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People walking in Toronto

Urban health

Data-led initiatives in Toronto, Canada

21 April 2021
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3 min read

In Toronto, we learned how data and technology can be used to identify and build an accurate picture of health issues.

This city profile is part of a series of ten, exploring how cities around the world are addressing health inequalities. Read the full report and sign up to receive more insights from us.

About Toronto

While only a third the size of London, Toronto is the most populous city in Canada. Despite its smaller size, it resembles London in that it is highly multicultural, with 51.5% of residents belonging to a minority ethnic group. The 2016 census found that 47% of Toronto residents were immigrants.

Spread across 630 square kilometres, Toronto has a central downtown district of dense skyscrapers ringed by medium density neighbourhoods featuring extensive green space and local commercial corridors. Toronto has the largest public transport system in the country and third largest in North America, but it does not provide consistent coverage across the city, leaving many lower income and minority communities with poor access to transport.

Canada uses a national system of universal healthcare, which overall has produced positive health outcomes for Canadian people, particularly in comparison to the United States. Studies have demonstrated that Canadians are more likely to have a regular doctor and less likely to have unmet health needs or forgo necessary medication in contrast to their American counterparts.

While Canadian healthcare provision is shown to reduce many health disparities, significant gaps still exist in urban centres such as Toronto. Studies by Toronto Public Health found that in an assessment of 34 health status indicators, 20 are significantly inequitable, with low-income groups demonstrating worse health outcomes. Notably, these inequities are not improving over time. Over a ten-year period, health inequities persisted for 16 indicators and worsened for four indicators. Only one indicator showed any improvement in equity during the same period.

In numbers

2.7m

residents living in Toronto

4,334

people per square kilometre

51.5%

of residents belong to a minority ethnic group

Using data to build a picture of health in cities

Urban health problems are often political and economic in nature and can exist at the intersection of multiple forms of disadvantage. It is important to understand those intersections and where value is derived from different sectors working together.

Incorporating many different data types and methods into a programme enables it to be flexible enough to identify need and to build a fuller picture of an area or issue. This allows idea generation that is informed by stakeholders in real time. New technology and data can support this process in innovative ways.

Initiatives explored: Sidewalk Labs & MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions

Sidewalk Labs in Toronto uses technology to enable more personalised responses to health, so that populations can live well and thrive day to day. Data collected provides insight into people’s health needs and experiences of daily life. The anonymised health data of communities is then linked to other systems that impact on health, such as waste, transport, food and housing.

The aggregation of big data, as well as in-person community engagement work, endeavours to create healthier, more equitable communities. MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions uses big-picture research and street-level solutions to tackle complex urban health issues. They are trialling the use of social media to gather data. In one study, data from posts on social media is analysed to identify areas of stress in Toronto’s neighbourhoods.

This approach acknowledges that daily repetitive stressors and strains can lead to multiple long-term conditions or mental health struggles at a neighbourhood level. MAP will use social media to inform the city of Toronto on improvements that need to be made to address these areas of stress in communities.

We see social media as a way to feed into the existing processes of neighbourhood planning that are happening in cities. We don’t see social media being a replacement for community voices, we think it could be a way to better detect pockets in the city that might need help.

Dr Andrew Pinto MAP Centre for Urban Health Solutions
Mother and child at a street market

Explore the full report

Our report explores how cities around the world are addressing health inequalities and shares their real-world solutions to pressing urban health issues.

Read 'Global perspectives on urban health'