Developers Use Open Data to Make Government Services More Accessible

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open data ottawa
Pic courtesy of @opendataottawa. Click to enlarge

Open Data Ottawa’s hackathon kicked off today along with the International Open Data Hackathon. Ottawa’s Open Data event is of particular importance considering it’s not only the capital of Canada, but Ottawa itself has gone through several periods of tech recession and explosion, making for a city with quite a few talented programmers.

Over 50 cities participated in today’s International Open Data Hackathon and we have coverage of the Ottawa event as well as some notes about why this event should be of particular importance to RIM.

The event began with everyone gathering around a table and writing down ideas on a large white piece of paper with data sets they’d like to see from the City as well as app ideas they’re thinking of creating or they’d like to see someone else create (pictured above). Once everyone wrote their idea down on this long sheet of paper, everyone was asked to move one seat to the left and comment or build on whatever idea is in front of them. The result was a really successful brainstorming session where people connected ideas, suggested similar services and widened or focused the scope of the idea in front of them.

After a few hours of hacking and discussion, here are some of the apps, services and ideas that surfaced:

Dungeons and Data

Let’s say you want to know where a water fountain is – with Dungeons and Data, you create a mission where you ask someone to find the water fountain and if somebody finds it, they get points. Dungeons and Data becomes a game where users build points of interest and collect data about their city in a fun and interesting way. Currently, Dungeons and Data is a web app and therefore platform agnostic.

Visualizing Census Data

A couple developers worked to get census data in a way that was easier to visualize. Currently, there are in tables but visualization gives you a way to spot trends.

Calendar for Ottawa Area

The City of Ottawa website has a calendar of events but it’s not very open and doesn’t give a full scope of what’s going on in the city. A few Open Data members were working on getting a calendar for the Ottawa area together that gives you a better picture of what’s going on.

Heat Maps

There was some interest in taking data from the city and creating heat maps around interesting data found in the system.

Seasonal App for Outdoor Activities

One group was working on an app that takes in data about fun events to do around the city based on what season you’re in. Whether it’s water parks, skating rinks, trails or parks, this app/website will help you find something fun to do.

App for People to Figure Out Their Trash

We have blue boxes, black boxes and green compost bins, and it’s not easy to figure out how to sort your garbage. This open data service will help you sort your trash and recycling into the appropriate place. WhichBin.ca will be where you can view progress on this project.

Extracting Data About Water Ecology and Testing

One web service focused on collecting data from the City regarding water quality tests and the reports generated. The data gives you the results as well as the actions the City took. This service would be great to determine whether your local fire hydrant is working or your community’s water is safe.

How Do You Get This Data to the Unconnected?

An interesting challenge posed at this event was how do you get this data to people who don’t have access to a smartphone, mobile phone or even a computer? There is an international component to Open Data and many countries don’t have the same mobile and Internet penetration as Western countries. How would you get this important data to someone who is totally unconnected?

Civic Duty App

The Civic Duty app allows users to report non-emergency reports to 311 (City of Ottawa services line). You can take a photo, generate a report and send it off sort of like FixMyStreet.com. The developer behind this app actually has no background in programming and figured out how to make iPhone apps in his spare time.

Ottawa Pools

Ottawa Pools is a free iPhone app that’s available in the App Store and it was developed with Open Data. The app uses augmented reality to help you find a local swimming pool. Ottawa Rinks is apparently on it’s way soon too.

For more apps that were created using Open Data, check out Apps4Ottawa.ca.

There were about 80 discussions going on at Open Data Ottawa, as compiled by a few members at the event, and they found that the most commented on subjects were around buses, schedules, gps data and where the stops are located. Another popular topic was construction and parking. Cycling was also talked about a lot. Community networks, calendars and bringing groups together was also important to these groups. In general, it seems Ottawans want transportation to be more efficient, and they want to connect more with their community.

How RIM Can Participate in Open Data

Have a presence! There wasn’t a single developer at Open Data Ottawa that made an application specifically for BlackBerry and considering RIM employs over 1,500 people in Ottawa, many of them developers, it’s just strange that not a single one of them came out. Here are some things RIM should encourage their employees to do:

Attend the events – There is a lot of momentum with Open Data and the community is looking to get a monthly meetup together. RIM needs to be at these meetings and telling their developers to get involved. Not only is it good for career development, but it’s an opportunity to make a difference in your community and show local development groups that RIM cares about its community, city and country. Also, it’s a great place to hire.

Build sample apps – It would be awesome to see a new category in App World dedicated to the cause. Developers all around the world could submit their Open Data apps to the “Open Data” category in App World, where users around the world could discover more about their region with open data apps. RIM could get the ball rolling with their international BlackBerry Developer Groups, who could submit local apps to this category.

Give tutorials – Many of the developers at Open Data weren’t developing for BlackBerry simply because they don’t know how. These developers clearly have experience developing for the web, and with RIM’s WebWorks SDK, developers could port their apps over to BlackBerry fairly easily. RIM needs to send a few experts to these groups and give presentations on how they can bring their awesome apps to the BlackBerry platform.

For those who attended the International Open Data hackathon, send us an email at tips at blackberrycool dot com and let us know how it went. Are you working on some cool apps? Thinking of porting them over to BlackBerry? Let us know and we’ll give you some coverage. Happy hacking!