Step into the time machine at Canada’s Open Data Exchange (ODX), and let’s turn the clock back to a weekend in September.

2016 Hack the North

We’re at Hack the North, an annual event on the campus of the University of Waterloo. Watch you don’t slip on a can of Red Bull. Notice the 1,000 participants pulling technology apart, challenging conventional thinking and coming up new uses for things in a 48-hour period.

This is an affirming moment for open data in Canada. Fourteen of the teams hacking away at Hack the North are using open data. They see it as a tool for change.

Open data, that vast amount of public information governments and affiliated agencies collect, has landed in the hands of young innovators. “Can’t do that” isn’t in their vocabulary.

Open data has found its cool factor.

Now back to the present. That weekend in September was a just one of a number of milestones for the open-data industry, and ODX, in 2016.

We learned a lot. But there is so much more to do. More problems to solve. More dots to connect.

Many companies still struggle to find and use open data. By cataloguing companies building businesses with open data, this industry will seed a national ecosystem of shared knowledge and ideas. We can also help our suppliers — our government partners — save time and money by identifying the types of data that show the greatest prospect of being turned into valuable products.

ODX exists as a resource in this rapidly emerging sector of the tech economy. Here are some of the things we started last year to strengthen the open-data industry in Canada.

    • We launched Open Data 150 (OD150) to keep Canada at the front of a global movement in which smart companies and governments work together to refine the raw material of open data into useful products. By coming up with tools to do such things as cut wait times in hospital emergency rooms or improve traffic flow on congested highways, companies create jobs and develop new skills in data science that we will surely need as we head deeper into the 21st century.By the end of 2016, OD150 — a kind of census of who’s doing what with open data in Canada — had heard from nearly 100 companies. The goal is 150 by July 1, Canada’s sesquicentennial celebration. And then we keep on counting.

    • We set up the ODX Challenge and joined the City of Guelph as one of the partners in the City of Guelph Civic Solutions Accelerator. We want to show the country what can happen when entrepreneurs using open data work side by side with municipal employees who have problems to solve. The Challenge invited innovators to find open-data-driven solutions for some old municipal bugaboos. In this case, managing water consumption and getting busy, distracted citizens engaged in critical planning issues. So how did they do? Watch for demo day, Feb. 22.

    • We introduced ODX Ventures. Eight companies working with open data make up our first cohort, each eligible for up to $50,000 in support to further develop products, find customers and grow. There is keen interest in the program — we had 22 applications.

    • We started ODX Connect to help startups and small-to-medium enterprises working with open data find room to stretch. ODX Connect provides soft-landing support with the logistics of setting up satellite offices to check out foreign markets.

    • We mentored and assisted companies of all shapes and sizes expressing a variety of challenges and opportunities. And the demand is increasing.

    • We continue to sponsor the Open Cities Index in partnership with Public Sector Digest. The digest measures how well municipalities in Canada have embraced open data, whether open data is readily available, and how well it is used by entrepreneurs and citizen innovators. Sixty-eight municipalities make up the 2016 list, with Edmonton in the lead for the second consecutive year.

A theme runs through these accomplishments, and it serves as a guide through 2017 and beyond.

ODX is a bridge-builder. On the demand side of the equation, we encourage companies to dream up saleable products around weather trends, traffic counts, maps and other open-data sets.

On the supply side, we encourage governments to have faith that a lot of public good — better tools for urban living and health care, for example — comes out of letting entrepreneurs innovate with open data and commercialize the results.

Last May, ODX convened a roundtable discussion among entrepreneurs using open data. Our message to the federal government, as it develops an innovation agenda, is that open data should be regarded as a driver of economic prosperity and social well-being. It isn’t a fringe pursuit.

In the ore of open data lie the means for managing growing cities, an aging population and the effects of climate change.

There is much more to do to help companies capitalize on the lucrative opportunity that is open data. ODX will continue to act as a bridge-builder and explorer this year, and it will do so from a remarkable location — the new Communitech Data Hub in Uptown Waterloo. We move in April.

The Hub has room for startups, scale-ups and enterprise companies with loads of imagination. “Can’t do that” isn’t spoken here, either.