Interview with Jess Reia, CIRM’s 2020–2021 BMO Fellow

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Published: 8Dec2021
Jess Reia

Jess Reia recently concluded their BMO postdoctoral fellowship with the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Montréal (CIRM). They are now undertaking new responsibilities as an assistant professor in the School of Data Science at the University of Virginia. To take stock of their takeaways from this year and look back at their research-action project Data Governance for the 24-Hour City, the CIRM team had a virtual chat with them.

Can you tell us about the development and evolution of your postdoctoral research project Data Governance for the 24-Hour City throughout 2020-2021? 

“A key moment that influenced my fellowship at CIRM was my appointment as a member of MTL 24/24’s Night Council, which happened right before the start of the fellowship. At the Night Council, I chose to represent CIRM [instead of my McGill department], because I believed that my research project could benefit tremendously from engagement with a local organization advocating for better nightlife policies. I am very grateful for that opportunity, and I was happy to work with the CIRM team because I felt connected to a network and participated in many activities for the city of Montréal. The timing was perfect, because, in 2020, the local government decided to finally put together a nightlife policy. Despite the pandemic, they appointed a commissaire du bruit et de la nuit, Déborah Delaunay, with whom we worked closely. She contacted specialists in Montréal to take part in working groups and discuss the nightlife policy. From September to November 2020, we met (virtually) four times to think about nightlife and its needs—focusing both on the context of post-pandemic recovery and on the collaborative and inclusive character of the nightlife policy. I experienced the policymaking process firsthand—something that I had previously only done in Latin America. I am very grateful for such a precious opportunity, and it helped my research agenda advance. 

“I was also involved in discussions about open data in Montréal. In 2020, the local government, through its Montreal Urban Innovation Lab (MUIL) was designing and publicizing the new Digital Data Charter for the city. Ana Brandusescu [2019–2021 McConnell Professor of Practice at CIRM] and I joined the conversation by making our response to MUIL’s public consultation publicly available. After reading our contribution, MUIL invited us to chat with them. This debate was aligned with discussions I previously had with the commissaire about the importance of having a solid open data approach for the nightlife policy, and how the lack of datasets and databases about the night in Montréal was a consistent issue for different organizations in the city. The lack of Open Data makes it difficult for researchers and policymakers alike to measure various things, such as the impact of the pandemic. I had the opportunity to talk about this issue to many people in the government during meetings and events. With other researchers from McGill and UQAM, I wrote a publicly available report for the City of Montréal entitled Diagnostic de la vie nocturne à Montréal (September 2020), and I later worked with colleagues from MTL 24/24 on a public consultation with citizens to understand their needs and expectations for the nightlife in the city. The results of this public consultation are available in another report I co-authored, the Rapport de consultation des citoyens et des parties prenantes informelles pour comprendre leurs usages et besoins la nuit à Montréal (February 2021).

“Then, the curfew was implemented in early 2021, putting nightlife and nighttime economy in the spotlight. The media wanted the opinions of specialists, researchers, and advocates for nightlife. At the time, I spoke to journalists and other researchers, which allowed me to learn more from our community and meet a lot of people. I am happy to see that some of the findings of this fellowship, including the reports that I co-authored, and scholarly publications, contributed to local policies and to public debates. I further partook in events and conferences that integrated CIRM and Montréal in different night studies networks, both in North America and across the Atlantic. In only a year, we managed to consolidate a good network of people and organizations interested in the urban night.

“More research findings will be made publicly available. As for the future, I am affiliated with the University of Virginia in the US, and I recently became an associate member of CIRM. I am still working with Prof. Will Straw, who was my fellowship supervisor. We just applied for a grant to pursue our study of open datasets and on the importance of consolidating data policies for the night in North America. While the pandemic impacted my fellowship so much, it created a window of opportunity that allowed me to tap into different networks and resources. I was not able to experience the nightlife per se, it’s true, but the ‘idea’ of nightlife remained.”

How did you benefit from collaborations with CIRM members and partners during your fellowship?

“I was very involved with CIRM’s activities. For example, I was a panellist at a few of the centre’s events. In particular, I remember one that discussed Ana Brandusescu’s report on artificial intelligence (AI) policy and funding in Canada, to which I contributed as a reviewer. Ana and I study similar things, so having her at CIRM was amazing. We share the same perspectives and approaches to technology policy, making it great to collaborate with her. Will Straw was my PhD co-supervisor when I initially came to McGill in 2015, he was then my Mellon Fellowship supervisor and, finally, my BMO Postdoctoral Fellowship supervisor. We have been working together since 2014, making it a long-lasting collaboration. Will and Ana are two of my favourite scholars. CIRM facilitated these collaborations, alongside my connections with the municipal government. As a research centre on Montréal, CIRM’s interdisciplinarity really stands out and I felt like the interdisciplinarity of my work was never questioned, which I do not feel is always the case in academic spaces. Representing CIRM in my work with the local government was great and I’m happy CIRM was present during discussions around the nightlife policy, even if it hasn’t been made public yet. We worked on it for over a year and I am very proud of the process.”

Why did you decide to get involved outside of academia? How did these mandates influence your research—and vice versa?

“My BA is in public policy, I did my master’s and PhD in communication studies, and I worked at a law school for almost nine years. I have always worked with applied research, especially at the law school, where we worked with a lot of data governance, technology and digital policy. We were trying to have an impact on policymaking and legislation from the public interest perspective and, for example, represented civil society organizations. I worked closely with civil society organizations in Latin America for many years, and I think that’s why I really enjoy doing research-action projects; it’s what I do best. I sometimes do theoretical research, and I enjoy it, but my passion is applied research. I really like working with governments, especially at the municipal level. I also like to work with international networks of researchers and to do comparative research in order to see what we can learn from each other from a critical perspective. When I moved to Canada, I tried to bring all of this with me and CIRM offered me a good environment to get involved with local policy. Working with civil society is something that I really value and hope to keep doing in the coming years.”

Can you give us a sneak peek of your upcoming symposium with Ana Brandusescu, AI in the City: Building Civic Engagement and Public Trust? What inspired it?

“It will be a one-day symposium on February 10, 2022. We will have both open panels and invite-only roundtables. Ana is leading this event as one of the final outcomes of her McConnell Professorship of Practice at CIRM and I am contributing as a former BMO Fellow, now Associate Member at CIRM. I look at smart cities and data governance, and she looks at AI and data governance, and we were thinking that these agendas should talk to each other more. This led us to create a symposium focusing more on academia and civil society. We will have international guests in our panels, which will be free and open to the public via registration. These panellists will share their knowledge on civic engagement and public trust with us and people from Montréal will also be present, including CIRM, which is such a fundamental part of the city. With this symposium, we want to answer the question of how academia and civil society can make a difference in how AI is procured, deployed, and used. The main outcome of the symposium, besides the event itself, will be an open-access publication with short essays written by the participants on civil engagement and public trust when dealing with AI in cities. We hope to join a broader ongoing conversation with other researchers and civil society organizations. We will ensure that all outcomes and resources are open access so that people can download and share them, and we plan to translate the publication to other languages.”

Besides the AI in the City symposium, what are your next projects?  Will you keep studying Montréal in your future research?  Will we see you again in the city? 

“Yes! Montréal is my favourite city; it is my home. Research involves feelings and affection, and I have a lot of affection for Montréal. I chose to go back there for work, and I chose it as my research object. It is a place where I would be very happy to share my voice and knowledge. I still write about Montréal these days, and I am applying for grants to keep working on nightlife in North America. Montréal, as much as possible, will always be a part of my research agenda. What is great about comparative research is that you can learn and write about many places (if you have enough knowledge and respect their similarities and differences). When I first started writing my PhD dissertation, which was a comparative study about urban governance and street performers in Montréal and Rio, some people found the comparison very odd; in the end, there were more similarities between the two cities than even I had anticipated, and the fieldwork was fascinating. I hope to keep working on Montréal and to stay connected with CIRM.”

What would be a perfect day in Montréal?

“I like to walk a lot. I would probably walk from the Plateau to Chinatown, where one of my favourite restaurants is. I would then have lunch and go to a café, before meeting with friends in the park. I would go for another walk in the evening and have a nice dinner. Alternatively, I love the botanical gardens and would go visit them. The city has so much to offer for people willing to walk around.”

What are some differences between Charlottesville (Virginia) and Montréal? Do you miss anything from Montréal?

“Charlottesville is neither walkable nor bike-friendly. When I was in Montréal, I did not even realize how easy it was to be a cyclist there. In Charlottesville, I cannot find places to leave my bike, there is a scarcity of bike lanes, and the city is mostly designed for cars. Charlottesville is also very small, although there are a lot of things happening here. I miss the queer community, DIY spaces, nightlife, and music scenes in Montréal.”

What are your favourite fictional books about Montréal? 

“There is a lot of literature that I like from my home country [Brazil]. When it comes to Montréal fictional books, I really enjoy the graphic novels published by Drawn & Quarterly. They publish a lot of works about Montréal or written by Montréalers. Some books set in Montréal that I have enjoyed over the past years include For Today I Am a Boy by Kim Fu, Bone and Bread by Saleema Nawazand, and Suzanne by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette.”

Which works were highly influential on your research?

“There are many, such as Shannon Mattern’s Code and Clay and A City Is Not a Computer. Will Straw’s works have also been very influential, alongside Translating Montréal by Sherry Simon. I have been influenced by many Montréal-based scholars, like Anouk Bélanger (UQAM).”

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