Ready, set, CODE: federal hackathon urges open data innovation
Published Wednesday, January 14, 2015 10:53AM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, January 14, 2015 1:23PM EST
Call it a numbers game with a big payout.
The Canadian government will hold its second annual hackathon challenge next month, with $40,000 in prize money available for the Canadian programmers who develop the most innovative applications for publicly available government data.
The Canadian Open Data Experience (CODE) event is a two-day hackathon that challenges programmers to use open data to produce something new and helpful to the public. Sponsored by the federal government and run by software developer XMG Studios, CODE 2015 is a 48-hour theme-based challenge that will launch across the country on Feb. 20.
The hackathon is predicated on Canada's open data practices, which involve all levels of government making their accumulated statistical data available to the public in raw form. That includes information like weather records, immigration patterns, job trends and income rates by neighbourhood.
XMG Studios founder Ray Sharma describes the event as a 48-hour "pressure cooker" for innovation. "When we're put into tight situations, the creative element of our persona can express itself," Sharma told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.
Sharma partnered with the Canadian government to launch CODE last year after running a series of college and university hackathons through XMG Studios. He says the 48-hour challenge format is a holdover from those hackathons he used to run through XMG.
"It's all about innovation and productivity," Sharma said. "People say they learned more that weekend than they did all year at school."
Last year's CODE hackathon proved to be wildly popular, with more than 900 contestants competing to develop apps based on Canadian immigration data. The winning team produced an app called 'new Roots' that helps immigrants find the best places in Canada for them to live. The 'newRoots' app mixes Canadian immigration data with a number of other data sets, including income and job patterns, to help pinpoint ideal landing spots for immigrants.
Sharma says one of the two 'newRoots' co-founders landed a job thanks to CODE, while the other continues to develop the concept into a more powerful application.
And that, Sharma says, is the core of CODE. "You're not trying to get a finished product," Sharma said. "You're trying to get the nugget, the hook, the core of a potential project."
This year's theme won't be announced until the start of the competition, but Sharma says there's plenty of innovation to be made no matter the core data set.
"Every department has its own interesting window of opportunity," he said. He added that the goal this year is to help programmers find investors and launch their ideas into tech companies of their own.
CODE 2015 will have "hub" contest points in Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto, but the contest is open to anyone who wishes to participate – even if they want to work from home. CODE will also help individual entrants find partners through a matchmaking system.
The top 15 teams in the contest will be announced on March 6. Winners will be announced March 26. The top team will receive $15,000, with $25,000 more in winnings available for runners-up and the fan favourite app.
A public asset
Sharma calls open data a "public asset," and he's worked with federal and provincial governments to encourage them to release as much information as possible. He considers Canada one of the world leaders in open data innovation, but he says Canada could still learn a thing or two from other countries.
Sharma says NASA is one of the most effective government agencies in the world at using open data. NASA posts its spacecraft and Mars rover specifications online with the hope that someone can help solve some of the challenges it faces.
"They take the data, they put it online, and they say: 'If anyone can solve this problem, they get $10 million,'" Sharma said. "Maybe some kid will figure it out in some foreign, weird place that we've never heard of."
The U.S. government has set up its own open data challenge site to encourage that kind of crowdsourcing innovation.
The Canadian government launched the current version of its open data website in 2013 as part of the Open Government 2.0 initiative. The move was generally well-received, but critics say Canada's open data policies still are not as open as they should be. That's due in part to the Conservatives' move to scrap the long-form census, which used to collect a wealth of information.
Various provincial and municipal governments also host open data sites, but they don't all offer the same data sets.
The federal government says it has released approximately 210,000 sets of data from over 40 different departments to date.