The federal government kicked off its promotion of an open data hackathon in Toronto on Wednesday night, encouraging people to use publicly available data provided by government departments to build new apps.

Now in its second year, the Canadian Open Data Experience (CODE) hackathon is targeted towards students, entrepreneurs, programmers, developers, and graphic designers. Participants will have two days to come up with a creative mobile app using open data sets provided by the federal government, with an eye to helping youth, commerce, or to improving quality of life. The contest kicks off Feb. 20 and runs until Feb. 22, coinciding with International Open Data Day on Feb. 21.

Last year, more than 900 participants competed in the hackathon, so the organizers are hoping for an even bigger turnout this time around. But more importantly, they’re trying to highlight what people can do with open data, said Ray Sharma, founder of Toronto’s XMG Studio Inc. and one of the main organizers of CODE2015.

“Every government agency, we’re talking fisheries, we’re talking defense, we’re talking immigration, we’re talking StatsCan, every regulatory body – can you imagine the data that exists?… Do you see why that’s exciting?” Sharma said, adding there’s a vein of untapped potential in all of that data. He’s especially excited about the prospect of bringing research publications online.

For CODE 2015, Sharma has been working with Tony Clement, president of the Treasury Board for the federal government, on the project, and that he feels Clement is “providing leadership” and encouraging internal government departments to open up their data.

Within government and outside of it, Clement has been working to promote open data for some time now. In August 2014, Clement was the face of the federal government’s decision to open up its data to the public, which seeks to “facilitate openness, innovation, and economic opportunities,” according to the action plan posted on a government site.

However, Clement’s work with open data hasn’t been without criticism. In December 2014, Clement came under fire from open data advocates for suggesting federal government departments couldn’t supply the public with statistics in digital formats, when asked to do so through freedom of information requests.

Tony Clement appears in a video made at the end of 2013 to explain the CODE initiative.

Instead, government departments have been providing data in paper format, as there was a fear people could “create havoc” by manipulating the information, Clement said, according to the Canadian Press.

In an interview with ITBusiness.ca on Wednesday, Clement said he’s aware of the criticism, but that the data sets provided through the government’s open data portal are presented in useable formats.

“We’re listening to the user community for feedback on the types of presentations, how they can dig into the information and mash it with other data sets – these kinds of things,” he said.

However, there are still other challenges that lie ahead. The public still needs more data to come online, said Sharma, adding the “mother of all data” is in healthcare and education – which are provincial rather than federal responsibilities.

Then there’s the issue of ownership, he added. If a government department provides data, and a business builds a useful application for it, the question of ownership of that asset can quickly become a thorny one.

Despite the difficulties, Kevin Tuer, managing director of the Open Data Exchange in Waterloo, Ont., said he is “optimistic” about where open data is headed in Canada.

For Tuer, data is a resource like any other, and it can give rise to new industries – the same way industries like lumber and mining have sprung up out of raw materials like wood and iron ore.

“There are challenges for sure, but that’s why we’re adopting an open data by default process … Problems will be brought to light, but they’re not barriers,” he said. “The challenge is knowing where does the government’s role stop, and where does the private sector’s role start?”

Once private companies become more involved with tapping into public and private data, a lot of the issues around privacy, security, and open data standards will get resolved, he added.

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  • Neil McEvoy

    The bigger criticism is that it seems open data is the only card in the hand of the governments digital economy strategy. sure it’s one useful foundation but it’s only one small part of a holistic strategy – where is the G-Cloud procurement program for engaging more SMEs? where is the Internet of Things innovations to attract more investments for them? time to stop thinking so small and develop a world-class tech sector strategy.