More cities need to open the doors and let the hackers in: Simcoe

Citizen hackers can help Canadian cities better use data, technology and connectivity to address the challenges they face and improve the services they deliver.

Torstar News Service

When I walk into the Civic Tech Toronto meetup on a Tuesday night I'm greeted by a room full of coders, designers, data geeks and policy wonks. Most are smiling, and the rest have their faces buried into their laptops already. It's great.

In one corner, volunteers work to make the city’s budget process more transparent. One table over, people use their tech skills to help newcomers access mental health services in the city. And on the other side of the room, a gang of “guerilla archivers” are saving online climate change data from the clutches of the Trump administration.

It’s an uplifting scene that plays out at similar meetups across Canada, including BetaCity YEG in Edmonton, Civic Tech London and YOW Civic Tech in Ottawa.

As Canadian cities strive to get “smarter” – to better use data, technology and connectivity to address the challenges they're facing and improve the services they deliver – this growing civic tech movement can lend a hand.

By applying strategies still alien to government, things like agile development and design thinking, civic tech groups are building tools that address city issues faster – and often at a far lower cost – than municipalities are used to.

And they mostly do this on a volunteer basis. Imagine the possibilities if their local governments embraced and supported them.

Some cities are catching on, but others need to follow suit. They should adopt the International Open Data Charter like Edmonton, launch a Civic Innovation Office like Toronto, or give civic tech startups a chance to solve municipal challenges like Guelph, Ont. did with its new “civic accelerator.”

One company associated with the accelerator, Alert Labs, offers online water monitoring, and has already helped Guelph save five million litres of water. The result? A city that's more environmentally-conscious and affordable.

That’s just one example. There are many other life-changing, cost-saving ideas that can be found in the heads of the coders, geeks and wonks at your local civic tech meetup.

If Canadian cities really want to be smart, they should foster these groups, partner with their members and build technology solutions that start with the community.

After all, technology is only as good as the people who build it.

Luke Simcoe is the communications lead at Urban+Digital, a nonprofit organization that works to improve how governments use technology, data and design to deliver public services. You can find him on Twitter at @code4luke.

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