Open Data Hackathon helps shine light into Council agenda

Mavis Nathoo has long dreamed of throwing the doors of City Council agendas much wider open to the public by giving people dead-easy web access to all the issues Council and its committees are discussing.

Thanks to a challenge she issued last Saturday at the second annual Edmonton Public Library/City Open Data Team Hackathon, she’s on her way to realizing that dream.

The Hackathon, held at the downtown EPL branch’s high-tech Makerspace, brought together about 50 computer developers and hackers (the good kind!) for a day dedicated to developing apps based on the more than 500+ kinds of data available from the city’s Open Data Catalogue.

At the opening session, where various project ideas were pitched, Mavis, the City Clerk’s director of governance and legislative services, asked for help in increasing the City’s transparency and enabling citizens to be more involved in issues before decisions are made.

“It’s hard for citizens to know what’s on the agendas of Council and its committees, so for two years, I’ve been dying for a mobile app that will solve that problem,” says Mavis. “It’s really important to us that people know what issues are coming to Council before decisions are made, rather than afterward.”

The app she envisions will enable citizens to enter keywords for issues in which they have an interest (i.e. bike lanes, LRT, Inglewood) so the app can alert them whenever one of their chosen subjects is on any council or committee agenda. Citizens would be able to download supporting material, and ask to be alerted on the day their item is on an agenda.

In future, it may also be possible for the app to connect people with past Council discussions of their chosen issue, and even related issues, as well as voting records.

This team of developers worked on Mavis Nathoo’s concept for an app to alert people when Council or its committees are to discuss issues the app user cares about.

This team of developers worked on Mavis Nathoo’s concept for an app to alert people when Council or its committees are to discuss issues the app user cares about.

The Hackathon throws together people from a variety of occupations and interests. They vary from professional developers working with high-tech firms or government, to amateur hackers.

One group, led by developer Trevor Prentice, was helping him create an app to enable users to objectively select preferred City neighbourhoods based on the user’s personal preference-ranking of nine attributes. These factors include proximity to schools, groceries, water spray parks, recreation centres, transit centres and LRT, the river valley, as well as frequency of crime.

The user simply manipulates buttons – each representing an attribute – along a vertical priority scale, and the app displays the resulting customized ranking of City neighbourhoods with numbers on a map. It’ll all be quite simple.

You can read much more about this project by visiting Trevor’s website.

Trevor Prentice’s group helped him build an app to enable people to choose the best neighbourhoods in which to live, based on several attributes and personal priorities.

Trevor Prentice’s group helped him build an app to enable people to choose the best neighbourhoods in which to live, based on several attributes and personal priorities.

Student Matt Schneider was working solo on a Twitter-app that will monitor trending topics on Twitter in Edmonton, then tweet out recommendations for related reading drawn from the Edmonton Public Library’s catalogue.

Elsewhere, one group was verifying and/or correcting latitude and longitude geo-coordinates for Edmonton’s Historical Resource list.

One man was searching for data sources that would help him build an app that tracks homelessness in the city. Some Hackathon participants were there just to pick up tips about using the City’s Open Data Catalogue.

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