“… consider it a Braxton Hick…”

I find myself tweeting the evening after a hack weekend we have just run for the Department of Education in the UK under the self-explanatory hashtag #pupildata. I tweeted this to a teacher disappointed on a Sunday evening that he could not interact with the data used to produce these prototypes. Who said teachers were in it for the great hours and holidays?

Braxton Hicks for those who are not aware is a false feeling of labour that women feel late in pregnancy, sometimes implying impending delivery, sometimes not!

His frustration is shared by the developers who did manage to attend the event, a hack weekend thwarted by so many foreseen and unforeseen challenges – who KNEW that the fact that the Wimbledon final would be on the Sunday afternoon and coincide with Show and Tell would actually be a serious issue for the UK devs and public servants? This plus the:

  • Grand Prix
  • Gay Pride
  • Bar Camp
  • Mozilla event
  • Google event
  • Nike 10k

All in London, all this weekend. Challenging…

This weekend’s hack was on the National Pupil Database, a dataset that does divide opinion but is important whichever side of the fence you choose to set your hat. It is important to every child, parent, teacher and futurologist. So we tried to bring a good representation of those groups to the room but by far the group most represented were the under 18s, the very pupils whose data this was. Agreed this is probably skewed by the fact that I asked YRSers to come along, but welcome to the future, in my opinion people expect to be able to access their data and to do what they want with it – no matter their capabilities.

It is sensitive, but we only worked on anonymised data – and the restrictions on its use were such that the trusted people in the room working on it were also there as protectors of the data. No one, believe me, no one wanted to be able to identify students through the data. And they tried, they tried just to see if they could – I can understand that.

Most notably the under 18s went straight for the: “Can I find me” hacks. One thought he had managed to identify himself because he had achieved an A* in an uncommon subject and could search his own school results and filter by A* “uncommon subject” and try to remember the rest of his GCSE results. He thinks he found himself in the database but he is not 100% sure.

Was he bothered? No, but he wanted more data, because if he  (and let’s remember FF ten years and this will be the norm) could find out the information about himself, he could compare himself to others.

Well, through collected results he could.

His first question was: how can I find other data to quantify some of these numbers? I was not in the country at this time, my stats are borked… ’twas ever thus with education assessment, no? But open data brings us true opportunity to break this open.

On the subject of identity, one 18 year old was keen to point out that if they removed the school identifiers, this would disable individual identification – is this perhaps the answer?

But the story is not in what was discovered in the data at this hack day, the story is simply that the old alchemy works – still. Allow data, information, truth if you like, to be the central theme. Breathe some life and time into it with people who are artists, information artists (bit wanky but you know what I mean), to try to draw stories from the data and see what can help inform or cause.

Add pizza and Haribo and a time limited period.

That’s a usual hack day formula and this was running steadily, if a little faster than most, down that route. But this time we chose to remove the competitive element that usually defines a hack day, you can’t compete over pupil data discovery – bit sick – so we in RWS bought a load of MiFis and Geek Manifestos for everyone taking part. Making it a non-competitive show and tell helped us focus on what this is really about: what’s the story here?

The story was very clear. This data is interesting. Who knows what tales it tells, if any. As Zoe so rightly showed through the medium of sheep, collecting data is pointless just in and of itself, it only becomes useful when you explore it – obviously, right?

Closed and restricted access offers a very tantalising glimpse into its riches. Nothing to do with identity. No hunting grounds to be found in this anonymised data.

Restricted access was a bit of a beast but not insurmountable. In fact, honest appraisal at the end of 36 hours of programming meant that the department was shown a magnifying glass reflection of the state of its collated information. The geeks had begun to make sense of it, in an attempt to create prototypes and visualisations and were in no way deterred, in fact so much so that they were already working hard to make it better and easier for parents/teachers/other kids to understand and that in itself is a win.

Did the Department for Education get a shiny app happy hack day? No

Why not? Access to the data was very restricted

Was this right? Yes

Should further work be done and the data open? Yes

Here is our Easter Egg:

The Sec of State for Education: Michael (divides opinion) Gove, came to the hack day show and tell. He was given an opportunity to get out of it, when we realised that the hack day was not going to result in happy, shiny, popcorn prototypes we sought direction on how we play this. Do you really want to leave the sofa and the tennis to see that we couldn’t do much? We will do a video and show you on Thursday, sorry… we tried :/ etc etc

I have to tell you, my face could not have been more gobsmacked when we were told that regardless of the out we had given him, legitimately: Wimbledon final, Nike 10k, Grand Prix, data is a bit crap the outputs are not so shiny and you might be a bit bored by geek speak… he had decided to come. I have a sneaking suspicion that even the civil servants were surprised by this – he was on his way…

Normally this would be a big thing, well… a thing anyway. But on a Sunday afternoon when everyone has had about 2.5 hours of sleep, everything has conspired against any hope of shinyness, the only way is to crack on, basically and make good with what we have.

The best I could make with the people I had at the Hub Westminster this afternoon was to have a chat. How often do you get a Sunday afternoon with Cabinet Office civil servants, departmental civil servants, Special Advisers, Press Officers, Geeks (under 18), Geeks (over 18), parents, open data enthusiasts, people who just thing it is interesting and the Secretary of State for Education… there are under 25 people in the room… a great leveller.

We needed a chat, not a scripted chat, just – a chat.

Respect was the name of the event

Respect for the data and respect for each other. And so we all welcomed the SoS for Education with respect, although I think a few kids ran (literally) when they saw him, not through celebrity awe, rather a clock that started ticking the minute he walked in, they knew presentations were on and like anyone who gives a shit, performance time is mighty and preparation really important.

And without wanting to seem really wanky, I think he met us on that common ground. He was not watching the tennis, he was here even though we had given him a really easy “out”, and lets face it, he is a politician, he knows this is not going to be an automatic breeze, there is a very real risk that he could be on the spot this afternoon.

He pitched in, chatted to everyone, did not stand on ceremony (those not in the civil service will think this normal, it’s not  – especially on a Sunday afternoon). <- I have worked with many Ministers, this is very unusual.

Whilst Murray fought on the Wimbledon courts, a far more dull, tedious and tiny conversation was taking place. But it affects every pupil in this country, and I think that it is for this reason, probs for his son who was chillaxing in front of the match in PostCodesomething, that Michael Gove rocked up. Not only did he rock up, but he stayed, he talked and he listened. Properly.

Look, this is as astounding to me as it is you, OK? I do not agree with _some/many/most/no idea of the stats_  no *some* of his policies, but the man is a good Minister and a good person because he did not do the usual Ministerial thing of sweeping in and out of an event with no interest or engagement.

You can be a good person as well as have some dodge policies, right?

In a democracy being fully briefed is half the battle, having receptive politicians: the other half (I too am surprised at my typing tonight)

Is democracy not about having people represent us and helping those representatives understand our point?

Well… I think/hope, we will see <- you see how shattered and fragile my illusions are, but you know what, I have no reputation to salvage, nor brand to represent and so I am probably the most obvious yet unlikely candidate to voice what we were all saying after he left (two fricking hours, not sure I ever got that with any other Minister!):

Michael Gove is a good man – in a democracy you need that – someone who will take time out to go to an event with no press whatsoever to see what is happening within his department and with information he ultimately controls, on a Sunday afternoon, when he could have sacked it all off.

I am speechless.

Edit 11th July 2012 Here is the official video, see for yourselves

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