The Fabrique des Mobilités Québec team continues its series of interviews with the goal of becoming aware of the path of data, its value, and understanding how it is used for different purposes.

On this occasion, we contacted Philippe Fortin, Innovation and Open Data Advisor at the City of Montreal, to learn more about how curb-related data is processed and exploited from City Hall. Fabrique des Mobilités Québec, thanks to funding from Montréal en Commun, the smart cities component led by the Montréal Urban Innovation Laboratory (LIUM), is supporting sustainable mobility experiments to open new horizons for the curb.

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Deconstructing habits

Fabmob Team: In your opinion, what are the main issues and challenges related to the street curb in Montreal?

Philippe: I would say that the main issue that is very often mentioned is the limited space, the limited public space. We already have existing buildings and the biggest issue we have right now is public perception. It is a matter of deconstructing the habits of our citizens to ensure that the available space is put to the best possible use. Examples that we have in general are: do we want to leave parking spaces on the street or not? Then, from my expertise as well, it’s all about the data. To be able to make choices or understand what is happening, we need to have the data, the observations that allow us to explain mobility phenomena, to see how space is used, and this is a challenge at the moment, because these data are either incomplete, limited in number or non-existent, and do not necessarily allow us to have a general picture of all the use that is made of public space, particularly curbs.

Pure data, governance and collection

Fabmob Team: We were interested in the path that the data will take to get to that stage. So you were talking about collection, connections between different data sources. Can you explain the path of this data to the City, ideally in connection with the curb?

Philip: In general, we try to make as few changes as possible in the data we make available. The goal is not to create additional effort. That said, there is a level of detail in our data that is not necessarily relevant. So we try to think upstream about the use that will be made on the other side by the user, and to find the right balance that allows us to say that we are not manipulating the data too much so that people can do what they want with it.That said, in terms of governance, there are several steps that must be followed to be able to make the data available. There are several scenarios. Some data, often the least sensitive, will be on computerized systems with an interface from which they can be easily extracted. Other data sets are not on automated systems and must be opened manually.

What we want, of course, is for the majority of our data to be on computerized systems so that we can update them automatically and regularly and make sure that the data available on the website is relevant, and especially that it does not depend on a single person to update it. On the other hand, depending on the level of sensitivity and criticality of the data, there are costs associated with data management. Therefore, we cannot afford to have them all on computerized systems, even if that is what we want to work towards in the future.

Then there is the question of collection. In terms of curbside, one example that comes up often is traffic sign data. When we talk about curbs, we usually talk a lot about signs, parking, how to use the space, regulations. And one of the problems or sensitivities that we have with the data right now is that the systems that exist in the City were not originally designed to interpret the data, but to give public works mandates, orders like “I want to replace a pole”. These systems are old but very functional. There’s not necessarily a reason to replace them because they’re still doing the job they were made for. But we have new data needs, we would like to use them to interpret what is written on the sign. But the system was not designed to record that information. It wasn’t even relevant 10-20 years ago when the system was created.

That’s the beauty of data; you can use it in other ways, but it creates certain limitations, as in this case. Also, not all boroughs were using the system either; some had other ways of managing. It also creates inequalities in the territory, since some data are more easily accessible than others.

Understanding the curb from the detail

Fabmob Team: Is there any data that would be really crucial or a priority for the City to collect?

Philip: The answer is always going to be yes, there is always some need for more data. I think the critical data is any data that helps you understand how the curb is used, not at a macro level, but at a smaller level. For example, it’s interesting to know how a space is used between 8 and 9 a.m. on Monday to see if it can be reused in other ways. It is also interesting to evaluate the impacts once you have tested something. For example, if we decide to put a terrace, a street food truck, whatever, on a section of street, collecting data allows us to know if it has had the desired impact, if it has actually improved the quality of life of citizens. We know exactly or almost exactly what kind of data we need. The real question is how to collect it on an ongoing basis.

There is also the aspect of privacy. When we talk about open data, if we collect very sensitive data, we still have to ask ourselves questions afterwards about making it publicly available. In order for it to have an impact, so that it can be used by our partners, we must ensure that it respects the Digital Data Charter.

Users of all kinds

Fabmob team: Who are the privileged users of this data? Citizens, other partners? Do you receive any particular types of requests in terms of access to data, questions about the data?

Philippe: One of the major difficulties we face is precisely to know who the users of our data are. Our open data policy is very, very broad. Anyone can use our open data, and all they have to do is cite the City of Montreal as the source of the data. It’s not that we have unreasonable expectations, but we still like to be able to know if we are having an impact and, above all, to adapt our service offer and the data we make available. That said, mobility is one of the areas where we have the most feedback and the most requests, so it’s still a little easier to get a profile.

Among the major users, there are universities: research chairs at UQAM, at the Polytechnique, even at Concordia, are looking at mobility issues. We have non-profit organizations that reuse this data, either in terms of mobility or even built space, to respond to the local clientele, to know what services are available. Then there are all the transportation applications that facilitate access to different services. Transit, for example, which is a Montreal pride, relies heavily on open data. There are also private companies, such as the Montreal company Local Logic, all the pedestrian potential indices or others that we find on Centris, for example, which are based on open data. 

And of course, there is some data, via other services, such as interactive maps, for which the citizens are the final users, if you will. Then there are the journalists: a lot of articles have been published in terms of mobility, on the REV in the last few years, but also on the counts, on the parks, and therefore on the traffic. And we must not forget that in terms of transparency, open data is very important. And since mobility is very sensitive and very present inside people’s lives, it has a big impact.

The curb as a whole

Fabmob Team: In conclusion, what vision do you have for the City’s curb in the next 5 to 10 years?

Philippe: More and more, we’re moving away from talking about the lane, the traffic, the parking space, to really looking at the curb as a whole. Determine what public space is available around the curb and see what use can be made of it. Everything is interacting, we want to try to look at all these elements and see how they interact, rather than looking at each element separately.

The goal is really to look at the best use that can be made of the curb, depending on the context, the street, the space. The use of the curb in the downtown area is not going to be the same as on a local street, a commercial street, or an industrial street. This does not mean that we will change overnight, it means that we will remain attentive to the needs of the population and that the offer of services in the public space corresponds to the needs that continue to evolve over time. There is also the City’s strategic plan, which mentions the desire to reduce our GHG emissions. This is also one of the strategic points of the use of space to transform the city, to make it a little greener.

Towards the big picture

The data allows us to get a broader perspective on the form and frequency of our use of public space as citizens. Supported by experimentation, we will be able to find quick win points to harness the full potential of the curb.

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