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data-driven participation

January 26, 2017

Topic: Research

Citizens excluded from data-driven participation – Toronto, Canada

Data-driven civic participation promises to improve transparency, empower citizens and unlock insights for better decisions. But can technological solutions managed by private companies be democratic? Researchers at McGill University, Montreal, Matthew Tenney and Renee Sieber, investigate impacts of civic participation and privacy. 

As citizens increasingly adopt social technologies in their everyday lives, they also become producers of data that can be harnessed to inform public policy. In Data-Driven Participation: Algorithms, Cities, Citizens, and Corporate Control, Tenney and Sieber provide an account of the New Blue Edge project of Waterfront Toronto’s Intelligent Community initiative, a data-driven citizen engagement project in Toronto, Canada. provide an account of a data-driven citizen engagement project in Toronto, Canada. Created to serve the city’s waterfront communities, the publicly-funded project involved corporate service providers. Its chosen software solution offered to connect citizens to government in ‘seamless’ ways.

But, the project’s execution saw planners and citizens left out. After 1.2 billion dollars of public investment, the community portal was still in its infancy, while citizens and officials could not fully access its state of progress or functions. The authors argue that by locking citizens and officials out of control to protect proprietary interests, such projects can contradict the purpose they are meant to serve.

Tenney and Sieber explore the rise of volunteered geographic information (VGI) as a form of public participation. VGI collects social information from different sources, and subjects them to analysis for patterns or insights. As a type of passive engagement, VGI does not depend on deliberation, draws from many contexts to offer a view of public opinion, and provides transparency by documenting processes. However, transparency and control over the algorithms that are used to collect and analyze data can be affected by who owns them, and who is allowed – or capable – of looking into their inner workings. The research illustrates why administrators are looking to algorithms to improve governance, and how the proprietary solutions in use impact active civic participation and privacy.


Matthew Tenney is a doctoral student in the Department of Geography at McGill University, Montreal, Canada. Renee Sieber is Associate Professor at the McGill School of Environment and Department of Geography.  

Photo: Hamza Ullah/Unsplash/cc

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