Assange, Swartz, Manning, Snowden: you get it, right?

A fundamental part of being a human nowadays is that if you don’t really understand something, you are pretty certain that someone somewhere is an expert at it; and if it is a matter of global political discourse that many people know about it, and not only *it*, but all the tiny *its* that are a part of the big *it*, that obviously some University or other is studying, or has studied the facts for years and the next generations are far better equipped to deal with the complicated future. (I think I might just have stumbled on the formula for Radio 4).

We take heart from the academic inquisitiveness, so we don’t all need to know the nuts and bolts of what is causing us to have a slightly uncomfortable feeling – because the current and next generations are getting ever more clever and brilliant. Phew…

Assange

What: Wikileaks

Common understanding: publishing lots of things through a site called Wikileaks

Scary: because there is no control over what is being published

Phew: he is being held in a room in an Embassy in London and (weirdly) the government people went and oversaw (not sure if that is English) the destruction of the Guardian hard drives containing the information, which should be OK

Swartz

What: Committed suicide after being arrested for illegally downloading academic journals

Common understanding: young geek allegedly caught stealing/illegally downloading academic journals with a mind to publish them for free. His suicide was a nasty shock and no one can ever know why, but the court case and litigators were mighty, so that was probably tough for a young person

Scary: someone actually died

Phew: freely publishing academic journals, whilst wrong, does not sound like it threatens our security – this was just a single, and very sad, case

Manning

What: leaked restricted documents

Common understanding: a US soldier released classified documents to Wikileaks

Scary: who knows what is in these documents

Phew: she (Manning has since changed sex, but this is unrelated) has been caught and punished

Snowden

What: leaked details of mass surveillance

Common understanding: US and UK government agencies can read our private email and messages

Scary: not sure we want government agencies of any country reading our emails

Phew: maybe they will intercept the terrorist emails and not illicit sexting, and someone will work out whether this is right or wrong – meanwhile Snowden has not been arrested yet so it is not something to be too worried about… but we had better be a bit more careful about the illicit stuff and what we say in emails “haha @jamesbond *just joshing* (please disregard this message)…”

Obtuse

I am being deliberately obtuse here to illustrate a point. If you are not news or politically minded, I could point to the completely baffling business models of modern day organisations: twitter, Tumblr, Snapchat – where is the revenue model? Someone obviously knows something, I mean of course there is an ad revenue in services such as Google, but *ha* I will not be caught out by those suggested ads so that won’t last. And I must protect everything I put on Facebook because Mark Z is going to sell my data to someone, which might mean I put my family at risk, so I had better just be very careful what I put on FB, and occasionally lie to wrong-foot those would-be thieves/burglars/bad people. (Also what I write in my emails in case the FBI is monitoring me).

Thank goodness, we cry, that we are from the last century and can reminisce fondly on our first experiences with computing. These digital kids, we can’t even begin to understand their world…

“… why I even have to get my son/daughter to help me dm someone on twitter… ha! Vine? I like mine bottled not digital… kids nowadays, they are the digerati!…”

But yet

  • in schools we do not teach children the basics of programming, the language of the digital world – this is changing next year in the UK with the introduction of coding in primary and secondary education so in 15/20 years time we will have lots of people grounded in the digital basics in the workforce
  • we stopped teaching programming in schools over 20 years ago therefore there is a huge generational gap in the mass market of people who actually have a grasp on the digital revolution
  • very few people worldwide actually understand and drive the digital direction, because it all happened so fast and generation upon generation assumed the education system was keeping up
  • there are more and more demands on a rapidly dwindling and ageing digital workforce by analogue institutions, trying to ram digital renaissance into creaking infrastructures
  • *those in charge* of the next generations, including us parents, make it our life’s work – no it is our duty – to limit, deny and restrict access to the digital world, that superhighway of paedophiles and porn because someone else will be educating them in all the stuff they actually need to know in this digital future, the educational and politically important stuff that someone else knows all about… right?
  • our kids spend their lives online, they need to get offline and play, take an interest in the real world (that world that drives stories such as Assange, Swartz, Manning and Snowden)

I hate to scare you, but the reality is that our children need to be online, our duty is to give them digital freedom to explore and learn. The rules are not yet made for digital citizenship, our children need to define, shape and abide by them. Not just in keeping safe. Not just in understanding whether Assange, Swartz, Manning, Snowden are right or wrong. Or whether a business based on reach of message to mass communities is a viable model. Or what open data really means.

The current drive to teach our kids to code is being built on a sand-bound argument of economy, but I challenge this. We need to actively find ways to educate our children and ourselves in the basics of the Internet, of information, of data, of sharing, of algorithms – computational thinking.

Because, if we don’t, an ever decreasing number of us will actually really understand, and an ever decreasing number of us will shape the future. And history has shown time and time again that this way madness lies.

Young Rewired State: bringing back open government data

Young Rewired State was born back in 2009 when a small group of us decided that we needed to bring the open government data revolution to the next generations. Our intention was to show them what had been fought and won on their behalf for democracy and scrutiny, introduce them to the potential for open data, open government or otherwise, in a non-dull way.

Google hosted that first weekend for us but the legend now goes that it took us three months and a massive credit card bill for hotels and trains to find 50 coding kids in the whole of the UK for a single weekend hackathon at the much-lauded Google HQ in London. Our original sign-up was three kids… three… for a free weekend in Google HQ London.

Photo by Lettuce
We wanted to introduce coding kids to open government data, instead we discovered
  • schools were not teaching programming, computer science, or anything really other than the PE/Geography/any spare teacher showing the kids how to turn on a computer and use Word/Excel/How to photoshop a kitten pic (the only nod to programming – some of you will get this)
  • this was not something the teachers were happy about and I found acres of frustrated geeky teachers fighting a Latin Goliath
  • young people were being driven to teaching themselves, something well-served online with a tonne of lessons on YouTube, websites with individual lessons in the greatest detail, should you care to look, but these kids were isolated and bullied
  • some/many were being failed at school <- when I posted that blog post 25,000 people on Hacker News clicked on it within the first hour…

M’esteemed colleagues were well-renowned software engineers and designers and did not have the capacity to fight this particular fight, except by continuing to do good – most of whom are now in the UK Government Digital Service – but I was able enough, and I was a Mum and I was an entrepreneur, and I was an open government data campaigner – and I had to stay to do something.

Through personal and professional means I turned myself into a lobbying machine to teach our kids to code and, through Rewired State, continued to run Young Rewired State as an annual event, growing from 50 kids to 600 kids, now 1000.

I gave up my job.

I fought battles.

I lost battles.

I won them.

I did school runs.

I got cross about girl engineers (lack of).

I wrote.

I did.

I talked (although I am not a natural speaker – BetaBlockers FTW).

And I found a community of fabulous people: Mathematica, CodeClub, Mozilla, Nominet, Nesta, Raspberry Pi, Raspberry Jam, MadLab, Birmingham City Council, CoderDojo, Treehouse, General Assembly – seriously so many people… and now I feel like I can step back from that fight now. I have been as much use as I can be… and a *lot* is happening.

I need to look to the future and I need to re-focus the kids we are now finding in increasing numbers, and as the others teach them how to code, and as the others fight the battle with institutions and education – I want to go back to what we wanted to do in the first place.

And so I think now is the time, as we grow beyond the UK, to re-focus what we are doing on finding these kids and introducing them to Open Government Data. I will always fight for education, but I fight for democracy, transparency and accountability over all – and I would like our children to grow up understanding Open Data as freely as they understand Open Source.

Starting now…

Our aim is to find and foster every child driven to teach themselves how to code – and introduce them to open government data

http://youngrewiredstate.org

Young Rewired State – an update

For any of you who are unaware of Young Rewired State, here is a video from this year’s Festival of Code

To date we have made it our focus to find and foster every child in the UK driven to teach themselves how to code; to support them through community and peer-to-peer learning, and introduce them to open data, primarily open government data. If you would like to read up more on what we do and why, here is a White Paper written by Dominic Falcao, a student at York University.

So we have come far in the last four years and as we enter our fifth year we really are going hyperlocal and global – as I mentioned in a previous post.

Since that post I have had some very great discussions with developer communities in several regions outside the UK, including Berlin, Amsterdam, New York, Kenya and San Francisco – and the narrative has become more clear, why this is so important and how this very well could be the beginning of a game-changing, independent, worldwide community.

Let me explain…

The idea is to start as we did in 2009 in the UK with one weekend in a number of International regions. Find 50 local children, aged 18 or under, driven to teach themselves how to code, and introduce them to open government data in a traditional hack-style event. During these weekends these young programmers will be mentored by their local coding community, as they are in the UK, but as well, they are remotely supported by the worldwide members and mentors for YRS, through twitter hashtags and IRC channels.

If history can repeat itself over the following five years, each of these first 50 will continue to be mentored and add to their number, growing to 500 in five years, maybe more – and then becoming hyperlocal.

The dream is for a child in Berlin to find it completely usual to be supporting a child in New York, for example, with a local civic problem, or just in their learning. For them to grow up expecting and understanding open data and open borders. And almost more importantly to be forever a part of a worldwide community of like-minded people – never again coding alone.

The beauty of this network is that it is so local, we are working with established developer networks and organisations in all of the countries, and as these children become 19 they *typically* fold back into Young Rewired State as mentors. This is important as it creates a support network for teachers and educators worldwide that is so needed.

We work also in partnership with those organisations teaching young people to code, giving them somewhere to continue the learning through collaborative, peer-to-peer education that can scale according to talent and desire.

YRS Scotland

This weekend sees the very first of these hyperlocal events in the UK, with a group of young programmers in Scotland starting their YRS journey. You can follow the action and add your mentor support by following the hashtag: YRSSCO2012 on twitter.

I really do believe these children can actually change the world, and I am grateful to the huge community who have supported us in the UK and overseas to get to now.

We are run as a not-for-profit social enterprise. Here is how you can get involved

Trust – some thoughts

Yesterday I posted a tweet that said this:

Trust is an under-rated value metric that defines so much of what we do, I think. Trust in your own decisions, plus other peeps/orgs

This was after being at a point in my life and with the organisations I am trying to scale at the moment, and how my lack of trust in myself was driving some of the decisions that I later regretted because I should have trusted my own abilities.

Followed by a small crisis of self where I questioned whether I just had trust issues, and so I did a little drawing of those I would trust with my life, my children, my house, my business, my decision-making process and for advice. I found that actually I had a very broad base of people who I trusted without question – and actually I naturally chose to trust people initially, only withdrawing faith when burned.

I am relieved about this, and it was an interesting thing to consider when I thought about organisations and institutions and how they design services – and how they design services in the main with a lack of trust – but that things were changing and so on. Open data, open organisations, all the things I like to think about, indeed live.  It was an interesting thought process anyway – feel free to ponder on!

Today

So today broke with a letter from Hackney Council with a parking violation fine, with photos, from my old car that I had presumed was safely in locked storage in Ripley, Surrey, indeed I had declared it SORN last April. This triggered a series of events that progressively eroded my newly found trust in trust and still lingers on as I write, with a continuing saga of ever-more ridiculous and illogical happenings.

Stop reading here if you just want to navel-gaze trust – from here on is a little bit of a venting post…

What happened before today:

1. I had a car that I was choosing not to drive any more as it had had a tiny crash :), it was super-expensive to run yet was not worth losing my no-claims bonus for and so I wanted to keep it, but not do anything with it for a little while as it was a classic, not worth much but a classic all the same

2. I went to the garage I had traditionally bought all my cars from and explained I wanted a small, practical car and was no longer going to be driving the *dinged* beast (they sold me the beast in the first instance)

3. They asked if I wanted to leave it in their lock-up, said the lock-up was huge and they didn’t mind but it would be officially off-road until I decided what to do with it – I trusted them and believed that they meant the words they spoke

4. I bought another car from them, gave them the keys to the beast and went on my merry way – I trusted them and showed my ongoing trust by buying another car from them

5. Several months later, I decided I would go get the beast and do something with it, now I had some time

6. The garage told me that I was not allowed to have the beast back, that they had taken it upon themselves and had fixed it and were hoping to sell it for £1995

7. They said that I could have the beast back if I paid them £860 for the work they had chosen to do, or I could sell it to them for £300

8. I called the police

9. The police said it was a civil matter until and unless the garage actually sold the car they could do nothing. They recorded the details and gave me a reference number, but said I should keep them posted and alert the DVLA

10. I explained to the garage that I was not paying the ransom, that I had reported this to the police and I expressly was not allowing them to sell the car for any amount, let alone £1995

11. They then said that they would sell it to recoup their costs in fixing the car – a job I had not commissioned, they had not asked permission to do. I said they were not allowed to sell it, they said they would scrap it then and so on and so forth (with swears) Imagine if that happened to you when you popped your car in to get the starter motor fixed, or sommat. When you go to collect it they tell you that they have popped a new engine in (without asking) and it would cost you xxx to get the car back, they sell your car and… or if it was your house, and a roofer came and fixed your roof without asking then sold your house to pay his bill – you see where I am going…

—–  a brief pause in the story, I chose to not continue the row, it was a stalemate, the police couldn’t help, I was not keen on fisticuffs at dawn with a used car salesman so I decided just to leave it all until it was thrust in front of me again, as I knew it would be ——-

And so here we are today. This car that they said that they would scrap, that I still own, was photographed in Hackney at 08:08 on the 27th January 2012. I had declared it SORN, as far as I knew it was in a lock up being held ransom when all that had happened was they had offered to keep it in their lock up, with no time period or charges.

I called them, no response, and then called the police and then this happened:

1. The police said that it was horrific but that it was a civil matter and until they sold the car, no criminal offence had taken place, but a civil one had and told me to contact the CAB

2. The garage *texted*(!) to say that they had sold the car

3. I called the police and said that they had now claimed to have sold the car so it was now a criminal offense right?

4. They said it was still a civil matter and could I call the CAB and DVLA

5. I called DVLA who said that someone had taxed the car but that it was still legally in my name

6. The CAB said that it was a criminal matter but referred me to Consumer Direct to see what advice they had

7. Consumer Direct said that it was theft, therefore a criminal matter and I had to go back to the police but that they would report the garage to Trading Standards, but were keen to emphasise that they wanted me to keep them in the loop

8. Meanwhile the garage was now sending me text messages saying that they were transferring a debt to the bailiffs for the cost of them fixing my car (without my permission) and storage of the car(!) ending with a final text that told me to f*** off and they would see me in court

9. I called the police again and they are having a little think and said they would call me back

So now, my trust is eroded. I have no faith that anything will happen by anyone. The car people who had my regular business over more than three cars and the justice system, which seems to be so lily-livered that they cannot see this series of events for what they are because, presumably, they do not trust that what I say is true – even though I have raised the same story officially over many months and have a car that is legally mine, being sold (maybe, who knows) or at least driven without my permission.

If you apply this abuse of trust to any situation, any property and see the chain of events, then it is clear that this car is stolen. It was held to ransom and now stolen. But no one can work from a basis of trust with me, that what I say is true.

And my own trust in people has caused this whole situation to occur. Had I been less trusting and insisted on written agreement that they were taking my car for an unlimited period for no money, signed and so forth I may have a better hope of proving all this. But even then, this can all be faked can’t it? I imagine I would still be in a terrible situation.

Meh – that’s off my chest, but yes – trust, for me it is going to be an issue for a while. And if I end up in court over this as the defendant, which you can completely understand may well happen, then bring me twiglets in jail.

*update to post* 06/02/12

The Police have been in touch over the weekend, which was very diligent of them. They have spoken to the person in question at the garage and say that he is basically claiming that he sold it because I had left it there so long and that he had repeatedly asked me to take it away. Half true, he had said that I could have my car back if I either sold it to him for £300 or paid for the work £860 he decided to have done to it in order to sell it. He had not been in touch with me at all in between the break down of those discussions and me being sent that photo of the car violating a parking order, during which time he decided to sell the car.

So, basically: I had not paid his ransom, so he sold my car – blaming me for leaving it there, but he would not allow me to take it away! Crazy

Luckily I had kept all text discussions with him and have turned these over to the police so that they can see for themselves. They have said that these messages do back up my side of the story but there is still no way to prove intent. So the police can do nothing. They say that he has clearly broken civil law and that I should instruct a solicitor and take him to court.

Kidnapping a car must be illegal.

Anyhow, another point. I have been inundated with appalling stories of other people, many far more vulnerable than me, being taken advantage of in similar fashion and I know that I am moaning about a very small thing that I could have ended by just paying the guy some money. Some of the horror stories I have read and heard are so sad and make me very angry, but makes it all the more essential that I try to stand up against this. But anyway 1. I did not have the money to pay him. 2. It was a principle.

The question now is do I name him?

Open Government Data *wince* it’ll take a while… Open Education – next September? No probs

Bear with me, I have a point.

The Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, today delivered a complete coup de grâce for ICT education by accepting wholeheartedly that ICT education, and indeed the cross-curricular syllabus, was fundamentally broken. He accepted that traditional methods for mending a broken bureaucratic, micro-managed education system would not address the immediacy of the problem, and so he threw it open to the floor.

He made Open Education possible (potentially mandatory) in one speech, and he heralded the Government’s move into…” it’s over to you, gang, do your thing”.

To be fair I am obliterating much of his speech here, but the bit we are most interested in is the fact that Government has seen the problem, examined it and accepted that the answers probably lie out there – somewhere on the Internet.

Let me be clear, this is a good thing - Open Education is the future - BUT YOU CAN’T JUST SPRING IT ON US!!

We need to be able to relax about certain basic human needs: education, health, environment (getting the money in to pay for this through tax, our direct debit to government) and we have to assume that the elected governors will take care of that for us, with the right people helping and advising, steering and delivering – without brain-bleeding charges to the public purse. (Martha Lane-Fox took time and focused advice on how government delivered its open online presence, resulting in the Government Digital Service – which took years to curate, even after her report was published and it is still in its infancy.)

We know about Big Society and we know that the world and its borders are opening up and it is becoming fundamentally digital. We know this and are all pitching in as and when we can, but we definitely still look to government to horizon-scan and come up with a scalable, secure plan for the future – that goes beyond:

Have you *seen* this website? Codecademy.com is awesome

Yes… it is, but…

Let’s pretend

Let’s pretend the education system was the tax system.

Our tax system is fundamentally flawed, we all know this. It’s:

  • Not fit for purpose
  • Deeply complicated
  • Is still run by people working without access to the Internet
  • Requires experts to explain information that could be easily garnered from the web (free – if you have the time)
  • The OFFICIAL BOOKS measure in inches, if you intend to master it yourself

Have you *seen* this website? http://www.justanswer.com/ is awesome <- link chosen to back up point, not after in-depth analysis

The fact is that out of all the 28,000 teachers who qualified in 2010, 3 – THREE – were computer science majors. Three chose to go into teaching, the rest chose to reward their hard-earned degree in the City, or on their own start-ups.

Why?

Money

Money is the elephant in the room here that no one wants to address. It takes money to solve this problem and we do not have money, as a Nation, nor most of us as individuals – not disposable income at any rate, and believe me – it will take many people with disposable income to help solve this across the UK. Hands up, anyone?

What if this was tax?

What if we were saying:

Yes, OK, the tax system is not fit for purpose and fundamentally flawed. But we are not going to spend years over-hauling the tax system and doing what we as government usually do! We say – Yes! You are right… you are vocal and on point in your suggestions so yes, go forth – and fix it… it’s still mandatory, natch, but you can do what you will with all the resources available to you on the Internet. Lots of industry leaders in accounting are going to be making up some new measurements, but it’s OK – we know it’s broken and you have the answer, so go on then :D we will be doing stuff over here…

I am being facetious

Of course I know this would never be the case. Of course I understand that the tax system is way too tricky for me to make such an analogy.

In my opinion if we do not treat education in the same way we respect tax, or even open data – then what exactly is democratic revolution all about?

How can we accept and wholly applaud a Government measure to turn education over to the ‘people’ when it is so utterly broken? This problem has been highlighted ad nauseum (more to come on Friday with the RSA report saying pretty much the same thing as everyone looking at this in any depth).

The issue has been accepted as a given – yes, it’s a terrible state of affairs, thank you Mr Gove for accepting this. However, you cannot step away from the fact that the solution lies in a big collaborative effort between industry and educators, between large and small businesses, corporates and social enterprise – all working in happy harmony with schools, full of children, children whom we protect (rightly) with stringent rules – particularly when we are talking real-life interaction with children, not just digital (but even digitally :/… ) this stuff does not vanish in a well-intentioned speech.

Are we sensible in being so care-free with our youth? Is education really the space where we feel most comfortable throwing open the doors and embracing Open principles without further thought? Let’s face it, Open Government data has been a minefield of risk aversity and open-eyed horror  – but Open Education can be rolled out on a whim, because micro-managing didn’t work?

I worry that in the excitement over freedom granted today to educators for something so utterly fundamental as Computer Science in the UK, so the doors open to frozen blind panic from schools and teachers, turning to potentially unethical opportunists wanting to make a buck and chaos and failure as the result. We cannot afford this.

I worry about publishing this post as I campaign for Open practice, loudly. I have campaigned hard for government to debate the subject on teaching our kids to code – please sign the petition, it has a long way to go… but if a subject is swept away in a general wiff-waff of ‘go forth and educate yourselves’ that we miss a proper, tax-payer funded (probably quite pricey) look at every issue raised – not just the problem. I also fight for Open Data. I welcome collaborative process.

Anyone who has googled Chaos theory will have a basic understanding of the fact that change is exacted through chaos. But also, that chaos is carefully crafted. And studied.

Much though it pains me hugely to say it – we have to keep pushing for a debate. We need this to be taken seriously. Education is not low-hanging fruit.

Today was great, but it was not enough. And I am so sorry to be saying this.

What’s the next challenge for Open Government data?

So three years in to data.gov.uk and the inaugural National Hack the Government Day and now there is a tick box exercise to “run a hack day”… please… someone… anyone?

Open data is not about hack days and running one does not achieve “engagement with the developer community”.

Background

I met Liz Azyan today. Someone whom I have been aware of for the last few years: blogs great stuff, is principled and keeps herself gainfully employed with a plethora of socially ethical social media support (if you know what I mean).

I was blindsided by her, she is awesome and I think really trying her damnedest to do the right thing in an environment that she totally understands, but with a community she is less accustomed to – yet. Watch this space, and government data geeks: I urge you to chat to her if you get a chance.

One of the questions she asked me today was: What is the next challenge for open government data? So thank you Liz for the inspiration for this blog post, it got me thinking about something I have not thought about much, recently.

The environment

Government has opened up quite a bit of data through data.gov.uk, and has encouraged engagement with keen developers who have been hankering after such information for years.

Industry too has embraced Open, with a small number of notable businesses throwing open their data doors, with good results. I wrote a post about this, I shan’t repeat myself and bore you.

APIs are being released almost every day – developer information overload has maxed out, and now we risk lethal developer apathy.

Developers have attended hack days, meetings in Whitehall – indeed many of them have joined AlphaGov. This is all fabulous; but not scalable to the extreme that the open data dream promises.

The challenge

Making it all work.

It’s all very well having developers working away with this data, but if government is not ready for it, it’s a waste of time.

Take just one example: two incredibly talented developers worked together over the course of a weekend hack last year, coding through the night to create a notification engine for the government Tell Us Once programme. It worked, it would have saved oodles of time and bucketloads of cash – but government was simply unable to implement it. This is one simplified example of 100s of apps created by Rewired State hack days alone, and there are many others.

Now, if you can imagine for a minute being a developer, donating your time – granted, sometimes the hack days are paid, but always weekends away from family – year on year creating apps that would help government and citizens. Solving problems time and time again – quick example, every year the Young Rewired State coders create apps to help them define safe routes to school/friends. Year on year we showcase these to the Home Office – nothing happens. Still no government supported/approved app to meet this obviously critical need.

Why would you bother?

Open data? Awesome, and we are making tracks.

Open Government? HARD, and we are not banging on that door yet.

The reality

The developers who work on government data often do so either out of personal frustration, or a genuine commitment to making the world a little bit better.

Rarely can they reach an audience that would benefit from their app/widget/website on their own and in their spare time, at least not without considerable support. Nor are they doing this for profit, so they are not going to get investor cash.

Helping government do its work better is not a good proposition for your typical angel or VC – the target is government; and only government can utilise the genius that they are being offered.

Lots of tiny arrows

Right now lots of tiny arrows are rained on the government portals day on day, by an increasingly disparate and desolate group of extremely talented people.

Is there any success anywhere? No. Well unless you count the oft-reported GovSpark created by Issy in Young Rewired State 2010, curated by a plethora of supportive geeks and designers and some financial and hosting support from The Stationery Office. But that was a ‘nice to have’ addition to a Prime Ministerial commitment. It was not a revolutionary way to interact with central or local government.

So what’s the next challenge for Open Government data?

Forget the data.

Find a way to enable these revolutionary ideas, apps, websites and widgets that save time, money and mind-numbing frustration from those who have to engage with government.

Do that, and only that.

And when you have done that – then engage the developers again around your open data through hack days, geek advisory boards or whatever means you can.

Until then, let them have a break. They’ll still be there if you do this. If you don’t, they won’t.

And that is ridiculous.

Also, please don’t insist people ‘do hack days’ for you. Here’s the point of a hack day.

What’s the point of a hack day?

I get asked constantly what my favourite app was that was built at any of the many hack days I have run through Rewired State. I am often ashamed that I struggle to answer, although there are many. This is because hack days are rarely about the prototype.

To cover briefly what a hack day is, it is:

  • one or two days long (often belying the name)
  • any number of developers, for me a minimum of 10 devs are needed to make it buzz a bit, but 20+ makes it exciting
  • a subject, challenge, dataset (the broader the better)
  • developers are given a brief of the subject or challenge at the beginning of day 1
  • they code/design/engineer over the course of a free form period of around 24 hours to create prototype solutions or ideas
  • they present back to their hack peers and any inquisitive viewers, as well as the sponsor, client or group who put the event together
  • prizes are awarded
  • beer and pizza is essential

Many people will not experience a hack day, but if you can, please do. Show and tells are usually open to anyone who wants to attend and twitter and lanyrd are quite good at curating such event information.

However, the reason for this blog post is to explain the point of a hack day, now in 2011 (it will definitely be different in a year’s time, but to chart right now).

If you take a little time to look at the above list of what a hack day is you can understand that the common question might be: yes but what did they make and what happened next?

My response to that is that you are jumping the gun.

What we do at hack days is show you the future. Here’s why.

Why do developers turn up?

Well, in the current climate: API bonkers, information overload (yes devs get that too), tablet shmablet, toy shmoy world that we live in, there needs to be a little peace, as well as a challenge. As I have explained in a previous post about developers it is up to the rest of the world not to risk developer apathy (already here IMHO), and to look at what really matters.

Developers are simply awesome and if you know one I dare you to go try your million dollar idea out on them – they will have deconstructed and reconstructed it in minutes. Tell them your *save the world* idea and they will probably risk divorce to build it for you – please don’t do this.

Developers who know hack days turn up for the buzz, the competition and to learn, mainly to learn. Those who have never been to one come for the challenge.

I have been running hack days for three years now, and one veteran of the Rewired State hack days was at this weekends’ hactivate event. He spent the weekend coding a composting app, it’s cool, you can see it and many more here. But the big thing for him was spending 1.5 hours playing with a web server, in peace, legitimately, on a Sunday (and learning). Another group (and this is usual for a hack weekend) were hack day virgins, and have adopted the amaze-balls face of pride at what they can actually build when challenged by time (hack days are ruthless) as well as taking home the contact details of the colleagues who are as talented as themselves, at other stuff.

One developer gave himself this hack weekend as a Father’s day present. To have a weekend to spend with his peers, although coding was his day job, to work on his own projects, surrounded by like-minded awesomes, fed, watered – that’s the point.

Most developers will leave a hack day with new knowledge or at least new contacts, that can lead to extending their ability to deliver the awesomeness.

It’s probably fair to say that most would not admit to being so excited by the non-coder audience blinking at what they have managed to create in a two-day period, nor the prizes showered upon them. And, from those I know, it is always the afterthought – although I am now really clever and spend my life finding flipping brilliant geek prizes that they can’t ignore :).

Which is why it is important to understand all this before you ask: what is the point of a hack day?

What’s in it for the non-coders/organisations/brands?

So, there is an immediate and very obvious benefit for anyone engaging a number greater than ten developers on your own idea/API/bit of kit, and hack days seem to be de rigueur. Is not hard to be confident that good things will come of the weekend.

But is it the list of prototypes at the end? That no good hack day host would ever be able to predict?

No, it is engagement with the development community. Gifting your idea/API/bit of kit and enabling some free time for developers to engage with and over said idea/API/bit of kit. Yes of course you will get any number of good prototypes and even working applications – but better you will get to meet a number of developers, showing off their skills and often their newly acquired ones – this is really as rare as hen’s teeth (usually because they are fully employed fulfilling other peoples’ ambitions) engaging over a dedicated period, with peers they may not have yet met, over your technology or challenge. Yes, your super-sexy next bazillion idea might come out of this – but you created the environment for that conversation, that dev-to-dev spark.

But yet…

The thing I have noted today after Hactivate is that the sponsors are actually dedicated to seeing the apps go beyond the hack day. The winning app was one built to try to address human trafficking, and it was created to make the interface so simple that anyone could take it up without needing access to anything too technical; then we could crowdsource peoples’ safety.

The judges are determined – from a human pov, not only the brand they represented – to help collate the necessary charity network information and wherewithall to make it happen. However the geeks who thought it needed to happen and were so passionate about beating human trafficking that they spent their weekend building an application to make people a little bit more safe, found it hard to adjust to the jump of someone actually taking it on and helping make it happen (within 24 hours). Possibly because they had been coding non-stop for 24 hours, presenting to Press, sponsors and co-hackers – more probably because they were not used to their ideas being taken up so strongly and immediately by the kind of brands that can really make it a reality.

Such is the magic of a hack day.

This is why I love hack days… dilemma :)

And so…

The point of a hack day for a developer is to be with like-minded people, work on your own stuff, learn and be celebrated; for the rest of us, it is to create the environment for magic to happen.

Maybe in the next few years they may become simply about the prototype, but I hope that day is a long way off. The point is developers, living and learning from each other in an environment that is created by you: the challenger.

Finally…

As ever, my cry is: please, do not take the piss, developers are for life not just for your *next million* or *save the world* idea. They are an asset to be cherished and nurtured and they do not necessarily always value the same things you do. It is rarely money or jobs – most developers are awash with job offers, and extra-curricular *cash* offers.

Hack days do work, right now, because everyone wins when they are run well and with consideration. But please don’t ask me what my favourite app is that was ever built at a hack day! I can’t tell you, I have no idea. I do however now know 200+ developers whom I would be able to call in a heartbeat, and know their skills, passions and talents – but I would never sell them to anyone.

Developers are a talent to be nurtured in our open data and open society world. Hack days respect this and act as breathing spaces for devs.

It is rarely about the prototype, and when it is, I will probably go buy that flower shop I have been promising myself.

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