Nov 18, 2012 / 8:30 am
Armed with little more than their laptops and a trove of government records, a small army of activists in Montreal has dedicated itself to tackling the city's corruption troubles.
The group, which gathered at a downtown community centre to pore over spreadsheets and city council minutes last week, is part of a growing movement in Canada that sees open data as a key way to make governments more efficient and honest.
"To fight corruption in the 21st century, you have to use 21st century technology," said Jonathan Brun, co-founder of Quebec Ouvert, which organized the Montreal meeting.
"In order to do that, you have to use data."
More than 100 people, many of them computer programmers in their 20s and 30s, gathered for a "hackathon", a marathon for computer hackers.
The idea was to help uncover shady transactions by sifting through municipal records. It meant designing computer programs that can show trends or connections across thousands of documents.
Connecting the dots is no easy task.
Testimony at Quebec's ongoing corruption inquiry suggests a complex system of bid-rigging and kickbacks that involves political parties, civil servants, construction bosses and the Mafia.
Untold sums of public money have been squandered on projects that cost more than warranted. The mayors of Montreal and Laval have stepped down amid the turmoil.
David Eaves, a Vancouver-based public policy expert, said publicly available government documents can be a huge help to charities, think-tanks and businesses trying to plan for the future. Governments themselves stand to gain too, he said.
When it comes to exposing corruption, Eaves said making records available is an important first step.
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