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Unleashed GovHack - an Adelaide Adventure in Open Data

Last month I attended Unleashed Govhack, our local contribution to the Australian GovHack hackathon.


Essentially GovHack is a chance for makers, hackers, designers, artists, and researchers to team up with government ‘data custodians’ and build proof of concept applications (web or mobile), software tools, video productions or presentations (data journalism) in a way that best illustrates how the vast amount of publically sourced data held by the government in trust for the community can be ‘unleashed’ for the benefit of the wider community. There was also the Machinery of Data competition, where participants combine data with physical manifestations.

Entrants form teams, and across the weekend define a concept and produce an application or a presentation, and in all cases a video to showcase the idea. Prizes are awarded both nationally, and for Adelaide and Mount Gambier specifically, for entries meeting various criteria such as “More Informed Adelaideians”, “Open Society Unleashed”, “Best entry by a University team, etc. A second aim is also to promote the small business / “startup” sector, so there are prizes related to business mentoring, for example.

Just a very, very small example of available data sets include: geospatial data of significant trees and also the Waite Arboretum, locations of recycle stations, air quality measurements, historic photos and images, City of Adelaide public wifi hotspots, locations of sightings of endangered species, to name but a few.

A new experience

I brought along with me my son who is now 13. He aspires to be an Author when he grows up, and also has a natural ability in maths as well as written language. I am encouraging him to have a backup plan, so at least he has something to write about! I thought this would be a wonderful opportunity to introduce him to the community side of the “digital revolution” - the Internet is about more than games, and computers about more than just Minecraft!

He charmed the volunteers, who were excited at the idea of having a school youth element attending. Together we both learned a lot, this was an especially intense weekend and by the Sunday afternoon during video production things got a bit tense at times; I need to learn to chill a bit, because he is quite capable of producing video! He has been creating presentations at school and some extra-curricular activities for a few years now, so a taste of data journalism was something he actually thought quite interesting.

In the end, he was fortunate enough to receive one of the weekend “Spirit” prizes, he did very well in talking to lots of people and generally participating, he gracefully received help from some members of Adelaide Hackerspace who helped him sort data on the Saturday,  and as we found out on the weekend, he was also awarded a commendation for the “Data Journalism” presentation that he created, where he examined correlations between endangered animal sightings and Australian natural disasters to inform policy makers when allocating funds related to endangered species protection. (His presentation was from a 13yo perspective, the previous paragraph is obviously my words!) You can see the final on the GovHack Hackerspace.

A crash course, or what not to do if you want to get the most out of the weekend!

For my part, I was really along for the ride, this time at least, having not participated in such an event before.  I am a professional software developer, but that is no help if you only leave yourself a day to attempt to write any real code!  I formed a team of my own with a friend from Adelaide Hackerspace, as well as having to be on my sons team as his guardian, but for various reasons it took us until halfway through Saturday to decide on a theme, and we also spent a lot of time on Sunday producing video, having to help Zachary as well as do our own.

From observations of other, successful teams, as well as the pain of experience, I have compiled a list of lessons fir first time / future participants:

  1. Most of important of all: **decide what to build on Friday night! **We dithered until way into Saturday so we were effectively a day behind other teams.

  2. Almost as important: don’t get carried away. Start small, stay focused, and then when you pull of the first concept you should have time to incrementally expand. It is easy to get very excited about all the possibilites, which is fine, but save the embellishments for the video so you get something finished.

  3. Become very familiar with your chosen video editor before the Govhack weekend

  4. If you intend to deploy a web application, become very familiar with your provider. Govhack actually supplied AWS vouchers, and luckily AWS was one area where I did have some recent experience so for my team at least, this was one area that did not cause frustration.

  5. Avoid large teams, so you avoid analysis paralysis.  It may be tempting to do a large group brainstorm, but then you do get carried away and cant keep to #2 above.  This also happened to us, which is why we didn’t really define our projects until Saturday when we split into smaller groups.

  6. Don’t bite off more than you can chew! Stay with your teams skillsets. See also #2

  7. For working with data ensure you (or some team members) have good familiarity with tools such as CSV conversion scripting, graphical tools such as QGIS, and scripting languages and tools for pulling data from PDF files

  8. Aim to have familiarity with SQL database systems, this can make life easier if you want to use a tool like PostGIS for geographic analysis

  9. If like to build web applications, get back up to speed before the weekend with a good rapid prototyping framework

  10. Decide how to host beforehand if you are planning a web app. CPanel will limit you to PHP or PERL so if you want to use Postgresql for geo features, or a Python backend you will probably need a VPS.

Obviously the later items in the list are more specific to programming skills.  Some of the items are more applicable if you have already organised a team before the night.  If you form a team late it can be hard to plan skill set coverage, in which case you may be better off aiming for a comprehensive and illuminating data journalism entry rather than an app.  It does depend on your specific  circumstances.

All in all it was a good weekend, both myself and my son met a lot of awesome new people, learned new skills and experiences and in a small way contributed to the community.

Finally a massive thanks to the volunteers who organised the whole thing!

There are photos up on Twitter or over on the official Facebook page.

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