The world-wide Open Data Hackfest

by Robert Janelle

An iPhone app for tracking bus schedules. A Google maps mash-up showing events by season. A budget tracking app that “finds the gravy.”

These are just a few of the applications that began development today all over the world using municipal data released under “open data” policies.

The past year has seen a trend of more and more city governments posting data online for anyone to use, encouraging groups of hackers to create applications making use of that information.

It could be said that the trend has reached critical mass with hackers in 73 cities gathering today to hack away at the data. Toronto, New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Vancouver, Victoria and Guelph were just some of the cities taking part. Cities across the United Kingdom, India, France and Brazil among other countries also took part.

The event was put together in part by Vancouver open data advocate David Eaves and Ottawan Edward Ocampo-Gooding.

As the Hackfest opened, a long table was covered with a large sheet of white paper where participants were encouraged to write down ideas then move over two steps to the left and expand on other’s ideas.

Ideas like being able to find out where a bus is, tracking apartment vacancies, visualizing census data and many others.

According to Ocampo-Gooding, the plan is to show the ideas to city committees to demonstrate what data citizens are interested in accessing.

“Give us that data and we’ll make it happen,” he said.

Getting data from the City of Ottawa has been easier since the city adopted a formal open data policy in May, but much of it has been slow to make it online. Ocampo-Gooding said he is looking to have the Open Data Ottawa group set up their own data catalogue to help speed things along.

“We can help each other out,” he said.

One idea that came out of the Hackfest was a game to crowdsource the data from local residents.

Jesse Kaunisviita explained that he and others are working to create a site that hosts “quests” for data. For example, they could post “Find all water fountains in the city,” and assign points to users who identify water fountain locations.

There would be a leaderboard to show whose getting the most points, though people could simply tag a location they spot on the way to work.

“They don’t need to seek it out,” said Kaunisviita.

The Hackfests have provided a new wave of citizen engagement in the digital age.

“This makes people realize it’s not just about council, they can get involved too,” said Ocampo-Gooding.

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Robert Janelle

Robert Janelle

Robert Janelle is a freelance technology journalist living in the National Capital Region. He's spent time covering the Ottawa start-up scene as a columnist and feature writer with his work in National Capital Scan, The Ottawa Citizen, The Ottawa Sun, Kingston Whig-Standard and The Escapist. He also suffers from a mild addiction to video games. more

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