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Toronto Public Library Brings Community, Data Together at Hackathon

by on February 12, 2016

On November 14 and 15, 2015,  the Toronto Public Library (TPL) was invaded by hackers – fourteen teams of invited programming enthusiasts – as part of the first TPL Hackathon. Hackathons are common events in the programming world and can last from hours to days as programmers work to create apps, websites, games, and other projects.

With the Toronto Public Library in the middle of developing a new strategic plan, the staff decided to theme their hackathon by posing this question to participants: “How can the library make our communities more resilient, more knowledgeable, more connected and more successful?” The library provided data sets to participants, including statistics on circulation, programs, and attendance, top ten books borrowed by format and type, real time online catalog searches, and demographic information from the City of Toronto.  The participants chose the data they were most interested in to create their project. Because of the limited time that teams had to work on their projects, the focus of the event was more on ideas and concepts rather than working prototypes, though some projects did make it to that stage.

On Sunday, each team gave a three-minute presentation on their project and winners were chosen. The Best Idea winner, Sacha Chua, wrote a script allowing the library’s holdings to be visualized on a map.  Patrons can see which branches have the most items in a specific category, like foreign language material, and can also see that if their closest branch may not have many items of interest, a branch a few blocks away may have a better collection. “She got the library. She really used the data sets, and she presented the idea in a concise, compelling way,” said Ab Velasco, TPL’s Project Leader, Digital Innovation.  Sacha’s presentation and those of the other groups are available on the Toronto Public Library website.

The Best Idea and Awesome Team winners were presented with 3D-printed trophies, and other winners received weirder prizes.  One participant spent the day cleaning up a library data set to make it easier to use in the future and was given the “Scrubber Award” and a dish-sponge trophy.  The youngest participant received the “Lion Courage Award” and a stuffed lion.

Although the focus of the weekend was on concepts, some of those concepts may become reality.  Velasco said that a few of the hackathon ideas matched ideas already in progress and that the participants and staff will have discussions on implementation; other new ideas will go to library supervisors to see if they can be made into full-fledged library projects.  “It will be wonderful to continue the dialogue with our community,” Velasco said.

Preparation for the event included collecting the relevant data sets, creating a dedicated Wi-Fi network for hackathon participants with increased bandwidth, and, of course, getting the participants to come.  The Toronto Public Library worked with the City of Toronto and the Open Data Institute based in the city to advertise the event, recruiting people with a range of computer literacy from “first time hackers to pros,” Velasco said.

Nearly sixty people aged twelve to seventy-five participated in the hackathon, and even more potential participants were put on a wait list.  Because of the success of this first program, the library plans to host another hackathon next year with a new focus and brand-new ideas to consider.


Velasco, Ab. “Great Ideas and Teamwork Displayed at Inaugural TPL Hackathon.” Toronto Public Library. November 28, 2015. http://www.tpl.ca/hackathon. Accessed December 15, 2015.

Velasco, Ab. Interview by Alison McCarty.. December 9, 2015.

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