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

Ideation

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.

Running a very experimental hack day for start-ups

This is nothing to do with my work in government, therefore I am blogging about it! (Ref previous purdah post)

The idea is to gather together a number of business start-ups, owned by members of Adam Street club, identify the ones with interesting data and information, pull together a number of developers/hackers, some of whom are already working with the businesses concerned, some of whom are nothing to do with it (including some Rewired State developers) – and run a one-day hack event with the intention of creating a number of mash-ups. The mash-ups can take many forms: websites, web applications, i-phone apps, other data phone apps, i-pad apps, games, maps – endless possibilities.

The aim is to see where there might be connections and collaborations between businesses not yet explored, and inevitably see what, if any, new products there are hiding amongst that information. I have no idea what will happen, it could be simple things like more effective ways to exploit the data or better ways to store and serve the information. However, I think it is worth doing, as we all know that one of the best ways to re-generate the economy is through enterprise and entrepreneurship – so why not see if we can be pro-active about this with start-ups.

How will the day work?

The day will start with the owners of the selected businesses standing up and speaking about what they do, what data they have put into the pot, any ideas or issues that have that they would like solved, inspiration etc (this will be very time-limited!). A Rewired State developer will have been working with me to get the data sorted for re-use, and we will explain how to access the data and any APIs we may have.

Planning and coding will start as soon as possible, and will continue through the day – fuelled by delicious food and beverages in a variety of forms. At 6pm there will be a show and tell, where the developers will show what they have made, with the traditional beer and pizza accompaniment, to their peers, the business and data owners, and a selection of interested people.

What happens next?

Collaborations between start-ups, initiated by the mash-ups, are the primary outcome we want to focus on. Where this goes depends entirely on the people involved and the nature of the product. Perhaps products will be created that are completely new and therefore further discussions will take place about how that might be taken forward either by the business owners, or by the developers themselves. We will see, but we will be making sure that whatever support needed going forward is provided and will be looking for sponsors and investors to help us do that.

This first one will hopefully begin a series of start-up hack days, I hope that it does work, it may not.

How to get involved

Well, in order to see if this works we will be hand-picking businesses, but if you are an Adam Street member and have a business that you think should be involved, let me know. If you are a developer and really want to be involved, then get in touch – I have enough signed up, but we are not really squeezed on space so we can take more if you are good.

We could do with a bit of sponsorship for beer and pizza in the evening, but all we can offer in return for sponsorship, is attendance at the show and tell and a first dibs at next-step talks with the business owners and hackers – plus inclusion in any Press we do around this event (although we are not yet decided on whether we will invite Press – thoughts?). Also, all of the developers do this on a voluntary basis, so if we get sponsorship we will try to give them something in return for their work, usually in the form of prizes – you can help us judge these.

We need a server… please…

I think it would be quite good if there was a group of people wanting to run an eye over this, and act as a bit of an advisory panel, so that this does not become just a pointless, but fun, exercise. There are a few involved already, but if you feel that you could bring something to this particular party – please do let me know.

Want to come to the show and tell? Just let me know and let me know why and I will see, we are limited on space for that – so it will be first come first served and relevancy.

Why Adam Street member businesses only?

Adam Street is a club that offers seriously affordable membership to entrepreneurs and start-ups (I made that up from my own experience, it’s not their official line I don’t think!). Most people that belong to it are serious about their business and are looking for good networking opportunities, but perhaps cannot afford to invest in expensive business clubs. These are the people we think would most benefit and appreciate this form of innovation. I am a member and it seems a sensible place to start – apart from the fact that I am not a member of anywhere else. (From the Adam Street side, they started out wanting to provide an affordable space for entrepreneurs, offering them collaboration opportunities – and they are keen to deliver on this, above and beyond the Mojito).

I approached the club about this idea as I thought it would be a good idea for their members and they were enthusiastic, embracing the ethos of hack days as much as me and happy to go with the ‘suck it and see’ attitude <- do not insert crude joke here.

When?

*probably* the first Saturday in June. It has to be a Saturday as we need the best developers, and they are busy all week. Also, Adam Street is shut until 6pm on a Saturday, so we get the run of the club throughout the day when the developers need peace to work.

Rewired State

I am a founder director of Rewired State, but that is really all that is relevant here. This is not a Rewired State hack day – we are über busy with government work, and our only focus is public sector information and hack days. However, I have opened the offer to work on this hack day to our developers as they really are the best; and am really pleased to say that ten of them are joining us to work on this, including two of the Young Rewired State hackers, one aged 15 the other 16 (and mind-blowingly good).