Can Greece become a Rewired State?

We owe Greece big time. We owe Greece for one of the greatest infrastructures upon which our societies have been formed: Democracy.

The irony is that it is because of Greece we are being given a cracking big mirror into why democracy based on land boundaries cannot and does not work.

I am sure many other people are having the same conversations I am: where are the multi-billionnaires so determined to “make the world a better place”? Were I a multi-billionnaire who would not miss 1.6bn I would definitely use it to buy Greece a year to work out how it is going to break itself better.

I don’t have 1.6bn, but if everyone who lived in a democracy gave a few pounds/euros/dollars we would quickly be there. Indeed, here is the Indiegogo crowdfunding page for doing just that (set up by a 29 year old from York).

But instead of asking for olive oil or something from Greece in return, let’s say it is our gesture of thanks to you for democracy.

In return we would like to work with the people of Greece to build a new democracy. That recognises the new world, the geographical borders that become more irrelevant every day, those inconsequential maps that are transcended by the digital Renaissance. We have a chance. A real chance. To rewire this. End the rhetoric. Enter the rubicon. And once again Greece can build the infrastructure of the future.

We cannot laugh it out of Europe as a massive failure. It has provided the basis upon which we stand and scorn. It is once again pivotal.

Here’s how I think it can be done:

For many years now many of us have been talking about how technology can save the world. Rewired State was born out of that rhetoric and its community of both young people and the civic techs. We wanted to break things better, find new ways of making all the stuff we were talking about become reality. Stop talking, start building.

For the past seven years we have been working with governments, Parliaments and industry applying the Boolean logic of “if this, then that” to real challenges and creating and launching real solutions.

We have led debates, found new ways of thinking about things and last year I spent much of it on the Speaker’s Commission for Digital Democracy, examining what was happening worldwide and giving a baseline for a new form of engagement and representation.

But the Commission could not go far enough. It was bound by its terms. And what we found challenges representative democracy.

Now Greece is in crisis, and people are trying to fix it based on old paradigms and infrastructure that is no longer relevant anywhere.

Rewired State has the community, the connections and the experience to work with the young people, the civic tech community and democratic philosophers of Greece. Our extended community of civic tech organisations and democratic philosophers around the world can form Rewired Greece. In a year we can create a new system of democracy that insures the rest of the democratic world against suffering the way the Greeks have had to suffer.

Here are the actions:

1. Crowdsource the money on indiegogo but forgo the oil (yes — no demands for oil in return please gang! That’s the way wars start — even if it is olive)

2. Join Rewired Greece. I am going to be working on funding this and will host an evening for those who want to come and help work on next steps and making this real. Please email with the Subject line: Rewired Greece and I will send you details of the event when I have an idea of numbers.

“I have a nightmare…”

Tonight Martha Lane-Fox will give her Dimbleby lecture at the Science Museum in London. I was privileged enough to have seen early versions of it as she grappled with how best to use this platform to address the growing urgency for some kind of body to attend to the moral and ethical challenges thrown up by the digital renaissance. You can read a write-up in The Guardian that gives more detail on what she is going to say.

In her words, Martin Luther King did not inspire generations of people by starting his speech with: “I have a nightmare…”. That focuses on the bad stuff, the scary things – basically the Daily Mail approach to informing and inspiring change. Indeed, the Daily Mail has been running no less than four horrible stories on data as I type. Here is one headline:

We know everything about you: Sinister boast of data boss who says he has 5,000 pieces of personal information on EVERY British family – from your salary to your health products and ages of your children…

I shan’t link to it, but feel free to google.

Education has not kept up with the information age, not just our children’s education, but us adults too. I know some but not all, and spend my life keeping up with change, reading and learning – but I am lucky enough that I am able to do this because it lies at the heart of what I do every day. But most people have neither the time nor the opportunity to do so, therefore tales in the media drive their knowledge, often built on half-truths and misinformation.

Ignorance breeds fear.

Fear breeds censorship and defensiveness.

This does not help people make better, more-informed decisions.

I am also announcing the launch of Rewired State’s DATA CITIZEN PROJECT. Our premise is to help people make better decisions by running a five-year long, deeply researched programme looking at how we all interact with data, what it means to us and how we can all be given the knowledge we need to feel like we have control over the information we knowingly provide. Right now there is naff all information on the website, but I have a nice little information pack that can tell you more about what, where, who, when and how (email me if you want a copy or want to be a part of it not just sponsorship, natch).

Standing ovation for Martha tonight, do watch it and watch out for what happens when she steps down from her podium – thank goodness people like her use her platforms for the benefit of everyone else. Kudos, my friend.

clap animated GIF

What the flip is going on?

There I was being all quiet on my social media channels *cough* with occasional worky updates, then on one day – I saturate my feed with all things Rewired and Young Rewired State – “What the hell”, you may well ask, “are you thinking?”

So, I have been removing myself as CEO for the last three months, Dan Bowyer came in and did some brilliant work getting the ship in order and ready to be run as two officially separate organisations, no longer tied to each others (or my) apron strings. There was a *lot* of tidying to do! And now he has moved on to new pastures that need his genius sorting and winning skillage.

So now we are ready to come out as it were. I am officially on the boards of both organisations, and Ruth Nicholls is the Managing Director of Young Rewired State and Julia Higginbottom the CEO of Rewired State. Today sees the launch of three exciting things:

  1. The crowdfunding campaign for the Festival of Code 2015 (please give generously)
  2. The new brand for Young Rewired State and Ruby (our bug)
  3. The new websites for both Rewired and Young Rewired State. (albeit they are resting places for now before the final POW launch of both in December)

All of these things mark a very big second step for both organisations, and I am really excited for both of them, hugely proud of the team and count myself extremely lucky to have two such competent, passionate and dedicated women running them.

Please can you share the crowdfunding site as widely as you can with your networks, and please if you can afford to donate, do so! It really is a mammoth effort to raise £50,000 this way!!

Learn how to code

Many people ask me many times where they can learn how to code; mainly because they mistakenly believe that Young Rewired State teaches kids how to code, we do not, we encourage peer-to-peer  learning in a community of self-taught programmers, whilst they tackle social and civic challenges.

However I do also campaign for people to know how to program, even if only for a hobby, so it is fair enough to be asked. I just can never give an answer that satisfies as organisations spring up so fast, move on, morph – and anyway, just doing a an online coding course is not really going to be that exciting.

Just now, I rattled off a response to another email from a journalist on this topic, and it being Friday afternoon and after a week of travelling I was tired and cranky so rattled this off. But as I sat afterwards with my tea and biscuit(s) it struck me that actually that is probably the best response I have managed to drum up so far. So here it is for you (in no particular order):

  • find some free online coding tuition in any programming language (there are loads play with as many as you can)
  • get into the habit of clicking the View Source link on web pages to get an idea of what code looks like
  • set up a blog with someone like WordPress and have a go with the HTML view
  • explore communities such as github to learn how to share and fork code
  • use communities like stack overflow to get help
  • go along to hack days and learn from other people

Feel free to add useful updates, anecdotes and pointers in the comments






How hack days have grown up

For the past five years we in Rewired State have been running hack days. Initially to encourage the UK government to open up its data, removing the fear and uncertainty of what developers might do with the information once it was made available with no limitations. Now we run them for all manner of organisations, from media giants to corporates – as well as a continuous symbiotic relationship with central and local government

To briefly describe a hack day in 2009 it was usually a weekend with a number of software developers in a space with spankingly good wifi, some data, pizza, beer and a few dodgy prizes awarded to those who got the most claps, gasps, cheers or laughs. They were informal events that brought together groups of people and individuals who would never usually have time and opportunity to meet. The results, the prototypes, were less important than the community activity for the developers, and the meercat moment for the sponsors or people for whom the hack was being produced.

As with growth of any idea or concept, as Rewired State has continued to run these events so we have refined and learned what we do to make it better for developers, better for clients and to refine outcomes to meet the need that sparked the hack. I hope that by sharing this updated learning with you all now, it will help.

Here is how a hack day looks to us now in 2013


We found that we were spending more and more time with clients refining the actual challenges being laid down to developers during the hack. It has always been profoundly important that hack days do not turn into bootcamp for building prototypes to a specific brief. In order to enable the unique collaboration, the creative ideas, the spark of solution that generates a number of prototyped digital ideas that resolve a particular issue – it is essential to define the problem first, not design the solution.

We advise that hack days have three of four challenges laid, and the associated data made available.

In order to define the challenges, the problem must be identified and this usually requires the meeting of several people on the client side of the hack. In Rewired State we spend the majority of our time initially with the client shaping these in such a way that they are clear enough without be prescriptive about potential solutions.

The Hack

Our hack weekends are hugely crafted in order for them to be simple and open. It takes us at least eight weeks from woe to go to get everything in place, including the developers. Luckily for us our network of devs and designers is made up of over 1000 people who can create working prototypes in 36 hours or less. So we have a hugely talented pool of people we can draw upon.

We take time to initially invite specific people from this pool to try to make up a group of people at the hack made up of 50% devs with expertise and experience of the field we are focusing on, and 50% with no experience whatsoever. We find that this mix tends to create realistic yet innovative ideas, without stifling creativity. And then we open the hack up to anyone who would like to join for whatever reason – we don’t second guess peoples’ passions!

The end of the hack event will produce ‘winning’ solutions for each of the three to four problems laid out in the beginning.

Modification days (Modding days)

It was becoming clear to us as we grew up that clients were increasingly wanting to take ideas forward from the hack, as the solutions were what they had been looking for. As we in Rewired State are committed to not becoming a body shop for developers, others are doing this perfectly well, we needed to find a way to enable prototypes to be taken through to product, with the teams who had come together in a perfect storm to come up with the concept in the first place; (often people with full-time jobs and geographically separated).

And so we created a modding process: the selected prototypes from the hack day would go through a process of development whereby the client would feedback to the dev teams on what would be useful to change or adapt, followed by a day or two of scrum-style programming and design, on all three or four prototypes so still a ‘hack’ format everyone is together again, followed by client internal review and feedback, and so the iteration process continues until the products are ready for the client to adopt.

When you don’t need a hack day – we have Rewired Reality

Clearly the hack days we run cost more than sponsoring beer and pizza, well the problem-solving ones do, and so sometimes people come to us thinking they need a hack day, but don’t have the time or money necessary to get the benefit from full-blown physical event. And so we created Rewired Reality, where we have a number of our Rewired Staters and Young Rewired Staters behind an online board. Here is how it works.

IP and money

IP is always the question that must be resolved up front. We are careful to ensure our community of developers feels like they are having fun as much as building solutions to real problems, and so we try to strike a balance between commercial hack days around specific problems, and those where it is just for fun (where we have found some amazing data being released that they would enjoy having a go at, or for a cause that we know touches the hearts of many).

For the former, we pay developers for their time. They are paid to attend hack days, they are paid for modding days and in most cases, the client will retain the IP. But they don’t always, in some cases they are happy for the developers to keep IP, so there is no real defined rule, but it has to be discussed and agreed in advance.

For the latter we don’t pay developers money, but we do provide a well-run hack, with good healthy food, some pizza usually thrown in, fun and frivolity. And they keep their IP.

This balance works for us right now, it may well change as the hack day continues to grow up.

Hack day Prizes

Originally hack days had some token prizes, often deeply ironic or just downright funny. As they began to become a thing outside of the developer-only zone, prizes became more valuable, cash sums or shiny kit. For a while we grappled with this – trying to strike the right balance.

A high sum of money would skew the attendance and reason why the hackers chose to come along, change also the dynamic of the event, less collaboration and more secrecy, and attracted a different kind of developer, often entrepreneurs with an unwilling and exhausted coder in tow. Not what we are about at all!

A low sum of money could be seen to be insulting.

So we try to avoid financial prizes.

“Stuff” is always hard, because it is tricky to second guess the number in a hack winning team, and if an individual but amazing thing is donated, such as a 3-D printer, how does a group of four strangers who have come together to create a prototype over a weekend, share that?

So we try to avoid “stuff”.

Experiences are good. Vouchers are good.

But actually, the conclusion at the moment is that we need to make the hack weekend itself so enjoyable that it is about that experience and not the prize – for our open and non-commercial events. Prizes more in line with the original ironic/playful times and a well-stocked bar at the end.

We do not award prizes for the winners of commercial hacks as the process continues through the modding days. but we maintain a consistently high standard of service to those devs who come along.

With thanks to Hudson Hollister who presumed that I had written all of this up and shared it, ad nauseum, as did I. But then I realised that this was all in my head, or in my conference slides, which is no use to anyone.

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

No exit strategy intended, anyone else here for the long game?

As a social entrepreneur, someone who is leading an organisation that is about longevity/good/jobs not an exit strategy, I am learning fast as I build Rewired State, Young Rewired State and Rewired Reality.

It is hard work, this is year five and it is harder than years 1, 2 nd 3, they were great fun. Four was the portend of things to come and now we face a year of scaling down rather than up, consolidating and dealing with employment and HR over strategy and innovation. Not necessarily fun but just as important to secure the future of our dedication to open data, open government, open organisations and young programmers. The future as we see it.

As we scale, so the community spirit that imbues young start-ups dwindles and it is difficult to retain the call-to-arms enthusiasm we all have when starting something new. Big lessons are learned and sometimes trust can be tested, especially when the bill for sustaining your battle cry begins to become about proper sums, ones that can’t be appeased by offers of free pizza and wifi, and more about salaries and data bills.

Money destroys those discussions, in communities, start-ups, social enterprises and even charities. Yet we all have to find a way to sustain our work, beyond begging for a slice of a CSR budget.

I am just at the beginning of year five, and will of course chart its course through this blog as ever, for those interested. For those who are in a similar position, I would like to share a little of the pain, and the ways we can continue the work we started, fund it, employ people, make it all sustainable, and still have these organisations in business when we retire – years hence.

Right now I am a bit lost, a bit frightened and do question that I am the right person to continue pushing for what I believe is sensible, right and good. At the same time I think it is OK to feel this frightened; to feel as if I had conquered it all and egotistically *the one* is usually a hiding to nothing, and we would be doomed.

But it is scary.

If there are any more of you out there, please do make yourselves known either privately or here. It would be good to find some others who are in it for the long haul and therefore about to enter the scary years, and take some forced time out to support each other.

Scary – but not giving in…


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