Friday, September 26, 2014

Open Data allows us to tell our own stories

I'm the current lead of Open Data Windsor-Essex and so I can say with some authority that most people have no idea what Open Data is and why they should care enough to ask for it.

So I'd like to give an illustrated example to demonstrate the power of Open Data in the pursuit of trying to make sense of the world.

This story begins with someone I know who asked me if I had a good population map for Essex County as she wanted to do some research in relation to the proposed "mega-hospital" for Windsor-Essex. After some digging around, I found the thematic map for Windsor that shows the population change from the 2006 Census to the one in 2011 [pdf].

What struck me about this map was that it highlights growth in the Windsor CMA but doesn't express much about the degree of population loss. Every census tract that experienced loss is treated equally by the map. 55 of the 73 tracts experienced a loss, but map makers chose to highlight the differences in the growth instead.

Curious about this, I thought I would use Open Data provided by the federal government to make my own map.  I'm planning to write up the technical details of how I did this on my mapping blog in the near future, but for this post, I'll just give you the rough process that was involved in the map making.

First, I used the Canada Open Data portal to find this reference map of Census Tract Boundary files for 2011.  The files are in SHP format, otherwise known as ESRI Shapefiles, and the format needs GIS software for opening, reading, and editing.  I used QGIS to open the file and select only the parts of the map relating to the Windsor CMA.

I then opened a *huge* spreadsheet of census information by census tract also provided by the Open Data catalogue.  This was a particularly messy spreadsheet because it summarizes a number of data sets within the same column and it's huge because it covers all of the census tracts of Canada.  I ended up using Sublime Text with the Filter Lines plug-in to remove what was unnecessary until I was left with a table of data of Windsor Essex census tracts and population numbers for 2006 and 2011.

After a bit of trial and error, I figured out how to merge this table of data with my map of Windsor-Essex. Then I followed these instructions kindly provided by Peter Rukavina to turn these SHP files into GeoJSON.  GeoJSON is a format that allows for all sorts of manipulations on the web, freed from the constraints of geographic information systems. For example, I was now able to take my new dataset and make it available as a Gist on Github for others to share or improve.

While all the relevant data is there, the above map is clearly not particular useful or clearly expressing itself.  And so I followed this tutorial on how to create an interactive choropleth map using the Leaflet JavaScript library.

After some more trial and error futzing around (and more help from others kind enough to share their tips) I finally was able to finish making a map I could be proud of :: click on the image below or this link to see the map in it's full interactive choroplethic glory:

Now we can see a distinctly different snapshot of the population changes of Windsor Essex: namely that there has been significant population loss of population in the West end of the City of Windsor.

Please note that the percentages of population change in my map are similar but not identical with the map produced by Statistics Canada.  I'll investigate further to determine how much difference there is between the data set that I used and the dataset used to build the Statistics Canada thematic map.

I like to this think that the measure of a good map is that it tells a story but also invites further questions. If you have such questions, please let me know in the comments.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The War on the Care (of Cycling Infrastructure)

"The War on the Car" was one of the most memorable slogans of the Rob Ford mayoral campaign of 2010.  At the time, it raised incredulity among cycling enthusiasts who didn't feel that they were in a war (and if they were, they felt that they were on the side that was bearing the causalities from each skirmish). But despite the protests of the bike-riding pinkos that there was no war being waged, the campaign slogan appeared to be resonant with the car-commuting electorate. If we consider that the act of removing the bike lanes from Jarvis cost much more than their installation, it suggests that Ford considered "The war on the bicycle" a more potent political credo than his "Respect for taxpayers" and 'Stop the Gravy Train' campaign slogans.

I mention this as a way to explain why I'm guessing that at this moment, it feels politically risky for some politicians to be explicitly endorse a cycling infrastructure.

At the last City Council meeting for the City of Windsor, the motion to develop separate a bike lane on Cabana Road was deferred on account that the improvement had not received suitable public consultation.

The problem, however, is that the improved bicycling option for the 5.2-km stretch of Cabana between Walker Road and the new Herb Gray Parkway would gobble up a sizable portion of the $6.8 million city council has allotted for completion of the “Windsor Loop” bike path circling the city and connecting existing bike lanes.

Council originally approved $1.8 million for the Cabana bike paths in 2013, with an additional $5 million added in the 2014 budget to complete the remaining 12.4 kilometres of the 42.5-kilometre Windsor Loop and 17.8 kilometres of connecting bike trails.

The estimated cost for segregated bike paths along Cabana — including one-metre additional pavement width and half-metre buffers on each side of the road — is estimated at $4.29 million plus HST. (Schmidt, Doug, "Segregated bike paths envisioned for Cabana", Windsor Star, July 7th, 2014)

(To put these numbers in perspective: we've just invested almost 2 billion dollars on the new Detroit River Crossing. There is no war on the car in Windsor, Ontario.)

It's difficult to argue against proper public consultation but the delay is unfortunate because now the initiative must delayed until a new City Council is elected in October. It might just be poor timing, but one wonders if the city didn't want to risk the initiative in front of councilors that might be wary of spending money on cycling infrastructure before an election.  

It's important to be aware of the political climate when being an activist or an advocate. There are certain environments that allows political change to take place. For example, we sometimes like to think that the Dutch have their amazing cycling infrastructure because they are an inherently progressive population. But as this short post and video suggests, the transformation of Amsterdam from a city filled with gridlock and parking lots to a city of public squares and cycling infrastructure, was more of an accident of political activism and good timing.  The tragedy of 400 child deaths from cars in 1971 led to mass protests which was then followed by an global oil crisis which forced the entire population to understand what car dependency meant on a personal level.

The car has shaped our cities and our sense of own personal mobility and agency that it's hard to comprehend a life without riding in a car. Indeed, to choose a life without the use of a motorized vehicle is an extraordinary one.

And yet, the climate is changing.

The baby boomers are getting older and they are starting to lose their licenses. And young people - well, young people aren't buying cars anymore

We need to let our city councilors know that now the time to invest in cycling infrastructure and that they can vote on this measure with clear support. And we can do so this Thursday, June 24th, 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., at the Roseland Golf and Curling Club, 455 Kennedy Drive West, Windsor.

A second public Information Centre (PIC) is scheduled for Thursday, July 24, 2014 to present the recommended option to the public.All interested stakeholders are invited to attend this drop-in style open house to meet the Project Team, become informed about the recommended alternative and provide comments.

(An aside: Why are the details of this meeting hidden in a pdf file embedded on the City of Windsor's Windsor Loop page?  Is it just a simple oversight or is this what Dave Meslin would describe as a deliberate design choice?)

There is a certain irony that I'm planning to drive there to let them know that I personally endorse separated bicycle lanes because I'm so terrified of the dreaded Cabana underpass that is the very reason for this initiative.

Let me know if you need a ride!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

An X for a 123

The provincial election has just passed and after a brief respite, the municipal election will begin to simmer until the deadline for nominations on September 12th passes and then talk of local politics promises to boil steadily until October 27th.  Well, that's only for a minority who might listen at all.  Despite being the site of a highly contested seat, only 43.3% of voters in Windsor-West cast a ballot in the provincial election [source].

Voters are a largely disenchanted lot. And the reasons why are numerous. People are turned off by partisan bickering and attack ads.  People want to vote with their principles but are told that if they do so, they are 'splitting the vote' and they should instead vote for someone else.  And the parties themselves rarely change between elections and the faces that represent them don't change that much either, especially when you only glace at them from a distance.

There are those who chide people for not voting. They pronounce that people will 'lose their right to complain' if they don't vote.  They pronounce that young people 'just don't care' about politics. And that's wrong because the problem isn't with the people of Ontario.
The problem is with the first past-the-post voting system, as beautifully illustrated in this video:

People want to vote 'for something' and if that's not there, they are not going to vote.

This Ontario election, I voted *for something*.  I voted for the party that promised to bring ranked ballots to municipal elections

Ranked ballots:

It even works wonders in the Animal Kingdom. And the United States.

If all goes well, there will be ranked ballot elections in Toronto in 2018.  Already, similar campaigns to bring ranked ballots to the voters in Barrie, Ottawa, Vancouver, and London have begun.

Is it time to bring a 123Campaign to Windsor?  I really don't know.  To find out, I'm going to ask the candidates for Mayor and City Council come September 12th, to help me decide how I'm going to vote in October.

Monday, May 10, 2010

What's next after Windsor-Essex ChangeCamp?

Windsor has already had its very own Talk20 event.
And the Windsor-Essex ChangeCamp has just passed.

I find it fascinating that not only are there are so many small-scale and local events out there (such as speaking series like The Treehouse Group and Trampoline Hall) but there are now several of these types of events that explicitly lend themselves as a template for others to adopt and bring to their own community - events like Ignite, Jane's Walk, TEDx, GiveCamps, and Podcamps.

I'm wondering what will be next.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

This blog has moved

This blog is now located at
You will be automatically redirected in 30 seconds, or you may click here.

For feed subscribers, please update your feed subscriptions to

Monday, June 29, 2009

Fear of a Tallgrass Planet

Another day, another piece in the Windsor Star decrying the weed-riddled parks that have flourished during the City of Windsor's outside workers 'work-stoppage'. Personally, I think that the emergence of prairie birds in our city parks has been the only positive outcome that has come out of this unfortunate situation that we've found ourselves in. (Actually, that and grass-braiding)

But I know that here where once was a sea of tallgrass prairie - that I'm in the minority. Most people in Windsor love routinely-mowed grass. In fact most people in the Western world love the lawn and the history of this love affair has been wonderfully captured in Elizabeth Kolbert's New Yorker article "Turf War".

While Kolbert history of the lawn largely equates short-grass with material wealth, there is credible evidence that our love of short-grass is genetically hard-wired into our species:

As a reflection on what lawns mean to people, Gordon H. Orians, a professor emeritus of biology at the University of Washington, Seattle, took photographs of a wide variety of vegetation habitats and asked people around the world to rate them. African savannas were preferred by a large margin. We evolved in a habitat where short green grass provided evidence of abundant grazing mammals; pruned shrubs similarly evidenced lots of browsers; and open spaces meant we could see the dangerous lions, hyenas, and other predators.

So how can we - those of us who are actively working to increase the amount of naturalized land in the Windsor and Essex County to sustainable levels - work around this tendency and keep some of the tallgrass in our public places?

I think I've found an answer in the book, With People in Mind: Design and Management of Everyday Nature by Rachel Kaplan, Stephen Kaplan and Robert L. Ryan. This 1998 work distills decades of research into the design of natural spaces into an easily understandable frame work that designers, public officials and citizens can use to design or evaluate local open space.

I'm currently reading the Leddy Library copy of this book and the good news is that there are strategies that can employed to create public spaces that incorporate natural space while addressing people's fears and preferences to outdoor space.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Jane's Walk in Walkerville

The Jane's Walk that we had in Walkerville went over really well. We had around forty people enjoying the warmth of the sun, of the company around them and of the stories they told of their neighbourhood.

These folks were there and they describe the walk better than I can:


One of the reasons why I love the Jane's Walk event is because it is one of the few events I've come across that embodies the ideas it celebrates: community, conversation, walking, neighbourhoods, sharing, accessibility, stories, and activism.

On that note, is anyone interested in a Jane Jacobs book club?