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Researchers score climate change data studying backyard rinks with assist from Esri Canada

Backyard rinks are as dear to Canadians as double-doubles, maple syrup and Olympic gold in hockey. But climate change is threatening to melt the future legacy of the backyard rink. To better understand this possibility, a team of researchers from Wilfrid Laurier is crowdsourcing backyard rink conditions and mapping the results thanks to Esri Canada's own Cameron Plouffe.

Learning to skate and play hockey on a backyard rink is just about as Canadian as it gets. Strapping on a pair of skates and gliding along the ice in the crisp, outdoor air is a winter tradition many Canadians enjoy—me included. And stories of Canuck hockey pros spending hours growing up playing on backyard rinks—built and maintained by parents and community groups sometimes depicted as borderline fanatical—are imbued in our identity as a hockey superpower. But climate change could be threatening the future of the humble backyard rink in Canada and abroad. A 2012 study* that analyzed data from Canadian weather stations over the past 50 years has predicted that warmer temperatures could eventually spell an end to skating outdoors in some regions.

Keen to see if this was true, a group of researchers at Wilfrid Laurier University—Colin Robertson, Robert McLennan and Haydn Lawrence—conceived a clever idea: crowdsourcing skating conditions from backyard rink builders and mapping the results. They coined the project ‘RinkWatch’ and launched to encourage ‘citizen scientists’ to register their backyard rinks and provide daily updates on the skateability of their rink.

RinkWatch team members Robert McLeman (left), Colin Robertson (centre) and Haydn Lawrence (right) mucking it up on a
backyard rink. Photo courtesy of  Wilfrid Laurier University.

The project caught the attention of Esri Canada’s Cameron Plouffe, an analyst and developer in our Higher Education team whose Master's thesis work at Wilfrid Laurier and Waterloo University involved studying climate and modelling its effect on disease outbreak. After taking a look at RinkWatch’s interactive map, he got in touch with the project team—with whom he was already acquainted from his research—and offered to get involved by improving the map. The RinkWatch team listened and liked what they heard.

“I thought there was a good opportunity to expand the capabilities of the map by using the ArcGIS API for JavaScript and creating a responsive map to log information more accurately,” said Cameron during a brief chat in our Toronto lunchroom. “I showed them a map I created called the FLAP Mapper that allows people to track bird collisions with buildings. It uses heat maps to visualize where bird collision fatalities are happening with the aim to adjust policies to prevent future fatalities. It’s not directly related, but it has similar techniques applied to a different domain.”

Cameron Plouffe, an analyst and developer with Esri Canada's Higher Education team, with his family' s dog, Ava.

Cameron pitched his idea internally and got the green light to donate some of his time to help create a new map for RinkWatch. He deployed an on-premises solution, installing an ArcSDE geodatabase and ArcGIS for Server at Wilfrid Laurier and then used the ArcGIS API for JavaScript to create a lightweight Web mapping app.

The RinkWatch map created by Esri Canada’s Cameron Plouffe features a cold map (shaded areas) that indicates regions that are more skateable than others.

The new map launched in January 2014 and the late nights Cameron spent developing and deploying the map certainly paid off. The new features, such as clustering, date filtering and a cold map showing regions that are more skateable than others, give users a more in-depth understanding of backyard conditions. Also, a graph showing skateability readings over time gives participants historical context to the readings they’re inputting.

 To date, over 1,000 RinkWatchers have logged over 10,000 skateability readings on the Web site. The project has received lots of media attention, too. The RinkWatch project has been featured in National Geographic, Scientific American, CBC’s The National, the Montreal Gazette and Huffington Post, among others. The NHL has also expressed interest in collaborating with RinkWatch and has featured a RinkWatch blog post on their NHL Green Web site.

 For Cameron, the media attention is positive because it ultimately gets more people thinking and talking about climate change in a meaningful and practical way. 

 “The main mission statement of the overall project is answering the question, ‘to what degree is climate change impacting opportunities for outdoor skating, and how can citizen science tell us about these changes?’” said Cameron. “Answering these questions scientifically helps us try to measure the impacts of climate change, and gets people thinking about climate change because it places this issue in a context they can relate to.”

* Damyanov, N. N., Matthews, H. D., & Mysak, L. A. (2012). Observed decreases in the Canadian outdoor skating season due to recent winter warming. Environmental Research Letters, 7(014028). doi:10.1088/1748-9326/7/1/014028