KEEPING UP WITH THE DATA-ASHIANS

Jake Arsenault and Lori Clair

Co-Founders of Black Arcs
@blackarcs

 

Jake and Lori are the dynamic duo that are taking the wheel on civic engagement and making it fun. Black Arcs is “The first transit simulator built as a web-based video game. Anyone can really explore the dynamics, impact, and tradeoffs of transit for a better discussion.” Both Lori and Jake share the passion of using new, disruptive technologies as a force for good, and have certainly done so with Black Arcs. Learn more here: http://blackarcs.org/

“The Black Arcs (TBA) are a civic technology company allowing you to explore tradeoffs being made around the land-use in your community. We show the interconnections of civic issues. Our cloud-based scenario tools allow citizens and policy makers to explore possibilities and test-drive different strategies around planning decisions that shape our neighborhoods and our lives”

Q: Where did the idea of Black Arcs come from?

Black Arcs started with risk – how climate change in particular would impact a city’s infrastructure. Through conversations with city planners and urban developers, Black Arcs began to morph into its current business: a tool to demonstrate scenario modeling on both a household (everyday) level, as well as on a government level. For example, an everyday citizen like you and me can use Black Arcs simulation tools and see what the difference of impact would be if we drove to work instead of taking the bus across all sectors. These small individual decisions, when built up over time, have a big impact on the grand scheme of an urban centre, that is the story that our SaaS (software as a service) tells.

The simulation aspect lets what would otherwise be “hidden stories” become real and meaningful to everyday people. By taking these professional sectors, complexities and all, and making it relatable is a lever for big, sustainable change.

The simulation aspect lets what would otherwise be “hidden stories” become real and meaningful to everyday people. By taking these professional sectors, complexities and all, and making it relatable is a lever for big, sustainable change.

Q: What was your ‘ah-ha’ moment with Black Arcs? That instance where ‘YES! This is it!’ sense of intrinsic reward/fulfillment from the impact of your service/technology.

They seem to be happening more and more with all the stakeholders that we’re talking to – it started out with City Planners, they sold us on the importance of how cities work and related impacts. It was an “ah-ha” moment, we saw opportunity.  It gave much understanding, and is why we are focused on connecting things. Personnel in different sectors (health, water management, waste management, transportation, infrastructure development, education system, housing, etc.)  understand the intricacies and complexity of urban planning, validating the importance of city planning. We give little thought to the location of a seniors home in a community, but there are direct correlations to youth suicide rates and personal contact with the elderly. The location of citizens and how they interact matters for mental health and affects the entire community in many ways.  

Another area where we’ve felt a great deal of support is from researchers; much understanding of how things connect has been worked out, but not being used effectively. This frustrates many researchers. They have work out great insights, that don’t get used. Now is now the time for urban analytics. Open data is a big reason for this.  Many parts of government are trying to open up and this changes what is now possible. Existing academic know-how can be put to work.

Sometimes decision making isn’t always reality based, it comes from too narrow an interests, emotions, misconceptions and just plain habits. Data is the differentiator that can make decision making more real, not reinventing the wheel, but adding momentum to it.

Q: Black Arcs at inception. Black Arcs today. What pivots have happened to bring the company to where it is today?

We’ve always been pretty structured but allowed for a creative process too. If I had to describe the movement from then to now, I’d say that it’s been more so zooming than pivoting. Things started on a pretty broad level and have zoomed in over time. Because we didn’t start the company with a product but rather, explored the problem for the first year, we were able to understand where the heart of the problem lied, then created a solution to that problem. It wasn’t a linear process to arrive at where we are, but it was the path we needed to take to create this city simulator.

Q: What does the future of Black Arcs look like (5 years from now, where do you see the company?) What are the biggest barrier that stand between you and that vision of Black Arcs?

We want to be mission-driven company and profitable. Not compromising one for the other, but doing both together and not one before the other. We’d love to see Black Arcs as a tool, something casual like reading a blog that keeps you involved in setting the future of your community in a thoughtful way.

Civic Technology is an emerging market in the US, $7 billion and growing. This is a sector that too is on the rise in NB with people who are using technology and software to create efficiencies for the greater good (think, Shawn Peterson with Propertize).

Q: Black Arcs looks at various sectors of the government and society, what areas or civic issues do you find have the most attention/raise the biggest argument? I’d imagine that the issues that are searched/discussed the most would be extremely valuable for governments. How can these issues be collaborated on with the government sector?

What do we need to do to create change? Understanding the interconnectedness and looking deeper into timelines. You need to understand the moles, and then can whack them every time.

See, that is part of the issue right there. We can’t narrow urban development and health of a community to changes in one single issue, as they are all interconnected. When a change happens in one sector, there are many others that will be directly impacted from that change. If you’re chasing one issue, you’ll end up playing whack-a-mole, because as soon as you hit one down then another one will be popping up right after, and so on and so forth. What do we need to do to create change? Systems thinking. Understanding the interconnectedness and looking deeper into timelines. You need to understand the moles, and then can whack them every time.

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