Hacking civic engagement: a Code Across Toronto challenge

Posted by Gabriel Couture on March 11, 2016

I recently joined Hackworks as a Hackathon Manager, and moved from Montreal to Toronto. In order to familiarize myself with the Toronto hackathon community, I decided to participate in as many local hackathons as I could attend.

Participating in local hackathons is always a good way to meet new people, and having experience as a participant in a hackathon can be incredibly valuable when organizing one. With that in mind, I participated in Code Across Toronto 2016, an event organized by Civic Tech Toronto, in conjunction with Open Data Day, which gathers “citizens in cities around the world to write applications, liberate data, create visualizations and publish analyses using open public data to show support for and encourage the adoption of open data policies by the world's local, regional and national governments.”

Code Across Toronto 2016:

Civic Tech Toronto is “a community of Torontonians interested in better understanding and finding solutions to civic challenges through technology, design or other means.” Participating in Code Across was a great way for me to engage with the local tech and civic-conscious community. The hackathon consisted of 9 challenges that were presented by different individuals and/or organizations in the city (“Challenge owners”).

I joined a challenge that wants to build a digital tool for Toronto citizens to track and understand what takes place in their city council:

  • the legislation introduced and passed
  • its committees and the meetings they hold
  • the councillors
  • And more

Shamefully, I must admit to barely following municipal politics. This seemed like a way for me to join in creating something that would help me address this situation.

The “Challenge Owners,” David J Hains, editor at Torontoist, and Patrick Connoly, introduced two platforms that are currently serving the needs of citizens who want to stay informed about municipal politics: TMMIS for Toronto, and Councilmatic, which services New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. I was unaware such services existed. It turns out there are tons of available openly accessible public data on what is taking place in our governments, and citizens are free to mine it, track it and organize it.

Currently, according to David and Patrick, Chicago is the best example of what the Councilmatic platform offers: a clean and relatively intuitive tool that grants access to diverse public datasets. The Toronto platform, TMMIS, is older and, despite still providing important information, somewhat more convoluted.

As I researched the Chicago site, I became excited about creating something new for Toronto that would increase my appetite for municipal politics. Our challenge was clear: how do you organize city data in such a way that it is efficiently organized and fun to browse through; that you can navigate easily even if you’re a political layperson; and perhaps most importantly, that encourages you to get involved in municipal matters? Admittedly, this is not an easy task.

I am not a developer, designer or a tech wiz. Neither am I particularly politically engaged. What surprised me most about my experience at Code Across Toronto 2016 was that neither were most of the other participants. It was a diverse group of curious Torontonians willing to try new things, meet and learn from others, and looking for opportunities to innovate.

The positive outcome from participating was more than I anticipated. From a professional perspective, identifying what I liked and disliked about the event and building my network of contacts was clearly beneficial. What’s most surprising to me is that I am now hooked. I am eagerly awaiting my next hackathon. I did not expect it. I was surprised by how diverse, sociable and fun the participants were. Most importantly, during the hacking, I felt good about how I participated and that increased confidence is directly translatable to my personal and professional life.

As Jim Stovall, a blind writer and motivational speaker, wrote:

“If we are not allowed to deal with small problems, we will be destroyed by slightly larger ones. When we come to understand this, we live our lives not avoiding problems, but welcoming them them as challenges that will strengthen us so that we can be victorious in the future.”

Hackathons might be the perfect way to accustom yourself with facing small problems!