CodeAcross Toronto 2017

Participants gather at the University of Toronto for CodeAcross Toronto 2017

It was clear from the get-go that CodeAcross Toronto 2017 would not be your typical hackathon.

Sure, the room was chock full of coders, open data enthusiasts, civic tech organizers, policy wonks and engaged residents, but CodeAcross had something other hackathons don’t: the government.

More than 125 people came to CodeAcross to tackle eight unique challenges presented by government partners, including five provincial ministries and a City of Toronto department.

It may not seem like much, but by collaborating with the local civic tech community, these government challenge owners were doing something pretty courageous: they were acknowledging that, when it comes to technology, government doesn’t have all the answers.

“Sometimes we can be constrained by our experience,” Asher Zafar with Ontario’s Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development told the audience. “So the more you do, the better.”

“This is just as much information giving as it is information getting,” echoed Chris Pentleton with the provincial Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. “We’re here to not only do the work, but take advantage of the talent. We don’t want to do it all ourselves.”

And they certainly didn’t. As soon as Irene Quarcoo rang a bell — literally — and shouted “go forth and hack!,” the crowd chose their challenges and began hacking on them, inspired by having their your expertise and effort appreciated by public sector leaders.

In one room, Paul Vet from The Treasury Board Secretariat’s Open Government Office worked with participants to improve the province’s open data offerings, and identify data to make open in the future. The team already tracks which sets are accessed and downloaded (the most popular data set was a list of religious officials, likely being accessed by couples searching for marriage officiants) but they want to know a lot more about their users.

“What we don’t know is who are downloaders are, and we don’t know the people who aren’t downloading,” Vet said.

Next door, a group of civic hackers worked with data from the City of Toronto’s Transportation Services Division, searching for ways to leverage information about travel times on local highways — and hopefully ease congestion. The data was made available just in time for CodeAcross and city staff were incredibly excited to share it with participants.

“We want to promote how awesome this new dataset is. [CodeAcross] is an inspiring and challenging space for us to do that, because it pushes the limits of what we think is possible,” said Denis Carr with Toronto’s Open Data Team.

“We’ve never been here before, so we want to learn about new pathways,” said Jesse Coleman, head of the city’s Big Data Innovation Team, noting that it was hard to pick just one challenge to bring to CodeAcross.

At the end of the day, the challenge owners agreed that by opening up their data or their challenges, they were opening themselves to new ways of thinking and solving problems. In fact, 87 per cent of all participants, including challenge owners, said they learned something new that will significantly impact their work.

For others, the benefits of the hackathon extended far beyond volunteering their technical skills or expertise to improve public services. CodeAcross was also about catching up and collaborating with old friends, or meeting new ones. Seventy per cent of participants said they connected with someone new from a different field (this author even met a long lost cousin at CodeAcross!).

Hackathons like CodeAcross can also serve as a rung on the employment ladder. A participant at last year’s CodeAcross found a job within the Ministry of Children and Youth Services after working on its challenge, and the event is both a valuable networking opportunity and a chance for participants to work on projects with demonstrable public impact.

Some participants even saw business opportunities at CodeAcross. Jacqueline, a Senior Search Strategist at OMD Canada, was part of the team working with Toronto’s transportation data. She believed marketers and other companies could leverage that information.

“How do advertisers think about traffic patterns?” she asked. Can we tap into those markets? What would that look like?”

As exciting and energizing as the day was, the best part of CodeAcross is watching how the seeds it plants bloom in the future. Some participants are already moving their projects forward by bringing them to Civic Tech Toronto’s weekly hacknight, and challenge owners have returned to government, ready to put the new skills and ideas they encountered at CodeAcross to the test.

That’s the power of CodeAcross. One participant said it was about “tearing down the walls between the public and public service,” and by doing that, the hackathon helps solve not only the problems of today, but prepares us to tackle the problems of tomorrow.