Communitech’s Database program and Students Offering Support, a charity for students, are launching a new competition for university students to rise to a challenge by leveraging big data – with a grand prize of $5,000 in cash.

The Open Data Challenge kicks off Feb. 4 at midnight, when contest organizers email out a question to all of the students who have signed up to receive it. Once the question lands in their inboxes, students who accept the challenge will work together in teams of two to three people to answer it with the most creative, innovative solution they can think of, while harnessing publicly available data. They will then submit their solutions via the contest website by March 4.

The contest is open to any full-time or part-time students enrolled in a Canadian post-secondary institution, and students who are interested in seeing the question on Feb. 4 can sign up here.

The top five finalists of the contest will be named March 11, and team members will get an all-expenses paid trip to the Kitchener-Waterloo region to meet the judges and present their ideas on March 20. A winner will be chosen March 21. The first-place winners will get $5,000 in cash, while the runner-up will take home $2,500. The prize for third place is $1,000.

“A competition like this raises the profile of all the projects that have been going on within the Database program, and showcases talent that is a draw for companies to engage,” says Glenn Smith, Database’s program director. He adds he also would love to see a student team come up with a great, data-science based solution and then turn that into a business as well-known as BufferBox Inc. or Thalmic Labs Inc., two companies that started in the Kitchener-Waterloo region. (BufferBox was acquired by Google Inc. in 2012).

“In my wildest dreams, I think, wouldn’t it be cool if one of these students teams that wins … takes the idea forward and starts a business out of it and achieves the same profile as a BufferBox or a Thalmic?” Smith says.

Contest organizers also purposely left the competition open to students across all disciplines, not just in engineering or computer science, because many of today’s data science companies have very diversified teams, he adds.

For Students Offering Support, the goal of the competition is to get students thinking about their career paths. The charity focuses on helping students in universities across Canada and the U.S. to raise money for building projects in Latin America. But it also wants to help North American students think creatively about their job prospects after graduation – and data science is a field populated with open thinkers, says Greg Overholt, executive director at Students Offering Support.

“There are so many reasons that open data can be used … [We wanted everyone] to realize there is so much value for everybody to learn more about and see the value for their academic career or for the career world,” he says.

“It’s the idea of entrepreneurship and leveraging data as a platform for that … This is just another great avenue to show students that there are other ways in order to pursue non-traditional career paths and jobs.”

While contest organizers couldn’t reveal the question ahead of time, Smith says the judges will most likely be looking for a solution that will do two things.

“Number one, we want to see ideas around how data can be used. Number two, we want to see ideas that make use of multiple data sets. Not just picking one, but maybe seeing that there is a need that can be addressed through accessing different types of data sets to achieve the goal,” he says. “You might not think of [these data sets] together, but somehow they offer the potential for something new once they’re fused together.”

Funding for the contest comes from Communitech’s Database program, which in turn receives funding from the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario. Other sponsors include the Ministry of Government Services Ontario, the Canadian Digital Media Network, the Region of Waterloo, the City of Kitchener, and a mix of other public and private sources.

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