Open data is gaining momentum. A recent hackathon, supported by federal data, opened the door to apps than can help Canadians.
The concept of open data has been around for some time, but only recently has it begun to worm its way into public consciousness. In 2011, Stockwell Day, former president of the Treasury Board, announced a 12-month pilot for the federal government’s new open data web portal. Just over a year later, Tony Clement – Day’s successor – made the government’s three-year Action Plan on Open Government official.
Open data has been conceived as a way to give Canadians access, at no extra cost, to data that the government had used taxpayer funds to collect, so that the data can then be reused to build applications that will have a widespread societal benefit.
“Our challenge is to make sure that…data gets out there, that the public has an opportunity to use that data,” said Stephen Walker, senior director of Information Management Strategies at the Treasury Board of Canada. “And it’s not just for applications – a lot of the time, open data is used for informing decisions at the municipal level, developing policy and analysis, and supporting civil society organizations.”
Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec have launched open data portals, as have a number of municipalities. But there is still work to be done to promote the use of multi-jurisdictional data and to bring the concept to the attention of the wider Canadian population.
To promote open data, the government of Canada supported the Canadian Open Data Experience (CODE) hackathon, an event hosted by mobile gaming studio XMG and held between February 28 and March 2, 2014. The hackathon challenged teams to build a working app within a 48-hour period using at least one federal government dataset.
The event drew over 900 participants from across the country, and by its conclusion, over 100 functioning apps had been submitted to the judges. From those 100-odd apps, 15 were selected as finalists for the Grand Finale.
Many of the apps provided insights for Canadians looking to get a job, move or travel. Team TRAK, for example, created an app that ranks Canadian provinces and cities so that new Canadians can determine which city would be best to live in. Team Coding Force, meanwhile, built an app that can track flu symptoms, locate the nearest flu clinic, and remind the user that it’s time for a flu shot.
And team Electric Sheep, which claimed first prize in the hackathon’s Grand Finale, created an app called newRoots that matches new Canadians with the city that will give them the most opportunity to use their skills and become productive members of society.
“Those apps, though right now are depending almost exclusively on federal data, would be even richer for the end-user if they were combining both provincial and federal data,” said Walker. “Imagine an app…that took individual datasets from each of the provinces related to education and health care…and then municipal datasets around municipal services that are available in those cities. Then that tool becomes even that much richer and that much more responsive to the individual user.”
The event did not produce any apps that could be used by the government to provide better services, said Walker, but seeds were sown for future development. Coding Force’s Flu Clinic, for example, could be used by Health Canada to provide Canadians with convenient information about clinic locations and thereby contribute to the health of the country as a whole.
More than that, the event also helped bring open data to the attention of a wider swath of the public and proved that data and information, when placed in the hands of ordinary citizens, can be a powerful tool for good.
As Walker points out, data is about mashing together datasets from different sources, and the CODE hackathon helped bring the need for partnership between not only governments, but also between governments and the private sector, to the attention of businesses and all Canadians.
“What we wanted to do was put federal data on the map, and to do that with…a generation of students coming out of school in the industry,” said Walker. “If we can use [data] to generate new partnerships, new collaborations, new networks, new awareness of the data itself by developers, then it’s a success no matter what happens.”