Computer coders join forces to tackle Canada-U.S. border snags

WASHINGTON -- Teams of computer programmers will gather in two cities this weekend to try developing software that slashes through the red tape that gums up trade across the Canada-U.S.

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The events in Toronto and Chicago stem from a business-community idea that governments should try using Silicon Valley-style hackathon gatherings to deal with the persistent problem of border delays.

Dozen of people from academia, the private sector, and trade groups will form teams from Friday though Sunday and compete in an event titled "Canada-U.S. Hackathon: Get North America Trading Again."

They'll seek to design software that simplifies the import-export process, with $15,000 awarded in cash prizes in an event sponsored by the Canadian and American governments, industry groups, and corporate powerhouses like Microsoft, IBM and Amazon.

One organizer says governments are experts at enforcing rules and monitoring the border -- but private-sector innovators are far better at finding solutions to technical irritants.

Another goal of this event, he said, is to bring smart, young people into the circle of government decision-making for tackling problems.

"You bring a whole new group of people into the public-policy arena," said Adam Schlosser, senior director and policy counsel at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"Most folks in programming or in the startup scene -- they're not thinking public policy. They're thinking of building the next app. Connecting those two can wind up solving a lot of problems."

If the first event works, he hopes it develops into an annual affair.

The goal is to start small, with two very specific problems encountered by some importers and exporters. Future events could build on the platforms developed over the weekend, he said.

Teams will be presented with two tasks.

One involves a simpler way to refund cross-border book purchases -- the countries have different import-export codes for various types of books, causing complications when the same book has to be shipped back.

The other task involves designing software that would allow the importer of a product from a crowd-funding website to send sales data to two places simultaneously: the product-maker, and customs officials.

The intellectual-property rights to the software will remain with the teams and they can license or sell it as they see fit -- although it's supposed to be compatible with government programs.

An early promoter of the idea is delighted to see it happening.

Maryscott Greenwood of the Canadian-American Business Council last year repeatedly urged members of both governments to try tackling border delays with the dot-com-era problem-solving model.

The labyrinthine customs system currently in place complicates trade, stifles economic growth, and ties up border agents who could be working on more important things, she said.

"The manner in which they ask for information (at customs) is like the 1970s," Greenwood said.

"It's really hard to figure out even how to comply. You have to hire a specialist... Then the customs person has to interpret everything -- so instead of actually doing their law-enforcement function and screening for bad guys and contraband they're sitting there looking at binders full of information."

She identified the ultimate goal: "Make it as easy to cross the border with a truck full of goods as it is to buy a book on Amazon. That's the idea. And if you can do that, that will put hundreds of millions of dollars back into the economy -- without costing anyone anything."

The White House has already convened one such event -- for disaster-response. It resulted in more than 30 ideas to solve problems people had during the 2012 hurricane on the East Coast. Google and the home-rental app AirBnB wound up offering ways to use their platforms to notify and help people in disaster-affected areas.

Greenwood later suggested using that model to tackle problems faced by members of her association. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce took a lead on the initiative, and helped organize this weekend's events.


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