Information Studies Seminar Series: "Civic Participation in an Era of Geospatial Web & Open Data." Guest speaker Dr. R. Sieber

Friday, October 9, 2015 12:30to14:00
Room 106, School of Information Studies, 3661 Peel, Rm. 106, Montreal, CA

Join us for a McGill School of Information Studies (SIS) Seminar Series talk with speaker Dr. Renée Sieber on civic participation in an era of geospatial web and open data.


If we believe the rhetoric, information and communications technologies have transformed civic participation around issues of place. I refer here to public participation, usually by residents of a community, to influence public policy around issues that matter to everyday lived experience. Civic participation appears to have been impacted by new mapping platforms (e.g., Google Maps), which allow people to interactively and continuously navigate digital representations at increasingly hyperlocal resolutions. Location based services bring geospatial specific content to your mobile device where you are right now. To these digital maps experts and non-experts alike can add geotagged content of practically anything place-based, whether a restaurant review or a favourite park, a notice of a protest march or a siting of a pothole. The metaphors of civic participation extend into what is called the geospatial web. The location-based application FourSquare even enables you to get elected as mayor of a particular place. Much of geospatial web converges with big data. Interested publics have digitized the world’s road network and much more in the massive crowdsourced application, OpenStreetMap. To the petabytes of citizen-contributed, cloud-based geolocated data on the web, governments, such as cities, are opening up data sets as well as accepting data from the public, for example via Open 311 type systems. Community residents can monitor or appify the cities in which they live. The new hardware, software platforms, the apps, and the content appear to transform the way that government can talk to citizens, citizens can talk to government and citizens can talk to each other.

Do the geospatial web and open data help or hurt civic participation? Or both? Is there any impact of the medium on civic participation or is the technology merely an instrument in a traditional, albeit messy, democratic process? This talk traces the past twenty years of research on civic participation using geospatial technologies and data. I’ll talk about what we know about civic participation on these platforms, in terms of motivations and hierarchies. I’ll describe how civic participation on this new medium can distance participation from channels of influence, blur experts and non-experts, and disrupt existing legal and political regimes. The new technologies have demanded changes in methods to assess effect and effectiveness. Indeed, they have challenged what constitutes effectiveness on these new platforms. I’ll conclude with some scenarios of future where civic participation collides with the smart city.


Renée Sieber is a professor of geography and environment (jointly appointed) at McGill University, in Montréal, Canada. She is also affiliated with McGill’s School of Computer Science, McGill’s Digital Humanities Working Group and the Global Environmental and Climate Change Centre of Quebec. Sieber works at the intersection of social theory and computer code. She is best known for her research on Public Participation GIS/ Participatory GIS (PPGIS). She authored the definitive literature review of PPGIS, which has been cited over 500 times. In March 2013 Sieber was awarded a SSHRC Partnership Grant to investigate how the geospatial web 2.0 (e.g., Google Maps, OpenStreetMap, and location based services) and open data are transforming the ways citizens and cities interact. The grant has 26 researchers and 30 partners across public and private sectors, and civil society. Her work within the grant focuses on the evolution of open data standards—what is lost and what is gained as cities homogenize their data to increase interoperability—and on the concept of “frictionless participation”—what shifts occur when both citizens and cities expect civic engagement to be effortless.

This talk is free and open to all. Please arrive early to secure a seat.

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