Interview with Mark Fox


  1. Tell us about your work on the Urban Genome Project.

What I have been working on is coming up with a formal mathematical model of the urban genome. The model will characterize, in essence, the genomics of a spatial area, such as a city or neighbourhood. The model is constructed in such a way that we can model what the neighbourhood looks like today, or a year ago, or ten years ago, and we can test theories of how the neighbourhood evolved over time. The whole point of the mathematical model is to provide this representation of urban forms. Once we have that model, we can create software that can encode information about that neighbourhood. And then we can perform analyses to see how the formulas have changed over time as a spatial area evolved over time, or we can do an analysis that shows similarity of the area to others.

  1. Where do you want to go next with this work?

    Prof. Mark Fox
    Mark S. Fox - Director, Urban Data Centre
    Professor of Industrial Engineering and Computer Science

    The next stage is really getting more data so that we can create a more 360-degree view of what goes on within a neighbourhood or spatial area. I'm currently working with a student named Anderson Wong, and he's been working on translating StatsCan census data into a form that allows us to manipulate it for the type of analyses we want to be able to do.

    1. I can imagine for policymakers that it would provide tremendous insight to be able to understand how a community or neighbourhood has changed over time and to be able to craft policy around the needs of the people in that community.

    Right. And this is not to say that policymakers aren't doing that now. But they often spend their time gathering narrow data that allows them to make specific decisions. We're trying to, in essence, broaden the type of data policymakers have access to. What's important about the Urban Genome Project is that it’s looking for the fundamental formemes that characterize a spatial area like a city – the formemes that are durable and form the core of what goes on in a particular area. If you understand what the core formemes are in a spatial area, then you can begin to identify why this particular area or city is successful. Maybe it's the case that there are specific formemes that are the basis of that success.

    1. Can you tell me a little bit about the Urban Data Centre?

    The goal with the Urban Data Centre originally was to create one place where all urban data is deposited so that it’s a kind of “one stop shop.” Initially, I thought we would create this single repository everybody can deposit their data into. But as I began to talk to different people and organizations, it quickly became clear to me that everybody is creating their own repository, like the federal and provincial governments and every city has its own open data portal. The only problem with city open data is it’s not comprehensive, so it’s not comparable. Nor is it the case that cities always give the appropriate funding to make comprehensive data available.

    I realized eventually that it’s unlikely that everyone will deposit their data into one repository. So let's at least get them to the point that they provide us with information about their datasets that we can build into a catalogue. What we're amplifying in our work now is the creation of a national data standard for metadata about datasets. We're not starting from scratch – we're building on existing dataset-related standards that are out there. This project will address what I refer to as the awareness problem – many people aren’t even aware that data sets actually exist out there.