We’re proud to announce a one-night-only live performance of the upcoming, final HIGHRISE documentary, UNIVERSE WITHIN at Hot Docs, in Toronto, on April 29, 2015.

Featuring Misha Glouberman as live host (you might remember he facilitated our Filmmaker-in-Residence un-conference, HandHeld), the evening will feature a sneak preview of UNIVERSE WITHIN, which will be launched online later this year.

UNIVERSE WITHIN explores the invisible digital lives of highrise residents around the globe. From intimate whispers on Skype to explosive political uses of WhatsApp in vertical neighbourhoods under siege, Universe Within takes audiences inside the hearts, minds and computers of vertical citizens from Guangzhou to Brooklyn and places in between.

The event in April will be a mix of scripted and unscripted, recorded and live storytelling, and will be scored on stage by electronic musicians Dafydd Hughes and Nick Storring. Misha will also be in improvised conversation with the audience.

The April performance will be created by the HIGHRISE team: Technical Director Branden Bratuhin with support from the NFB’s brilliant Dan Thornhill, Associate Producer Kate Vollum, Production Coordinator Jenn Bertling, Producer David Oppenheim and Director Katerina Cizek.

For more info go here.

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Our Digital Citizenship HIGHRISE project  — about the digital lives of highrise residents around the world (see here) is growing more relevant by the day.

This week, on the world stage, the digital is colliding with the vertical in a story that is grabbing front-page headlines in India. HIGHRISE team members, Paramita Nath, and Prof Deborah Cowen, recently headed a research trip on digital citizenship in Mumbai, and here’s a dispatch, with Paramita’s images and Deb’s words.


MUMBAI — At eleven am on the 11th of November 2013, Mumbai’s municipal government prepared for yet another mass eviction of its citizens. Hundreds of police barricaded the streets, followed by hundreds more from the demolition team. Oversize military-style paddy wagons and massive bulldozers rolled into the area, met by residents and a sea of reporters from all of India’s major news outlets. Residents were arrested, along with a number of politicians who had joined them in their fight.

Already garnering front-page coverage across India for weeks, what made this incident standout from the long string of violent evictions in this city was the social standing of residents. Campa Cola is not a slum settlement but a largely middle class apartment complex in a gentrifying neighbourhood of the city.

A surprising target for demolition, the story of the Campa Cola complex is increasingly common. Recently revealed is the astonishing fact that almost half of all constructions in Mumbai of the last decade are illegal. The exact figure, obtained by activists through India’s recent Right to Information Act (RTI), is staggering. More then 56,300 buildings in Bombay hold this same status, and so could face a similar fate.

RTI is one impressive new technology in the struggle over urban land in a country where corruption is common and authority often arbitrary. But it is not the only new tool – social media has also become a powerful weapon. The youth of Campa Cola led an elaborate campaign on facebook, twitter, and ‘whatsapp’ that catapulted their saga to the center of national public debate. These well connected residents and their tech savvy kids mobilized the support of a wide cross section of Indian society. Through their Facebook page, people from as far away as Dubai, Iran, Australia, the US and the UK also signed their petition and supported their campaign. Official support from all the major political parties followed.

And yet, despite all this, a standoff that lasted for hours started as the dense morning smog lifted from the Worli neighbourhood, and the slow work of taking homes apart eventually began.

If the figures of Mumbai’s illegal buildings are surprising, the story becomes even more staggering in the rapidly spreading suburbs that surround the city. In areas like Mira Road to the north, more then eighty percent of buildings are ‘illegal’ and a whole economy is emerging around the demolition and reconstruction of apartment towers that are often only a few years old. Ironically, these suburbs are increasingly home to people displaced from the city through forced evictions tied to urban renewal schemes, by skyrocketing real estate prices that are now firmly inserted into globalized land markets, and historically – because of the riots. Displaced from the downtown, residents are often then displaced from their new vertical suburban homes, only to find themselves temporarily re-housed in buildings that are also ‘illegal’. Highrise residents have become pawns in an elaborate economy of illegality.

Far from exceptional, Campa Cola’s illegal status has become something of a norm in the new Mumbai. A feature of real estate capital run wild, of staggering rents through international financial speculation, of deepening economic and political polarization, and of deep seated corruption in a city where a powerful ‘builder-authority nexus’ acts as judge, jury and execution in the making of urban space.

Bold proposals from municipal and state authorities and their corporate partners, taking funds and directives from the World Bank, aim for total transformation of the city’s built form and social geography. With lofty visions of transforming ‘Mumbai into Shanghai’, the city’s concept plan proposes massive across-the-board hikes in density to accommodate an imagined population of 44 million by 2052. Increasingly, slum settlements are transformed into vertical spaces through schemes that put highrise ‘slum rehabilitation projects’ in their place, regularizing their legal status. This makes the Campa Cola case even more curious.

The official explanation for the planned demolition of the Campa Cola towers’ illegality is ‘Floor Space Index violation’ (known simply as ‘FSI violation’)– meaning that they exceed the allowed density for the site. The municipality sentenced everything above the fifth floor for destruction. For some of the buildings this would mean demolition of a handful of floors, while other towers will see as many as 12 and 15 stories shaved off the top. All this is underway, ironically, as authorities engineer plans for a newly and intensely vertical urban form.

Residents learned the details of their buildings’ illegal status in 2005 – more then twenty-five years after its construction. They have been living in the complex since that time, making the suddenness of the situation absurd and the timing questionable.

Why this building and why now? Until recently, the municipality was happy to collect taxes and look the other way. But residents point out that things changed when a developer purchased an adjacent lot. This neighboring site, never legally severed from theirs, has no density allowance by virtue of the overdevelopment of Campa Cola. The developer next door stands to gain the density to be recycled through demolition. Inheriting FSI is as good as the gift of gold. The language of ‘land grab’ circulates widely in Bombay these days.

After elaborate protest and legal challenge, the fate of the complex was unclear after the Supreme Court issued a stay delaying decisions for seven months. Renewed eviction notices were recently delivered to the residents with a deadline of May 31 to vacate the premises. The Supreme Court declined a further stay on evictions, but residents have been granted one more chance to make their case before the Supreme Court on June 3rd.

The ironies of ‘illegality’ are bitter. Despite lip service and a proliferation of policy, little is done to shelter Mumbaikers from a string of recent building collapses – most of which have been illegal, or to house the many millions who live on streets and in slums.

Without a doubt, the violence committed against people living in poverty in the struggle over urban space is far more brutal – actual rather then potential – and often lethal. Slum settlements of many thousands have been raized repeatedly without any significant media attention or parallel consideration by the courts – but so too have suburban towers that house a growing share of the city’s population, including large numbers of the new suburban poor. There are no guarantees that the intervention that could come on behalf of the Campa Cola residents would in any way benefit poor people in similar situations without valiant political organizing. Nevertheless, the Campa Cola conflict and the epidemic of ‘illegality’ crafts important precedent for this megalopolis, where the vulgar use of law and land for profit sculpts the future shape of the city.

Deborah Cowen is Associate Professor of Geography and Urban Planning at the University of Toronto. Paramita Nath is an independent documentary filmmaker. They are both part of the HIGHRISE project.

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Peabody, World Press Photo Prize

Our interactive documentary collaboration with The New York Times Op-Docs, called “A Short History of the Highrise” has been honoured with a prestigious Peabody Award.

Last week, we also won 1st prize for Interactive Documentary at World Press Photo multi-media awards.

Jian Gomeshi of CBC’s Q calls the project “just… brilliant” here.

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This post is by Gerry Flahive, NFB Senior Producer of HIGHRISE.

Documentaries emerge from the strangest places these days.

In March 2012, I was presenting our HIGHRISE project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. You might wonder why an esteemed educational institution like M.I.T. – one that has a nuclear reactor on its premises – would be interested in what the National Film Board of Canada is doing to advance documentary storytelling. My presentation was in the context of a conference, The New Arts of Documentary, presented by the MIT Open Documentary Lab which “brings technologists, storytellers, and scholars together to advance the new arts of documentary”.

It was there that I was approached by Jason Spingarn-Koff Series Producer and Curator of Op-Docs, the Times’ innovative home for short-form documentaries – presented in the context of the Op-Docs section, so a place very passionate about docs with a point of view.

Jason proposed that we create a short HIGHRISE film for Op-Docs, perhaps focused on New York City, a city synonymous with the skyscraper (though that term largely applies to non-residential towers, not the vertical homes that our project has used as our storytelling prism since we started the project in 2009).

When we later met in Toronto during Hot Docs, Jason kindly offered to open up the Times’ extraordinary photography archive – the ‘morgue’ to Kat. Imagine – about six million undigitized photos, the history of pretty much everything – as the starting point for a single short film. We certainly jumped at the chance, as telling the story of the history of the highrise apartment building, the often misunderstood home to billions, is at the heart of what our HIGHRISE project is about. Architecture, urban planning, public housing, speculative development, condominiums, even the Tower of Babel, could all be part of an epic tale.

Once Kat, with the guidance of NYT photo archivist Jeff Roth, got inside this historical trove, its often unseen riches it inspired her greatly: “Facing 2,500 years of history of a neglected (and often reviled) vernacular architecture was a daunting task. I read a lot, wrote a lot, and sifted through thousands of photographs. I only found my way when I began putting the pieces of the puzzle together within the frame of an interactive pop-up storybook – with animation, rhyming couplets and simple touch elements. Then the narrative structure and a story told in under 15 minutes – fell into place.” The poetically moving and filmically efficient narration was creatively performed for two of the films by Canadian musical artists Feist and Cold Specks.

A multi-phase project

From there discussions continued – this should be three films, not one, and the interactive potential of the epic tale was huge. Many of photos themselves were marked with decades of grease pencil marks, notations, glued clippings from the Times documenting their use, and the actual wear and tear of the physical process of putting out one of the world’s great daily newspapers, for decades assembled and printed on the same premises. Kat wanted to keep that sense of historical texture, respecting the visual storytelling that preceded our work.

(In fact, documentary through still photography, not motion pictures, was also deeply rooted in the NFB’s own history, wonderfully told in the new book THE OFFICIAL PICTURE, about the NFB Still Photography Division, which operated as a production unit from 1941-1971.)

Through the research and scripting, animation was another storytelling tool Kat put forward. We approached our long-time HIGHRISE collaborators, Toronto’s Helios Design Lab to work with Kat to add sometimes surprising, sometimes subtle movement to long-frozen images, from the legendary Dakota luxury apartment in Manhattan to King Louis XV’s 18th century elevator to the highrise in the Bronx where hip-hop was born, thereby adding delight, action and a constant sense of the relentless building upwards that characterized the immense and complicated history of the highrise.

The collaboration began simultaneously with the Times’ esteemed interactive designer, Jacky Myint, whose previous work includes their very influential Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek, a multi-media project that nabbed a Pulitzer, a Peabody and a Webby.

Look up, way up

It’s often a curse of linear documentary films that they sometimes attempt to cram too much information in – to the disdain of the viewer – or leave lots of wonderful information out – to the distress of directors and editors who’ve run out of screen time.

But with this project we had a chance to square that circle. How could interactivity expand on the incredibly rich historical stories the films tell? And how could it mesh fluidly with the films? Kat and Jacky devised several dozen chapters, accessible along the way on the film’s timeline, allowing users to, variously, flip over and examine the backs of the ‘morgue’ photos, dig deeper into the history of each story, hear from scholars, and even play micro-games – like trying to fit the furniture into a simulation of a very real and very, very tiny apartment, the kind that hundreds of millions of future highrise dwellers will find themselves in.

We’ve always approached our work on HIGHRISE as being open and collaborative – using the highrise apartment building as our ‘storytelling prism’ to explore real lives. And so when the Times also suggested we invite their readers all over the world to send in their photos and stories of lives lived with a highrise view, we jumped at the chance to make a fourth film – and thousands of photos, from Vancouver to Dublin, and from Dubai to Mississauga, were submitted, and with selections from those, the poetic short documentary ‘HOME’ was woven by Kat to Patrick Watson’s evocative song ‘Lighthouse’.

Once our project went live in early October, following the world premiere at the prestigious New York Film Festival, the twitterverse responded with thousands of comments (@kartemquin: “a giant leap for interactive documentary”) – wonderfully, and in many languages.

That’s the funny thing about highrises – they are pretty much everywhere in the world and yet we don’t notice them. Take a look around – and up.


Also check out the study guides for A SHORT HISTORY OF THE HIGHRISE from the NFB and NYT Learning Network.

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Introducing A Short History of the Highrise, our new interactive documentary, a collaboration with The New York Times. Now on view at nytimes.com/highrise

MUD, CONCRETE, GLASS and HOME:  Director’s Statement

Great Cities, throughout history, have been defined by their “Great Buildings”: spectacular temples, banks, palaces and cultural monuments.

But a city’s everyday urban fabric ‑ ordinary residential highrise buildings ‑ can tell us more than any other built form about a civilization’s respect for humanity.

That’s why I’ve spent the last five years documenting them and the lives inside them, as the director of the National Film Board of Canada’s Emmy-winning project called HIGHRISE.

About a year ago, the project took an unexpected turn. The New York Times Op-Docs video department  called on us to collaborate on a new iteration of HIGHRISE. They gave me rare access to their remarkable repository of undigitized photographs, an archive affectionately known as the Morgue . With the help of New York Times archivist Jeff Roth, I sifted through thousands of photos in their “housing files” to draw out the history of the common residential HIGHRISE building. The resulting interactive documentary, called The Short History of the Highrise,  launches at nytimes.com/highrise today.

The centrepiece of the project is a series of four short films. The first three (“Mud,” “Concrete” and “Glass”) draw on The New York Times’s extraordinary visual archives. Each film is intended to evoke a chapter in a storybook, with rhyming narration and photographs brought to life with intricate animation. The fourth chapter (“Home”) is comprised of images submitted by the public. The interactive experience incorporates the films and, like a visual accordion, allows viewers to dig deeper into the project’s themes with additional archival materials, text and microgames. On tablets, viewers can navigate the story extras and special features within the films using touch commands like swipe, pinch, pull and tap.  On desktop and laptop computers, users can mouse over features and click to navigate.  Smartphone users can view the four films via the New York Times Mobile Web site.


The modern high-rise was invented in New York City in the late 1800s, as a luxury for the rich. Since then, the high-rise (which architects typically define as 12 or more stories high) has become the most commonly built form of the last century, a tool to battle sprawl and intensify urban density. But the history of vertical living goes far back in time and around the globe — from the biblical Tower of Babel, to Arizona cliff dwellings made of mud to the Soviet Krushchevka Towers. Today, residential high-rise buildings have become symbols of gargantuan excess, of segregation. They are even heroic, if often flawed, experiments in a civilization’s utopic quest to secure equitable housing. New York City has played a crucial role in the evolution of this global phenomenon. And as the world’s cities grow, the residential high-rise is a social and political barometer of urbanization’s successes and failures.

When things go wrong, the instinct to blame the buildings and tear them down has had an equally radical impact on the city and its citizens. As an alternative to demolition, I’ve been inspired by architect Graeme Stewart’s vision of tower renewal: efforts to honour the legacy of the post-war concrete buildings and to turn highrise neighborhoods into sustainable, affordable and decent places to live. Meanwhile, we might also apply lessons from the past century to the current unmitigated and highly privatized glass condominium craze. We need wisdom and vision to return to urban planning, and urban citizenship.

For me as a documentarian, the high-rise building has become an unexpected storytelling prism to tell an epic story about humanity. As I pored over thousands of images in the morgue, I faced the daunting task of telling 2,500 years of history in a short film genre.

I was inspired by the ways pop-up storybooks have been reinvented for digital tablets like the iPad. Rhyming text could deliver efficiency, but would also poeticize and thereby enoble an ignored history of how people really lived – and live. The animation and interactivity could playfully revisit a stunning photographic collection and reinterpret great feats of engineering.

I’ve always loved archival films built of photographs, but I’ve found myself wanting to touch the photographs themselves, to see for myself from where they have come.  We’ve built this accordion-like interactive film experience, to allow you to go deeper into the film and its photographic and conceptual parts.

Ultimately, this story is less about buildings than it is about people. It is about the places we call home, and how we decide who gets to live where. If you look closely, seemingly ordinary buildings — and old photographs — can reveal the values of the society that has created them.

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Premiere at New York Film Festival

Our HIGHRISE collaboration with The New York Times Op-Docs Department is set to have it’s world premiere at the 51st annual New York Film Festival on September 30, 2013, as part of the Convergence Programme, which explores the intersections of technology and storytelling.

“A Short History of the Highrise” is an interactive documentary that explores the 2,500-year global history of vertical living and issues of social equality in an increasingly urbanized world. The centerpiece of the project is four short films. The first three (“Mud,” “Concrete” and “Glass”) draw on The New York Times’s extraordinary visual archives, a repository of millions of photographs that have largely been unseen in decades. Each film is intended to evoke a chapter in a storybook, with rhyming narration and photographs brought to life with intricate animation. The fourth chapter (“Home”) is comprised of images submitted by the public.

The interactive experience incorporates the films and, like a visual accordion, allows viewers to dig deeper into the project’s themes with additional archival materials, text and microgames. On tablets, viewers can navigate the story extras and special features within the films using touch commands like swipe, pinch, pull and tap.  On desktop and laptop computers, users can mouse over features and click to navigate.  Smartphone users can view the four films via the New York Times Mobile Web site.

“We are greatly honored to premiere at the New York Film Festival’s showcase for cinematic innovation,” said Jason Spingarn-Koff, New York Times commissioning editor for Opinion video.  “In Op-Docs, we celebrate unique voices and creative storytelling approaches, and now we’re bringing opinion journalism to the interactive documentary form.”

“Cinema and interactivity are influencing each other more and more,” said NFB senior producer Gerry Flahive.  “In our HIGHRISE project, we’ve always been platform-agnostic, embracing the potential of both.  This collaboration with Op-Docs has given the NFB and The New York Times a chance to further advance online documentary storytelling.”

Jacqueline Myint, the project’s designer and developer at the Times (and of Snowfall fame) told Mashable “With this project, we definitely took an approach of trying to do tablet first.”

Meanwhile, The Creators’ Project sez: “A world with a recent penchant for urban living wouldn’t be possible without the highrise. This towering structure is as much a practical way to house the most people per square foot as it is a symbolic testament to our sky-high ambitions. In collaboration with the New York Times, National Film Board of Canada’s ongoing and thrilling project HIGHRISE has produced a documentary series that investigates our 2,500-year love affair with living vertically.”

A Short History of the Highrise will launch online in October at the New York Times website.

To see a trailer of the project, visit nytimes.com/highrise

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Today at SXSW, HIGHRISE is proud to announce a new collaborative project with The New York Times. It’s an interactive documentary series, called A SHORT HISTORY OF THE HIGHRISE.

It all began last year, when HIGHRISE was approached by Jason Spingarn-Koff, the commissioning editor of the NYT Op-Docs section, a remarkable new forum at the paper for short, opinionated point-of-view documentaries.

Jason’s idea was that we might do to something about highrises in the city of highrises – New York City. Meanwhile, we at HIGHRISE had always wanted to do a “short history of the highrise” around the world. So when Jason offered to open up the NYT undigitized photo archives (a collection of 5-6 million photographs) to us, Gerry, the HIGHRISE Senior Producer, and I were really intrigued by this incredible opportunity for deep collaboration.

I spent a week in the archives, affectionately known as “The Morgue.” It’s 3 floors underground below Times Square — no cell phone connection, no internet down there, time warp to circa 1995  — with the formidable archivist Jeff Roth. Jeff pulled thousands of photographs for me in file folders organized by, um, building names. Many of these stunning images, portraying the triumphalist rise of the city in the 20th century, have not been seen for decades.

I pulled over 500 photographs, and over the next several months, began assembling a series of (very) short films, spanning 2,000 years of human high-rise history. We are supplementing the collection with additional visual research by the crackerjack team of Elizabeth Klinck and Jivan Nagra.

Above, the “Morgue” and my library cart of file folders of photos.

And, we are thrilled to have the ace team at Helios Design Lab as our animators on this project.

There’s a whole other aspect to this: The New York Times social media department is putting out a call for submissions from the paper’s readers, who can submit their own photos depicting their lives and experiences in and around high-rises from around the world. From these images, we’ll create the final chapter of our whirlwind tour of the highrise history. Upload your photos here

Last but certainly not least, we are also working with the New York Times interactive team to build the whole thing as an interactive cinema experience. Extremely exciting.

Check out The NYT press release.

A SHORT HISTORY OF THE HIGHRISE will premiere later this spring at www.nytimes.com and subsequently at highrise.nfb.ca and distributed internationally across many platforms. Watch for news here.

Check out some of the press coverage of our announcement: BBC Click, a mention in The Globe and Mail, CBC.ca, Playback, Chinokino, and idocs.

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HIGHRISE at Canadian Screen Awards

Highrise/One Millionth Tower is up for an award tonight at the newly minted Canadian Screen Awards (formerly the Geminis and Genies). The other nominees are the NFB’s Bear 71 and Bar Code, High Fidelity’s Masa Off Grid, and the CBC’s Exile Without End: Palestinians in Lebanon. Congrats to all! A warm shout out to Helios Design Labs’ Mike Robbins and Sarah Arruda, both of whom were central to all things digital at One Millionth Tower. Also a warm thank you to the highrise residents, architects and animators who helped us redefine collaboration in the digital documentary realm.

BTW, we at the HIGHRISE team have been seeing a lot of Helios lately, because we’re working on a new exciting project that we’ll be announcing at SXSW next month. Stay tuned here for details.

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from one HIGHRISE to another


We at HIGHRISE just screened our documentary One Millionth Tower outdoors, at a festival celebrating another highrise neighbourhood. In One Millionth Tower, highrise residents re-imagine their neighbourhood by working with architects to illustrate what’s possible in the bleak space around their buildings.

Four residents from this HIGHRISE project crossed from west-side Etobicoke, over Toronto, to the east-side suburb of Scarborough and presented at the 3rd annual Bridging Festival. It’s called that, because in its first two years, the festival was held under a local bridge that divides the community.

Screen shot 2012-08-27 at 10.09.45 AM

“The original concept of the festival three years ago was to reconnect the community, as people felt uncomfortable crossing the bridge,” explains Tim Whalley, Executive Director of Scarborough Arts, “The idea of the festival was to turn the bridge, which was considered a barrier, back into a bridge.”

This year, the festival moved to the nearby The Scarborough Storefront, possibly one of the most remarkable community organizations I have ever known.

You might remember the Scarborough Storefront, which I visited at the very beginning of our HIGHRISE project, and featured in our Prologue. The Storefront is a collection of agencies organized in a “hub” model:  they share space, staffing and administration to bring in as many opportunities as possible under one roof to a severely service-deprived neighbourhood. It’s located in a former police station.

Screen shot 2012-08-27 at 9.24.18 AM

It’s only 1 kilometre away from a last month’s tragic shooting, which killed 2 people and injured 20.

“The Storefront has now become a hub for discussion how to heal from those events,” said Whalley.


Our One Millionth Tower screening was held in the parking lot of The Storefront, with a highrise towering over us.


The One Millionth Tower residents Ob, Faith (with her daughter Tashana), Jamal and Priti had a picnic lunch in the Storefront’s community garden before the screening.


Jamal rehearsed in the garden before going on stage with his sax. His stagename, btw, is J-Smooth.


Priti admired the pumpkins growing on the fence.


J-Smooth inspired the crowd with his musical improvisations.

After the screening, we talked with some of the local residents, many of whom live in the highrise directly behind the Storefront.

Zena, from the 11th floor, said she could imagine many of the ideas in the film  in her own neighbourhood.

“I recognize Etobicoke in the film right away,” said Slim, from the 10th floor, “because we used to live there. These two areas are similar, because Etobicoke has many people from India, and here its Sri Lankan. But over there, its full of nature. I used to see deer, rabbits, snakes, fish and birds. Here I see only raccoons.”

Both Zena and Slim come to the Storefront regularly to use the internet. Until this weekend, they had to walk all the way around an entire block, because of a fence between their highrise and the community centre, even though the two buildings back directly onto one another.


But from now on, the buildings and people are more connected: this year’s Bridging Festival featured a ceremonial “fence tear down” – the fence between the buildings has been removed.


Not surprisingly, Graeme Stewart, the Tower Renewal architect involved in HIGHRISE and One Millionth Tower, is involved in this project!

At the end of the evening, Marcia,  who lives in another highrise down the street, approached the One Millionth Tower residents and told Faith that she was considering  moving out of the neighbourhood because of the recent violence.

“We need to come together and share and learn from one another,” said Faith.

“Power comes in numbers,” Marcia agreed, and concluded by saying she wouldn’t leave the neighbourhood for one main reason: the Scarborough Storefront.

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It’s the Next-Gen participatory media project at HIGHRISE: girls learning computer code. They’re building websites and telling their own stories. It’s future web-developers in the making, on site at the Kipling Highrise in suburban Toronto.

“It’s so easy to learn code!” exclaims Janever, 10, as she learns how to change the picture and background colour on her website.

It wasn’t so easy, though,  to convince parents to let the girls come to the pilot workshop in the first place. When Heather Frise, HIGHRISE Community Media Coordinator, set out to find girls to sign up, the kids in the lobby were super enthusiastic. But when she went up to their apartment doors to speak with their families, the parents were reticent. Many speak little English, many are very new to Canada, some even asked why the workshop wasn’t for boys. The stereotype that computer coding is reserved for boys is as pervasive here as anywhere else .

[Listen to a CBC radio feature about our workshop today on “Here and Now” between 3-6 pm EDT here]

The 13 girls and their families are mostly recent immigrants, from Nigeria, Pakistan, Jamaica, Somalia and Iraq. Two girls have only been here a month; they’ve just arrived from Iraqi refugee camps in Syria. Their friends help to translate, and they soaked it all in.

The workshop is lead by a young woman, Heather Payne of  a non-profit called Girls Learning Code. I met Heather through the Mozilla Foundation, who has hired her and others like her to build a new generation of webmakers around the planet. This summer, they’re encouraging people around the world to run Kitchen Code Parties of their own. We thought it would be great to do so at the HIGHRISE highrise too, where we’ve worked with adults for almost 3 years now with such participatory photography an storytelling projects such as One Millionth Tower.

We also knew we needed to work with the youth at this building when our Digital Citizenship Survey showed us last year that a whopping 50% of the population at this highrise is under 20 years of age. That’s a lot of kids with not much to do all summer long.

“We know that if we advertise the workshop for both boys and girls,” Heather explains to me, “Only boys will show up. So making the group open only for girls ensures girls make it to the keyboard.”

“I was so excited to hear about this workshop,” says one girl, “Because all we do all summer long is stay in our apartment and clean.” The needs of the kids are high, and so few services exist in highrise neighbourhoods such as this.

“I really do see a difference here from the workshops we’ve run downtown,” notes Heather Payne, on a quick break from teaching HTML, CSS and Python to the girls. “There are so many obstacles in just getting to this neighbourhood. Getting up here takes over an hour, bringing the equipment, and then the girls have their own obstacles too: language barriers, cultural barriers, lack of access to computers, and just being so new to so many of the things we teach in this workshop.”

She adds though, that their enthusiasm is the same. “Everyone loves learning how to make a website!”

Several of the girls from this highrise will join Heather’s team and 40 other girls downtown later this summer for a whole week of coding summer camp, thanks to scholarships offered by Girls Learning Code, and Mozilla.

Heather and her team of volunteer instructors at Girls Learning Code are aiming to change the face and culture of future webmakers, so often engendered as a boy’s club. The stereotypical image of young men, hunched over laptops hacking away in darkened rooms, playing video games continues to dominate the cultural understanding of webmaking. It’s a big battle. The rate of women in computing in Canada has actually gone down.  In the last ten years, the share of women in high-tech jobs, including software development and electrical engineering, has dropped from 25.6% to 23.9%, according to a FINS.com analysis of Labor Department data.

Teaching kids to code is not just about of training a new professional sector of technology workers, as important as that is. Coding is becoming a “fourth literacy” – a basic skill set we all need to be active and engaged citizens in a digital age. “HTML” has become the “ABCs, 123s” of the 21st century.

That’s why HIGHRISE will continue learning more from the youth about Digital Citizenship here in Toronto and other sites in the world.  Together with our academic partner Dr Deborah Cowen,  we’re thrilled to announce that HIGHRISE is the recipient of an academic grant to continue our work on understanding the invisible digital lives of highrise residents around the world.

And there lot’s more exciting news to come as HIGHRISE heats up again in 2012!


Thanks to Action for Neighbourhood Change-Rexdale, Microskills, United Way, Albion Boys and Girls Club, and Mozilla Foundation for their support on this project get girls at Kipling to code.

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