Ottawa startup Milieu brings artificial intelligence to city public consultations

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An Ottawa startup has brought a new approach to public consultation in the city, using artificial intelligence tools to break down how residents feel about proposed developments.

Milieu, a startup launched last year by Carleton University graduates Luisa Ji and Lee-Michael Pronko, was commissioned by Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper to survey public sentiment for the Armstrong Street Community Vision Study. The final version of the report, including Milieu’s findings, will be presented to planning committee next week.

Milieu’s report, in all likelihood, does not resemble any public consultation you’ve seen before in Ottawa.

Two key metrics comprise the report: sentiment and controversy. Milieu uses the cognitive application programming interfaces of IBM’s Watson, essentially an artificial intelligence that reads text the way a human mind does, to break down the sentiment behind users’ comments into raw data.

Milieu can tell you, then, that the phrase “I hate bike lanes” translates into disapproval and anger regarding bike lane proposals. Not remarkable, perhaps, but if a consultation has gathered feedback from thousands of residents, the application can process the entirety of comments in mere seconds, with pertinent data ready to display.

“You can know, in real time pretty much, what the public sentiment about a project is. You can capture the community,” Milieu lead data scientist Trevor Deley told Techopia in August.

The second metric, controversy, reflects the spread of opinion on a particular issue, helping both the city and developers identify the hot-button issues that might require more attention. The data is accompanied by residents’ quotes, selected by Milieu staff after analysis, providing context to their concerns.

In the Armstrong Street report, patio-style cafe seating development and clear cycling signage scored strongly on sentiment but low on controversy, indicating a general approval of these proposals.

On the other hand, a question about closing off Carruthers Street from vehicles showed that nearly two-thirds of those surveyed approved of the idea, but a controversy score of 76 per cent means there are a number of residents who would highly oppose such a move.

“We want to foster a culture where residents are inputting their sentiments or are sharing their visions ahead of time, so they can shape their neighbourhoods,” Ms. Ji told Techopia in August.

The report also breaks down sentiment by key term, so city officials can see which words are most often associated with negative comments. While “clear signage” was a positively associated term, one of the most negative terms was “extra road markings.”

Mr. Deley says city staff and planners can add a great deal of value to the process by reconciling these discrepancies.

“What this points out to me is that you need consensus-building in your community on what clear signage is,” he says.

Mr. Leiper was among the first to see the value in Milieu’s work, giving the startup a $5,000 grant from his office’s budget to take on a similar study for a proposed development at 190 Richmond Road. Since then, the company has also landed a role in the City of Guelph’s Civic Accelerator and set up an office for itself in Little Italy.