Why the Canadian government is opening up to the hackers

When he reaches out to the hacker community, you’d think Tony Clement could have put on a hoodie and a pair of jeans.

Instead, the Treasury Board president was in his usual pinstripes and tie in a short video that appeared about two weeks ago, in which he discussed an unusual experiment taking place this weekend across the country. It’s a “hackathon,” called the Canadian Open Data Experience (CODE) where the government will be actively encouraging programmers and other experts to take public information and do with it what they will.

This isn’t as a risky as it may sound. Like many of its international peers, the Canadian government has realized it is sitting on a lot of information that could be useful to the public at large. Examples include details about the number of people who take transit in a given area, or what’s in the collections of public libraries.

As a result, the feds have been following what’s called the “open data” movement, where these statistics and other information are made available on sites like Data.gc.ca for free download. If you know how to write software, this open data can be the foundation for some groundbreaking mobile apps.

“(Open data) allows developers, designers and hackers to manipulate raw data into useful apps that save us all time in our day-to-day schedules,” Clement says in the video. “Knowing when your bus is coming, or how long you will be waiting in line at airport security, can help you manage your time more effectively.”

Pardon the pun, but these are the more pedestrian possibilities of what Canadians could do with open data. David Eaves, a consultant who is probably Canada’s leading open data expert, has a blog filled with examples and ideas from similar initiatives around the world. He has shown, for instance, how open data can be used to analyze why property values change the way they do, while enrollment in schools can differ so widely or even where taxpayer money is being spent.

“You don’t need to create an app to use open data. Indeed, it may not even be a good idea,” Eaves says. “Rather there is lots to be done just analyzing data or figuring out different ways it may have meaning for the people who live in your city. If you can enable more people to understand an phenomenon or problem that is, in of itself, quite valuable.”

After all this effort to open up its data, Treasury Board and the government as a whole needs something like CODE to prove the value of this concept. But my hope is that what comes out of it are not a handful of gimmicky software programs and maps but the beginnings of a deep, meaningful exploration about the potential of repurposing public information. Canada has a widely distributed population, one that can sometimes feel siloed or disconnected. Open data could help us better understand who we are, contribute to our collective sense of community and maybe solve critical problems. A hackathon can be a fun way to get brainstorming, but with all this information now at their disposal, the hackers -- and all of us, really -- should be aiming as high as we possibly can.