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How open data could bring the North closer to southern Canadians

Want to learn Inuktituk? There's an app for that.

But unless you live in Nunavut, where the vast majority of its users reside, you likely haven't heard of it. In a country that calls itself the True North, we know woefully little about Canada's North.

Yet, with federal departments in Canada increasingly releasing to the public the data they collect – from airport security wait times tracked by Foreign Affairs to ice measurements in the Arctic collected by Environment Canada – we have the chance to build our knowledge of the north, and strengthen our identity as citizens of a northern country.

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It's time Canadians embrace this phenomenon, known as open data, to mine, develop and spread information about the North.

The recent first wave of Inuktitut-language apps demonstrates the demand for digital experiences for Northerners. In addition to the Inuktitut language instruction app – called Tusaalanga for iOS and developed by the Pirurvik Centre in Iqualuit and Artscii of Victoria, BC. – a new gaming provider based in Pangnirtung, Nunavut, has launched a suite of Inuktitut-language gaming apps.

Sunaunna, an app developed by Ivujivik-based artist Thomassie Mangiok, encourages the correct pronunciation of Inuktitut words. Apps are an especially valuable tool for Northerners, as the Canadian Council for the Arts recognized last year. The council launched Canada's first Inuktitut app to provide information on grant applications to Nunavut's artists.

Northern needs are not just the concern of Northerners, but are crucial to Canada's south as well. The federal government calls the North a top priority. The Prime Minister visits every summer. Resource extraction there has benefits for the country as a whole, while the drastic effects of climate change threatens unforeseen costs on us all.

Canada sees itself as a northern country, but most Canadians have little understanding of northern realities. Apps can provide easy access to information on the North, and become an important tool for education.

The federal government can play a key role in bringing the North closer to all Canadians by building momentum with open data. Earlier this year, it launched an official website that shares data collected by federal departments, including border wait times and lists of product recalls. The re-launched website allows the public to use this information without restriction, even for commercial ends – a surprising departure for a government known for its secrecy in other areas. While the amount of data available is still limited, Teasury Board President Tony Clement earlier this year referred to open data as Canada's newest natural resource.

Whether exploitation of data builds a stronger Canada depends on how it's used. While Mr. Clement has high hopes for what innovative and entrepreneurial Canadians will do with the collections of federal data, so far most of the 40 or so apps that have been created using data from Canadian government departments have been developed by federal government agencies. The public is not yet heavily involved.

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But the government is trying to encourage broader use, with its National Open Data Challenge and Appathon. In these events – modeled on successful experiments using municipally-collected data in Nanaimo, B.C., Edmonton, and Ottawa – app developers compete for prizes, for creating inventive apps using federal data. At the municipal level, an explosion of apps – notably ones sharing bus arrival times – has helped make the everyday lives of Canadians easier.

But will the federal government provide a similar catalyst for apps that connect Canadians to the North? It could, for instance, focus the National Open Data Challenge and Appathon on using data to create apps for and about the North.

If there's an app to track municipal buses, why not one that tracks when the next ship will arrive in Cambridge Bay? Or an app that compares food prices across Arctic communities? Why not games based on caribou migration? The Canadian video game industry contributes $2.3-billion annually to the country's GDP. Why not encourage app and game development in Northern communities struggling to build resilient industries?

We can use the data we, collectively, own to build our sense of country, starting with the True North. Northern realities need to be better understood across Canada. The federal government can and should lead the way.

Megan Campbell is a portfolio manager for Engineers Without Borders and a fellow with Action Canada in 2013-14.

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