Two weeks ago, I walked into my boss’ office, asked him if he had a minute, and quietly shut his door to deafening silence. “There’s never a good time to do this, but…”, I said, as I handed him my resignation letter.
I’d been with that company for just over two years (according to an earlier LinkedIn notification), and I’ve grown a lot since joining. I hit the ground running and took no time in between graduating and starting. It was a bit of a pivot from what I’d learned – my Bachelors’ Degree in Urban and Regional Planning laid out the infrastructure for understanding how the city works and gave me lenses to read and interpret policies set out by the province and municipalities for how the city should idealistically evolve – this firm dealt with the economic side of residential development – digging deep to gauge what works and what doesn’t in real estate (read: what sells and what doesn’t).
The decision to quit was a difficult one; the plan from there on was unemployment for two months and going back to school for four (read: having no income for over half a year). But I’m adamant that this is a path worth pursuing – I’m going back to Ryerson for a Certificate in Big Data Analytics, and my goal is to combine my newly acquired Big Data Analytics skills with my Urban Planning background to specialize in recording, analyzing, and evaluating the impact of urban development projects.
There are many buzz words in the urban planning community (you can’t find a white paper without mention of “sustainability”), and within the past few years, “smart communities” has been a hot topic. Down by Toronto’s waterfront where a swath of new residential developments are underway, the city’s first open-access, ultra-high speed broadband community network will provide some of the planet’s fastest internet speeds. Moving in this direction reflects the importance the city is placing on technology. Throw in news of driverless cars and you have everyone talking about revolutionary shift in planning considerations.
But it was Janette Sadik-Khan’s talk with Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat that was the tipping point for me. Being a major driving force in closing down Times Square to cars and opening it up to pedestrians, she enthused about the importance of data as not only a measurement of how well planning initiatives worked or didn’t work, but also as something that they were able to present to the skeptical public and ultimately serve as an object of accountability (after all, planning is, and always will be, for the people). She quotes former Mayor Bloomberg: “In God, I trust. Everyone else, bring data” and it speaks volumes.
She also highlighted problematically (albeit politely) how far behind Toronto was when it came to using data – in fact, there was very little data to draw from. Even our primary federal census-conducting body, Statistics Canada, has reported inconsistent reliability. Cities like New York and London are far more advanced and have entire municipal bodies dedicated to the collection, analysis, and distribution of data. The IMFG recently released a report on opportunities in Cities, Data, and Digital Innovation, detailing London’s natural evolution into one of the world’s leader’s in tech-savvy cities, and Toronto’s existing social and economic infrastructure that can propel it to reach its full potential as a world-class smart city.
But the takeaway here is that Toronto is not yet there.
The city recently contracted Jan Gehl, starchitect and star place-maker, to leading a data-building initiative focused on “improving King Street” (details are blurry), so I’m certain progress is being made in this direction. But my goal is to get ahead of the curve and incorporate tools for analyzing big data into my skillset. When Toronto is ready to deal with city-building using data, I’ll be ready too.