Small essay on Rewired State, Open Data and future of public service

So I have been out of government now for over two months… seems a lot longer. It has been incredibly good to focus on Rewired State properly and to try to grab hold of and contain what we started, so that it does not spiral into something useless. The Guardian have been utterly generous and supportive in this move and I have been working with them as well – which continues to be fun.

Some of you may have noticed that we are talking quite a bit with the dev community and our friends about the future of Rewired State; these discussions have been lively and brain aching – but very good. We are running one in Manchester on the 22nd October, as there is a large and engaged RS dev community there.

So, I thought I would do a very small update (that escalated) on what seems to be coming out of this time of looking at RS’s future.

The data goldmine

Firstly, there is still a great need for people and businesses to centre themselves around the trojan work of the Cabinet Office in opening government data through data.gov.uk and legislation.gov.uk. Those of you who have been fans of Rewired State may remember that when we ran National Hack the Government Day in March 2009, there was no such thing; Richard Pope scraped all the data he could lay his hands on in the days and weeks before the event and the potential for what could happen with open data was laid bare for all to see.

Within no time Cabinet Office were working up data.gov.uk and brought in all manner of luminaries, futurologists and geeks – as well as a small number of us already working in departments across Whitehall – we set to work: teasing, coaxing and cajoling the data out of startled officials, who had no idea of the value their spreadsheet/database or even micro fiche (on one occasion). It was an incredible achievement and one that we should be proud of; it was speedy, open and a bit messy – but how fabulous and refreshing, and what superb grounding for creating a crude base that works for everyone – something that we can build together as well as tailor to individual needs. (I would like to rally people back to this cause now – it needs to be worked at and supported as a community, we can do that – there is no *way* of doing this, but I know that Thayer Prime @thayer, Richard Stirling @rchards and James Forrester (sorry have forgotten yr twitter handle, James!) would gladly tell you how you might help).

Data.gov.uk provides us with a rich seam of sustainable information, information that could be the building blocks of the revitalisation of enterprise in this country. Right now, the people who are realising the benefits are developers with defined and respected skill sets – either for worthy social causes that have always bugged them, or perhaps more commercial use – like timetric.com <- those boys were always years ahead of the market and I am so pleased to see them growing steadily and continuing their extraordinary business. Yet still, even though there are mobile app developers out there making stuff that we all find useful, it is still really the preserve of the geek – this data wash – and in order for government to really see the value of this, it needs to translate into value for the general public, a circular feed of data that washes through the community bringing information, perhaps income  and brings communities together – as is the wont of this digital age.

The work now needs to focus on how we interpret the information on data.gov.uk into something of value to everyone, not just in the way they can receive it, the ‘cut’ of the data that might perhaps give them a differing view of a school, rather than just Ofsted and their data, for example – but how can everyone have a go.

Efforts like Landshare really grab my attention. If you go and have a look at what they do, then imagine that local councils work with Landshare, and use the data they have to perhaps build a view of their community – perhaps the elderly lady who has given her garden to Landshare, has a drive that she would also like to rent out as she is no longer driving and has no car. Now she can create an income and join a new community. If she is encouraged to do this online, perhaps she would be willing to add to an information drive to map – say – all the disused land in the UK, and provide feedback online to build such a data set; or post boxes in her area, or anything really – you see where I am going with this? So from the open data drive, there is potential for a person who would be the last person you would expect to derive direct financial and community benefit – is that not the whole Big Idea?

We are not far off this, but we are drifting a bit, I feel, and very fragmented. With the retirement of Andrew Stott – who is a great and, when necessary, brutal champion of open data – and an absence of an obvious figure-head – it has crossed my mind that the Coalition may not see this as a focus for their agenda. If this is the case then I think we need to build our own head of steam, and drive this movement to the tipping point we need to enable the explosion of innovation and potential revenue.

It’s tricky at the moment because we are in the inevitable chaos stage, with data not exactly pouring but stumbling and limping from departments into data.gov.uk – Martha working to get people online with raceonline.org, Helen working with UK Online centres, Open Knowledge Foundation, My Society and us working on a variety of challenges that err on the side of the geeky as well as the Guardian Open Platform and their more commercial work with government and industry. The emergence of initiatives such as linkedgov.org – a dev community based effort to make the data make sense shows the tiny shift outwards from the information trough that has been feeding the data-hungry devs – if I remember one thing from every single Rewired State event, it has been the constant cry for more data (so much so that on many occasions the audience has joined in as the developers end their presentations with pleas for data) – well luckily, there is always more, and always will be: lovely sustainable stuff that it is 🙂

But taking the big vision, the proper head above the parapet moment, what has to happen as a big leap into translating this stream of data and tables into a valuable source of information and commerce to everyone who is not blessed with binary brilliance. This is unlikely to be one thing, or enabled by any one person, but it will be a steady rise in the number of initiatives that realise value of this information for many communities, that weave themselves into the heart of every day life that will bring us to this epiphany.

So… please can we all rally back around data.gov.uk and start having a look over our shoulders as we work the code, and see where we can sling something of value out there, the more we sling, the more likely we are to build value for everyone.

To this end, these are the events Rewired State is running over the next few months. We will create many prototypes from the public sector data, some will go on to great things, some may become parts of other things and others will just slumber on until they may be useful in the future. In the mean time, we have found some brilliantly fun ways of playing!

Very important point to note here is that Rewired State will work with everyone if they are looking to do things better, are asking for our help in order to do things better – you will definitely see a rise in a number of events that are sponsored by companies that may seem to be from ‘the past’, we always look at the ethics and drivers for working with such bodies, so please trust that we are not just taking any buck we get. We work on a 50:50 balance. 50% of the work we do we try to be fun/creative/worthy and 50% is commissioned, paid help. This way, certainly for the next 6 months, we should be able to move forward and bring value, whilst remaining true to our original plan of showing government what is possible, whilst they show us what is needed.

So, here goes – in date order:

6th October sees the start of a very exciting few months, with developers in the community in and around Rewired State working with NHS Choices data and digital signage boards in UK train stations and bus stops http://rewiredstate.org/events/nhs-big-screens. The idea here is to set a challenge to see what can be done with raw public data, using a slightly different medium. These boards can play such a great part in games, mobile and interactive web applications and we are very excited about what will come of this developer challenge. We still have places, do sign up, it is for glory not pay – but will definitely inspire the old creative developer juices. You will be able to see what we did, live, on these screens between the 13th and 31st December across the UK.

On the weekend of the 30th and 31st of October we are running a Carbon and Energy hack event with 10:10, Carbon Culture and the Guardian http://rewiredstate.org/events/carbon-and-energy. This is a true hack weekend. There is so much that everyone would love to do, but so little time, so this is a bit of a playground event for developers of all creeds. It is not paid, we do need sponsors for this, however – as we need to cover some costs – but it will be fun.

On the 13th and 14th November we are running a developer weekend on behalf of DotGovLabs http://rewiredstate.org/events/dotgovlabs_weekender. They are going to be launching a platform to bring together Big Society challenges and it is a massive experiment. From the beginning they have asked for Rewired State to be involved, after we ran an event with them last year, and we are very happy to throw our hat in to see if this is a potential way to match data and real need – using agile development as one of the potential solutions, or a part of the solution at least. It is an experiment. It is paid and we can accomodate a few more developers (as I write this).

There are a few more events lined up for this year, including a postponed one for the Technology Strategy Board in November, but we won’t recruit again until we have signed everything up properly.

Next year we will be running National Hack the Government Day as ever in March, Young Rewired State is currently billed for May, and we are testing the waters to see if there is any interest in Rewired Stately: an event aimed at developers aged 50+. We will also run events that we are asked to run, and we will maintain the balance between paid/sponsored/free.

Currently we are an incorporated Limited Company, needs must to work with government – but we are working right now as a not for profit, we don’t have shareholders who wait for dividends – well right now the only shareholders are myself, James Darling and Richard Pope, and we are not taking dividend payments. Any profit we make goes back into running the unpaid RS events; (in the past we put our profit into the community, such as HackSpace, but that is getting a bit more tricky as everyone has less cash to spend). But we are growing, and we will need help to grow, so it may well be that in the next year or so the basis of our funding may change, but we won’t hide this if and when it happens.

Rewired State’s massive March

Those of you who know me, or follow me on twitter (@hubmum), can’t have failed to notice that we (Rewired State) are putting on quite a few events in March. Also, the more eagle-eyed will have noticed that we have also turned ourselves into a grown up Limited Company.

Why?

As James Darling observed on our blog post about this – we were ready to hang up our collective boots and move aside after the launch of data.gov.uk and the apparent very public commitments to opening all data and enabling transparency. But then there began a series of conversations and online discussions about how the value of data.gov.uk could be explored, departments were asking for help unlocking some of the stories their data could tell; this, alongside the unsettling assumption that developers would carry on playing with this for free and would eventually come up with the *big* one (other than THE newspaper – a defining moment in data realisation), meant that we thought we still had a point.

We decided to reconvene and see how we could help government departments get to grips with the untold value of the data they were releasing, whilst showcasing the talents of the Rewired State developers in not only creating exciting applications, but also in problem solving using Agile methodologies. And so Rewired State was reborn – with more of an organic message (as you will see when our brand new site is launched next week!) <- we are all about Agile.

Why a proper limited company? So that we can be paid, it was achingly difficult getting sponsorship and past procurement issues for the other hackdays without a formal company; also, it seemed the right thing to do. We are forging ahead with the view that what we are doing is right, and we will see what value we can provide for developers, and for government. It may be nothing, it may be something – we’ll see.

What’s on in March?

11th March Rewired State: Justice and Home Affairs – Ten developers are going to play with data from the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office. It is an open hack day with a presentation at the end of it to senior officials, comms teams, Press office and the CIO’s office. Statisticians will be invited to go and have a look at what is happening during the course of the day.

After the presentation, each ‘hack’ will be written up with details of what data was used, whether it was available (or scraped), how long it would take to create a fully operational version and an idea of how much. This is not to say that Rewired State would then take on the full development, but to give the department a realistic starting point, should they want to develop it themselves. (The IPR remains with the geek, of course, as with anything we do).

I have to say that everyone within the departments that I speak to, is very excited about this (as are we).

19th and 20th March Rewired State: DotGovLabs – 30 developers will work over the course of two days solving some of the more specific challenges faced by Directgov, businesslink.gov.uk and NHS Choices: including localisation, personalisation and a cross-site(s) topic of pregnancy. (We are hunting pregnant (or young parent) developers for this – so please do spread the word).

The event will start with developers working with key people from the three super-sites, as well as policy/departmental bods. Challenges and issues will be explored then the developers will be left alone to work on some technical solutions. The following afternoon the groups will meet again and see how the applications are coming along, ready for mass-presentation at 4.30pm on the Saturday to invited people from the three super-sites and across government.

Beautifully, we have decided to hold the National Hack the Government Day on the 20th, so there will be an almighty powerhouse of development going on in The Guardian offices, with the 30 developers from the dotgovlabs hack, cheered along by the wave of random Hack day developers – who may themselves come up with some interesting things for the dotgovlabs people (but the presentations from the National Hack day will be later – and over beer and pizza as opposed to tea and biscuits!) and will be completely random.

Last but not least, we have the much evangelised Rewired State: Culture event on the 27th March. Mark O’Neill, CIO for DCMS and brilliant blogger, wrote this about what is known as ‘Rewired Culture’:

Britain is a creative culture. We have a vibrant developer community, a growing and active entrepreneurial base and a vast, rich array of culture assets. How can we bring these together to create new opportunities for data owners and developers? How do we encourage links between data repositories such as museums, broadcasters and the wider community like data.gov.uk or the “London Datastore”? How do we ensure that the exciting work already underway in a number of organizations is shared more generally, so even smaller bodies and SMEs can learn from best practice and find workable routes to market? What are the cultural content business models for the 21st century? How do creators, curators, developers and entrepreneurs work together?

Rewired Culture is a day long event on 27th March 2010 organized by DCMS and Rewired State which is intended to explore these issues and more besides.

Rewired Culture has two strands – the first is a hackday bringing together data owners, data users, developers and people with ideas to see what they can create in a day. This builds on the very successful Rewired State events held in 2009.

The second strand is a halfday unconference style event starting at midday and running in parallel with the hackday for data owners, entrepreneurs, data users and communites to discuss business models, funding mechanisms and challenges.

We will be encouraging constant communication between the two strands because by the end of the day we want the event to have come up with a number of projects that people want to take foreward on technical or business grounds, preferably both!

As you can see: four very different events

And we are wanting to work up our offer back to departments/organisations around these four – plus a few other one off events during the year. Please bear with us, we won’t be able to answer too detailed questions about our future right now – but we are going to carry on, and yes, we are definitely doing another Young Rewired State (we are also pretty chuffed that some of the younger devs are rocking up to some of our other events).

This has all happened rather fast, and as with anything, the last thing we have focused on is our own website – we are working all the hours to get everything sorted, in the mean time, if you want to come to any of the days, either signing up as a developer or as a voyeur, here’s the rather haphazard sign up:

Rewired State: Justice and Home Affairs http://rewiredstate.org/home (As there is such limited space, this will be invite only)

Rewired State: DotGovLabs email info@rewiredstate.org with the subject line ‘dotgovlabs’

National Hack the Government Day email info@rewiredstate.org with ‘National Hack’ in the subject, who you are, whether you have been to a Rewired State event before, and if not – an example of something you have created

Rewired State: Culture Sign up at: http://rewiredstate.org/culture but everyone wants to come, so you have to beg

Want us to do one for you? So long as it’s not March – I’m sure we can, just email info@rewiredstate.org with the subject line: ‘It’s OK, it’s not in March’

Otherwise – we will keep you posted

*I get asked quite a bit who the Rewired State team is, here goes: James Darling (boy wonder), Richard Pope (super clever), me and a new addition Rob Carter (@hubdad) the sensible money/business man. But the extended family is definitely The Guardian who host many of our hackdays and Harry Metcalfe, founder of the Dextrous Web, who has been extremely generous with his time, thoughts and brilliance. And, of course, the team behind data.gov.uk – who we won’t individually name as we know they are a little bit busy!

** we need sponsors for The National Hack the Government Day: only beer/pizza/lunch money for the 100 geeks and the show and tell guests email us info@rewiredstate.org with ‘sponsor’ as the subject line

*** next you will hear of us will be specific hack day deets and the launch of the new website

Rewired State: oh that was very good (updated with video)

So, the National Hack the Government day happened yesterday at the Guardian offices in King’s Cross. Nearly 100 geeks turned up during the day, self organising into groups or working alone to create 29 complete hacks, most of which are up on the projects page; (there were many more incomplete hacks that will be uploaded during the week, so do keep an eye out). LOVE the fact that there were huge apologies from those who said: so sorry, it just requires about another ten hours of work… ten hours 🙂 brilliant.

Staggering amount of talent in the room, mind-boggling; and the standard of ideas and output, again, truly excellent. James M has blogged his own hack, I remember the buzz the spread around the room when the following happened:

We did notice that this last form had a hidden field containing what appeared to by a SQL query, making it ripe for SQL injection attack, but fortunately we managed to restrain ourselves.

You see, it was not that kind of hack day!

At 6pm lots of govvy people, and some Press, turned up to check out what had happened (video footage of all this here just scroll down for the hacks). 29 pizzas, pure coincidence, and loads of beer later and the day was done.

James (@coupde) went on to a rave after he helped drink the bar dry, and went to bed at silly O’Clock this morning, so I don’t think the Rewired State blog will be updated today; and Richard (@memespring) is heading off to the States, powered by Valium (not good on planes) – do grab him and say hi if you are heading out to SXSW next week.

The Guardian have offered to host it again next year: THANK YOU! The offices are awesome, and Alex Hazell did absolutely everything for us: brilliant. (Hopefully we will solve the tech problems in the presentation room, which served to drive some geeks to muttering under their breath.)

We gave two awards to: the team who built Job Centre ProPlus and the team who created Companies Open House. (Check out the prizes 1 footage for this one).

Directgov and 4IP chose a handful of projects to take forward and sponsor/make happen, as did The Guardian: I shall let them update you on what happens next. (You can watch their speech on the Prizes 3 bit on the blip.tv page).

Mark O’Neill, CIO for DCMS, wanted to award a bottle of champagne to the hack that… actually I had better not say (might upset the CIO Council), but anyway, it went to the Get Satisfaction hack – again not yet up on the Projects Page, but it was a simple way to feedback on any public sector website and follow/tracks comments, it was great – will show you as soon as it goes up. (Here is the video footage of what he did – go to hack 25, I cannot separate them).

Stefan Magdalinski awarded an imaginary prize to Epic Bin for the best name.

We will follow the success of the sponsored hacks, and the others – and will spend the year, between now and the next one, getting lots more data loaded onto the wiki API page – who knows what the legislation will be by then regarding geospatial data, could be even more fun then 🙂

Important bit

On that note: here (weirdly on the Defra site) is the consultation which you all should get involved in if you care about open data http://www.defra.gov.uk/corporate/consult/inspire/index.htm

Next

Richard will be spreading the word at SXSW, James and I are doing ten minutes on RS in Brussels next week. Other than that it is simply spreading the word and helping ease government towards sorting out its data and putting it out there for everyone to use as we did yesterday. And getting ready for next year of course, when we hope to have some International outposts hacking at the same time. (And I MUST stop eating, ever since I woke up this morning I seem to be like some kind of grazing cow… a very odd response to eventitis I suspect).

Thanks

Tiffany St James was very rudely overlooked in the thanks being dished out yesterday, when James wakes up I will remind him that he needs to do a thank you on the RS blog. Thanks Tiff, you were brilliant, as ever.

Rewired State: Hack the government tomorrow

Final frantic preparations, well I cancelled supper tonight and we are meeting in an hour. Thought that you might like to check out the suggestions so far, and if anyone wants it, the Press release:

On Saturday 7th March will be holding “Rewired State: National Hack The Government Day” at The Guardian Offices.

Rewired State, the brainchild of James Darling, Richard Pope and Emma Mulqueeny is a free invite-only event to demonstrate the creative use of public data by great technical minds.

100 developers, designers, hackers and geeks, with support from a few government officials will evaluate government data to see how they could best use this information.

We expect the output of the day to expose better processes, application and ways of working for better use of public data as well as to expose government officials to the concept of allowing great creative minds to play with the data to provide interesting and creative  solutions.

The event received interest from over 350 interested techies who wanted to attend to play with the data to see what they could make.

We expect government officials to come away with a clear understanding that opening up public data for creative development by anyone can produce real solutions, quickly, effectively and inexpensively for themselves, local communities, the country and the world.

http://rewiredstate.org/

http://wiki.rewiredstate.org/?page=Main+page

Notes to editors:
Bios
James Darling is a 21 year old freelance web developer who likes to do good things. Experienced in the technology, government, music and business continuity worlds. Half-accidentily helped set up a 10,000 person London Underground drinking party.

Emma Mulqueeny is a public sector digital bod of 10 years, currently developing the Social Media Strategy for the Home Office (amongst other things transformational).

Richard Pope is a freelance developer and interaction designer. He has been building useful civic websites for over 5 years including PlanningAlerts.com and GroupsNearYou.com, as well as working with mySociety.org and FarmSubsidy.org. His most recent project is StreetWire.org, a hyper-local information website, and is the Director of Consumer Focus Labs, a project to take the e-democracy model to companies and products.

The term “Hack”
The term “hacking” in this context means ‘to play with technology’. Popular culture has associated hacking with ‘cracking’ (The illegal access to computers) by mainstream media, but this has not happened in the IT sector, where “Hacker” has more affectionate denotations of “technology hobbyist”.

Two days to go to Rewired State! Here’s the data…

Thought I might give you all a pointer to where the APIs etc are being held for Rewired State.

Here: http://wiki.rewiredstate.org/?page=APIs thanks to the cleaning skills of Richard Pope, and nagging skills of the rest 🙂

Really looking forward to Saturday. Sorry if you wanted to come but could not get in, we are so restricted on space, but that does not preclude you from playing on the day – do let us know if you do and tell/show us what you did.

We will Tweet and blog, and afterwards share some video, podcasts and outputs from the day. Watch this space.

Rewired State: play wherever you are

Most of you who read my blog already know about Rewired State, if not it is on the 7th March 2009, is for those of you who can code and do clever things with APIs/scraped data and is going to be a great deal of fun. Quick run down of the day is 10 to 6 ish: coding/creation, 6-8.30: show off/beer/pizza (so if you can’t code you can come and look at the end).

Having said that we are over-subscribed x3 but have not yet closed the books, because… even if you cannot make it to the actual event, you can still play. There is no reason why not. All of the data is being uploaded to here, it is publicly available (now) and there are APIs/other data feeds/scraped stuff/everything 🙂 being added from now until the 7th March (and hopefully thereafter for wherever this goes after the day itself).

The point about the day is that everyone will be together, doing stuff at the same time, either in the same room or hooked up by some clever *thing* that James Darling will sort, we have an outpost in Brighton and hopefully it will just be a massive, hopefully not just UK-based, hack day. At the end of that day people will be able to share what they have done, I understand that this will be not just those in situ, but everyone taking part. Have a hack party, do whatever you like, join in…

Invites to the London *do* will go out in the next week, those who don’t get in to that will be given options for joining in regardless.

So:

1. If you want to play on the day: register – by the 7th March we will have worked out how to share everything.

2. If you want to just do stuff and not make a fuss about it, go ahead, but please do let us know here: info@rewiredstate.org. It’s just good to know, perhaps best to be specific about whether you want it shared or not.

3. Please do spread the word across your geek/public sector communities and use the 7th as a big push to free data and use it wisely.

Keen to make clear that although James, Richard and I are mentioned as the organisers (and Stefan is not mentioned at all on the site although he is definitely as much a part of it as any of us three, he just *missed* the bits where we were writing blogs and setting up sites :)) – it is not really ours, obviously. We just wanted to spend a bit of voluntary time making it happen. Let’s see where this goes…

Rewired State – how to play if you can’t code

Should you want to come to Rewired State, National Hack the Government Day but cannot code or be geeky enough to ‘do stuff’ during the day, here’s how you can come along and find out what happened and join in.

We are keeping it deeply geeky from 10am until 6pm. At 6 o’clock we will throw open the doors until 8.30pm and you can come and see what has been done on the day, meet the geeks (if they choose to stay :)) have a drink and generally prowl about.

We are trying to limit this to government bods, as we are limited on space and keen to keep this focused and not a general love-in, so go to the website, select ‘government person’ from the drop down menu and fill in your deets. We will then let you know sometime really soon whether you have a place and all of that.

We will be having a jamboree afterwards at a pub tba, so if you don’t get in to the show and tell, you can STILL come along and chat to everyone.

PS If you have met me and said that you want to come and I have said that I will sort it, I haven’t, this is me sorting it, we need to keep a v close tab on numbers and registrations, so DO sign up through the site or you won’t get in. (Although we are quite reasonable of course).