MARK HUME  VANCOUVER — The Globe and Mail   Published Last updated 

Whenever the rains stop in Vancouver, people flood into the city’s public spaces.

They sit on the Art Gallery steps facing Robson Square, walk the Seawall and gather on the beaches along English Bay.

It is those crowds that Vancouver park board commissioner Trevor Loke will be thinking about Monday night when he introduces a motion calling for free WiFi in the city’s public places.

The proposal could be the start of something big – a whole city that one day is covered by a WiFi zone.

“Well, that would be a goal that’s much more long term, but certainly I think if … our public [place] WiFi is supported by residents that’s a goal we could certainly move to,” Mr. Loke said.

He is starting small, however, by trying to get WiFi coverage in a few parks first.

“I think places that make sense to me are perhaps English Bay, or Nelson Park in the West End; central locations that have high visitation … perhaps Kits Beach,” he said.

“A lot of people bring their Kindles to the beach to do some reading. Others are saying there’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to go to a park with my work colleagues for a coffee and be on our phones,” said Mr. Loke. “There’s also, from a tourist perspective, a lot of people who want to visit parks and spaces and share online the photos they are taking.”

Mr. Loke, who became Vancouver’s youngest-ever elected official when he won a seat in 2011 at the age of 22, says he hopes the first WiFi park isn’t far off.

“As soon as we can,” he said when asked how quickly the park board might move on the project.

While Mr. Loke hopes to see all the city’s parks and community centres wired for WiFi, he’s advocating a step-by-step plan.

“Certainly when you are dealing with technology you have to account for the fact technology doesn’t always roll out the way it’s anticipated. You do a little bit of testing and see how the network works. … You expand a little bit and build from there,” he said. “We think a phased approach is good.”

Mr. Loke said if his motion is endorsed, which it almost certainly will be, staff will be asked to come up with a budget and a timeline.

He’s confident of board support, because WiFi in parks and other public places is called for in the larger digital strategy the city endorsed last year. Under that plan Vancouver is broadly upgrading digital platforms as it tries to catch up to the world’s leading cities in digital technology.

When Vancouver was drafting its digital strategy, it consulted industry insiders, startup founders and interested citizens. One of the strong messages the city got was that it needed to get moving because it was lagging Boston, Chicago, London, New York and Seattle.

There was also concern that the city’s bureaucratic structure was an impediment to system modernization.

“The fast pace of digital – the slow pace of government,” was a phrase that emerged from the consultation process to express the concern that the city was falling behind. Council adopted the digital strategy last April, making Vancouver the first city in Canada to have such a plan. A short time later Jessie Adcock was hired as the chief digital officer.

So that gave the city a plan and a director to get it moving. And the city is trying to speed up. Initially a five- to seven-year strategy was envisioned to upgrade Vancouver’s digital infrastructure, and broaden the reach of public WiFi. But in the formally adopted plan, the city has given itself four years “to move the dial on digital maturity.”

The goal is to have a fully connected Vancouver where citizens can easily interact with city hall through digital channels (getting everything from dog tags to building permits online ) and where an atmosphere exists that helps the digital business sector thrive. In the big picture, free WiFi in a park might not seem like much. But it’s an important step toward the city of the future.

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