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Smart Cities in Canada Need Dynamic Data

05/09/2014 04:02 pm ET | Updated Jul 09, 2014

For the first time in history more than half the world's population live in towns and cities. As cities become crucial to the planet's health, it's more important than ever to design, build and enrich the places in which we live, work and play.

According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) City Science Initiative, cities will soon account for nearly 90 per cent of global population growth, they will be responsible for 80 per cent of wealth creation and they will be the source for 60 per cent of total energy consumption.

Therefore access to the right data by which we make decisions surrounding the future health of our cities is crucial. Research in this space falls under many names, including: Smart Cities, Cognitive Cities, Urban Computing and IBM's Smarter Planet.

In her recent book "The Virtual Self: How Our Digital Lives Are Altering the World Around Us," CBC Radio-Canada's, Nora Young, examines the impact of the virtual information we generate about ourselves--about our own lives, our communities, our governments, and our cities.

Throughout this process, she explores how a city is nothing more than a system, built of many discrete parts (including its residents). Rather than separating that system by a function such as water, food, waste, transport, education, energy, we must consider them more holistically.

2014-05-08-superheroes.jpg Photo credit: A Skyline of Canada's National Capital, Ottawa, featuring Parliament Hill by Pawel Dwulit

In part, this requires the effective and proper use of existing quantitative data sets provided by the government and other such entities. However, of equal importance is the ability to integrate dynamic data, which has become widespread through the use of GPS-enabled phones and other portable tools.

According to MIT's Alex 'Sandy' Pentland, a pioneer in organizational engineering and mobile information systems, dynamic demographics are generated on the basis of how people are actually moving, thinking and what they are doing in real-time--not how we assume they are behaving.

One great example of dynamic data in action is seen with the crowdsourced online platform, Ushahidi. The platform allows people to easily collect information via text messages, email, twitter and web-forms - ultimately collecting all of the data in an easy to read and monitor map. Use cases range from monitoring polling stations and preventing fraud in India and Mexico; tracking incidences of ethnic violence in Kenya; to being used by Municipal authorities in Beijing to improve inter-city transportation.

A local organization that sees value in the use of dynamic data is the Canadian Council on Social Development (CCSD). Founded in 1920, the CCSD is a not-for-profit organization that partners and collaborates with all sectors and communities to advance solutions to today's toughest social challenges.

According to the CCSD, we "designed" the cities and the nation we live in, including the challenges, such as: social inequality, racism and climate change, to name a few. But, to that effect, we also have the power to "design" our way out of these challenges.

This approach - social development by design - has the potential to produce outcomes that are innovative, sustainable, and even systems-tipping when ultimately implemented. Using the right fusion of quantitative and dynamic data is particularly important to this effect.

For example, the CCSD's Community Data Program (CDP) is a gateway for municipalities and community organizations to access customized data tables from Statistics Canada, and other sources, to monitor and report on social and economic development trends within their communities.

Through the CDP, the CCSD has helped Alberta Health Services to measure income at the community level in the province of Alberta and has supported the Federation of Canadian Municipalities in developing "The Municipal Quality of Life Reporting System," to name a few.

Ultimately, if we as citizens, thought-leaders, decisions makers and urban planners, could better understand how our cities were being developed and used on a second-by-second, minute-by-minute basis - the possibilities for enriching our city building capabilities would be endless! This rich data, if put in the right hands, could ultimately inform the services that are provided to us locally, for the betterment of all.

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