Ben Sanders, the CEO for local government-technology company Proof, right, talks about HackYG at a media briefing in Whitehorse on Nov. 21. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

At HackYG, new ideas to solve old problems emerge

The hackathon, organized by YuKonstruct, focused on using technology to improve how the Yukon government runs

A tried-and-true tech industry method to generate fresh ideas to solve old problems is gradually taking hold in the Yukon — hackathons.

The success of one hosted earlier this month in Whitehorse by YuKonstruct means there will likely be more to come, organizers said.

Dubbed HackYG, the event, held Nov. 15 to 17, saw nine teams churn out 10 projects over a 48-hour period. Each project touched on a new way that technology can be used to improve how the Yukon government functions. The hackathon, sponsored by the Yukon government as well as several businesses, was the first one YuKonstruct has hosted in its new space in downtown Whitehorse, the NorthLight Innovation hub.

Participants included government workers, developers, tech employees and other members of the public, including some that travelled from as far away as Ontario and Quebec to take part.

After finishing their project prototypes, the teams had three minutes to pitch their ideas to a panel of four judges, who evaluated the projects based on their innovativeness and usefulness while also taking into account the teams’ creativity, execution and polish.

The judges ultimately awarded the winning prize to the team led by Ben Sanders, the CEO for local government-technology company Proof.

Within the 48 hours, the team had build a chatbot prototype, simply named “Help Yukon,” that can answer Yukon government-related questions via Facebook Messenger (for now, it’s only taking questions on camping).

“So instead of calling in or sending an email or trying to fax in a form or looking on things on a website, we built this concept harnessing artificial intelligence which allows people to communicate in real time with, effectively, a robot, that was answering questions and that work 24 hours a day, seven days a week and it can talk to hundreds of people all at the same time,” Sanders explained at a media event on Nov. 21.

He added that he was inspired by the creativity, drive and problem-solving he saw over the weekend.

“I’m thinking about, if we can leverage that and work closer between business and government, just imagine the cool things that we could build if we did that on a more regular basis, you know?”

Yukon Minister of Highways and Public Works Richard Mostyn and Minister of Economic Development Ranj Pillai also said they were excited by what they saw over the HackYG weekend.

“I know that seeing what just transpired this last while, I look back to my officials and we would love to see more of this,” Pillai said. “What a great way to get expertise from outside of the territory to travel here to mix over a period of time with individuals from government as well as from private sector … to talk about how to look at solutions.”

Mostyn said the hackathon model and theme fits perfectly into his department’s goal to modernize how the Yukon government functions.

“What I saw on Saturday afternoon, we call it a hackathon, which has sort of this sinister Russian or Bulgarian connotation, but really what we were seeing here were a bunch of really thoughtful, really dedicated individuals from the private sector and from the public sector working together to come up with real solutions to problems that we face every day,” he said.

Mostyn was particularly enthusiastic about a project pitched by a team that had figured out a way to digitize all of the Yukon government’s forms.

“That was revolutionary for me, to see that,” he said. “I mean, I work in the civil service, I see how it goes — somebody faxes you something, you then get it up on your screen, you print off a PDF, you run the PDF upstairs, you get a signature, you run it back downstairs, you scan it, you fax it… It’s ridiculous, and that’s how many departments work in this government. To be able to take a PDF, digitize it, make it so that it’s a fillable form that can be (sent by) email and deal with it that way, is absolutely stupendous, it’s great.”

Mostyn added that while there is no commitment on the Yukon government’s end to actually implement any of the hackathon ideas, the government’s information and communications technology branch will be reaching out to several teams to follow up on their ideas.

Lauren Manekin Beille, YuKonstruct’s director of community development, told media that HackYG is exactly the kind of event that YuKonstruct was hoping to have at NorthLight — one that inspires creative thinking and gets people together to create something new.

“NorthLight is being what we wanted it to be,” she said, adding that, since HackYG, YuKonstruct has heard from Air North and Gold Corp. about their interest in holding their own hackathons.

HackYG participants were also enthusiastic about having more events at YuKonstruct in the future, co-organizer Alessia Guthrie told the News.

“The amount of enthusiasm and energy and drive and the participation level and the calibre of people we had here working on these projects was setting the bar really, really high,” she said.” So we can take the same model as someone else but it goes to show you that the Yukon is really, really a great place when it comes to actually executing something.”

Projects created during the hackathon can be viewed at northlight.sparkboard.com/projects

Contact Jackie Hong at jackie.hong@yukon-news.com

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