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Side Projects and Open Data

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Working on side projects is an important part of any developer’s career. You can learn new skills, team up with others in your field, and practice promoting your work. In a job interview, talking about a side project you’re excited about is often more effective than showing off a portfolio full of school projects or client work. It shows you’re passionate and eager to learn — particularly if you’re a junior developer. But we’re all busy, and it isn’t easy to find the time to plan, develop, and promote a side project. I want to share one of the shortcuts I use for side project concepts: Open Data.

Open Data is the idea that data — particularly government data — should be freely available for anyone to use, remix, and republish. Many governments have bought into the idea. Toronto, for example, maintains a repository of data sets in its Open Data Portal.

Governments often don’t do a good job of utilizing or presenting the data they have. When looking at a data set, I ask myself two questions:

  • Can I improve access to this data, or make it easier for the average person to browse?
  • Can this data be useful when paired with the technologies uniquely available on mobile devices? (GPS, Health tracking, etc.)

You could use the Parking Tickets data set to power an app that warns drivers when they park somewhere that is ticketed heavily.

You could create an app that monitors the user’s route to work and, using the Road Restrictions data set, warn them about accidents and construction. Heck, throw the Traffic Cameras set in there and you could let them see how bad traffic is for themselves.

You could combine Heat Alerts and Extreme Heat Alerts with Air Conditioned Public Places & Cooling Centres to alert those vulnerable to high temperatures and direct them somewhere they can cool down.

The ideas are endless.

When Toronto released the results of the Core Service Review (a fancy survey, basically) browsing the responses, well, sucked. It was a fantastic opportunity for me to create What Toronto Said, a site where every response could be browsed, mapped, and read easily. It was my first foray into Ruby on Rails, which meant it wasn’t just an opportunity to make things a bit easier for my fellow Torontonians, it was a chance to improve my skills.

And not just my technical skills. As Austin Kleon points out, your work doesn’t speak for itself.

“Our work doesn’t speak for itself. People want to know where things came from, how they were made, and who made them. The stories you tell have emotional significance and bring value to your work. Everyone wants to feel connected, and stories make things more personal.”

Once the site was ready, I contacted a few local media outlets and let them know it was coming. I ended up doing a few interviews, appeared on the radio, and got traffic from a bunch of local blogs. It was so much fun. Not to mention, jumping into Rails on my own helped me land my gig at The Working Group.

Learning to ship, improve, and promote your work doesn’t come naturally to most people — myself included. It’s a skill, like anything else. And that means you can work to improve it.

Side projects are a great way to practice all your skills. And with the insane amount of Open Data out there, it would be silly to pass it up. Instead of working on yet another todo list app, why not create something that allows you to up your game and help out your neighbours, all at once?

Everybody wins.