Home News Hacking your way to a more democratic society

Hacking your way to a more democratic society

by The Concordian November 22, 2011

On Saturday, several dozen people and laptops crammed a room near Montreal’s Old Port to pour over numbers and fine tune website designs. Fueled by coffee and sandwiches, they collectively turned endless spools of data into helpful projects for the average Montreal to use.
To Jonathan Brun, this room full of humming laptops and people quietly working is a sign that Montreal has finally become a leader in open data, and a “testament” to the enthusiasm of a community looking to improve the city.
Brun is one of the four founders of Montréal Ouvert, a group of business types and open data advocates that has been lobbying the City of Montreal to release a ton of information to the public in the open data format.
Everywhere, coders and designers have been culling, or “scrapping” data from government databases in order to create a variety of websites and apps for people to use. But up until a few months ago, Montreal was behind the times.
“It got started because the four of us [were] sort of passionate about open government and making government more democratic, more accessible to people. And the open data movement has sort of taken off in a lot of Canadian cities, but was not happening in Montreal,” said Brun.
After about a year’s worth of sophisticated lobbying, which involved meeting with elected officials and targeting “key” open data fans at City Hall, holding two hackathons and three public meetings, an eventual formal report into the city’s proposed open data policy was presented last September.
“Montreal is putting together a ‘table de concertation’ – a group of people that think about open data,” said Brun, referencing a project unique to Montreal.
While the open data portal, which is mostly in French, is not yet perfect, the city also provided a venue for Saturday’s Hackathon, and sponsored it, along with other groups like The Montreal Gazette and the local OpenFile outlet.
Students made up a modest number of the Hackathon participants, like Concordia undergraduates Tavish Armstrong and Natalie Black, who study software engineering and computer science, respectively.
On Saturday, both were working to make the ongoing Resto-Net.ca website more user-friendly. It uses open data to track restaurant health violations across Montreal. The top offender: a Chinese restaurant near Concordia’s downtown campus that has racked up over $33,000 in fines.
By the end of the day’s marathon session, four students from Université de Laval in Quebec City had the chance to explain their project to the group. Though still a work-in-progress, LibrariesHub.ca is a search engine that aggregates public library catalogues. A quick search will let you know which libraries have it in stock, as well as the price on Amazon, and whether it’s available to read on Google Books.
Jacques-Olivier Desjardins, a Laval computer engineering student, said his team did it for the fun of it, but also for the networking and to get their name out in the business.
Montreal has taken its own path to get to this point, said Mercier, Open Montreal’s city hall ‘champion’, a small, smiling woman with grey hair. She was hardpressed to name her favourite project. “I’m like a mother who has many children, I don’t have favourites,” she said. “I find it extraordinary. What happened today is the concrete application of what open data is. You have city employees with citizens, and they’re working to make a project with data that belongs to everybody. It doesn’t get better than that.”

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