MILIEU CODING PATH TO A BET­TER GOV­ERN­MENT

Ottawa Business Journal - Techopia - - Tech-Flix - BY CRAIG LORD

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.

PHOTO PRO­VIDED

LEE-MICHAEL PRONKO AND LUISA JI, CO-FOUNDERS OF MILIEU.

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