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Montreal Hackathon Aims to Combat Government Corruption

BY Elisabeth Fraser | Monday, November 12 2012

Hackons la Corruption (credit: QuebecOuvert)

This past weekend, 200 tech geeks — including 50-70 developers — gathered in Montreal to root out government corruption, one hack at a time.

Hackons la Corruption 2012 (Hacking Corruption 2012), billed as North America’s first anti-corruption hackathon, was held on November 10 and 11 at a community center in Montreal's east end.

Participants from Quebec and elsewhere attended seminars, munched on pizza, and worked in teams to create projects aimed at exposing government behavior and improving open data access.

“The climate in Quebec right now is one of astonishment at the amount of corruption. We think that in the 21st century, we need to use 21st century technology to fight corruption,” said organizer Jonathan Brun, one of six co-founders of QuebecOuvert, the group behind the event.

The hackathon, months in the planning, teamed hackers and challenged them to scrape existing information databases in hopes of raising public awareness regarding government accountability.

Amongst the projects presented was DonsPolitiques, an effort to link political donations by individuals to the companies they work at. The idea was to track companies that might be encouraging their employees to give political donations, then reimbursing them by adding the money to their salaries or handing out bonuses (corporate political donations are illegal in Canada). DonsPolitiques uses a database of political donations and LinkedIn to identify where people are working when they give political donations, and to find companies that might be trying to influence the legislative process or awarding of contracts.

Another platform, ContratsNet, provides visualization of how contracts are given out in Montreal by jurisdiction, by borough, or by type. “We are trying to build a very broad database of information from all the provincial legislators,” says Michael Mulley, founder of OpenParliament.ca, a website that features easy-to-access information on the activities of Canada's federal government.

The timing for an anti-corruption hackathon is certainly right. Quebec has been rocked by a series of spectacular scandals over recent months. Long-rumored ties between provincial and municipal governments, the construction industry, and the mafia have been brought to light by various media reports — and, most notably, by the Charbonneau Commission, named for presiding justice France Charbonneau. Though still in its infancy, the commission has released one bombshell revelation after another.

“The best is yet to come,” declared Hackons la Corruption keynote speaker Jacques Duchesneau, referring to the Charbonneau Commission revelations. The former Montreal Chief of Police and current provincial representative for the Québec riding (electoral district) of Saint-Jerôme was hired by the provincial government to look into rumoured construction industry corruption in 2010. In 2011, he blew the whistle on the relationship between the mob and Québec officials with a shocking report he leaked to the media. Duschesneau was subsequently fired.

“We’ve only heard four witnesses. Actually, we’re expecting about 75, so hold your breath,” Duscheneau told techPresident.

So far, the commission has heard allegations about safes at Montreal City Hall so overstuffed with cash that the doors could not be closed; of cash payments to mobsters smuggled via sock-stuffing, and of a 3 percent kickback "tax" on construction contracts awarded under the stewardship of Montreal city engineer Gilles Surprenant. Surprenant claimed he spent large sums of these illegal payments at a Montreal casino, in an attempt to repay taxpayers.

Perhaps most chillingly, the commission heard about “Mr. Sidewalk” a.k.a Nicolo Milioto, a construction company owner. According to Martin Dumont, a high level organizer for Montreal’s governing Union Montreal party, Mr. Sidewalk threatened to make Dumont a part of his pavement if he asked too many questions.

Over the past days, top municipal officials have been falling like dominos. Montreal mayor Gérard Tremblay and Laval mayor Gilles Vaillancourt took medical leaves from work, then resigned. Vaillancourt’s home was recently raided by Quebec’s anti-corruption squad. Mascouche mayor Robert Marcotte is already facing charges of fraud and corruption, although he has yet to resign; he continues to collect a government salary, even as his own party disavows him.

Most recently Michael Applebaum, mayor of Montreal borough Côte-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grace and deputy to Mayor Tremblay, resigned from the city's executive committee. Applebaum cited a 2004 report — which, he says, proves Montreal has long been paying 30-40 percent more than other municipalities for road work.

All this comes on the heels of the Maple Spring, the student protest movement that erupted in February 2012, in response to the government's plan to raise university tuition fees by 75 percent. The movement reached its zenith in May, when an estimated 400,000 citizens took to the streets, banging pots and pans. The government responded by passing Bill 78, an emergency law that required a police permit for demonstrations of more than 50 people and suspended classes at universities where students were on strike. The government also deployed riot police who were recorded using tear gas, carrying out mass arrests and initiating beatings to break up protests. The Canadian Association for Civil Rights issued a strongly worded statement criticizing the Quebec government for violating fundamental rights, using excessive force and restricting civil liberties.

So, how can a hackathon improve matters?

“Well, for one thing, this allows me to be a little bit more optimistic, because it will replace the cynicism that is taking root right now in the province of Quebec with something positive,” says Jean Fortier, former President of Montreal’s City Executive Committee. He says corruption at City Hall goes back a long time, and while he was “not at all” surprised by the revelations that have been unearthed so far by the Charbonneau Commission, having his worst suspicions confirmed moved him to tears one morning.

“I think the solution anywhere, either in private industry, or institutions, or public sectors, is activity-based management,” says Fortier. In order to do that, “You have to have basic, common data, that is available everywhere in the United States from town to town from city to city.”

In a speech delivered at the hackathon, the Sunlight Foundation's* James Turk spoke about the OpenStates project, which provides data on U.S. state legislators. Turk said the platform was so popular that many governments prefer its apps for iPhone and iPad to their own software.

“Data that’s in a book isn’t truly accessible; it needs to be available online,” said Turk. OpenStates uses only information that is in the public domain, although sometimes friendly informants may guide them to a certain obscure website, or provide them with lists of people who were invited to political fundraisers. Turk showed the crowd a model of the scrapers his team uses to obtain information. “Don’t be scared, it’s actually pretty simple,” he laughed.

Optimism is a good thing, and Hackons la Corruption 2012 can be viewed at the very least as an interesting event — as well as a positive development . The hackathon was well covered by the local media and as such did succeed in raising awareness about government corruption, and the means of sourcing information to empower ordinary citizens, but the jury is very much out on the question of its overal impact. The developers who presented DonsPolitiques, the project that aspired to link political donations by individuals to the companies they worked for, did not produce an app at the event. But on the other hand, ContratsNet won the grand prize, with the developers — who were working on their project for two weeks before the hackathon — expecting to push forward toward a launch.

The overall attitude at the hackathon seemed to be be, better baby steps than no steps. “The only way we can win over corruption is to get the information that we need,” said Duschesneau. “People have all the reasons in the world to get upset. But a long journey always starts with a first step. Today, I think, is a first step in the right direction.

*techPresident publisher Andrew Rasiej and editor Micah Sifry are senior advisors to the Sunlight Foundation.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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