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CodeAcross Toronto shines spotlight on civic engagement

This weekend’s CodeAcross Toronto, a hackathon in celebration of International Open Data Day hosted by Civic Tech Toronto and Urban+Digital Toronto at the Ryerson’s DMZ, brought civic engagement, design and technology into the spotlight.

There was definitely a buzz in the air as over 100 participants came out to spend a snowy Saturday together and tackle civic challenges, coffee and bagels at hand.

The day kicked off with a brief introduction from Charles Finley, founder of  Urban+Digital: “Code Across Toronto is an exciting collaboration of nonprofits, government groups, developers, students and designers to develop solutions to real world challenges,” Finley said. “The best part is, the weekly Civic Tech Toronto hack nights provide a way for those groups to sustain today’s work and maintain connections to realise project ideas.” Sean Mullin of the Brookfield Institute, one of the sponsors of the event and Alex Lougheed, policy advisor and CivicTO champion spoke about connecting the hackathon and hack nights each Tuesday, stating  that there is a phenomenal amount of opportunity when it comes to modern technology, but the public sector has been left behind by advancement in private enterprise.

Speaking of public sector, it was great to see both the councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam and MPP Yvan Baker involved. Wong-Tam pointed out the inclusive and diverse community in the room, and shared insight into the urban ambition for Toronto, particularly projects coming up on Yonge Street and the Waterfront. Baker recounted a conversation with a surprised colleague who couldn’t quite believe their political luck in finding such a spirited group of skilled and experienced people who would get behind civic challenges.  Even Mayor Tory gave a shout-out to the event on twitter: “Disappointed I couldn't make it to #CodeAcrossTO today with @CivicTechTO. So important to have public engaged in city challenges.”

Building with, not for, communities.

The spirit of the hackathon, summed up best by Dorothy Eng, a civic innovator and product strategist in a tweet, was about building with, not for, communities. Gabe Sawhney, cofounder of Civic Tech Toronto and Urban+Digital director gave the participants structure and overview of how to make the most of their time at the hackathon, and make tangible progress.

Nine challenges pitched to the broader group:
  1. Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing:
    1. Design a better data collection form (the shortest one was seven pages)
  2. Rexdale Labs:
    1. Visualise major development/planning projects across Toronto and
    2. Enable communities to have more input into the development of Community Benefit Agreements (CBAs ensure that communities get economic benefit from major construction projects).
  3. City of Toronto Open Data Office:
    1. What can we learn from looking at the web analytics for the City of Toronto’s open data portal: toronto.ca
  4. The Mississauga Halton Health Integration Network: build something that makes it easy for people to find specific health and support services that suit them
  5. The Action Group on Access to Justice: a user-focused widget for legal websites. Develop a solution that accommodates a tool that gets people to relevant, practical information quickly (sourced from Your Legal Rights) and find an easily way to promote that tool across legal websites
  6. Project Neutral: user-testing and designing a data-rigorous carbon footprinting calculator
  7. Toronto Lobbyist Registry: a better version of the registry and scraping the data
  8. Toronto Councilmatic: design an intuitive, clear, open-source platform that people can use to connect to City Hall
  9. Ministry of Children and Youth Service: create a map that toggles between geographic boundaries (and layer other data in)
All of these problems generated a ton of questions and discussion, with some people genuinely divided on which group to gravitate towards. Yet gravitate people did and the first couple of hours were spent on an intense roundtable of knowledge distribution from challenge owner to challenge associates. Depending on the challenge, some groups hacked data on a visualisation platform, which could be anything from Excel to Tableau and Processing. Other groups expanded on the challenge through mind-maps, customer journeys, user flows and wireframes, on whiteboards, paper and software such as Balsamiq.

Each group had the opportunity to present their solution to the challenge, and each challenge owner seems to be delighted with the progress made in their group. The solutions varied from data visualization prototypes, wireframes and sometimes simply a summary of the shared knowledge and ideas from the team.

“What we did today actually went way beyond open data. There were challenges about data analysis and visualization, but also about UX design, policy and strategy, outreach and communications,” Sawhney said once the event wrapped up. “Open data enables a lot of this work, but we need a really wide set of skills around the table to actually take advantage of open data. That's why we call it 'civic tech' -- it's about adding co-designed technology to all the existing tools of civics.”

Lisa Brody-Hoffman, one of the many hackathon participants said she felt inspired by the event. “My highlight of the day was the diversity of organizations and community groups presenting civic tech challenges challenges, and the really welcoming environment. It was inspiring to see people from technology, public, and not-for-profit sectors come together to collaborate on important technology challenges.

If you missed CodeAcross Toronto, worry not and consider coming to the next Civic Tech Toronto hack night, or browse through event’s storify, featuring videos and photos. Perhaps the greatest civic opportunity still lies ahead: in maintaining momentum between milestones and connecting marathons to regular meetups to build products, platform and community. 
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