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“The means to engage in participatory culture are no longer limited to the technically versed or the civically inclined.”

We are living in a networked society that is supported by hundreds of thousands of information and communications technologies (ICTs) that bring us tremendous value. Now we need to look past our virtual avatars and our online profiles in order to understand what impact this connectedness can have on others and our cities. That’s where urban informatics comes in.

The textbook definition of urban informatics is “the study, design, and practice of urban experiences across different urban contexts that are created by new opportunities of real-time, ubiquitous technology and the augmentation that mediates the physical and digital layers of people networks and urban infrastructures.” As app developers and designers, for us the term refers to screen-based gadgetry (i.e. software) that is location-sensitive and whose design is guided by some of the values represented by cities (such as their participatory and creative culture, plurality and cosmopolitanism).

Because mobile technologies such as smartphones and tablets are everywhere, urban informatics also have the ability to affect behaviour by inciting us to rediscover our cities, be more informed, empower us with the tools to become caretakers, and facilitate dialogue. It also goes without saying that this is an exciting time to be living in the city: urban areas across the globe are growing more quickly than ever and city cores are becoming bastions of creative super heroism.

Just about all aspects of human endeavour take place in the city, and as they continue to grow they are being talked about more and more. Gone are the days when sprawl went unchecked because e-commerce has disrupted the exclusively bricks and mortar, big-box store model. The cost of oil has risen dramatically and we are sharing more often as well. More of us also now have the desire to live in denser, walkable neighbourhoods that are well served and surrounded by civil society. I believe these changes are heightening our sensibility and desire for good urban design and integration. We are not only seeking out vibrant spaces, but we are increasingly rejecting those hopelessly bland and uninspired ones.

The promise of Toronto and urban informatics

Toronto is a great place to live, but it’s no secret that the mayor’s office is kind of a mess. A Now article recently bemoaned the city’s mayoral woes by dreaming up its own version. Christopher Hume has officially gone to calling Toronto “Procrastination City” and constantly issues anti-odes on the mayor. Richard Florida surreptitiously called Ford “the worst mayor in the modern history of cities” in an interviewwith The Grid, and Spacing’s summer issue cover depicted the mayor terrorizing the metropolis gangnam style.

In Taras Grescoe’s Straphanger, an exploration of public transportation, an entire chapter is devoted to Toronto in which he suggests that the current mayor’s greatest disservice to the city (and by extension, its transit system) has been to pit its denizens against each other. (Were it not for Roger Keil and Shawn Micallef, my feelings toward the suburbs would be irreparably damaged right about now.) And if that wasn’t enough, The Economist recently did a number on the city and mayor.

Despite the less than copacetic city-state of affairs, Toronto remains an important nexus point and among the best cities for start-ups. I cannot emphasize enough how valuable Toronto’s Discovery District is – that massive knot of civil society around Queen’s Park that ties the city’s most important cultural, research and learning institutions together with eclectic neighbourhoods and the business district Bay Street.

A commitment to digital accessibility

Toronto has made so much of its data open to the public, and it has actively sought out meaningful partnerships with software developers and not-for-profits who are committed to making it more accessible to the public. An excellent example of this is the work Leslie Woo is doing at Metrolinx to accelerate the creation of transit apps and a multi-platform information portal for riders. The agency has also since had an open call to groups with whom it can develop strategic partnerships. Similarly, Jennifer Keesmaat has been a major force behind Rebuild Your Community (RYC), one of Toronto’s first urban informatics tools with an emphasis on democratizing city stewardship. The launch of RYC is both a testament to the city’s commitment to digital media and awareness of its potential.

We already know how much Web 2.0 tools and services have changed the way we experience the Internet, but by adding a real-time and real-space layer into the mix, urban informatics (re)orients us toward our natural and built environment, and instills a kind of civic imperative to participate. As developers, designers, strategists and entrepreneurs, we just need to widen the scope of our thinking because, as a general rule, there is an intimate connection between what we build and what we believe.

Amaan Rattansi is currently a Fellow at the School for Social Entrepreneurs Ontario and an alumnus of McMaster University and Bloc in Silicon Valley. He is the co-creator and Lead Developer of Sameboat, knowledge media platform / public transit informatics tool currently under development. Follow him and Sameboat on Twitter @amaanr and @SameboatCo. Email him at amaan@sameboat.ca.

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