Four public servants’ ideas shortlisted in Canadian Data Challenge

By on 13/03/2023 | Updated on 13/03/2023
A photograph of the judges of the Public Service Data Challenge as they listen to semi-final pitches.
Public Service Data Challenge judges as they listen to semi-final pitches.

The shortlist has been announced in Canada’s Public Service Data Challenge programme, which gathers ideas from the workforce on how the government could make better use of data – and seeks to carry the best forward into implementation

Four ideas are now going forward to the Final event on 19 April. The shortlisted projects propose to develop a ‘needs analysis’ data dashboard to improve support for remote communities; build a predictive tool to reduce fertiliser run-off and waterway pollution; deploy artificial intelligence to improve advice to the agricultural sector; and use satellite and sonar data to locate plastic waste at sea.

“The proposals that made it to the semi-finals were focused on supporting our climate strategy, Indigenous reconciliation, and improving the Canadian citizen experience,” said Jason Reid, chief information officer at Natural Resources Canada and a member of the judging panel of Canadian digital leaders. “These quality submissions demonstrate that federal public servants understand the importance of, and are passionate about, data and how it can be used to support Canadians.”

Launched in February 2022, the Data Challenge received more than 130 ideas from public servants. Its organising partners – Statistics Canada, Natural Resources Canada, Microsoft, and Global Government Forum – worked with the judges to select the seven most promising concepts, and these have been researched and developed by interdisciplinary, cross-departmental teams of public service volunteers. At the ‘Dragon’s Den’-style Semi-Final, the teams pitched their ideas to the judging panel via a remote link, and answered the judges’ questions; videos of their pitches will be available shortly.

“We were really impressed with the quality of analysis, innovation and teamwork displayed by all the teams, who’d clearly put a huge amount of effort into developing their ideas and offered some really good answers to our questions,” said Data Challenge judge Elise Legendre, who is director general for data policy and transformation and the chief data officer of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. “We were also pleased to see how well the teams had gelled, and how much their members were enjoying the experience of working across organisational and professional boundaries.”

Commenting on the task of selecting the shortlisted projects, Legendre said that “it was a really hard decision to make – but following a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion, we did manage to reach consensus on which teams to put forward. The shortlisted ideas involve a wide range of technologies, organisations and policy fields, demonstrating the enormous potential of data to improve public services and the lives of Canadians.

“We’d like to thank the members of the non-shortlisted teams for all of their work: these teams’ ideas have real potential, and we’ll be helping to promote them across government. Meanwhile we wish the shortlisted teams well in the next stage of their research, and very much look forward to seeing them at the Final on 19 April.”

The teams are now continuing to develop their ideas, with the assistance of Natural Resources Canada’s Digital Accelerator Data Scientists and pitch training provided by Statistics Canada. Having outlined their proposals at the semi-final, their focus is now on evidencing value for money and building the partnerships required for delivery – demonstrating how they meet the six judging criteria.

A member of the team developing plans to locate seaborne plastic waste, Francis Loughheed of Natural Resources Canada, said that the Data Challenge has been “an exciting opportunity to meet new people, explore innovative ideas, and break the silo and implementation barriers that often exist in public sector environments.”

Loughheed praised the programme’s creation of spaces for innovative, experimental work. “We need opportunities to take risks, explore innovative concepts, and get the support from senior leadership to step out of our comfort zone,” he said. “The PSDC provides the ‘sandbox’ that can generate quantum leaps that contribute to tangible impacts for the Government of Canada, Canadians, and partners.”

At the Final, the four remaining teams will pitch their ideas once more – this time to a panel featuring the programme champions: Government of Canada chief information officer Catherine Luelo, chief statistician Anil Arora, president of the Canada School of Public Service Taki Sarantakis, and assistant deputy minister for strategic policy and innovation at Natural Resources Canada Frank des Rosiers. The best will then receive additional support from the champions and judges, with the aim of creating new services to benefit Canadians and strengthen the tools available to public servants.

“There are three clear take-aways from the semi-final of the Public Sector Data Challenge,” commented Luelo. “First, that Canadian public servants are highly inventive, knowledgeable and committed. All the team members are volunteers, pursuing this work alongside their day jobs: over the course of a few weeks, they did a brilliant job of scoping, developing and presenting their ideas. The programme also demonstrates the value of tapping into the expertise and enthusiasm of staff across the workforce, many of whom have really strong and practical ideas for how we can better serve the public.

“Second, that interdisciplinary and cross-departmental collaboration can both accelerate and improve project planning, and produce concrete benefits for team members – who enjoy both working in partnership with specialists from a range of fields, and building connections with colleagues and organisations across government.

“Third, that improving our use of data could help us to better serve elected leaders and citizens on many fronts. The shortlisted ideas all use data in different ways, apply different digital technologies and serve different groups; their diversity exemplifies the breadth and depth of the potential. We’re particularly pleased to see that the shortlisted ideas focus on Canadian government priorities: protecting our environment, supporting the agricultural sector, and improving the wellbeing of remote and indigenous communities.

“We’d like to congratulate all six long-listed teams on their presentations, and to thank their members for their work. We look forward to meeting the short-listed teams in April, when we’ll be joining the judges at the final.”

The Public Service Data Challenge follows a similar programme run in the UK: the Civil Service Data Challenge, now in its second year. In its first year, that scheme carried two ideas through into delivery: a data dashboard tracking the distribution of UK citizens abroad, and an AI-based project using aerial photography to identify peatlands drainage channels – supporting work to restore these precious wetland habitats and prevent carbon emissions.

The Public Service Data Challenge final will be held in Ottawa on 19 April.

Visit the Shortlist page of the Public Service Data Challenge website to learn about the four finalists’ ideas. More details of the Data Challenge are available on the About page.

Read more: An ideas accelerator: how the UK’s Data Challenge built two new public services

Want to write for GGF? We are always looking to hear from public and civil servants on the latest developments in their organisation – please get in touch below or email [email protected]

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

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