Democratizing Citizenship: How big data is revealing what it means to be Canadian

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(Photo: Vox Pop Labs)

Canada prides itself at home and abroad for its diversity and its fundamental belief in multiculturalism. And with 10 provinces, three territories, two official languages, over 1.4 Indigenous peoples, and more than six million citizens born in a different country, Canada has more than earned its claim to be a “cultural mosaic”.

As part of the country’s 150th anniversary celebrations, a Toronto company that combines digital media and data science is launching a new app that aims to foster understanding between people in different communities.

Clifton van der Linden is the founder and CEO of Vox Pop Labs. He says digital engagement is the key to reaching Canadians from different backgrounds.

“The idea of Project Tessera is to try and celebrate and recognize the diversity of Canadian voices and experiences in ways that help us relate to one another based on our individual narratives.”

“We want to recognize and celebrate both the uniqueness of Canadians, but also to examine where we come together and where we don’t.”
Clifton van der Linden, Founder of Vox Pop Labs

Clifton van der Linden, Founder of Vox Pop

Canadian Heritage has designated the initiative as a Signature Canada 150 project.

Although they got their start in Canada, Vox Pop Lab’s technology has gone global. Last year they partnered with Sky News to analyze British citizen’s attitudes towards the European Union prior to the Brexit referendum. And for last November’s U.S. presidential election, the company launched a tool that aimed to steer conversations away from divisive critiques of the candidates’ personalities and towards more substantive policy conversations.

Van der Linden says the app being developed for Canada 150 is anchored around a survey.

“We’ll ask about Canadians experiences and perceptions of Canada. We will use a series of algorithms to give the user a real time result that gives them a sense of how their responses position them among their fellow citizens.”

The app’s algorithms will use big data and the latest in artificial intelligence to compare and contrast individuals based on their demographics.

The archetypes that emerge as more Canadians participate will create a benchmark to assess the Canadian experience going forward. According to Van der Linden, it will also give Canadians a better idea of what they share in common with their fellow citizens – as well as what divides them.

“Tessera means one of the pieces of a mosaic. So a mosaic is comprised of a myriad of different pieces. But they also come together in a unique arrangement to form something more than the individual pieces. That’s the inspiration behind this project.”

According to van der Linden, one of the goals is to expose citizens to interpretations of the Canadian identity that they may otherwise not experience.

“We can’t bring every Canadian across the country together in person. But we can use the power of the Internet to try and facilitate that kind of experience.”

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