Toronto will soon launch a unique website that could change how residents decide where to live, how charities decide where to operate, and how politicians decide where to spend taxpayers’ money.
The Wellbeing Toronto website, launched on Wednesday, will provide easy access to a treasure trove of neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood data that is currently inaccessible or accessible only with difficulty. It will include an unprecedented gizmo that allows users to rank the city’s 140 official neighbourhoods by dozens of criteria related to crime, safety, the economy, health, education, housing, the environment, demographics and civic participation.
Users can compare, for example, the number of welfare recipients in Davenport and Mimico, the number of car crashes in Morningside and Victoria Village, the amount of tree cover in Parkdale and West Hill, the high school dropout rates in Mount Dennis and Agincourt, and the number of Italians in Downsview and Wexford.
They can also assign different levels of importance to several criteria at once — say, most important to the dropout rate, moderately important to the number of Italians, and least important to the number of crashes. The website will then spit out a custom neighbourhood rankings list.
“It will allow you to ask whatever question you need to ask,” Chris Brillinger, executive director of the city’s social development, finance and administration division, said last week. “It’s not about producing a single list: ‘Here’s the neighbourhood at the top, here’s the neighbourhood at the bottom.’ It’s about creating a capacity to understand what’s happening in Toronto in all different ways.”
Told of the website’s features, Toronto Real Estate Board president Bill Johnston uttered an appreciative “wow.” He said it would “definitely” help people shop for homes — though, he added, it could cause property values to drop in areas that are portrayed unflatteringly.
“It’s sort of the law of unintended consequences. By providing relevant, up-to-date, accurate information, it may have a negative effect on some neighbourhoods,” he said.
Roger Burrows, a sociology professor at England’s University of York who has written critically about such websites, said he has “very little problem with making available raw information for people to play with.” But he objected to the rankings feature, which he said he had never seen before.
Neighbourhoods, he said, should be thought about “in a nuanced and rounded way that isn’t necessarily amenable to having ranked orders attached to them.” And he said sites like Toronto’s could make it more difficult for high-crime, low-income neighbourhoods to cast off negative perceptions while also making it easier for wealthy and web-savvy residents to form homogenous clusters.
“No one would want to deprive people of this kind of informatization,” Burrows said, “but I think we do need to be a little bit alert to some of the broader implications. . . We’re re-mapping and re-describing our cities in ways we’re only just beginning to understand.”
Brillinger said the city decided the rankings tool should be included to foster discussion about neighbourhood needs. In keeping with its move toward an “open data” philosophy, it also concluded that the benefits of transparency outweighed any potential harms.
“Before we can achieve change, we need to know very clearly what it is we’re trying to change. And you can’t really do that without good data. That’s really been the guiding frame on this. The concern is a good one, but not having data, I think, perhaps may be a greater danger,” Brillinger said.
A neighbourhood data website run out of Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University has helped researchers study issues that affect vulnerable people, such as predatory lending, and helped agencies assist them, said co-director Claudia Coulton. Nonprofits, such as those working to improve access to preschool, have used the data to “see which neighbourhoods need to be targeted, where the most urgent needs are, and see if they’re making progress,” Coulton said.
United Way Toronto envisions similar uses for Toronto’s website. “We’re quite excited,” said Pedro Barata, director of public affairs.
“It will be a critically important tool in terms of telling us which areas we need to focus on, and in tracking over time how we’re doing. . . As we customize the data sets to tell us more about each neighbourhood, we’re going to be able to tell the story of neighbourhoods and to understand what’s happening in neighbourhoods in new ways.”
The website, which was developed over two years, could also affect government spending. In 2005, the city identified 13 service-deprived “priority neighbourhoods” to target for investment. Some residents in other needy neighbourhoods have complained of being overlooked.
“Wellbeing Toronto,” said Brillinger, “will end up providing a tool, a framework, for beginning to look beyond the 13 — so that we are increasing our ability to measure and understand what is happening in all Toronto neighbourhoods, not just the 13, and ultimately to have better ways of identifying what investments are most needed in which neighbourhoods across the city.”
Coulton said she was not aware of any other neighbourhood data website operated by a city government.
“Sometimes governments are afraid to put out too much information,” she said. “Because the sense is maybe people would turn around and say, ‘Why aren’t you doing this? Why are these problems in my neighbourhood?’ You could unleash a lot of complaints. It’s a courageous thing for a government to do.”