Program for community members kicks off high-tech hide and seek around Edmonton

(Edmonton) Gordon Gow recently wondered aloud if people who have fallen on hard times are using newer technologies such as Global Positioning Systems. The University of Alberta professor of communication and technology was also curious about whether, by using such technologies, people living in so-called crime-ridden communities are empowering themselves.

Gow’s musings now provide Edmontonians an unusual and diverse view of the city through the eyes of members in the community facing economic challenges. And on Wednesday, April 6 from 10 a.m. to noon, everyone will get a chance to go on a high-tech hide & seek around Edmonton, starting off at a community service centre downtown.

This high-tech hunt is the result of Gow's contemplations and the vision of Joanne Muzak, special projects manager with U of A's Community Service-Learning Program. She recruited graduate students Lisa Prins and Matthew Dance to work with Gow to create a quest using GPS units to traverse the city in search of some often untold stories.

The trio had turned to clients at Edmonton’s Learning Centre Literacy Association at Boyle Street Community Services Centre, which assists people living in poverty. For three years, the university has provided courses at the centre that Muzak says have been helping clients develop essential skills.

“In many cases the students are experiencing poverty and facing social and economic barriers. Some of them have some level of education, but have fallen on hard times. So we use an approach which gives everyone the opportunity to participate on a single project,” Muzak said. “We use the humanities to cultivate thinking and writing skills in encouraging participation in public life.”

For this course, students used GPS and storytelling to explore Edmonton. Each student has created a geocache—a collection of items hidden around town and traced using GPS. Their caches include personal stories about their experiences living in Edmonton, Muzak said. The stories are as varied as the age range of students, which is between 18 and 70. The geocaches now lay hidden across the inner city.

“The objective this term with geocaching is a way for students to explore the city. The caches include students’ stories about their experiences living in the city and an artifact,” Muzak said. “For example, one of the students wrote about her experiences with addiction. She’s sober now, so she put an empty lighter in her cache.”  

Another student wrote about the CN Tower, explaining how her father moved the family here from British Columbia to work at the tower. The student recalled sitting with her father and watching trains come in and out of the station at the tower.

“That’s a history that a lot of us don’t have about Edmonton,” Muzak said. “So we got her a toy train to put in her geocache. We have taught them how to use GPS units. So they’re going to take people on tours, using the units to navigate the city to their caches.”

The quest has also helped create yet another bond between the city and university. Muzak says Humanities 101 and the university’s Community Service-Learning Program is helping to strengthen the university’s partnerships with the community.  

“Our mandate is to address social change, promote social justice and build relationships between the university and the community. And one way we’re doing that is by providing members of the community opportunities to tell their stories about parts of the city that are overlooked or considered crime-ridden.

“We want people to care, to learn about the human things going on in these areas.”