The Halifax startup community is staging an event next month that could theoretically lead to improved services and greater efficiency in Halifax Regional Municipality.
Volta, the co-working space for startups in downtown Halifax, is hosting a hackathon Sept. 14 and 15 in which as many as 140 tech enthusiasts will work with municipal data to devise web- or mobile-based applications that the municipality and its citizens could use. Applications are available here.
In a hackathon, tech enthusiasts come together for a weekend and are divided into teams that work together to develop a product. Often, they are given a theme or topic to work on.
“In this case, the topic is established as ‘community,’ and people will build their ideas around that,” said Milan Vrekic, Volta’s executive director.
Although hackathons in the United States and Europe use specific themes, Vrekic is aware of no other such event that targets projects that will benefit a local community.
The interesting part of the hackathon is that the municipality is providing several sets of data through its Open Data initiative.
This hackathon is part of the wave of big data projects that are sweeping through Atlantic Canada this year. Big data, or data analytics, is the process of combing through unimaginable mounds of data to find information that a business, organization or government can use to raise revenues or improve efficiency.
This new industry is one of the hottest segments in the global technology industry, and Atlantic Canada is doing really well in it. IBM is setting up an analytics centre in Halifax, and Dalhousie and Acadia universities are establishing institutes to enhance their work with data.
What the region needs more of is end-users (mainly government or large corporations) analyzing data and figuring out how it can improve their operations. The region needs more early adopters for the technology produced by startups and universities.
That is what makes the Volta hackathon so fascinating. Under the leadership of Mayor Mike Savage, the municipality has opened up data sets in the following areas: crime statistics; civic addresses; street networks; community boundaries; bus routes; bus stops; transit scheduling data; building footprints; building symbols; municipal parks; municipal parks and recreation; trails; polling; solid waste collection areas; zoning boundaries; bylaw areas; and a digital elevation model.
What will the hackathon participants do with this data? No one knows yet, and that is the beauty of this sort of event. The thinking is that once a team starts bouncing ideas back and forth, it will come up with a more imaginative idea than any individual could come up with.
Vrekic said the hope is that by demonstrating the benefits of open data, the municipality can convince the provincial government to join in the process. He said the provincial tourism effort would benefit, for example, with an app that scanned people’s Facebook posts and Twitter feeds, determined their interests and sent them a personalized e-brochure highlighting things in Nova Scotia that they would enjoy.
As of Friday, 80 people had already signed up for the hackathon. Half are programmers. About one-fifth are designers, and the remainder are business people. Vrekic is hoping for about 10 to 15 teams at the event, which will be held at Volta on Spring Garden Road. The winning team will receive prizes and be invited to pitch at Invest Atlantic’s PitchCamp reception on Sept. 24.