On August 9, government innovators and civic tech leaders from across the country gathered in Toronto for the first ever Code for Canada Showcase. The theme of the event was ‘delivering civic tech in Canada,’ and it was a chance to celebrate and demonstrate how Code for Canada, as well as committed public servants, grassroots civic tech organizers and civic entrepreneurs are using technology and design to make life better for Canadians.
The showcase was an incredible moment for our inaugural fellows and their government partners, who got to demo the digital services they built in front of a packed house of over 150 people. It was also an important milestone in Code for Canada’s mission to celebrate and support Canadian civic tech.
“Civic tech is here,” remarked Code for Canada co-founder, board chair and showcase emcee Charles Finley. “Civic tech gives us the capacity to build ‘with’ not ‘for,’ and it helps create a more resilient society. And we can build it together.”
The highlight of the showcase was watching the inaugural Code for Canada fellows join their government partners on stage to tell their stories of digital government transformation.
In many ways, the real work of the showcase started 10 months ago, when our first cohort of fellows began working with the Government of Ontario and the Government of Canada to revamp online services. The fellows have since worked tirelessly to understand their users, build tools to help them access public services, and iterate their way to success.
“Change is possible when people come together, put aside their differences and put users first.”
— Farzad Sedghipour
Veterans Affairs Canada
On stage, Daniel Tse of the federal team was joined by Farzad Sedghipour of Veterans’ Affairs Canada (VAC). Dan and his teammates — Code for Canada fellows Raluca Ene and Leon Lukashevsky — were presented with a complex task at VAC: build a simple online tool that would enable veterans to easily identify and access the public benefits available to them, from medical and mental health support to career counselling. Veterans and VAC staff told the fellows the current system was complicated and confusing, making it difficult for veterans to understand which benefits they were eligible for.
The team worked closely with front line staff at VAC to learn how they described and explained benefits to veterans, and then incorporated those plain language descriptions into their new tool. They also provided veterans with a number of easy to use features — including the ability to save benefits for future reference, or print out the results of their searches — designed to provide a more seamless transition between VAC’s online and offline services.
Sedghipour noted that the fellowship project is an example of how VAC is committed to modernizing service delivery in order to better serve the people who have served their country.
“Five years ago … if you came to me and told me I’d be working with a federal department doing transformative service design and UX-led work I would have totally not believed you,” he said. “The fact that I’m standing right here speaks to how far we’ve come and how much promise there is in the work we’re doing to make civic change and impacts happen for Canadians.”
“Working with the fellows has inspired us to embrace more agile and user-centred approaches to the way we tackle policy and program challenges beyond just the digital solution.”
— Lisa Bifano
Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges & Universities
Next, Christine Lee of the Ontario team and Lisa Bifano of the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities shared their work streamlining online education resources for adult learners. The province of Ontario offers dozens of training, language learning and skill upgrading opportunities, but it can be difficult to navigate all these choices. So, Christine — along with her fellow fellows Sophie Sengmany and Santiago Mendoza — helped make the experience more intuitive and user-centred. They adopted plain language and built a matchmaker tool to enable learners to find relevant programs and schools by answering a few simple questions about their situation.
The fellows also made it easy for prospective learners to see whether “wraparound” services — things like childcare, evening classes, transit fares or access to broadband internet — are available a given program or educational venue. This information was not readily available online before, but user research revealed it was a crucial piece that gave learners the confidence to register for further education or training.
As the presentation came to a close, Bifano shared how working alongside the Code for Canada fellows has led to innovation and improvement beyond just the digital product.
“This work has really allowed us to embrace uncertainty, and think big. We’ve realized it’s okay to uncover solutions iteratively. A product does not need to be defined at the start, but engagement with users should,” she said. “And by demonstrating what’s possible, we’re able to gain confidence and momentum from our Ministry partners.”
The impact of working collaboratively and building with not for residents was also on display during a series of lightning talks that opened the showcase.
Dr. Jules Maitland shared some of the remarkable projects Civic Tech Fredericton has been able to deliver since forming last year, including a flood monitoring app built using provincial open data.
“That’s the beauty of civic tech. Solutions don’t need to be profitable, they just need to do good.”
— Dr. Jules Maitland
Peter Watkins shared the story of the BC Developers’ Exchange, a micro-procurement platform that lets developers bid on and code small government software contracts — all via Github!
“We were looking for a way to speed up the rate of change and improvement and innovation in government services.”
— Peter Watkins
Nasma Ahmed, founder of the Digital Justice Lab, challenged the audience to think critically about how new technologies, especially the ones they’re responsible for building, can affect marginalized and racialized residents.
“Technology is built by a certain group of people, and governed by a certain group of people … with privilege and power.”
— Nasma Ahmed
Colleen Hardwick, CEO of PlaceSpeak, shared her experience as a civic tech entrepreneur, and called on all levels of government to support the country’s growing commercial civic tech sector.
“If we had given up on trying to deal with government from a procurement standpoint, I wouldn’t be standing here now.”
— Colleen Hardwick
And Stephanie Yong, Smart Cities Challenge Lead at the City of Saskatoon, shared how the city is using a human-centred design approach to break the cycle of Indigenous youth incarceration.
“The innovation is in the process.”
— Stephanie Yong
Firstly, we’d like to thank everyone who attended the inaugural Code for Canada Showcase! As our Executive Director, Gabe Sawhney, remarked during his address, “so many of my favourite people are in the room right now.”
We also owe a heartfelt Code for Canada thank you to the partners who helped make the showcase possible, including our host Oliver Wyman, our lead partners at Shopify and Normative, and NATIONAL Public Relations for helping us share our civic tech story.
With a second cohort of fellows on the way, and more and more incredible civic tech work being done in Canada — both inside and outside of government — we’re already excited for next year’s showcase.
We’ll see you there!