CodeAcross Toronto 2018: An interview with organizer Alex Chen

Code for Canada co-founder and board chair Charles Finley speaks at CodeAcross Toronto 2016. Now in its third year, the civic hackathon is returning to the city in March 2018.

CodeAcross, an annual hackathon that fosters collaboration between government innovators and the civic tech community, is returning to Toronto in March 2018. The event invites governments and organizations working in the public interest to present different challenges, which CodeAcross participants tackle using the latest methods in technology, data and design!

With preparations for CodeAcross Toronto 2018 now underway, we spoke with Civic Tech Toronto’s Alex Chen. As a participant and organizer at CodeAcross, as well as a policy and planning analyst at Ontario’s Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development, Alex has a unique perspective on the impact of one our favourite hackathons!

Hi, Alex!

If you’re interested in learning more about how CodeAcross, or other civic hackathons, can help your organization engage the civic tech community and fulfill your public good goals, register for Code for Canada’s free Dec. 12 workshop today!

You’ve been both a participant and organizer at CodeAcross Toronto. Can you tell us a bit about how you first got involved with the hackathon?

Sure! The first time, back in 2015, I had just gotten out of school and didn’t have much to do. I stumbled upon CodeAcross and thought it looked really interesting. I had never been to a hackathon at that point, but I was excited to work on civic challenges using technology and maybe solve some fun issues.

That year, I worked on a challenge presented by Ontario’s Ministry of Children and Youth Services (MCYS). They gave us a bunch of data! So, we built a series of web maps using Carto that explained some of that data in a cool way that the people from the Ministry had never seen before!

So, what did that first CodeAcross experience lead to?

Well, what came out of it was me getting hired by MCYS! They were running a concurrent project called PoliHack, a series of government-led hackathons with a focus on policy. They’re the Ministry of Children and Youth Services, so they really want to engage children and youth, so why not invite them to a hackathon? We hosted two events — about 80 or 90 people came out — and worked on a multitude of interesting projects that I ended up taking some stewardship of and helped to build out a bit.

You helped to organize CodeAcross earlier this year, and will be doing it again next year. Why did you decide to return to the event as an organizer?

CodeAcross is the whole reason I ended up working in government! It was a really important event for me in terms of personal growth, and I’m incredibly thankful. So, when Gabe [Sawhney, the Executive Director of Code for Canada and a co-founder of Civic Tech Toronto] asked if I would help out organizing the event, I couldn’t say no.

I wish there more stories like mine, where people found meaningful employment or other interesting opportunities through a hackathon like CodeAcross. One of the reasons I wanted to be an organizer was to help others who were in my situation find that work and do fun stuff!

As both a former CodeAcross participant and current public servant, what’s the value you see for governments challenge owners at CodeAcross?

It’s extremely valuable. It’s one of the only times that you can get so many stakeholders in the same room and working together! It’s also one of the few times that the government gets invited to an event and can see how co-creation happens, how design thinking happens, how UX and UI happen.

That’s why CodeAcross really needs to happen. It’s one of the few times the community can show government that there are better ways of doing things!

Ontario MPP Yvan Baker (right) delivers a challenge from the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development at CodeAcross Toronto 2017.

So how do you qualify or quantify the impact of CodeAcross?

I think the impact of CodeAcross on government has been great!

A fantastic example is the Dream 2030 challenge presented by the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development this year. Participants were asked to envision the Post-Secondary Education System of 2030 and ideate on what it might look like. A lot of new ideas and techniques in strategic foresight were demonstrated and brought back into the day to day work of this policy team. The outputs of the challenge impacted the unit’s research agenda, specifically around developing policy to lessen the shocks of social and technological disruptions.

So, Ministry staff got a chance to learn new techniques and ideas that they would have not otherwise known about. Which is pretty awesome.

What advice would you have for anyone thinking about being a challenge owner at CodeAcross Toronto 2018?

My biggest piece of advice is to be there for the process, not the product. When it comes to the work being done on the ground at CodeAcross, the value isn’t necessarily just about what gets produced, but really about having government challenge owners go through the entire process. If you can come away from CodeAcross thinking about a better way to do your ‘day to day’ work, I think that’s a success.

So, come for the energy, come for the fun, come for the fact that maybe you’ll get something really cool built. But also come for a different perspective, to see how work gets done outside the halls of government!

What are your goals for CodeAcross, both for next year and in the future?

For next year, I’m just looking to enjoy the event. I’ve heard some of the challenge ideas already, and they sound amazing!

But when I look into the future, I want to see a CodeAcross event celebrating Open Data Day in every major city in Canada, as well as the U.S., all happening at the same time!

CodeAcross Toronto 2018 will coincide with International Open Data Day. Code for Canada, in collaboration with the Ontario Public Service Policy Innovation Hub and Open Government teams, is hosting a free workshop on Dec. 12, 2017 for people and organizations interested in participating as a challenge owner.