Starting this week, you'll have the chance to see professor of Health, Aging, and Society Jim Dunn roaming the streets of Hamilton, putting his Great Neighbourhoods Visualization Project into action.

Over the next few weeks, Dunn will be using a camera-car system, referred to as Mobile Urban Video Recording, in order to map the city of Hamilton, street by street, frame by frame. The project is aiming to identify the key visual features in neighbourhoods that indicate whether the physical environment is conducive to being a good family setting.

"When we wanted to characterize neighbourhoods [before], we had census data, which really doesn't tell you anything about the neighbourhood: it tells you about who lives in the neighbourhood. And we've had survey data, which is people's perceptions of the neighbourhood, and so people are interested in this because it's kind of the first objective data that's available on neighbourhoods," Dunn said.

Dunn's project, whose unique approach is only matched by one other academic researcher in North America, partially stems from an idea in criminology that the physical environment and the visual disorder information from the neighbourhood can affect the level of crime and behavior in an area.

Although his team at the CRUNCH laboratory in McMaster is focused on the physical environment of neighbourhoods, Dunn explained that the ability to create an archive of images each year will allow their work to extend beyond the goals of the project. Dunn commented that, in the past, "people in public health have taken some of that disorder information and then looked at its relationship to various kinds of health outcomes.

"In the future we might be able to do other projects where we recode it. So we might come up with new ideas."

In many ways, the project and car bear a close resemblance to the work done with Google Street View; in fact, for the technology, Dunn's team worked with Immersive Media, the co-developer of the Street View technology. However, the team's goal is to take a more consistent view of Hamilton neighbourhoods, both in the creation of a seamless street view and the year-after-year progression of Hamilton areas.

Of course, concerns are also warranted when considering the potential ramifications on privacy.

However, with precedent already set by Google Street View on roaming and capturing images of entire neighbourhoods, Dunn maintains that the project "meets or exceeds all of the privacy protections that Google has in place."

"When we collect our images, we're not posting them on the internet. We keep them all privately [on a] secure server," Dunn said. "The sensitivity really has to do with the fact that there's potentially identifiable images of people, [but] for the most part, we don't really have the camera resolution to get identifiable images."

Although the project can potentially be viewed as contentious, Dunn is open to discussion about issues of confidentiality and privacy.

"[Talking about] privacy and confidentiality issues is, in a way, good for us because it let's people know that, 'hey listen, we've thought about this, and we take it seriously, and here's what we're doing.'"

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