How Canada’s Tech Scene Is Thriving (Including the Instant Pot)

How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Ian Austen, a correspondent who is based in Ottawa, discussed the tech he’s using.

How do Canadians differ from Americans in the ways they use tech, and what are the most popular homegrown apps there?

Many of the apps on Canadians’ phones would be familiar to any American — they generally include Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter. I’m leery of cross-country comparisons because they often mix survey samples and methods. But they suggest that Canadians spend somewhat more time online, and on Facebook, than Americans.

That would follow. In the pre-internet age, Canadians were often world champions when it came to long-distance telephone use, something that could be accurately measured. It’s a big and sparsely settled country.

There are some hometown apps. Some are predictable: Canadian banks, large Canadian retail stores, Canadian news organizations (although The Times also has a large following here) and Canadian loyalty programs. But others are more surprising. Kijiji, not Craigslist, dominates online classifieds here. It’s owned by eBay and bombed when it was also tried in the United States.

What are your favorite tech tools for doing your job?

My two main tools also seem to be with nearly every other reporter surrounding me in media rooms at events: a MacBook Pro and an iPhone 7. Whatever harms they’ve brought to society and general human interaction, few things have made my job easier than smartphones.

Right now, I’m also experimenting with Trint, an app that shows promise at taking over the transcribing of interviews, the most dispiriting part of an otherwise great job. It’s a bit expensive, and, right now at least, its accuracy swings wildly from being very impressive to producing something that resembles experimental prose-poetry. But there aren’t any obvious factors behind its hits or misses, like the quality of the recording or the subjects’ accents.

Like the three other Times reporters who cover Canada, I work throughout the country. So in my (untidy) office in Ottawa I keep a work backpack ready for leaving town. My one tip for anyone who travels frequently on short notice is to buy a second laptop charging brick and keep it in your travel pack. Yes, I came to that solution the hard way.

Along with my laptop, a Leica M (Typ 262) camera and three or four lenses go into my backpack when I head out to the airport or the car. Photos supplement my notes and voice recordings. They also make their way into the weekly Canada Letter that I write (please subscribe), and they sometimes illustrate my articles.

A lot of people use a smartphone for photography. Why bother carrying a dedicated camera?

The adage that the best camera in the world is the one you have with you is completely true. Most smartphones can produce very nice images, and I certainly use my phone’s camera. But squeezing a camera into a phone brings many compromises.

Their incredibly small image sensors don’t match up to those in dedicated cameras, especially when the light is low. The tiny sensors also mean that you can’t really take advantage of the different perspectives that different focal lengths of lenses offer on dedicated cameras. Composing on a screen held away from your face is far from ideal, and if you learn about photography, controlling the exposure and focus of the camera become a big part of it.

I’ve used Leicas on and off since I was in high school, and its rangefinder cameras, of which mine is a recent digital version, were once synonymous with photojournalism and documentary photographers like Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Leicas are more compact than any comparable digital single lens reflex camera, and I prefer the clarity of their optical viewfinders over the magnified electronic ones of other mirrorless digital cameras. They’re also much more discreet when taking photos during interviews.

Film still has a few tricks that digital can’t match, and I often also take an old Leica or another film camera along on trips.

Beyond your job, what tech product are you currently obsessed with using in your daily life?

I drink far too much tea, so the Breville One-Touch tea maker keeps me supplied and maintains productivity at the bureau, which is the fancy term for a space in the basement of my house in Ottawa.

We also came into an Instant Pot, the surprisingly successful creation of Ottawa’s tech industry. My colleague in Cooking Melissa Clark is best placed to tell you all about the wonders of the amped-up pressure cooker.

Cycling is a big part of my life. Last year, I became the last person in my branch of the cycling world to get a GPS computer for my bikes that also measures, among other things, my heart rate. It was joined by a similar watch I use while running and cross-country skiing, the winter activity for cyclists around here.

Google’s sister company Sidewalk Labs intends to remake Toronto in a high-tech image. What do you think about the plans?

There isn’t even a plan yet. Sidewalk is spending the next year doing consultations and coming up with a final design that will need government approval. But it has already put out an ambitious list of what it hopes to build. As now proposed, the plan involves a perhaps unprecedented level of data collection from people going about their daily lives. Dealing with the obvious privacy concerns that flow from that may prove to be its greatest challenge.

What is Canada’s high-tech scene like now? BlackBerry has foundered, but Canada has a lot of well-known artificial intelligence researchers, especially in Toronto.

It’s now bigger and expanding more quickly than it was at any point during BlackBerry’s glory years. Except for Instant Pot, however, not a lot of what goes on in Canada is directly connected to consumer products.

Several of those researchers at Canadian universities were A.I. pioneers, and that has directly played a role in turning Toronto and Montreal, particularly, into centers for that work. Canada’s immigration rules, which make it quick and easy to bring in skilled workers, have also been a major factor and spurred growth in Ottawa; Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario; Calgary, Alberta; and Vancouver, British Columbia. As for BlackBerry, it’s still around, even if it’s much smaller and no longer makes phones.