Nine public servants’ ideas picked for Canada’s Data Challenge longlist

By on 21/02/2024 | Updated on 21/02/2024
A picture of Stephen Burt speaking at AccelerateGov 2023
Stephen Burt speaking at AccelerateGov 2023

Nine projects have been selected for development under Canada’s Public Service Data Challenge, which gathers data-related ideas from the federal government workforce and propels the best into implementation.

The longlist was announced last night by Kristina Casey, chief service and digital officer of Transport Canada, who was giving the closing remarks at the Canadian government’s annual Data Conference.

Public servants submitted around 100 ideas to the Challenge, and the nine most promising were chosen by a judging panel comprising top data leaders from across government: these ideas will now be taken forward by interdisciplinary, cross-departmental teams of public servants, who’ll present their work to the judging panel at the semi-final in May.

The nine longlisted ideas were proposed by public servants working a wide variety of roles – from a director of data science to a junior policy analyst, from a data analytics champion to a housing industry officer – and cover a broad range of policy fields, public services and digital technologies.

Some, for example, identify ways to make better use of existing information – including data on air pollution, energy efficiency work and First Nation grievance resolution agreements. Others propose improving public services by creating new dashboards, information repositories or geospatial tools. A full list is presented below.

Before Casey’s announcement, chief data officer Stephen Burt – who is one of the programme’s three champions – gave a speech in which he explained the programme’s goals and value. Burt has previously told public servants that “the Data Challenge is designed to put you in the driving seat, helping you to develop your skills and careers while you improve public services and the tools available to public servants.”

The other two champions are Canada’s chief statistician Anil Arora, and Frank Des Rosiers, assistant deputy minister for strategic policy and innovation at Natural Resources Canada. Global Government Forum works alongside StatCan and NRCan to deliver the programme, supported by a network of ‘Advocates’ among data leaders across government.

At the Semi-Final, the judges will put questions to the nine teams and select a handful of projects for shortlisting. After a further period of research and development, the remaining teams will present their ideas again at the Final in September.

The programme’s goal is to take projects to the point where they’re adopted and taken forward by government departments. Last year’s winner, a proposal to improve Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s services search function put forward by Jay Conte, is currently being implemented.

The nine longlisted ideas are as follows:

Create a real-time bed availability tool for the homeless

Pulling together data on the availability of beds for homeless people at a regional level, and matching individuals with suitable accommodation, this tool will help those in need find a place to stay. Addressing a growing humanitarian crisis, it will much improve the health and wellbeing of homeless individuals while ensuring that public and voluntary sector resources are used as efficiently as possible.

Use ‘process mining’ to streamline transactional services

Drawing on records tracking the operation of public sector transactional services, ‘process mining’ identifies bottlenecks, common errors and other weak points, enabling managers to re-engineer systems, apply new technologies and better target resources. Trialling on immigration or passport services, the program will hone the technique and demonstrate its benefits for public servants and citizens.

Build a one-stop-shop for public health information and research

Drawing on public health data held by research councils, academic bodies, charities and international organisations, this AI-assisted ‘knowledge translation platform’ will provide user-friendly, customizable and searchable access to a huge range of information and evidence – aiding research, policy-making and service delivery, and promoting collaboration across organisational and sectoral boundaries.

Create a geospatial tool to improve infrastructure development

Bringing local demographic, economic, environmental and built environment data together with information on existing and proposed infrastructure, ‘Infraspatial’ will improve public servants’ understanding of how new developments will impact local communities and economies. Using the interactive mapping tool ArcGIS Online, the tool will enable non-technical staff to realise the potential of geospatial data.

Develop ‘rules as code’ chatbots for use in public services

Generative AI has huge potential for use in chatbots, guiding citizens through public services and information – but its tendency to ‘hallucinate’ renders it unsuitable for many advisory functions. This project will explore how to address this problem using ‘rules as code’ or Symbolic AI, under which systems deploy Generative AI to understand a request but distribute only accurate, verified packages of information.

Deploy AI to better resolve First Nations’ historic grievances

The government has resolved more than 600 historic First Nation grievances, but lacks a single repository of past research and agreements – gathering material from scratch for each new negotiation. Applying AI to analyse and catalogue a comprehensive repository of past research and settlements, this project would reduce duplication, strengthen the evidence base, improve consistency and hasten the resolution of grievances.

Map air pollution data and other key indicators to improve policymaking

Providing better information for environmental assessors and policymakers, this map-based tool will bring together data on local air quality, demographics and wildfires, feeding in evidence on the health impacts of air pollutants. Enabling users to track pollutants and public risks, over time and at a local level, the platform will help inform decisions in fields such as planning, transport and environmental regulation.

Provide common data definitions and tools to aid analysis and collaboration

When comparing datasets, public servants lack a universal set of definitions and formats – even for core information such as departmental names and street addresses. Data owners and specialists would also benefit from access to a common set of table and graph tools, pulling in datasets in real time. This project will explore how best to improve the data management tools available to public servants across government.

Analyse existing data to better target energy efficiency spending

The Canadian government funds work to improve homes’ energy efficiency, involving the commissioning of energy audits, energy modelling for multi-unit residences, and the submission of invoices for improvement works. By combining these sets of information, managers could track the impact of spending on emissions, compare the value for money of different investments, and improve program design for the future.

For more information on the Public Service Data Challenge, see our dedicated website

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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