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GovHack: govt data + hackers + caffeine == good times

2009 November 5

John Allsopp from Web Directions was an organiser of GovHack, an event sponsored by the Taskforce. It was held on the 30th and 31st of October 2009 to encourage greater use and availability of government data in support of the MashupAustralia contest.


For those who’ve not heard of them, the rather ominously sounding “hack days” are events that have been gaining popularity with developers around the world. They bring together web focussed designers, developers and other experts to build web applications and mashups in a 24 hour period.

As far as I’ve been able to determine, no Government at any level anywhere in the world has been willing to not only open up their data for people to “hack” but actually host a “hack day” to bring people together to do so.

At least not until last Friday and Saturday, when GovHack, an initiative of the Australian Government 2.0 Taskforce was held at the ANU in CSIRO’s ICT Lab and the ANU’s Computer Science department. Around 150 “hackers” (hacking, btw, is a typically positive term among developers, it’s only in mainstream usage that it tends to have negative connotations) from all over Australia came together and built numerous incredibly sophisticated web applications and mashups, some, like the Judge’s overall winners “Lobby Clue” by teams of people who’d never even met before the day.

Govhack kicked off with an hour or so of short sharp presentations, by members of the Government 2.0 Taskforce, and the developer community, along with “data owners”, both in Government and commercial, spruiking their data wares to the assembled hacker community.

Teams then got down to business, exploring the growing number of government data sets available online, “speed dating” to find hackers in search of teams with skills they needed, and planning their hacks.

Throughout the night, teams coded away, fuelled by caffeine (and it must be said excellent food, fruit, juices, and camaraderie.) Even well after midnight, a couple of dozen remained working, with a palpable buzz in the air, while Taskforce chair Dr Nicholas Gruen was still to be found discussing the merit of various sites and hacks at 2am. A dozen or so hardy souls even managed to hack all night.

Saturday morning saw new teams arrive, and the less hardy return from hotel rooms and home to restart their development. Senator Kate Lundy, now dubbed the “Patron Senator of Geeks” spent quite some time interviewing various participants, with the video hopefully available soon. As the 4pm deadline loomed, frantic (geek speak alert) XML to JSON conversions, JavaScript debugging and API reverse engineering were occurring throughout the CSIT Building on the ANU Campus.

Just what was achieved for all the effort? Before turning to some of the genuinely outstanding projects, a few outcomes from the event illustrate the breadth of the achievements. A few teams found themselves in need of postcode to Local Government Authority conversions, but while the data was sort of available, it was far from easily usable. Stephen Lead from LPMA in NSW took the less than ideal data and transformed it into a far more usable format. Then Mark Mansour from Sensis created a database and API (an Application Programming Interface is a standardized way of applications talking to one another) for the data, to make it much easier for anyone to use. Within an hour or two, two teams at GovHack were actually using this API. In a similar vein, Rob Manson, from MOB created a single JSON API to many of the disparate data sources available on Meanwhile, the NSW State Government launched their new data catalogue to make sure the data was available for GovHack.

So what exactly did people build? In all there were around 20 projects presented at the end of the 24 hours, almost all of which were conceived and built at the event itself. Many were geo/mapping focussed, but others focussed on data visualisation and exploration, the next wave of web applications in many people’s opinion. The level of complexity, sophistication, and novelty of many of the projects was extraordinary, given the tight time constraints. Projects that you can actually use right now included (keep in mind their alpha state)

  • The overall winners LobbyClue, by a team comprising members many of whom had never met before the event. LobbyClue is an in-depth visualisation of lobbying groups’ relations to government agencies, including tenders awarded, links between the various agencies, and physical office locations
  • Know where you live, a stylish presentation of ABS data (along with Flickr Geocoded photos), pulling in relevant information for a particular postcode: rental rates, average income, crime rates, and more. Built by a team of developers who work at News Digital Media.
  • What the Federal Government Does, an enormous tag cloud of the different functions of government, combined with visualisations of government functions shared between departments.
  • Rate A Loo demonstrates a community engagement idea, seeded with government provided data. Allows users to locate and then rate the condition of public toilets.
  • It’s buggered, mate, In true Australian style, allows you to report buggered toilets, roads, etc, with an easy-to-use graphical interface overlayed on a map. Their idea was to combine this with local government services to fix issues in the community. Built by a team of developers from Lonely Planet.
  • Many more fantastic projects can be found at the GovHack site.

A huge thanks to AGIMO and the Taskforce for enabling it all, CISRO’s ICT Lab and the ANU Computer Science Department for providing a venue and network facilities, to Microsoft, whose Project Fund helped make GovHack a reality. Numerous volunteers from AGIMO and the web developer community helped ensure the success of GovHack, and a big thanks to them as well. And of course the participation of so many developers from all over the country ensured that the event produced lasting value. Hopefully more than a few of the 24 hour hacks turn into applications we’ll be using for years to come. Above all thanks to you.

12 Responses
  1. 2009 November 5
    John Allsopp permalink

    Remember too

    For those in Melbourne, there’s a HackDay November 7 and 8
    And the OpenAustralia HackFest is on in Sydney the same days.

    • 2009 November 5
      Hugh Barnes permalink

      Any similar events planned for other parts of the country, John? I’m feeling kinda out of reach.

      • 2009 November 5
        John Allsopp permalink

        You can always plan your own – where are you based?

        • 2009 November 5
          Hugh Barnes permalink

          Of course. Brisvegas. Lots of precedents for pulling this sort of thing off without needing to be physically gathered, too.

  2. 2009 November 5

    Senator Lundy and I did a video from the day including interviews with participants and judges along with screenshots and screencasts of all the projects from the day. Congrats everyone on an awesome day! Now to just upload my hack :)

    Videos are here:

    Blog post here:

    Office of Senator Kate Lundy

  3. 2009 November 5
    Hugh Barnes permalink

    John/anyone: did any of the projects use Openstreetmap instead of Google Maps? Forgive my laziness, I’ve looked at a few of the projects without luck – just hoping someone will know offhand.

    • 2009 November 5
      Alexander Sadleir permalink

      LobbyClue used OpenLayers to display OpenStreetMap data as the base layer for the geovisualisation.

      • 2009 November 5
        Hugh Barnes permalink

        Oh, nice, so they did! I guess sometimes starting at the top is better than random selection.

  4. 2009 November 6
    simonfj permalink

    Well done John (and team),

    What can i say but bloody fantastic!

    I know that most of your efforts are based around hacking between the databases, and that just so good. But could we also give a little thought as to how these fests can be used to be inclusive of the Hughs of this world (in real time). In the e-research world we should be trying to include a global as well as national potential participants. I’ve been pointing a few of my global correspondents at this domain (and Kate’s) to give them idea of how brilliant this community is.

    You might know that the place where you had the hack fest has enough tools and bandwidth to easily open the conversations, and share the learning. Many in their communities are at this one next week, and while they have bandwidth & many of the tools and techniques, this community has the drive and imagination (yo! pia).

    You do realise that you’re developing a new form of e-research and e-education don’t you? Mabe its time to ask the ARC for some funding?

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