The North-South Institute



Ottawa Developers Come Together to Analyse Canadian Foreign Aid Data

August 24, 2013

Ottawa Citizen


Saturday was one of the nicest days Ottawa’s had in weeks. With not a cloud in sight, people across the city seized the opportunity to get outside and catch some sun. Well, almost everyone.

In Centretown, at HUB Ottawa, about 40 people gathered to take part in a hackathon put on by Citizen Attaché, a non-profit focused on international development, that saw six different groups spend the day coming up with different ways to analyse and visualize Canada’s international aid data.

“We are not breaking into an secure systems or something like that,” said organizer Ian Froude, before breaking into laughter. “The term hacker is more positively used to mean someone who is really great at creative problem solving through technological platforms.”

Each group, made up of about six or seven members, was spread throughout the open spaces of HUB Ottawa. On almost every table in the room, laptops were aglow. Lines of computer code flashed across the screens as group members bantered back and forth, bouncing ideas off each other. Froude explained there are reams of public data out there, but unless someone has the proficiency to navigate through massive data files the information might as well be kept under lock and key.

And so these “hackers” joined together to help make “public” data on Canadian foreign aid accessible to the layman.

“We’re translating all this mess of information that’s in a giant spread sheets into something that has value and provides insight into international development, and ideally increases the effectiveness of how we provide international aid,” said Froude.

For example, one group was working on a project that involved “geotagging” data on aid projects in Africa. In this instance, the public data provided by the federal government doesn’t outline exact locations of where funds are going, instead it just gives broad geographical areas such as “eastern Ghana.” So the group devised a way of cross referencing data from other organizations, such as World Bank, to determine matches between projects and then ultimately see where Canadian aid dollars are going.

But to make the event more challenging and test the abilities of the participants, no one was told exactly what they’d be working on before they arrived.

They were given vague topics beforehand, but were not told the precise kind of data they’d be working with or who’d be in their group. Froude explained that it’s a way to bring people together who are passionate about international development and force them to be creative in a short amount of time.

The hackathon ran all-day Saturday and continues until mid-afternoon on Sunday. When the groups are all finished, they will present their projects and then make them publicly available.

These hackers weren’t the only ones spending the day inside Saturday. In the ByWard Market, in the Shopify building, girls from the ages of 9 to 14 came together to learn basic coding skills through a new program launched by the Toronto-based non-profit organization Ladies Learning Code.

“Digital literacy is so important,” said Nicole Belanger, who runs Ladies Learning Code in Ottawa. “It’s not that we don’t have enough jobs right now, we don’t have enough people for the jobs that exist. So we want to give kids the opportunity.”

The organization runs workshops for both sexes, but Belanger said they initially started making it available to girls first because she says the programming industry is male dominated.

Saturday was the first workshop the organization has put on and Belanger says they plan on running workshops every two months.