The federal government’s CIO discusses the upcoming finale of the Canadian Open Data Experience and how it is changing the way public sector information is managed and released

No matter who wins the $25,000 prize, Canada’s federal CIO believes the recent Canadian Open Data Experience competition reflects a shift in how the public sector collects, manages and shares information for the benefit of citizens.

The Canadian Open Data Experience (CODE) involved a 48-hour hackathon at the end of February, where more than 800 participants created apps using the datasets from data.gc.ca, the government’s open data portal. More than 100 projects were then culled to 15 finalists.

This Friday, March 28, the best three will be chosen by a panel of judges and the top winner will receive $25,000. The CODE finale, which will take place in Toronto, will also match up developers with venture capitalists and other potential partners to help turn their open data apps into viable products and services.

Finalists include Canadian Travellers, an app that informs the Canadian public of issues affecting the security and well-being of Canadians travelling abroad, and Deep Breath, which displays air quality data from local monitoring stations and nearby large facilities emitting pollutants for given locations.

Corinne Charette, CIO with Treasury Board Secretariat — which spearheaded the CODE initiative under the leadership of its president, Tony Clement — told CanadianCIO data.gc.ca has progressed significantly over the last several years.

“It’s a combination of being proximity to a big leader in this field (the U.S.), a willingness on the part of the government and strong interest and support from departments in the federal space,” she said. “(Departments) haven’t been given any extra money to do this, to make the data available and machine-readable. It’s something they’ve done with existing resources.”

Early challenges

The federal government already a lot of data available prior to data.gc.ca, Charette said, but moving to open data involved a lot more work than that.

Corinne Charette,  Treasury Board
Corinne Charette,
Treasury Board

“There were challenges in getting to our data. Every department published it on its own Web site with various catalogs — or not, various metadata — or not. You really had to be Sherlock Holmes to find it. Then there was a big problem in that the data was not always in the right ‘repurposeable format. They all had their own licenses, so then you had to be a legal expert.”

The government is now working on policy instruments that will require departments to do a systematic job of assessing their data holdings and commit to a schedule for publishing in a standard way “with the knowledge that this is a public good,” Charette added.

Stephen Walker, senior director of the Information Management Directorate at Treasury Board’s CIO Branch, said the participants came from a range of professional and student or amateur backgrounds, but the more experienced developers don’t necessarily dominate the list of finalists. Another surprise was that CODE participants were somewhat cautious about working within some relatively narrow parameters.

“We found that there was … a significant tendency from participating teams to want to meet federal expectations or please us in a way,” he said. “Many of the apps that were developed across the whole 110 attempt to provide greater analysis, greater ease of access to data that would be more helpful to deliver more programs and services. We’ll want to learn from that in the future going forward, and try to really make sure that participating teams are aware they’re allowed to mash up data with anyone else’s data.”

Charette said the government may link directly to free apps that come out of CODE on data.gc.ca. Walker added that even if none of the apps become as popular as Candy Crush Saga, the success of the initiative is measured much differently.

“It would have been fair to say that not a lot of people out there in the world knew how far the federal government had proceeded in terms of being able to convince departments to make that data available,” he said. “We have raised the awareness about the government’s efforts around the efficiency and technological advancement of the platform in a way that has changed night and day from where we were just a couple of months ago. That applies externally as well as internally.”

Besides Tony Clements, judges at the CODE Grand Finale will include former Dragon’s Den star Robert Herjavec and OpenText CEO Mark Barrenechea.

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