The North-South Institute



Ottawa Hackathon Mines Aid Data in Bid to Boost Development Effectiveness

August 27, 2013



After a weekend of online coding, data crunching and lots of coffee, a team of approximately 50 computer programmers, software developers and international development experts have completed a set of mobile applications meant to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of Canadian foreign aid.

The apps were developed as a part of what is believed to be Canada’s first foreign aid hackathon, held this past weekend at the HUB Ottawa offices. The event, hosted by Citizen Attaché in Ottawa, was funded by Engineers Without Borders Canada.

A hackathon, also known as a hack day, hackfest or codefest, is an event in which computer programmers and software developers come together to create data analysis software for sets of information. Simply stated, the participants translate large, complicated sets of data into a more comprehensible format, such as visually appealing graphics.

Approximately 50 participants spent their Saturday and Sunday glued to their laptops creating softwares specifically designed to analyze Canada’s foreign aid data. Hackathon participants were divided into six teams, with each team developing a software to examine a specific “project” or problem related to Canadian foreign aid.

Citizen Attaché collected ideas for the six apps in the weeks leading up to the hackathon. In a summary presentation Sunday afternoon, hackathon participants presented their apps, which performed the following functions:

  • aggregate programming instructions, also known as application programming interfaces (API), from various platforms such as the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) and the World Bank to make them all accessible and searchable in one place
  • search and visualize (via graphs) data collected through VOTO Mobile surveys in Ghana; VOTOMobile’s service can be used in other countries to conduct citizen surveys via text and voice message (for both literate and illiterate users)
  • visualize Canadian international development through a timeline that sorts foreign aid projects by month and year
  • produce a widget containing Canadian development aid information; widget can be inserted into blogs and discussion forums online
  • display thorough charts the of the frequency of IATI data updates, including data input from Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD)
  • create an algorithm that breaks down descriptive text from IATI data files to find the origin of the data by latitude/longitude

Once each group developed its apps, they input data from IATI and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which is provided by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and DFATD.

Considering most of the participants met each other for the first time on Saturday morning, Citizen Attaché Director Ian Froude said the event was a huge success. “I thought the event went amazingly well. Super strong teams and really interesting products created, which I think have potential.”

While the event went smoothly for the most part, Froude said the teams did encounter some challenges over the weekend, such as slow websites and servers. However, he said the most widespread problem was the “quality and depth” of the data the teams were working with. For instance, groups had trouble finding full information about particular Canadian international development projects.

Despite the setbacks, participants were impressed with the results of the hackathon.