How tech-savvy Torontonians are building a better city with code.
It’s Friday night and nearly 100 technologists trickle into the Myplanet Offices on Adelaide St. East. Armed with laptops and expert coding skills, they wait for their hosts to announce the challenge. Mohit Kishore, a York University computer science student, is there with his four other teammates. They’ve done coding competitions before, but this weekend they’ll face their biggest challenge yet.
In the first ever Cross Border Hackathon, participants in Toronto and Chicago are tasked with creating an app that helps facilitate international trade for small businesses. “We didn’t know what to expect,” says Kishore, “but how hard could it be?” he thought before settling into the three-day hackathon.
Hack events represent an integral part of Toronto’s growing civic tech community. And while they aren’t exactly a new phenomenon in Toronto, they’re becoming an increasingly popular venue for finding ways to enhance how people interact with their city.
For years, disparate groups across Toronto have been holding one-off coding events, like the Cross Border Hackathon, where technologists, designers, urban planners, journalists, and any interested citizen get together to solve civic problems using technology.
Last summer, out of a desire to streamline this work, some members of the community started Civic Tech Toronto. The group holds regular hacknights every Tuesday, where members break into teams and work on long-term projects. “What brings everyone out is this idea that we love the city, but we recognize that Toronto has some problems,” says Gabe Sawhney, an organizer for Civic Tech Toronto. “We’re really interested in using our skills to make the city better.”
There are myriad ways Civic Tech Toronto members are working towards that: One group is developing a digital service that helps connect new refugees to resources they may need. Another one is creating a resource to help citizens better understand development applications in their neighbourhoods and across the city, and offer ways to provide input on those applications. And another team is designing technology to help people interpret the Toronto budget, and figure out how to engage productively with, and have a stronger voice in, the budget process.
In order for many of these ideas to come to life, government participation is key—and some councillors, finally, are catching on to the value of civic tech. Last week, Paul Ainslie (Ward 43, Scarborough East) passed a motion to improve the city’s open data policy. Among his 20 recommendations were:
- Allocate funds to support community open data and civic tech initiatives 1
- Create a dedicated civic tech advocate
- Appoint a staff member as the “open data champion”
- Include the name and contact information for the maintainer of each dataset
- Ensure datasets are posted as open data before they are used for city-built apps or websites
- Make community outreach and event participation part of the job description for staff involved with open data and open government
- Create an advisory board for open data
- Implement an “open by default” standard for all government data, similar to what the province has promised
The motion follows a report released earlier this month by Civic Tech Toronto and Urban+Digital, a nonprofit that stewards Civic Tech Toronto, requesting stronger government participation in civic tech through more, and better, open data.
Sawhney points out that open data not only bolsters transparency in government, but can save the city time and money. “Government does a lot of great work, but there are certain things the government isn’t awesome at,” Sawhney says referring to the limited tech literacy among councillors and staff. “And there are a lot of citizens who really are awesome at it and are willing to put up their time, and who get a lot of satisfaction out of contributing in that way.”
For example, the city’s new webapp PlowTO lets residents track snow removal across the city, but citizens don’t have access to the data it uses. To compare, Chicago has a similar app called ClearStreets, but since its data is open to the public, it was built by a private developer at no expense to the city.
“Government has a really complex relationship with technology,” says Sawhney. “They’re not very good at it, and they’re maybe afraid of it, so there’s a lot of stuff that has to happen in order to change that relationship,” he says, adding that, luckily, there are other cities in the U.S. and Europe whose governments have strong civic tech sectors for Toronto to emulate.
New York City, for example, has Civic Hall, a work and event space for the civic tech community to meet and develop projects aimed at improving the city and urban experience. It’s a model Toronto City Council is considering adopting, and the government management committee has asked staff to explore the idea and have a report ready in June.
Amanda Galbraith, a spokesperson for John Tory, reiterates that City divisions are already looking to the civic tech community to help tackle problems. The City’s Transportation Committee held a hackathon last fall to look at congestion data and identify hotspots, and Municipal Licensing and Standards is working with groups through MARS to develop regulations related to the sharing economy.
Galbraith told Torontoist by email: “At the Mayor’s Working Group on Innovation this month, we asked for ideas for how best to harness civic tech community and make sure their ideas and results turn into long term solutions for Toronto.” She also notes that Tory will visit with San Francisco’s Mayor’s Office of Civic Innovation when he’s there in April to gather tips on how to foster a strong civic tech community that works productively with government.
Along with San Francisco and NYC, another city championing the gold standard of civic tech is Chicago—it’s where Civic Tech Toronto got the idea for Tuesday hacknights, which Sawhney says “have been the real anchor for a strong civic tech community in the city.”
While Toronto is making strides in civic tech, it still has a ways to go. On Sunday afternoon, exhausted after three full days of designing and developing a completed app, Kishore and his team were eliminated from the Cross Border Hackathon. Their end product—an app that connects customer brokers with small businesses, accessible using both Microsoft Azure and IBM Blumix—got them to the top three Toronto teams, but they missed out on a winning spot, two of which went to Chicago teams, and one to Toronto. “I’m very happy with how we did,” says Kishore. “We had a great idea, and we’re going to keep pursuing it.”
One thing is for certain, that won’t be his last hackathon, says Kishore. His next may be as soon as Open Data Day on March 5. Civic Tech Toronto is marking the day by hosting its first hackathon, Code Across Toronto, which Sawhney describes as a scaled up version of hacknights. The event will bring together private and non-profit organizations and government folks who all have specific problems they need solved. Participants will form teams and select a challenge and will have one day only to figure out a solution. “What I’m really hoping happens, besides actually solving those challenges, is that people meet each other and want to continue working on some of those projects or with some of those organizations through the hacknights on Tuesdays. That’s what it’s about,” Sawhney adds, “building relationships and building empathy and understanding perspectives in other fields so that we can all use our strengths collaboratively to address those problems.”