Getting into civic tech + Code for Canada’s Toronto open house

What positive impact can technology make on small communities across Canada?

That’s been on my mind a lot lately. I’ve been thinking about how local Canadian communities like the Kawarthas can use technology to stay economically strong and culturally vibrant.

I brought this up with my buddy Lucas Cherkewsi at WordCamp Montreal in August. He told me about the civic tech movement, and how it’s focused on these kinds of questions.

How can technology improve the public good?

After chatting with Lucas, I made a mental note to check out the Civic Tech Toronto group, then I attended my first Civic Tech Toronto meetup last week.

It was great. There were lots of people and lots of projects going on.

And those groups weren’t just sitting around pontificating. They were getting stuff done. (And this isn’t a once-a-month thing, either. This group gets together every Tuesday evening.)

As a new attendee, I had to sit in on the Civic Tech 101 orientation. That’s where I heard about Code for Canada.

Coincidentally, Code for Canada was doing an open house just a couple of days later. I went, and this is what I learned.

Notes from Code for Canada’s Toronto open house

Code for Canada connects Canadian governments with the tech & design community. They do this through a fellowship program, a network of civic tech communities across Canada, and by providing education & training.

Fellowship program = “How do you take skills from outside of government and apply to a public project?” So imagine you’re a government team trying to solve a hard problem using technology, but technology really isn’t your forte. Then a digital product manager drops in and shows you how these problems can be solved using totally different methodologies than anything you’ve been exposed to.

They’re not just consulting or telling you what to do. They’re in there working with you, and you’re (hopefully) learning at the same time, and they’re (hopefully) learning about public sector challenges at the same time.

Partner support is helping Code for Canada move forward. You’ve got Shopify, Normative, the Brookfield Institute, MaRS, Bitmaker Labs, and others. And it’s early days so I’m sure we’ll see more names added to that list as organizations start to grok the importance of civic tech. This is the rising tide of technology that can lift all boats.

There’s proven interest here. The Q2 fellowship applications “exceeded expectations of volume and quality of applicants”. 50% women, 58% people of colour. As a straight white guy working in tech my reaction is thank goodness.

More civic tech communities are coming online across Canada. The Civic Tech Community Toolkit was created to support that. So if there’s no existing community hub near you, you’re empowered to go and start one of your own. (Reminds me of the WordPress Meetup Chapter Program.)

Education and training is humming along. There’s digital government and civic tech workshops. There’s even a Continuing Education course starting at the Ryerson University Chang School on September 27th. (Primarily intended for public servants.)

Code for Canada is part of a global network. Code for Canada is now a governing partner of the global Code for All Network. This enables more collaboration with international organizations. Neat aside: An organizer of Code for Brazil was present for the open house on Thursday.

Notes from the Q&A

There were plenty of questions from attendees (myself included) who were wondering what Code for Canada was all about.

Here’s what I jotted down:

How many fellowships is Code for Canada creating? It depends on government team needs. Code for Canada isn’t aiming for high volume. Fellows aren’t going to change the government. Instead, they’re picking projects where fellows will have an “outsized impact”.

How big are the fellowship projects? They’re looking for mid-range projects. Working with fellowship partners to identify a challenge and objective. Define a scope of expectations for what is essentially a nine month project.

How are projects picked? They look at the potential for impact; the appetite from the team hosting the fellows; and what resources are available for fellows to do their work. It’s a collaborative process, an iterative process, and it’s uncomfortable for a lot of people in government. So they’re working with the teams that are ready to embrace that process.

How engaged are the public servants? Very. We’re at the point where there’s tons of interest in demand. But change is scary, and this is a very new frontier for the government at a provincial and federal level. This is the future of government.

We often think of The Government™. But it’s not The Government™. It’s a lot of people deeply committed to what they do working in very constrained ways. But when you think about it, the politics and bureaucracy is not that different from a big company.

Does working external to the government bring more value back into the government? The reality is that a lot of what we see delivered by the government is actually coming from outside the government. Nonprofits, consulting groups, contractors, etc…

How do you avoid stepping on the toes of business? From speaking with a lot of vendors who sell to government, they’re thankful, because stakeholders in government don’t understand technology or reasonable requirements.

Looking at it a different way: Code for Canada is building digital capacity within the government. They’re training the government to think about making big problems small and changing the way the government approaches problems.

It means smarter government, smarter stakeholders, better procurement process, lower project costs, easier to navigate for businesses who want to do work for and with the government.Can’t innovate by delivering on specific requirements.

What about governments at a municipal level? It’s within the scope of the program to find partners at a municipal level. But it’s a different situation in terms of budgets and infrastructures. Code for Canada wants to get there within the next fellowship rounds. In the meantime, the intent is to develop those relationships.

Code for Brazil is trying to get governments to understand what Open Data is and how to provide it. How do we handle it? Provincially in Ontario: Open Data Directive. By default they have to open their data sets, and they’re in the process of doing it. They’re currently inventorying and determining if anything is an exception. If it’s not, they publish it.

The federal government has made a commitment to Open Data. Different cities are all over the place.

Open Data advocacy is a big part of many Code For organizations. Example: Open North. Code for Canada itself doesn’t have a push; Open Data is considered a given.

***

I learned a lot during the brief two hour open house, and I’m looking forward to seeing how Code for Canada grows in the coming months and years.

If you want to follow along, you can find them on Facebook, Twitter, Meetup.com, YouTube, LinkedIn, and Medium. You can also subscribe to email updates on their website.

 

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: