Making hacks and collaborative development days really useful

At the Interactivism event in London.

Hack days are proliferating. These days are designed to turn open data into useful things. Getting a bunch of developer talent into a room and turning open data into a working prototype by the end of a day or two-days. They may be attached two a wider event, like Local by Social or a CityCamp, which also has conference elements as well as idea generation and design. Or they might be very data and coding focused stand-alone events designed to deliver prototype apps or web products and services.

That there are more and more of these means that we now have enough experience in the local government sector to begin to understand what works, what’s useful and how we can organise these days to make them even better. Liz Azyan and I ran a session together at LocalGovCamp on 18 June in Birmingham to look at the features of really useful data collaboration days. There was a great collection of people who’d run, attended and want to run their own hack and collaboration days. This is what we came up with.

  • getting the right mix of people in the room. It’s important to have development talent, but it’s also important to have people with experience of government, service delivery. strategy and importantly users. Users are important whether the application is designed to be citizen facing or help gov practitioners work more effectively.
  • it’s important for the organisers to have a clear vision in their mind about what they want to achieve. Is it an app? Is it to put pressure on data holders? Is it educational? Is it about network building and skill transfer? Or some combination of these things. Each of these objectives are worthy and valuable and you can have multiple objectives, but be clear what they are. This is particularly important for smaller events.
  • be very clear with participants what those objectives are. This means you draw the right people to the event.
  • Map your stakeholders. Each of the different kinds of people who will need to be involved will have different needs to be satisfied if they’re giving their time, skills, and efforts.
  • do you have enough people with technical and data skills. Do you have people who can use the data tools that are already available like Google Fusion tables? Do you have enough people who can code? Understanding data and understanding code are not the same thing.
  • This isn’t just about the tech. There’s an important role for communications in sharing the event and the results of the event. This probably isn’t so much a big hit but a long, slow burn.
  • Understanding policy and service delivery is also important. Some things might work technically, but need a policy ‘tweak’ to gain traction in gov.
  • If there are specific objectives – how is the event being facilitated to make sure that they are met. Are skills being distributed well across teams. How can you re-direct teams with volunteer labour?
  • There may need to be some facilitation to get over particular issues of programming languages to make sure that developer skills are being used well throughout the event.
  • As apps or products are developed – what are the plans for completing them, sustaining them and making them pay (either inside government or as a commercial venture).

Tricky but resolvable issues

  • One group that’s often missing from these events are budget holders or people who can make spending decisions.
  • Government procurement remains a problem. A team comes in to develop the framework, bring creativity for free and then a major firm is asked to deliver it. This can be solved, but there seems little will to do so.
  • We need a place to store these apps (tag them or whatever) and we need a place to store emergent standards so that councils can change data standards (a bit, perhaps) to ensure that anything that’s developed can be used in as many councils as possible
  • Are we using the wrong name? Isn’t hacking illegal? Is there a better way to describe these events.

Come to the next not-hack – a Really Useful Local Government Data event

Liz Azyan and I are working with Local DirectGov to support a Really Useful Local Government Data event on 1 July in London. It’s not a hack. But we’ll be start the innovation and design process that will be carried out over a series of ‘on land’ and online events over the next six months which will lead to a series of apps and visualisations for local government data. Sign up here. Share your ideas and challenges here.


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