The federal government is backing an open data event, but let's not pretend it loves data


The federal government would like you to believe it values data. This weekend, the Conservatives are backing a 48-hour open data hackathon in which hundreds of young developers from across the country will compete for a $25,000 prize. The challenge: Create an app that uses publicly available government stats, such as immigration numbers.

The competition, coined the Canadian Open Data Experience, begins Friday at 5 p.m. On the government side, Treasury Board President Tony Clement has taken the lead, while companies like OpenText (which is bankrolling first prize), Google, IBM and XMG Studio are also involved. As for the venue, that’s being provided by OneEleven, a downtown space shared by data-driven entrepreneurs.

Bilal Khan, managing director of OneEleven, expects 120 developers (split into teams of four) will pack its loft over the weekend, while others will work remotely. OneEleven’s space contrasts with the white-collar façade of the downtown Toronto tower in which it’s located. On the fifth floor, walls are few and far between; those that remain are left largely exposed and concrete, as if the office were in an old warehouse on the edge of town (where many young startups often end up for financial reasons). And, of course, there isn’t a cubicle in sight.

The weekend’s attendees will bring their own laptops to code, but snacks will be provided. They can sleep if they want—but many will want that $25,000 even more. In some ways, events like these have been filling a gap that many see existing in traditional academia. A recent coding bootcamp in Vancouver, #HTML500, was so popular that more than 800 people were left on the waiting list (while another 500 got in). “Traditional academic institutions need to evolve,” Khan says, although he sympathizes with them; structural hurdles and legacies make it difficult for schools to “keep pace.”

One might wonder what the federal government’s excuse is, however. While the funder of this weekend’s event no doubt wishes to send a message that it values open data, its track record tells quite a different story. If the Conservative government does indeed love open data, why did it slash Statistics Canada funding and eliminate the mandatory census? The data from its replacement, the voluntary National Household Survey, is “garbage” according to some researchers. For his part, Khan won’t comment on politics. What he will say is that data is valuable for both democratic and commercial reasons. This weekend, the government appears to agree. But weekend events are cheap. Good national stats, less so.