Montreal start-up and open data heroes

What strikes me about folks I’ve met from Montreal’s start-up and open data scenes is how giving they are. These are people who not only put hours of their personal lives into projects dear to their hearts but they give back to the community or are developing projects that will benefit the wider community. They’re talented yet humble about their achievements. And their enthusiasm and willingness to take risks is truly inspiring.

Financial support is welcome for most of these projects. Many encourage your involvement.

In no particular order:

RobotGrrl. Ever since I witnessed Erin Kennedy and her team partner Marek Zaluski win top prize at the Montreal Cloud Robotics Hackathon event last March (I unfortunately missed the presentation) I’ve been rooting for Erin and her Team Lightningbots project.

I love her passion for robots and her desire to use them in an educational math game. RoboBrrds are tabletop birds that light up when (presumably) a child answers math equations on a computer. If the child gets the answer right the birds nod ‘yes’ and light up and flap their wings. For a wrong answer the birds shake their heads ‘no.”  The project is more complicated than that, with the robots monitoring all sorts of data as they interact with the computer and post data to a cloud. I wrote about it here. Here’s a video of her Cloud Robotics presentation:

The birds are cute and the project is educational and fun. At the Cloud Robotics Hackathon Erin and Marek won tickets to Montreal’s International Startup Festival, which was held a few weeks ago.

Reading Erin’s blog postI was saddened to learn she didn’t find any investors or much support at the festival. I hope she finds backers soon.

Montréal Ouvert, Québec Ouvert and Open North.The folks behind these projects are visionaries who are passionate about data and democracy.

In only a few years, these young Montrealers have successfully lobbied Montreal city hall and the Quebec government to set up Web portals to release open data – civic information made available in a format that’s easy for computers to read and manipulate- and make open data a policy priority.

They’ve made conference presentations and public meetings and regularly organize hackathons where programmers gather together and create all sorts of new Web apps and sites from government data.

The results have been amazing. A few examples:

  • KofKof Montréal tweets alerts about Montreal Island air quality results
  • watches contaminated land sites

Two Montréal Ouvert and Québec Ouvert contributors, James McKinney and Jonathan Brun, run Open North, a non-profit organization dedicated to using the data to create tools to improve democracy.

Their accomplishments include:

  • lets you find out what your Montreal city councillor is up to (especially on social media) and interact with them
  • lists how restaurants fared in city health inspections
  • A Citizen Budget tool gives people a chance to plan their own city or borough budget (and see how hard it is to balance different priorities)
  • Gazette Documents, an online database of city contracts

Open North welcomes public donations to fund their different projects.

Quebec has long had problems with corruption, especially in the awarding of contracts. With allegations of organized crime elements running the construction industry and collusion in bids on government contracts, you have to be brave to tackle corruption.

This September 15 and 16 Québec Ouvert is hosting Hacking Corruption 2012, a two-day hackathon in Montreal to fight corruption and collusion.

Their explanation:

For the first time in Québec, citizens come together to help fight corruption: this is Hacking Corruption, an events where all citizens are invite to join forces and create tools that will help prevent collusion and corruption in Québec.

In a collaborative spirit, we’ll work towards making the best out of technology and available government (open) data to help governments and fellow citizens make sure that public funds are used without abuse.

clssy Vancouver native Jordan Saniuk moved to Montreal last year and at age 22 he’s already making his mark with clssy, a start-up geared to making education accessible by having people who have a skill share their knowledge with others. Courses are posted online and people register online but meet in person for the actual courses. The classes are often free or at a low cost. I greatly enjoyed two free classes- HTML and CSS and Websites with WordPress, both taught by Jordan, who has a full-time jobs and runs clssy in his free time.

The wide range of classes includes digital photography and how to use Photoshop, boxing, barefoot running, how to ride a bike in the city, how to style your hair and how to play drums at a Montreal tam tam session. They’re always looking for teachers and in the case of a paid class the teacher takes home 85 per cent of the fee.

The Montreal chapter of the Awesome Foundation. I love the idea of the Awesome Foundation. What I’ve heard is when it first started in Boston every month 10 people would put $100 each in a brown paper bag and then they decide where that $1,000 could go to make their community more “awesome.”

I don’t know a lot about the Montreal chapter except that since launching last fall it has awarded “awesome grants” to five projects now (it seems the funders meet late into the night to pick projects) and they appear to be community minded. They have helped fund and Park N’ Lot, a greening/garden project to transform a parking lot at Royal West Academy. I wish they would update their online sites more often.