On a Saturday afternoon, in a small, crowded living room in Ottawa, a group of entrepreneurs are trying to code their way to a better democracy.
Milieu is aiming to change the discussion around public development in a massive way, but it’s starting small. The 16-person team was just accepted to the City of Guelph’s Civic Accelerator program. Starting in September, the group will be embedding with the city to overhaul the way Guelph notifies and consults with residents about development proposals.
The startup is developing a web and mobile application that quantifies public sentiment on proposals and gives residents an organized voice in neighbourhood intensification.
For co-founders Luisa Ji and Lee-Michael Pronko, connecting residents with their city and developers is a fulfilling goal. The two Carleton University graduates were inspired to create Milieu when they walked together through the streets of Ottawa and found vacant lots and developments slated where neighbours weren’t consulted.
“We talked to a lot of angry neighbours,” Ji says. “We wanted to dig deeper into why this was happening.”
That inspiration coincided with the City of Toronto holding an urban planning and policy competition. A first place prize there pushed the two to found the business.
The next boost came from Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper, who gave the group a $5,000 grant from his office’s budget to implement a neighbourhood study in Kitchissippi. The goal was to find out how residents felt about potential developments before proposals headed to committee and before zoning amendments were already underway.
“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,” says Ji.
This is the philosophy of Milieu in a nutshell: Open democracy is better when more voices count.
A problem with true open democracy is that if you try to hear everybody’s voice, it takes too long. For a single city, it would take long hours to sort through the hundreds of comments from residents and come to a reasonable conclusion.
Or, better yet, you could break it all down into data.
Milieu aims to use tools called cognitive APIs (application programming interfaces) to analyze feedback from public consultations and break down whether residents approve or disapprove of a project, or how ideas make them feel (sad, anxious, angry, happy, excited).
Cognitive API tools offered by IBM and Microsoft can crunch thousands of comments and present the information right back to your app for a small fee. Milieu data analyst Trevor Deley says this technology is what makes the public consultation app so exciting.
“You can know, in real time pretty much, what the public sentiment about a project is. You can capture the community,” he says.