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.


5 Comments on “GOOD IDEAS: What is a hack day? And why you should be bothered”

  1. Another great post Dan – I’ve referenced it on the Making a Difference with Data website. http://www.madwdata.org.uk/

  2. 10ml says:

    Very nicely put together, Dan.

    It echoes many of my own observations on attending a hack day as a non-coder.

    Please see http://10ml.com/2011/03/nhtg11-a-personal-reflection/ for more on this topic.

    Ian

  3. Whose Shoes? says:

    Thanks Dan – this is full of useful information. Many things explained!

    Look forward to checking out some of the links!

    Best wishes
    Gill

  4. Kate Sahota says:

    Great post Dan, particularly agree with the bit about local government doing stuff with their open data as well. We can be innovative if we want to be! Working with developers to free up data and innovate together can bring about a lovely harmonious relationship and that is good news for the local residents.

  5. Ben Proctor says:

    Great post again Dan. Thanks for bigging up Go Fish. I should say in all honestly this was built by the highly talented Martin Wright and Chris Ellis while I made them tea. Badly. I did contribute to the original concept tho.


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