Engendering engagement and civic action through design

June 15th, 2012

A couple of weeks ago I took part in my first RHoK event/hackathon here in Toronto. The process consisted of an initial pitch night where different people or organisations told a group of developers, designers and other problem solvers what they were doing and the problems they were challenged with. Everyone split up into groups and worked to define the problems in more detail and come up with potential solutions. The next step was to get together for food and drinks and try to match people with the right skill sets to develop the different solutions.

One of the organisations that took my interest was ACORN Canada and their campaign "Fair Housing for Toronto Tenants". After some discussion we concluded their problem being as follows:

  1. Getting inspections done
  2. Getting work orders placed as a result of the inspections
  3. Fulfilling the work orders

The solution we put forward was to extract the information that is available through Toronto's Open Data initiative, convert it to a useable format and display each record on it's own page/section. We would then plot the records that we are able to (given adequate address information) on to a map and allow filtering of what is displayed – each of the three points above or combinations of them. Due to the fact that the dataset is somewhat limited, the second portion of the solution we put forward was to augment this data set with user contributed data. We felt that this would be a key part in helping ACORN achieve their objectives because the current methods for submiting a report and getting an inpection done are cumbersome. It would also provide an insight into what needs to be done and better illustrate the problem at hand. The intended affect would be to get more people bringing the issue to the attention of city officials and subsequently getting more inspections and work orders done.

After pairing up with some people that could get the job done we met up the following Staurday morning and got to work. Over the course of the weekend we managed to get a decent prototype of our solution working and can be seen here (at least while the free hosting plan is running).

It was only two days so there is obviously a lot more that we could do to get this project to a point where it does a better job of visualising the problem at hand and offer a way to better facilitate the process of improving living standards. With that in mind I plan on attending the MapJam event to learn more about this issue and to see where we could potentially take this project in partnership with other parties such as the City of Toronto and MLS.

I love maps and data visualisation so this project had a lot of appeal for me personally. In some of my research while preparing for the event I came across this great article that talks about data visualisation and social justice, and in particular this quote:

designers have the opportunity to highlight spatial inconsistencies and (ideally) engender engagement and civic action

Some other great recources on this topic I found:

The source code for this project, along with other details, is available in our Github repo.

Big thanks to Melanie, Claire, Heather and all the other volunteers that made the event possible.