The world-wide Open Data Hackfest

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.

100 Gigabit network connects researchers even faster

Canada’s Advanced Research and Innovation Network (CANARIE) now has an ultra-fast lane on their network, thanks to a collaboration with Ciena to get a 100 gigabit network up and running some powerful applications.

CANARIE, which connects many research institutions including government, university, hospital and other labs, can now collaborate on even more complex undertakings thanks to the faster network.

With the ability to stream live, uncompressed high-definition video, doctors can better connect with medical students and patients while allowing better imagery for collaboration as well.

Meanwhile, the ability to transmit even larger amounts of data than before will assist the Canadian Brain Imaging Research Network (CBRAIN) to access, process and analyze brain imaging and mapping data.

“Our demonstration with Ciena showcases the value of our technology investments and 100G capabilities, as it proves CANARIE’s network to be a flexible platform supporting researchers, educators and innovators across Canada working to improve our health, our economy, our environment and our future,” said Jim Roche, president and CEO of CANARIE in a press release.

“More importantly, the actual applications demonstrated over the live network help move the industry conversation beyond simply building faster networks to how that bandwidth can be utilized – through applications in healthcare, as demonstrated today, but also in applications exploring everything from carbon-free computing to new energy sources, from easing traffic congestion to better managing our ocean resources.”

The technology behind the 100 gigabit network was developed by Ciena, who recently bought Nortel’s Metro Ethernet Network.

“Today’s demonstration not only underscores our continued market leadership in 100G technology, but also extends our long history of collaboration and deployments with research and education customers who are at the forefront of advanced technology adoption,” said Philippe Morin, senior vice president, global products group at Ciena in the press release.

“Beyond needing to push more traffic to smartphones or stream online videos, our work with CANARIE highlights the capabilities of its 100G-ready network and the real impact high-capacity networking can have on improving research collaboration to accelerate discoveries in science, medicine, education, renewable energy and other disciplines.”

GTEC 2010: Why aren't wireless routers secured by default?

Canadian Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddard wants to know why wireless routers are not secure by default.

Many people purchase a wireless router, plug it in then simply connect their computer to the one called Linksys with virtually no security. This leaves the router available for anyone to use, particularly those who might have malicious intentions.

Or users do secure their router but use an outdated and easily cracked security protocol like WEP.

Speaking at a GTEC keynote, Stoddard said manufacturers should include a setup process that “takes users through a series of steps to make sure their home network is secure.”

This is just one of many privacy concerns that have emerged in the digital age leading the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada to start work on reports which will recommend updates to Canadian privacy laws.

Another issue affecting both the private and public sector: secure transactions.

Stoddard suggested that e-government and e-commerce transactions should be set up so that they only take place over secured devices.

“Every chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” she said, noting that the best security practices by public and private organizations fall apart when used by someone with no firewall or virus protection.

There are many other issues that suggest privacy laws need updating, including newer genetic and biometric technology and identity protection.

While Stoddard said the Government of Canada should create the model for privacy laws, it must work with the private sector in order to generate a shared vision of privacy.

“We can’t do it alone,” she said.

In the meantime, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner has been working to encourage tech companies like Google and Facebook to consider privacy first, rather than trying to clean up a mess after the fact – like Google’s much maligned launch of Buzz which inadvertently made Gmail users’ contacts public.

“Think of privacy before you launch a service,” she said.

Start-up lessons from serial entrepreneur Mark Ruddock

Years ago, entrepreneur Mark Ruddock was sitting in his start-up’s server room feeling depressed.

It was 5:30 a.m. and the start-up’s launch client had delayed the next phase.

Never mind that it wasn’t really a server room.

“It was a bunch of Ikea tables with desktops stacked on them,” said Ruddock, speaking at the Ontario Venture Summit.

However, things were about to change.

When Ruddock checked his voice mail, there was a message from a contact at a large firm requesting a meeting.

Ruddock met with the contact, presented his idea but stated that he’d need $1 million to get it going. The contact agreed and arranged for the initial payment.

“48 hours from despair to a million dollars,” said Ruddock.

The former CEO of Viigo (acquired by Research in Motion) and INEA (acquired by Cartesis Group) outlined for the audience what it takes to build a successful start-up.

“You need to take an idea that is not yet grounded in reality, convince someone to fund it, then convince the best and brightest to follow along,” he said.

Which moves to the point about the team: “Always surround yourself with a great team,” said Ruddock. “Never be the smartest person in the room.”

Ruddock also advises start-up founders to keep focus.

“Listen to the customers and data,” he said. “Make clear decisions about where you want to go.”

And while Ruddock said it’s important to be passionate about one’s product, it’s especially important to pay attention to those customers.

“They will guide you with product insight.”

If the end-game of the start is an exit, remember that you’re building something that needs to be irresistible to someone else.

“You need to be strategically important enough for someone to buy you.”

Venture capital can certainly be important in growing a start-up, Ruddock said that choosing VC’s is also important. Select partners for value, but don’t give up too much leverage, since you’ll want to have your own hand in negotiations in a possible exit.

“Get it, grow it, keep it,” said Ruddock.

More Canadians shopping online, but spending less: StatsCan

Statistics Canada release a report today that shows an increase in online spending in Canada.

In 2009, Canadians spent $15.1 billion dollars purchasing goods and services online, up from $12.8 billion in 2007.

The agency attributes the increase to more online shoppers and more orders.

The report, commissioned by Industry Canada, also found that 51 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 16 and 24 purchased a product online in 2009.

However, the average value of orders placed online decreased to $158 from $183 in 2007.

The report also notes that more people shopping online is not necessarily bad news for traditional retailers. According to the numbers, 52 per cent of Canadians spent time researching products online or "window shopping," up from 43 per cent in 2007.

Among them, 69 per cent reported they later purchased the product they were researching from a store.

The most popular items for purchasing online remained travel services, concert tickets, books and magazine, as well as clothing, jewellery and accessories.

Arcade Fire and Google create interactive and personalized music video

Montreal band The Arcade Fire and Google have teamed to create a personalized and interactive music video experience using Google Chrome and HTML5.

Now, before continuing there's one thing I feel I should get out of the way: this project is best experienced, rather than read about in a blog post. 

So, I think you should fire up Chrome, head over The Wilderness Downtown and enjoy. Then come back.

At the outset, the site asks you to enter the name of the street you grew up on.

Set to the song, We Used To Wait off The Arcade Fire's latest album The Suburbs, several synchronized browser windows that each play a different part of the video, including animated birds that react to the mouse cursor.

The personalization aspect of the experience comes in courtesy of Google Maps and Street View, which are used to bring scenes from the street the user grew up on into the video.

Bit of animation are even added on top of these images.

Part of the movie brings up an HTML5-coded paint program and invites the viewer (is viewer even the right term for this kind of undertaking?) to write a postcard to their younger self living on that street.

At the end, you are given the option to submit the postcard you created, which may be used in visual for The Arcade Fire's upcoming tour or possibly put on an "analog postcard," and sent to someone else has submitted their postcard, who will then have the option to reply.

First off, this really shows off the power of HTML5 as serious competition to Adobe's Flash platform, which would normally have been used for this kind of undertaking.

But more importantly, everyone involved in the project including director Chris Milk have really taken the static music video to a whole new level.

I expect we'll be seeing more like it in the future, but sadly, many probably not as well-done as this particular experience.

Lots of telecom complaints in Canada, but who you gonna call?

It always seems to take longer for new wireless products to show up in Canada.

Rogers is lowering bandwidth caps. And Bell is throttling wholesale purchasers of their bandwidth.

There's plenty to complain about when it comes to telecommunication service in Canada, but what can you do?

As it turns out, there is someone to call: The Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services.

University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist notes in a recent column that although there is someone to turn to, it seems few Canadians are aware of the commissioner's existence.

The column also looks at the future of the position, noting that Bell is against it while other telecom providers are skeptical.

NDP critisizes Google-Verizon deal

Earlier this week, Google shocked the tech community by signing a compromise deal with Verizon acknowledging that net neutrality rules should not apply to wireless networks.

Well, the issue has hit Parliament Hill in Canada where the New Democratic party has come out against this compromise. calling on the Canadian Radio-Television Communications Commission to "lay down clear rules to ensure equality of access to all information on the Internet for all Canadians," in a press release

“We don’t support any side deals to carve up the wired and wireless world. Historically, Google has been a big ally in the fight to protect net neutrality,” said NDP Digital Issues Critic Charlie Angus in the release. “But this deal is the wrong deal at the wrong time in the history of the internet. We are calling on the CRTC to ensure fair access for all content in the digital world.”

Angus went on to say that the deal opens up too many loopholes that would allow "wireless and emerging services to be fast-tracked and prioritised to suit corporate interests."

Google Waves goodbye to Google Wave

For all the hype and technology press proclamations that it would kill off e-mail, IM, Twitter and everything else that anything new is supposed to destroy, Google announced today that the company is shutting down Google Wave.

 Launched almost a year ago, Wave was a new kind of Internet communication that could be viewed in different ways.

It was real-time e-mail, where users could watch someone typing a letter to them live. Or it was a really advanced chat room client where images and other files could be shown live to anyone in the chat. Or, if enough people joined a single “wave,” it was like Twitter with the aforementioned features.

This confusion over what exactly Google Wave was for may have contributed to the company’s shuttering of the app.

In an official blog post, Google Senior Vice President of Operations Urs Hölzle wrote that despite many loyal users, “Wave has not seen the user adoption we would have liked.”

As a result, development on Wave will not continue, though the service will still be active until the end of the year.

However, Hölzle also wrote that the team will work on tools for users to “liberate” the content they’ve already placed in Wave.

There was a massive amount of hype generated when the service was announced at Google I/O last year. The hype was compounded when Wave launched a private beta, requiring invites from other Wave users in order to try the app.

This led to a rush for beta invites that hadn’t been seen since Google launched a private beta of Gmail in 2004.

I too found myself caught up in the hype, panhandling across the Internet for an invite. I still remember my excitement when an invite finally landed in my inbox.

That said, the excitement didn’t last long.

Once I registered for Wave and was presented with the interface I pretty much stared at it and said, “Now what?”

Wave was built as a collaborative communications system which wasn’t particularly useful when no one else I knew could use it.

It was two weeks before I could send out my own invites and by then, everybody had one but the hype had mostly died down.

Within two months, I hardly saw the service mentioned anywhere.

Google Wave certainly was a neat idea and quite innovative. Unfortunately, like many other innovative products, it was a solution to a problem not many people had.

Oh, and if you are looking for a possible replacement for Wave, check out PyGoWave, an open-source alternative to Wave.

OpenMedia.ca calls for government action against Rogers' lower bandwidth caps

A week ago Netflix, the California-based video rental company announced that they'd be launching their streaming Internet service in Canada this fall.

Within days of the announcement, Rogers Communications suddenly lowered the monthly bandwidth caps on the company's cable Internet service.

OpenMedia.ca, an organization dedicated to advancing and support open and innovative communications systems in Canada, says this is no coincidence and is calling for the government to mandate audits of Internet Service Provider behaviour.

In a press release, the organization notes that Rogers offers competing services that would not be affected by the new bandwidth limits.

“Rogers should not be in a position to decide which online business models are winners and losers. We need to remove the gatekeepers of online innovation through appropriate oversight and Internet service competition. Canada already lags behind other countries on key Internet metrics and this anti-competitive act could push us further to the back of the pack," said Steve Anderson, national coordinator of OpenMedia.ca and the SaveOurNet coalition in the release.

The press release goes on to say that "these new caps push Canada towards an anti-competitive version of the internet."

OpenMedia.ca points to the "Take Action!" page of SaveOurNet.ca, which provides a contact form for sending an e-mail supporting net neutrality to Industry Minister Tony Clement and party leaders.

CRTC launches new consultation on basic services

The Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission has launched a new public consultation on basic telecommunications services.

The Consultation on Obligation to Serve aims to find out what Canadians think should be included in "basic telephone service" and what role, if any, the CRTC should play in ensuring those services are available.

More than 10 years ago, the CRTC worked with an objective to bring basic land line service, dial-up Internet access, long distance network access, enhanced calling features and telephone directory access to 99 per cent of Canadians.

However, times have changed. Increasingly, Canadians are ditching land-lines and going to wireless phone service only. Wireless Internet access is also becoming more important.

In order to update those earlier objectives, the CRTC is asking Canadians to submit their comments on a series of questions.

Deadline for the submissions is August 10th. Anyone wishing to participate can answer the questionnaire here.

Below is a video produced by the CRTC that provides additional information on the consultation:

New copyright bill introduced by Conservatives

The Conservative Government introduced Bill C-32 to amend the Copyright Act yesterday, which will keep many consumer behaviours legal,  but will make it illegal to crack digital rights management in any way.

The copyright amendment makes it clear that format shifting (ripping CDs to an iPod, for example,) is perfectly legal, as is making back-up copies of media for personal use.

But, and there’s a big but, if there’s any kind of DRM in the way, then circumventing that protection is illegal.

 The only exception to circumventing “digital locks,” is unlocking a cellphone in order to use it with another wireless provider.

On the anti-piracy side, the bill requires Internet service providers to notify users who are suspecting of downloading media illegally and to keep personal information on those users should it be requested by the copyright holder.

However, the bill also reduces to maximum fine for illegal downloading for personal use to $5000 from $20,000.

“Fair Dealing” has also been expanded to include using copyrighted material for the purpose of parody and education. There’s also a user generated content or “YouTube exception,” keeping the creation of mash-up videos legal as long as they are for non-commercial purposes.

Taking his blog, University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist called the bill “Flawed but fixable,” calling for more exceptions for circumventing DRM.

Geist provides a detailed analysis on his blog, as well as re-launching Speak Out on Copyright.

This is the second time the Conservatives have attempted to pass Copyright Act amendments. The party had previously tabled a bill in 2008 that died when an election was called a few months later.

Should Canadian start-ups consider moving to Silicon Valley?

Three weeks ago, Katherine Barr, partner with MDV-Mohr Davidow Ventures was in a Silicon Valley coffee shop. There she overheard a couple of entrepreneurs discussing their start-up and became intrigued.

Before leaving, she handed them her card and suggested they give her a call about funding.

Discussing a start-up idea within earshot of a venture capitalist is the kind of serendipity that seems to only happen down south in the Valley.

Barr, a Canadian expat, related this anecdote as part of a panel discussion on C100 at the Canadian Venture Capital Association Annual Conference.

C100 is a group of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and other technology workers helping Canadians and Canadian expats in Silicon Valley.

For example, the ground recently hosted 20 Canadian-based start-ups with 48 Hours in the Valley to provide mentoring and give the companies an opportunity to pitch to potential investors.

Barr related her coffee shop story as the panel discussed whether Canadian start-ups need to head out to California in search of capital and customers.

Matthew Clark, senior director of strategic and emerging business team for Microsoft, noted that he’d never heard a Canadian entrepreneur complain about moving to California.

“Many feel compelled to go the Valley,” he said, to “move to where the VCs are.”

However, Shaherose Charania, a former Calgarian now living in the Valley pointed out that the cost of living is much cheaper in Canada, drastically lowering operating costs.

“If you’re that good, the VCs will come to you,” said Robert Simon of Arriva Ventures.

But beyond just venture capital, there are other advantages to setting up shop in The Valley.

Start-up incubators, mentors and the emergence of “Super Angel” investors.

While these advantages are beginning to take root in Canada, it is still nowhere near the degree that they exist in California according to the panellists.

Simon suggested a compromise: Some companies keep their development team in Canada and set up their marketing division in California, a compromise that he said has been successful for some.

As far as venture capitalists forcing a Canadian company they’ve agreed to fund to move south of the border, Angela Strange (whose travel guide start-up was recently acquired by Google) said that the VC  business can be just as competitive as the start-up business.

“If you find an A+ start-up, you don’t want to rock the boat and say ‘You need to move!’”

Chris Albinson, another expat Canuck who does enjoy calling Silicon Valley home, would like to see the situation in Canada improve and worries especially about Ottawa, formerly considered “Sillicon Valley North” before the great tech bubble burst at the turn of the millennium.

“Now that Nortel is no more, there’s maybe four to five years before Ottawa loses its muscle memory,” he said. “Talented engineers will start leaving.”

But, he also said he thinks fears of “brain drains” are over stated.

He explained that other countries like Mexico and Israel consider their expats to be assets, rather than losses.

“Don’t worry about brain drain,” he said. “Worry about brain flow.”

Is Google Street View journalism?

When Google sent their camera-equipped Street View car to cruise Canadian cities in early 2009, the drive down city streets became awfully controversial.

As the car-mounted camera snapped pictures of the streets, capturing not only the landscape but the people who were around at the time, there was much debate about privacy rights in the media, among the public and within the government.

Concern was that these photos ran afoul of the Personal Information and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA.)

PIPEDA governs the collection and use and distribution of personal data by private sector corporations.

It is this context that University of Ottawa Information Law Research Chair Teresa Scassa asked the question: "Is Google Street View journalism?"

Speaking on a panel at the uOttawa Centre for Law, Technology and Society launch, Scassa acknowledge that it may seem like a silly question at first.

However, when considering that PIPEDA contains an exception for "journalistic purposes," the question becomes more interesting.

Were Google Street View to be declared journalism, any privacy issues, at least as far as the law is concerned, go away.

In December 2009, the Supreme Court of Canada established a new defamation defence protecting individuals from defemation lawsuits if they pass a "reasonable journalism" test.

That said, the court extended the coverage of this defense beyond traditional media to new media practitioners like bloggers.

As Google Street View can be embedded in these new media sites, it could fall into the definition laid out by the Supereme Court.

The question becomes more interesting when you consider the province of Quebec.

Quebec's privacy laws do not have an exception for "journalistic purposes." Instead, the exception is for "legitimately informing the public."

Under those rules, it's difficult to argue that Google Street View doesn't qualify.

In fact, several attendees of the Centre for Law, Technology and Society used Google Street View to find the venue.


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