Edmonton, Alberta, Pushes Boundaries for Cheap Civic Tech

A group of programmers called BetaCityYEG has been invigorating Edmonton with inexpensive tech projects aimed toward improving city life in unusual ways.

by / July 21, 2016
The Muttart Conservatory in Edmonton, Alberta, where civic tech group BetaCityYEG has used cheap, open source tools to pilot ideas that government doesn't want to pioneer itself. Flickr/Jeff Wallace

For the last few years, a civic tech meetup in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, called BetaCityYEG has taken the precepts established by Code For America to fuse the talents of the public with the goals of government. The group was co-founded and run by David Rauch, a strategic planner at the Edmonton Analytics Centre of Excellence, the city's analytics office. The group is not associated with city government, according to Rauch.

"Our philosophy for BetaCityYEG has always been undertaking projects that use new tech —statistics, machine learning, user experience Web design, data visualizations and things like that —all in the public interest," Rauch said. "It's never hard for us to find people to present at the meetup, because even if you're in a private venture, there's an argument that you could still be making people's lives better with technology."

Since its creation in May 2014, BetaCityYEG has spawned many projects, most of which are built on the concept of using cheap, open source tools to pilot ideas that government doesn't want to pioneer itself. For example, the group used a 360-degree camera to photograph trails in the city's parks and uploaded the images to Google Streetview. In one project, they linked data on the year a building was constructed to create an interactive map of the city’s growth. In another project, a volunteer programmer developed an open source pedestrian counter at little cost. 

In 2014 and 2015, Edmonton joined many other cities throughout the world that places pianos in public places to provide musical entertainment for the public. Seven pianos decorated by student artists were placed throughout the city. The beauty of such projects is in their qualitative, whimsical nature, but as a data guy, Rauch wanted some numbers on how much the pianos were getting played.

"This is a really great example of the benefit of a civic tech group," Rauch said, "If you had a smaller group of people who had a much more specialized group of skills, you might be compelled to think less broadly about how you could achieve this, but when you're meeting with people with very varied skill sets you can come up with a very cool solution."

For the piano project, the group considered using an infrared sensor that would detect when someone was playing and for how long. The original idea included placing a device in the piano bench that performed a similar purpose, but then someone came up with the idea of a device that records the sound of what people are playing.

Ben Zittlau wrote some open-source code and paired it with a Raspberry Pi to create a device that automatically records whenever someone starts playing, and then uploads an mp3 file of the performance to Soundcloud via Wi-Fi, allowing the public to listen mere seconds afterward.

"A lot of what we do with BetaCityYEG is redeploying open source code, or if it's not open source, taking an idea that was really successful somewhere else and reverse engineering it and doing it ourselves really cheap and really fast," Rauch said. "In this case, the whole thing cost $200. If the government wanted to procure that, that would be a $10,000 device, or more."

In one week of deployment on a single piano, more than 800 recordings were uploaded. A collection of highlights remains available on SoundCloud. Eventually, the piano was moved out of Wi-Fi range and the recorder was put out of commission, but the project remains an example of how far today's cheap tools can carry an idea.

This May, the group announced the results of an image collection project that has since received more than 100,000 views online. The idea was to use a 360-degree camera to document the trails of Edmonton's parks.

"The city of Edmonton has the [longest stretch of continuous] urban parkland in North America cutting through the middle of the city," Rauch explained. "It's the defining characteristic of the city."

Edmonton's river valley is more than 20 times larger than New York City's Central Park. It's full of hidden trails and areas that only locals know. BetaCity wanted to get the information out to a wider audience, Rauch said, but Google never responded to their request to use their cameras. So they did it themselves using a camera (Ricoh Theta S) that costs less than $350.

"I've always conceptualized this group as the idea of creating a citizen accelerator," Rauch said. "There are lots of people who are contributing to this, but the idea that if you take things that were once just in people's minds, things that only townies knew, and then you have a way of putting it into a structured format and then put it into a tool that makes it much more easy to interact with, you can take somebody who's new to the city and imbue them with this knowledge."

A historical photo mapping project scraped images from the city's archives and crowdsourced the public to create a website similar to New York's OldNYC. More than 225 photos can be found as users browse the city map at YEG Photos.

A pedestrian counter created by Brendan Gluth uses open source code and less than $150 in materials to help the city with urban planning. The device was used as part of an alleyway intervention project through the Edmonton's CITYlab office. "Vibrancy," a desirable quality for urban areas, is indicated by pedestrian activity, Rauch explained, so if city planners want to know if their art installations and other attractions are working, devices like this are essential.

"BetaCityYEG has been a really fun mechanism for a lot of citizens and developers and government employees to trial some new technology," Rauch said. "We pride ourselves on being the ones to try something first and then based on its success or failure you get a little more cover to try it again."

Editor's note: This article was updated on July 25, 2016, to accurately reflect the reason for the decommission of the piano recording device.

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.