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Transit Equity and Virtual Reality: Outtakes from my Co-op with Esri Canada

Getting the most out of a spatial dataset often requires going beyond the static map. The Esri Canada Education and Research team uses several mediums, including VR Experiences, web-based dashboards, and ArcGIS Notebooks to explore and share geospatial data. I had the opportunity to gain experience using all these mediums while working as a co-op student with the team.

This post was written by Ben Woodward, a geography student at the University of Waterloo.

This past summer, I had the privilege of completing a co-op placement with the Education and Research team at Esri Canada. In only 15 weeks, I dabbled in emerging geospatial technologies like virtual reality, built a dashboard that maps access to services like grocery stores and schools across Canada, and attended several workshops and social events with members of my team. Working at Esri Canada also gave me the opportunity to explore Toronto both on my own and through social events with my team.

I first crossed paths with the Education and Research team through the ECCE App Challenge. This annual competition for students at the Esri Canada Centres of Excellence tasks teams of three students with creating an app that solves a real-world problem, providing a fantastic occasion to learn a new geospatial technology. In 2022, my team placed third overall by creating a hand-coded web tool that allows citizens to find the quickest safe path out of a natural disaster area. The app accomplishes this by feeding municipal road networks and crowdsourced information about hazards (e.g., flooded roads or downed power lines) into Esri’s routing service.

Earlier this year, my team placed second overall by creating a suite of web and mobile tools for managing a community’s urban forest. The suite includes a web app — built in ArcGIS Experience Builder — that allows planners to visualize and make decisions about their community’s urban forest, along with a customized mobile app — created using ArcGIS AppStudio — that allows citizens to view information about trees near them (e.g., the tree species and whether it is native) and report tree damage to municipal staff.

Participating in the App Challenge and Waterloo's ECCE student meetings led to further conversations with the director of Education and Research at the time, Dr. Brent Hall, and subsequently an offer to do a co-op term with the company this past summer. Working with the Education and Research team was in many ways like my experiences during the app challenges. I (thankfully!) had more than a week to work on a given task, but the projects I worked on similarly involved using geospatial technology to solve real-world problems and gave me the opportunity to work with and learn new technologies.

Mobilizing Justice

One of the projects I worked on was with Mobilizing Justice, a research partnership focused on transportation inequities in Canadian cities. The transportation equity dashboard uses the Spatial Access Measures dataset from Statistics Canada to access to services (e.g., grocery stores, schools, jobs, etc.) via different modes of transportation (namely public transit, walking, and cycling) for every dissemination area (a neighbourhood-sized census polygon) in Canada. Additionally, the access level for each dissemination area is compared to its demographic data, allowing users to identify neighbourhoods where low access to services overlaps with high proportions of vulnerable populations (e.g., low-income earners, seniors, or newcomers to Canada). When released, this dashboard will be a useful tool for those working to reduce car dependency while providing essential services to all community members.

Mobilizing Justice’s transportation equity dashboard web app. A map at the center of the app displays access scores. Tools to the left of the map allow users to select the service and transportation mode used to calculate the scores, the census geography used in the map, and a population group to which to compare access scores. A bubble chart and density chart to the right of the map display the population group comparison and a summary of access scores for the user-selected dissemination area.

The Mobilizing Justice Transportation Equity Dashboard will allow users to visualize the access scores for their chosen transportation mode and destination and compare these access scores to a population group of interest. 

The Mobilizing Justice dashboard visualizes and compares several metrics from tens of thousands of dissemination areas across Canada, a task which presents many unique challenges. Chief among these challenges is the rendering speed of the map. The map initially took a long time to render the large number of polygons. I applied several techniques to improve the speed, including simplifying the polygons (i.e., removing superfluous vertices) in ArcGIS Pro, creating several view layers from the initial feature layer so that only attributes that were in use were being sent to the client, and, most impactfully, increasing the lifespan of caches created by ArcGIS Online so that duplicate queries would be sent from server-side caches rather than the database.

Complete Streets VR

Another project that I spent a significant amount of time on was Complete Streets VR, a virtual reality application that allows users to visualize proposed streetscapes in Toronto. This tool will let members of the public view proposed changes to streets (e.g., adding a new bike lane or streetcar line) in an immersive way prior to construction, making it easier for city planners to collect meaningful public feedback.

The Complete Streets project was well underway when I started my co-op term but I was able to add a couple of features that enhanced the application and learned Unity and C# in the process. The first of these was realistic sun positioning, which is useful since it allows the user to see where shadows will be on a particular streetscape at a given time of day and day of the year. Another feature I added was a tutorial level so that users can familiarize themselves with the controls of the application before exploring the streetscapes.

Other Projects

In addition to the two projects above, I had the opportunity to contribute to other tasks that the team is working on. The first involved creating an ArcGIS Notebook to be used in late elementary and high school classrooms. This notebook will allow students to understand Canada’s demographics using data from the 2021 census while gaining a bit of exposure to the Python programming language.

Another task I was tapped for during my co-op was the CLUE project. This project aims to map vehicle emissions data for highways and other major roadways in the Greater Toronto Area. Working with this project’s massive dataset presents many of the same challenges as the Mobilizing Justice dashboard.

Living in Toronto

While my projects took up much of my time this past summer, I was still able to find time to have fun and enjoy Toronto. Over the summer, I chose to live at one of the University of Toronto’s (UofT) student residences since there are plenty of vacancies during the summer months, it is cheaper than other housing in Toronto, and UofT’s main campus is close to both TTC Line 1 and Line 2. UofT’s central location made it easy for me to explore different parts of the city, which I took advantage of over the course of the summer.

Some of my favourite activities included meeting up with friends at restaurants, visiting Toronto Island, floating down the lazy river at Canada’s Wonderland (I am not a fan of roller coasters, but I did go on one!), and playing basketball several times a week at UofT’s main campus. I also was invited to join several company events both during and outside of work hours, including a Blue Jays game, a dinner at a Bocce café, and several smaller events at the office. Another fun part of my summer was sharing my love of French press coffee with the team, making our morning cups the envy of the rest of the office.

Working at Esri Canada

I was treated as a full member of the team during my time here, I was free to use my existing programming skills and to learn new ones, I was assigned to challenging projects that kept me busy, and I got to participate in workshops and company social events. Further, I had the chance to work with researchers from various Canadian universities through projects like Mobilizing Justice and CLUE, giving me a taste of what academic research entails. All in all, working with the Education and Research team was a fantastic experience.

About the Author

Krista Amolins is a Higher Education Specialist with Esri Canada. Her career in GIS started when she came across the Geodesy and Geomatics Engineering program at the University of New Brunswick and thought it sounded interesting. She earned a PhD in Geomatics Engineering, focusing on lidar data classification, and now she supports teaching and learning with ArcGIS at colleges and universities across Canada. Krista particularly enjoys interacting with the students who receive an Esri Canada GIS Scholarship or apply for the Esri Young Scholars Award each year. She also enjoys playing with apps and doing a bit of coding when she has time.

Profile Photo of Krista Amolins