June 1, 2022

Class of 2022: Deep data dive creates a comprehensive map of Canada’s cities for accessibility

Master’s thesis by graduating UCalgary geography student Russell Copley could have national impact on how we tackle accessibility issues
Russell Copley
Russell Copley's thesis sparked a major study to examine accessibility in thousands of buildings across Canada. Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

When Russell Copley completed his Bachelor of Geography degree with a minor in health sciences at Simon Fraser University, he was at a loss for what to do next. Two life changes not on the radar of the Vancouver resident were moving to Calgary and launching a research project with the potential to shape national policy on accessibility in urban and rural settings.

But Dr. Nadine Schuurman, PhD, his undergraduate research supervisor, introduced him to Dr. Victoria Fast, PhD, an associate geography professor in UCalgary’s Faculty of Arts. A two-hour initial phone call in 2019 led Copley to leave the West Coast behind.

Under Fast’s guidance, Copley helped develop a plan for his master’s thesis that entailed mapping the accessibility of businesses in Ottawa, Calgary and Vancouver, as well as 17 rural municipalities in southern and central Alberta.

By partnering with AccessNow, a crowdsourcing app that compiles accessibility information for cities across the country, the Mapping Our Cities for All (MOCA) project received funding through Accessible Standards Canada and leveraged Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Engage and Mitacs grants to develop the project. They hired 37 mappers and collected data on more than 13,000 buildings.

According to the 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability, more than six million Canadians age 15 and over 22 per cent of the population identify as having a disability. Most experience barriers to accessing buildings, services, businesses, using products and devices, and moving around in the urban environment on a daily basis.

Part of the Class of 2022, Copley is now graduating with a Master of Science in geography from the Faculty of Arts this week. He’s just started a new job with the Calgary Drop-in Centre as an organizational impact analyst, and a report based on his thesis work will be presented to the federal government as one of the largest and most comprehensive data-mapping projects on accessibility ever undertaken in Canada.

What is the problem you’ve identified?  

There is basically no available, authoritative data on accessibility. Authoritative means from a government or really well-known company that has integrity behind it. In response to this lack of authoritative available data, a whole bunch of crowdsourcing apps have been created to fill the gaps, focusing on different areas like buildings, sidewalks and transit. These are niches to the accessibility field.

We surveyed over 100,000 data sets from the open data portals of the federal government, all 13 provinces and territories and the five largest population centres, and found 23 barrier data sets that could be used in accessibility, but super limited in scope.

What motivated you to do this massive data analysis of accessibility?

About one-fifth of people in Canada are self-described as having a disability and about half of them are mobility-related disabilities. That’s a sizeable amount of the population that face mobility barriers in their day-to-day. These barriers also have impacts on the social, economic, and psychological and physiological health of the people being impacted. There are elements of exclusion, elements of underemployment, factors of social stress of being in a place that doesn’t accommodate your needs.

Personally, I see the importance of building cities and communities that include everyone and are truly accessible and truly living up to the values of living in a democratic society where people are different.

And also, hopefully the mobilization of this research will have some people listening to it which you can never be sure of, but that’s the hope.

How long did this project take?

The mapping was done over the course of about five months in 2021. Then the data analysis and writeup took another six to seven months. So, from start to end, about a year of working with this data set. But, basically, my entire master's before that was focused on building the theoretical and technical skills to analyze the data.

What obstacles did you have to overcome to complete this project?

The COVID-19 pandemic definitely introduced a lot of issues. We were going into thousands of places and talking to thousands of people across three different jurisdictions. At the time we were doing this, things were just starting to open up and we would get a lot of reaction from businesses asking, why are you asking us all these questions?

Some people were understandably uncomfortable having their business put into a public data set and shared online. They had the sense of this being like a Yelp review and people don’t want their business being looked at in a less than favourable light, so there were quite a few times that people would say they didn’t feel comfortable with this, please leave, and I get that.

But, a lot of the time, conversation was able to bridge that gap and make people realize the benefit of this from a societal level, and also the care that was put in by our research partner, AccessNow, to make it really hard to come down harshly on a company. A lot of the information was presented in a way that was quite approachable and friendly. So those things came together to overcome those barriers.

What stood out for you from this research?

In the field, it was mainly in the rural libraries. Every community that had a library was always the place that was just hitting all the accessibility markers. The amount of work and effort librarians put into doing things like getting books in braille, getting audio books, books in very large print, to everything from hydraulic shelf movement to make things come lower or higher based on your mobility needs. Every single time we walked into a library, we were just blown away.

From a data perspective, it was realizing just how complex the data was. With the exception of Ottawa, we found that the majority of businesses were rated as some form of non-accessible. After running a statistical test that looks for spatial patterns, if objects cluster or are dispersed, I was actually very glad to see the result that the distribution of accessibility is statistically random, so that means there isn’t an area of our cities that is the non-accessible area and areas that are the accessible areas.

So, knowing that the majority of the businesses are non-accessible and knowing that the accessibility is distributed randomly across our cities, it presented a powerful argument that, even with hundreds of accessible businesses in your city, they are the minority and they are distributed at random, so you still don’t really know if a place you want to go is going to be accessible without calling ahead and figuring it out.

It means we’ve been able to say, yes, what people from the disabled community have been telling us for decades is true.

What is the potential impact of this national study?

We AccessNow and the University of Calgary research team are co-writing a report that will push the federal government to meet their goal of the Accessible Canada Act (2019), which is a barrier-free country by 2040.

At a national level, hopefully, with this kind of thesis work, they can target the interventions more specifically. Hopefully, this can help them target monetary investments in, say, installing automatic doors, which we found to be somewhat predictive of accessibility and is also a simple fix. A whole bunch of barriers melt away when you do that. Or investments in stop-gap ramps, or investments in railings on ramps. Things that our research shows have an impact on accessibility.

To be clear, this data that we’ve collected isn’t authoritative, it’s crowd-sourced, but it fills a significant gap that federal and municipal governments are lacking. We think this work will have more of an impact because it directly answers the question the federal government asked when they passed the Accessible Canada Act (2019) what is our baseline?

Hopefully, this data acts as the beginning of a baseline against which future progress can be measured, and against which interventions can be targeted.

What’s next for you?

In every role I’m in, I want to continue to look for ways to increase and improve accessibility initiatives. The work that AccessNow is doing is invaluable and, as a research partner, I have a huge amount of faith in their constant advocacy for the disabled community.

The government needs to be involved. They’re the ones with the hands on the levers of power and resources, but accessibility is something anyone and everyone can advocate to improve.

If you’re walking in the community and you see an intersection that is unsafe, that doesn’t have a curb cut or the audio pedestrian signals aren’t working, you can call The City to fix it. If you are a business-owner, you have the capacity to look around your building and install solutions.

Entrepreneurial UCalgary grads make an impact in business, health care, culture, law, education and more. Read more stories about Class of 2022 students.