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Taking research to the streets.

Visually capturing the gains and pains of Hamilton neighbourhoods.

It will be the smartest little car on the road. No, really. It will likely be a Prius and it will have roof-mounted digital cameras, giving a 360-degree view.

The researchers in this digital paradise will have wireless mobile tablet computer units for door-to-door interviewing. They'll use computer-assisted telephone-interviewing pods. And they will be able to create a virtual reality in high definition.

McMaster's smart squad probably will take to Hamilton streets the summer of 2013. The aim is to gain high-quality data at both the citizen and neighbourhood levels, data that will allow researchers to track cityscape improvements and the health and social well-being of residents. All this data will be housed in a special lab at the university.

“McMaster will unquestionably be the home of the world’s most innovative facility for research into systematic social observation of neighbourhoods,” says Mo Elbestawi, vice-president, research and international affairs.

Social scientists are very interested in the many impacts that neighbourhoods have on their residents. For example, a graffiti-ridden, broken-window, cracked-sidewalk area reeks of neglect. People easily make the connections with poverty, crime, and despair.

But if cityscapes are improved, if hope and pride of place take hold, the thinking is that such changes have an impact on health, on children's education scores, on mental health. So, for example new housing or a new health clinic may go in. Sidewalks may get fixed up. Or residents may take part in new job-skills programs or there may be a large turnover in families moving in or out.

The McMaster data-collection plan will visually capture neighbourhood gains. And in turn, the data can be analyzed to assess correlations with improvements seen by residents.

“Major change is coming to Hamilton neighbourhoods,” says Jim Dunn, holder of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Public Health Agency of Canada Chair in Applied Public Health. He is the guiding light behind the project. The City has launched a major neighbourhood development initiative, GO service is planned for the LIUNA-Station area, light rail transit may come, and the city will see Pan-Am Games infrastructure gains.

McMaster's project will record baseline video data in neighbourhoods and then update the images at regular intervals as they change, both socially and physically. This work is expected to go on for some years.

The university benefits in getting a kind of video data archive of city neighbourhoods-in-transition -- information that will be shared with local and provincial governments and social service agencies. This digital data will be housed and interpreted in an internationally unique new lab in the Faculty of Social Science – a lab that will allow for virtual reality re-creations of the neighbourhoods.

“This will be an enormous resource for researchers and policymakers across Canada, effectively creating an accelerated knowledge-creation (and) knowledge-application cycle,” says Dunn.