Federal open data opens doors for young entrepreneurs

Treasury Board President Tony Clement is spearheading the federal government's open data initiative.
Treasury Board President Tony Clement is spearheading the federal government's open data initiative. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

For 48 hours, more than 900 Canadian entrepreneurs, innovators and amateur developers from across the country combed though raw federal data.

Their goal: Translating that information into an app, with a chance to win $25,000.

The government’s goal: Engage with the data community and get an app that helps Canadians in their everyday lives.

“If we just left it to ‘Bureaucrat X14’ on the 10th floor of some office building in Ottawa to come up with all of the open data applications, I don’t think that would be very successful,” Treasury Board President Tony Clement, the minister spearheading Canada’s open government initiative, said in an interview this week.

“I wanted to get the outside coding community involved.”

At the end of the two-day hackathon earlier this month, more than 100 open data apps were submitted and 15 finalists selected.

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On Friday in Toronto, the finalists of  the Canadian Open Data Experience will pitch their apps to a panel of industry experts and Clement, who together will decide a winner and two runners up.

The list of apps run the gamut, with one gleaning data from to make travellers aware of potential safety and security threats in countries around the world.

Another, dubbed The Trade Radar, predicts future demand in trades across Canada based on expected retirement numbers, with the goal of helping students considering a job in trades.

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One called International Assistance Map breaks down the country’s international aid funding by year and beneficiary, and compares those figures with those of neighbouring countries.

Other finalists focus on health, nutrition, environment and trends in industry.

Because he’s a judge, Clement wouldn’t say whether he has a favourite out of what he said was officially the largest hackathon in Canadian history.

And it was all powered by the data the federal government collects and feeds into the more than 200,000 data sets Ottawa currently has online.

“One of the things you want to do with open data is make it available so it can be used for usable apps that will help the public in their day-to-day life,” Clement said, adding he wanted to create a forum where developers could help break away from data sets and instead move toward practical information the public could access easily and quickly.

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“I’ve called open data Canada’s 21st century natural resource,” the minister said.

Historically, governments have collected information and horded it, Clement said, suggesting that open data initiatives in various countries mark the first time since the dawn of organized governments where elected leaders have pushed information back to its citizens.

“We’re at the beginning stages of something I believe is going to be quite revolutionary … There is a whole new realm of opportunity for Canadians to gain information, to get knowledge about what government has collected on their behalf.”

When the Canadian government first stepped into open data territory, federal departments were collecting and storing data in whichever format suited them without concern for government-wide standards.

Today, Clement is looking to standardize data sets across Canada in order to make scraping, analyzing and developing information a bit easier, he said.

“The default position now is that unless you can give me a good reason why [information] should remain outside of open data, all data that’s being collected automatically is available on,” Clement said, citing national security and privacy as examples where information could stay under lock and key.

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