Hacking the Future of Work: A Recap of CodeAcross Toronto 2018

At this year’s CodeAcross Toronto, civic hackers, public servants and engaged residents came together to tackle one of Canada’s great unknowns: the future of work.

By Aaron Wytze Wilson

Participants at this year’s CodeAcross Toronto. photo: Civic Tech Toronto.

Reading about the future of work in Canada can be scary. We see news about the forces of globalization moving jobs overseas. We read about advances in automation that will replace much of today’s labour force.

We hear about it on news shows like TVO’s The Agenda. “We have to wrap our heads around the notion, that whereas today we may have two thirds of the labour force participating in work, we may see a future in 20 years where only 30 percent of people work,” said host Steve Paikin in a special episode about the future of work. “In which case, what do the rest of us 70 percent, do?”

Last Saturday, on a cold and windy weekend morning, 100 people gathered at the Toronto Reference Library to not only think about these issues, but also to do something about them. Civic Tech Toronto’s annual Code Across hackathon brought together coders, public servants, residents, and advocates to tackle real challenges brought forward by government and community partners — all focused on the future of work.

Now in its third year, tickets for CodeAcross Toronto 2018 sold out in less than two weeks.

“This is our first time having three levels of government, civil society, and the private sector in one room, for one cause.”

“It’s absolutely insane to see so many people here at the Toronto Reference Library on a Saturday,” said Anowa Quarcoo, a Civic Tech Toronto co-founder and the emcee for the event. “But what I’m really excited about today is, this is our first time having three levels of government, civil society, and the private sector in one room, for one cause.”

Co-creation between public servants and civil society has become a staple of Civic Tech Toronto hackathons. This year, CodeAcross invited eight organizations to present challenges for participants to work on. Some of the 2018 challenge owners included the City of Toronto’s open data team, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, Toronto Public Library, the Toronto District School Board, and the Ontario Cabinet Office.

Brendon Foster (standing center-right) discusses the Toronto Public Library’s hackathon challenge with participants. Photo: Civic Tech Toronto

“This is my first civic tech event. I’m a lawyer by trade, and this is all super foreign to me, and I’m borderline illiterate in data” said Ian Moss from the the Cabinet Office as he presented his challenge.

“With all that being said, we’re curious about how global migration, climate change, and changes in social behaviour [could] impact the kind of work we do, and the kinds of jobs we have in certain sectors. Hopefully someone might have a thing to create,” he added.

As the hackathon got underway, challenge owners and hackathon participants spread out poster paper on library tables, circulated pens and sticky notes, and cracked open their laptops. For many challenge owners, this was a unique opportunity to brainstorm with a diverse group of coders, designers, and civil society representatives.

“Having this kind of fertile discussion helps you to get an idea of how you can frame a problem in ways you may have never thought about.”

“It was great, we had 10 very engaged people, they all had good ideas and came from different backgrounds. Having this kind of fertile discussion helps you to get an idea of how you can frame a problem in ways you may have never thought about,” said Brendon Foster with the Toronto Public Library.

That message was echoed by CodeAcross Toronto’s keynote speaker, Ontario’s Chief Digital Officer Hillary Hartley.

Ontario’s Chief Digital Officer Hillary Hartley making opening remarks at Code Across Toronto 2018. Photo: Civic Tech Toronto

“I think the beauty of these events is you bring together people with a breadth of skills, and you get people with focused interests and passion. Setting those minds together on an issue like this is really powerful,” Hartley said. “The future of work is something the public services needs to wrestle with, and we need to partner with folks outside of government.”

After a full day of hacking, hackathon participants reported back on the progress they made on their challenges. Ian Moss from the Ontario Cabinet Office worked with civic hackers to build a data visualization tool about migration in Canada.

Moss was joined by Raymond Ang, a local computer security expert.

“We wanted to give a policy analyst a very simple tool that they could run data through. A lot of the times the data [on migration] isn’t in an easy to understand format. They could show decision makers at the Ministry the information in a much easier to understand format, and hopefully that would lead to more efficient decision-making,” said Ang.

The City of Toronto’s open data team challenged hackathon participants to think about third-party data sharing (e.g. community generated data, or data generated by businesses) on the City of Toronto’s open data portal. When it came to present their results, they discussed an unexpected outcome from their hack session: a white paper. Participants put forward their ideas on what a third-party data agreement might look like, and Civic Tech Toronto member Alex Chen compiled the feedback into a report.

“The idea is to bring this back to the Civic Tech Toronto team and start digitizing these ideas, and start making it so it’s a permanent thing, so it has a lasting effect,” said Chen. “We don’t want this conversation we had today with government to be a one-off thing.”

“This mentality that people bring to hackathons… We need that in government.”

At the end of the day, many hackathon participants came away not only with new ideas about how to tackle problems surrounding the future of work, but also what kind of solutions are possible when members of the government, industry, and civil society co-operate and co-create.

Employment will become more precarious in the next decade, and Canadians are anxious about what lies ahead. But the cross-sectoral collaboration seen at this year’s CodeAcross should give government food for thought on how to plan ahead, and how they can work together with Canadians to lay a roadmap for the future.

“This mentality that people bring to hackathons… We need that in government,” Hartley said.