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Esri Canada technical staff square off in first-ever app building contest

In the spirit of innovation and collaboration, Esri Canada launched an internal contest — Tech Trek Idol 2014 — that encouraged technical staff to band together to create apps built on the ArcGIS platform. I talked with Esri Canada’s Matt English about the first-annual competition, whose entries included a point-and-click Canadian geography quiz and an interactive map featuring places depicted in "Game of Thrones".

Esri Canada has the benefit of employing many talented people who are passionate about GIS. This year, technical staff across the country were given an outlet for their GIS passion and a chance to collaborate with colleagues in an internal app-building contest called Tech Trek Idol 2014.

An impressive 17 teams participated, developing a wide-range of GIS-based apps that range from a map-based Canadian geography challenge, to a Toronto event aggregator, to an interactive map about the popular Game of Thrones series of books and TV shows.

On Monday, Esri Canada employees voted team reac.TOR as the contest’s inaugural winner. The reac.TOR team—whose members included Cameron Plouffe, Michael Luubert and Krista Amolins—created an event app built on the ArcGIS platform that scrapes content from several popular Toronto event listing Web sites and displays them on an interactive map. Each team member won an Apple Watch.

The reac.TOR app aggregates data from several popular event listing sites, drawing them all on a single map to give users a complete, location-based picture of what's happening in Toronto.

Technology lead and regular Esri Canada UC presenter, Matt English , was one of the driving forces behind the contest. I recently caught up with Matt to learn more about it.

Matt English on stage during the 2014 Esri Canada Toronto UC.

AB: Why was this contest named “Tech Trek Idol”?

ME: Tech Trek is a great gathering of Esri Canada technical people that happens once a year. People from across the country come together and meet face-to-face, attending technical seminars given by folks from Redlands (Esri) and Esri Canada as well as having some fun at social events, too. At the seminars, presenters explain all the great stuff that’s coming and they also dive into innovative, real-world projects, which triggers an amazing exchange of ideas and enthusiasm. The idea behind creating the Tech Trek Idol contest is to try and keep the momentum going after the conference.

AB: How was the contest announced and presented to the group?

ME: It was announced by Jim Wickson (Esri Canada’s VP of Sales & Professional Service) during a plenary session. Shortly after, Amr Eldib (a senior developer support consultant at Esri Canada) and I got together and were inspired enough to suggest we open source the contest on GitHub. So, in addition to people going away and building apps, they could share those apps on GitHub with each other and the GIS community. We wanted to give our user community the opportunity to pull back the curtain and see how some of these teams built the apps they developed.

Esri Canada staff attend a session during Tech Trek 2014. The three-day event was held at the Nottawasaga Inn Resort & Conference Centre, approximately one hour north of Toronto.

AB: What were the parameters for the teams entering the contest?

ME: They were asked to get together in teams and build an app using Esri technology, preferably ArcGIS Online. Teams were free to tackle whatever issue or problem they wanted and were also free to build their app however they wanted. They could build out-of-the-box story maps and briefing book apps, or they could get into writing code—we left it completely open.

AB: I understand five finalists were initially selected by a panel of judges. What were the criteria that judges used to pick the finalists?

ME: We were looking for several things. Creativity, innovation, the app’s overall usefulness and how deep a team went into using our technology. Also, we were interested to see how well teams pitched their app on GitHub.

AB: How was the contest decided?

ME: The five finalists were asked to give a five-minute pitch during a live webinar that we opened up to everyone in the company to attend. All the apps and the pitches given by the five teams were very strong. We polled the webinar audience right after the presentations and tallied up the votes; the final result was extremely close.

AB: What happens with the apps now?

ME: I think as a company we’ll take a hard look at some of the finalists and consider the possibility of investing more in one or two of them for commercial release. It certainly wasn’t the main goal of the contest, but, given the level of innovation demonstrated, it will be a consideration now.   

AB: Have you already thought about next year’s contest? Will it grow or change?

ME: Down the road, it would be ideal if we could put together teams that are composed of people from different offices, who normally don’t get to work together. This will foster incredible collaboration and communication. They'll be connected, sharing ideas and developing their apps, through ArcGIS Online and GitHub. Social coding is an emerging trend and we want our employees to experience it first-hand, together.

You can learn more about the apps developed by the five Tech Trek Idol 2014 finalists by visiting each contestant’s entry page on GitHub: