to interact with their elected and non-elected representatives? What volunteered geographic information can citizens contribute to better inform the decision-making process? How can citizens use the Geoweb to contest the “official” government perspective? These are all questions that support research in what is often termed Government 2.0, a dramatic re-imaging of how citizen and government interact.

This research is supported by grants from a variety of Quebec government departments, but most centrally by the Appui au passage à la société de l’information (APSI) program funded by the Quebec Ministry of Governmental Services (MSG). I am very excited to be playing a key role in this project as primary investigator and look forward to posting research findings and progress on this blog.

The desire for a simple model, made with simple tools

The most popular post (by far) on this blog is one where I present a simple version of Butler’s Tourism Area Lifecycle, done up in Excel.


Why is this post so popular? Is it because of the enduring (rightly or wrongly) impact of Butler’s work? Or is it the prospect of actually implementing his theoretical ideas in a model that can be easily shared, manipulated, tweaked, and updated? Certainly I’ll give most of the credit to the 30+ years of TALC research, but I’d like to think that there is demand for an Excel version of this model.

The funny thing is, while I used to link to an actual downloadable spreadsheet, I took it down a long time ago because I wasn’t happy with it. It was too simple, or so I thought. In reality, I think that a simple model, made with simple tools can have a great impact. Perhaps not in a quantitative or research-orientated sense, as I had originally planned, but more as a descriptive tool for tinkering. A way to help tourism students and those interested in the Butler TALC to better understand its assumptions.

So, over the summer I’m going to put in some time to shape up my Excel TALC and make it available for all who want to use it. I’ll try and make it as transparent as possible, with clear instructions both on this blog and embedded in the spreadsheet itself. Actually, another idea would be to host it as a Google Doc, online, and dispense with the need for an Excel license altogether.

Stay tuned!

Geospatial data: DIY style

Yep, DIY stands for “Do It Yourself”. And that is exactly what two of my students for Geography 307, at McGill University did to overcome a huge challenge that they were having finding data on vacant land in Detroit, Michigan.

The two students wanted to find out the potential for urban agriculture in the now increasingly vacant residential areas of urban Detroit. Problem was, they couldn’t find any available (i.e. free) data that showed the location of parcels of vacant land. Data provided by Data Driven Detroit (the Detroit Parcel Survey) is interesting, but at too aggregate a level. The only type of maps provided show vacancy rates, not the location of specific vacant properties or large contiguous areas of vacant properties that would be useful for farming. How could they do a project on the potential for urban agriculture without knowing the specific location of clumps of vacant terrain?

The solution: Do It Yourself, with free tools and imagery available in Google Earth.

It is incredibly simple to use Google Earth (both the software itself and the imagery) to digitize vacant land parcels. An excellent outline of the procedure can be found here. Thanks to new KML import/export functions, it is also simple to bring your results into ArcGIS for further analysis.

I think this is an excellent way to generate rights-free data, as well as to bring back some interest in the old skills of airphoto interpretation. I was really impressed with the results my students obtained, with hundreds of parcels being identified. Though this is far from a complete dataset, it provides a visually powerful look at a fascinating urban process.

You can take a look at a map made with this data hosted on Geocommons Maker! The raw data is available for download on Geocommons Finder!

Research on GIS, Open Data, and Mobile Technology, supervised by Peter A. Johnson at the University of Waterloo

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