HYPER GO: Why bother with an unconference?

Hoorah. For the third time in three years there will be an unconference for those in and around local government in the West Midlands.

Called Hyper WM this half day event has grown from being a half germ of an idea to something a bit big a bit splendid and I’m proud to be involved with.

Staged at The Public in West Bromwich on Monday November 19 the event will give people the space to think a bit differently. Hats off to Sandwell Council’s chief executive Jan Britton and Liz O’nions for really picking up the ball and running with it and to Si Whitehouse who has played a big role this year.

It’s the biggest event yet there’s some tickets here if you’re quick.

But what’s the purpose of one of these things? Aren’t we all unconferenced out? Paul Coxon recently wrote a challenging and thoughtful piece that questioned the worth of unconferences. Paul has done some great work in local government and like anything half-decent if it’s a good idea it can stand a level of scrutiny. So here’s my own take on them.

What do I get out of them?

Simply, it’s a chance to connect, be challenged, think differently and learn. It’s a chance to see what is on the horizon and just over the hill. Do I learn something that I can put into place first thing Monday morning? Yes. But it’s often equips me for that thing that lands on my lap in six months time. Often it’s thanks to an unconference that I’ve knowing the basics and know the right person who can help. Like a glorified address book with ‘problem solving’ on the cover. Everything that I’ve done over the last three years with digital – direct or indirectly – has come from an unconference. How can I start to calculate that?

What would new people get out of them?

It’s a chance to take some time out of the office to learn and to think differently. Job titles are handed in at the door and there’s a chance to contribute to a discussion or even start a discussion with someone with something you have in common. The coffee break at a traditional event is often the most valuable time as it’s a chance to talk, ask questions and learn. A good unconference can be a whole lot of that.

What do sponsors get out of it?

A chance to test out ideas, horizon scan, see what ideas are developing and to attach a name to a room full of people who believe in doing something a bit innovative. There’s also the passing traffic of eyeballs to the website and to the event. But that’s almost a by-product.

Oh, no it’s not structured!

Rather like taking a dip in the deep end without water wings for the first time there’s a leap of faith involved. You may hate it. You’re more likely to like it. At the last Hyper WM there was the press officer who refused to come because he didn’t have an agenda. That misses the point.

Nine unconference pitfalls and ways to dodge them

Three years on from my first unconference and it’s clear that the model has evolved and has matured. There was an intake of breath at localgovcamp in Birmingham in 2012 when for a whole variety of reasons many veterans couldn’t make it. But others stepped up to the plate which was brilliant to see.

1. If the same faces turn up.

There’s no question that there’s a group of people who will turn up to unconferences. That’s fine. They’ll get the ball rolling and encourage and cajole. But the danger is there’s an imbalance of new people with fresh ideas. An imaginative use of the wait list can ration the right balance. Easy.

2. If the same faces pitch a session idea.

There’s also no question that the unconference pitching session where you stand in front of a room of people can be daunting. It encourages a certain type of people who don’t mind public displays of popularity. So how to fix it? Maybe it’s encouraging ideas before the event itself. Maybe it’s blank postcards and pens. And someone else reading them out. Easy.

3. If there’s no ideas

Like the actor who dreams of being on stage with no clothes surely deep down the unconference organiser dreads. Teeing up a couple of ideas and making the pitching less scary is a must. Especially from new people.

4. If there’s cliques

Open data people only talking to other open data people in open data sessions is a bit of a missed opportunity and a bit boring, frankly. The times when I’ve been to events I’ve made a deliberate policy of heading to an event where I’ve known absolutely nothing. In short, I’ve sat in the corner and said nothing. At one event I sat through a session on WordPress as a web platform. That’s not my day job. But I learned things that helped with the day job. If you’ve been before, find someone you’ve not met before and chat to them. Then repeat. You’ll learn things.

5. If the focus on problems not the shiny tech

I’d love to see sessions that floated a problem and looked for solutions that may or may not be about the tech. Coventry City Council Martin Reeves at the 10 by 10 WM event made a valuable point. At a recent session for chief executives social media wasn’t mentioned once, he said. Don’t be an evangelist. Bring a solution that may just have some tech as part of it.

6. If there’s measurement

Yes, but how do we measure the success? Maybe it’s coming back in six months time to see what people have learned and put into practice. Then working out what the cost of what that would have been if you’d bought it off the shelf. Good luck with calculating that.You’ll need a stack of numbers.

7. Yes, but aren’t we unconferenced out?

Not nearly close. If 150 people want to stage an event to talk museums and hold it in an unconference format that’s fine by me if those 150 get something out of it. The public sector is a broad church. With training budgets vanishing the unconference is a way of sharing knowledge. If a room full of public health people want to get together to crack something that’s fine by me. Or librarians.

8. It’s the brewcamps, stupid

For all I love big organised events it’s actually things like brewcamp – and teacamp in London – where I can see the most potential. What’s this? It’s a group of like minded people coming together to drink coffee, eat cake and learn things. At no cost. In a coffee shop. Splintering is the new black.

Crack those eight and you’ve a good chance of helping to create something vibrant and innovative. Best thing is you don’t have to be an organiser to play a big part.

9. It’s not a golden bullet 
Like marmite, some people will love unconferences. Some people won’t. They’re both right and that’s fine.

Creative commons credits

Shropcamp http://www.flickr.com/photos/bryn_s/5655320144/sizes/l/in/pool-1638817@N22/

Hyper WM http://www.flickr.com/photos/danieldslee/5059208628/

Ally Hook http://www.flickr.com/photos/nohaatef/5058081740/sizes/l/


GOOD IDEAS: What is a hack day? And why you should be bothered

A hack day? That’s breaking into the Pentagon computer, right?

Why would normal people go to something like that?

Why stare at banks of geeks staring at laptops coding?

As a spectator sport it fails. Utterly.

But the potential of it is immense.

Why?

Because getting several talented people in the same room means better ideas surface.

But you simply MUST make it open for everyone. By that, I mean they must be space for non-tecky people too and I’m not sure that always happens.

A room full of geeks will come up with geek ideas.

A room full of the digitally unconnected won’t know where to start.

It’s when you put them both you are beginning to be on the road to a winner.

Although not strictly a hack day, for me this pro-am blend is why something like Local by Social works as an idea. Or CityCamp. Getting real people in the same room as techy people to come up with solutions to problems.

After attending a couple of hack days and being out of my usual comfort zone and contributing little other than cups of coffee and a few – often bad – ideas here’s a few things that struck me.

WHAT’S NEEDED FOR A HACK DAY?

Some space. Some volunteers. Some time. The internet. Some people who know about stuff. Plug sockets. Coffee. Pizza is optional.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR LOCAL GOVERNMENT?

It means people actively re-using using data – or information – to produce a web application or an interesting new website. There are some that say local government shouldn’t be doing this themselves. It should be people in the open data community. I don’t buy that one. Outside the pockets of open data innovation in the country, there’s a role for local government to produce things using open data. If there are no coders in a small town or if the market hasn’t moved there, then why not?

Similarly, if there is a need to present information in a more interesting way than just a static website.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR PR?

Yet again, it’s more evidence that Comms 3.0 is upon us. That’s a subject I’ve blogged about before which you can read here. It’s more evidence that the old school press officer is not the gatekeeper to the message. But the forward thinking comms person doesn’t need to write script and eat pizza. They just need an appreciation of what’s going on. They can also contribute with ideas and inspiration.

 WHAT CAN BE BUILT AT A HACK DAY?

On Twitter, Digital Birmingham’s Si Whitehouse made the point that a hack day doesn’t always need to have something working at the end of it to be a success. It’s a fair point. Sometimes it’s enough to try out a concept or a new approach that could be expanded and invested in at a later date. Or just make connections. Or create the data itself.

WHAT AREA WORKS BEST FOR A HACK DAY?

As far as I’m concerned, an area that is sitting on piles of data and is quite keen on people to come and build things with it. It’s as simple as that.

Here’s a few examples of things produced at hack days.

GO FISH: Something that makes you explore a museum archive and tell a story.

At the WAG Hack Day in West Bromwich staged by Black Country Museums the excellent Ben Proctor and others built this something useful that demonstrates it. It’s a way of pulling nine items from the collection and you building your own story about them. It’s creative. It also gets you to explore the museum’s stores.

WHO WANTS TO NOT GET STABBED? A way of comparing how safe you are in rural and city locations.

An excellent game that uses crime and Google street view data. You can play it here. You get certain scenarios put in front of you and you get to choose which is safer. You’d be quite surprised at what the actual safe places are.

LOOQUEST: A game that directs you to nearby public toilets.

With a retro look, this hack by Neontribe is really quite wonderful and makes you smile, is a help and raises the problem of a lack of public lavs. I kept getting eaten by the toilet. You can play it here.

EDINBURGH PLANNING APP MAP: Takes planning applications and puts them on a map.

At the Scraperwiki event in Glasgow, this map which updates daily with planning applications to a map is worth looking at. This blog tells you how its done.

WARD MAPPER: A tool to compare and contrast vital ward data.

At Hackitude in Birmingham, this rather fine model to demonstrate how data from data.gov.uk can be turned from something dusty emerged. You can read the blog from Stuart Harrison here.

SO, WHAT TOOLS CAN NON-CODERS USE AS A PLATFORM FOR SOMETHING INTERESTING?

There are scores of web tools you don’t have to be a coder at. You can be like me. Someone who dabbles and explores a bit.

Here’s a list I drew-up at the Black Country Museum hack day at The Public in West Bromwich. They had history data in mind but could as well apply to other areas of local government data and as a way to engage with residents.

Flickr.com – as a place to post images from museum stores and encourage people to submit new shots.

History Pin – a brilliant interactive site that you can literally pin old pictures onto contemporary Google Streetview images.

Google Fusion Tables – A way to visually present downloaded datasets.

A WordPress blog – A place to post text, images, stories, sound files and embed old footage.

Vimeo – The full and frank exchange of views that blights YouTube comments means that Vimeo could be a better route. Especially, for oral history.

A council website – In local government, your website shouldn’t just be a static place. It can be used as an interactive thing too.

Useful links:

An idiots guide to open data Simple explanation of what open data is.

What is Open Data? A brilliant short film from the Open Knowledge Foundation as a primer for open data.

What is a hack day?  An explanation of what a hack day does from Rewired State.

Scraperwiki A site of resources for people who know how to code.

What we’ve done. A further list of things built by Rewired State.

Hat-tip for pointing out links for this to Harry Harold of Neontribe, Janet Hughes of the London Assembly, Julia Higginbottom of Aquila and 10ml.com.

Creative commons credits:

Hacker with computer http://www.techshownetwork.com credit: Jochen Siegle/TechShowNetwork original image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/techshownetwork/2946209857/

Other images from my Flickr stream.

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


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