Hacks and hackers at LocalGovCamp
The Hacker Ethics (or Attitude)
1. The world is full of fascinating problems waiting to be solved.
2. No problem should ever have to be solved twice.
3. Boredom and drudgery are evil.
4. Freedom is good.
5. Attitude is no substitute for competence.
These were created by Eric S. Raymond in The Cathedral and the Bazaar. There is another version offered by Steven Levy more generally promoting the values of sharing, openness, decentralization, free access to computers and world improvement. Esko Reinikainen kicked off a LocalGovCamp session on Hacker Ethics by quoting Raymond’s version, leading to a fascinating discussion of how they could be encouraged more in local government:
- What would a set of LocalGov Ethics look like?
- It's important that we try to educate people about the original meaning of the word hacker - they gave us the Internet, the World Wide Web and opto-genetics (look it up, sounds amazing). Not the common media definition of someone who breaks into computers (could be called a cracker).
- Some of the challenges of running an innovation lab and spreading the culture outside the walls of that “free space”.
Mostly it was great to be reminded of these values that strongly resonate with me. They are also highly relevant to Code for Europe (CfE) and the broader civic tech community. Through connecting with CfE “Fellows”, learning more about the work of the Code for America Fellows and more recently attending CodeCamp for the Globe, an event organised by the Knight Foundation bringing together “Code for” people from many countries, it's clear there is a large and growing community of people both inside and outside government wanting to solve fascinating civic and democracy problems with technology. Also that we are very aware that problems are often being solved more than once, but it's a young movement and we need to get better at sharing. This has been Nesta’s key focus (as part of CfE) in building Civic Exchange and promoting reuse.
But this is about LocalGovCamp right? In fact the first event was the first ever LocalGov Makers Hack Day on Friday, where three challenges were presented to about 50 people (well done Phil Rumens for organising!). A bunch of us got stuck into Challenge Two about how LocalGov could share more code, schemas, standards, case studies, etc - a recurring theme at a DCLG Discovery Day the previous Friday and generally a tough problem to crack. We chatted about the problems, started recording some user needs and areas of focus and with a bit of Jedi skills sharing, it was suggested it might be best if we split into two sub-groups, one focusing on document-oriented material and the other on more technical things like code and schemas.
On the tech side, we split again into hacking on three things:
- There is a tension between centralised v decentralised collation of info about what’s out there - the feeling was that decentralised could have some advantages of being easier to spread. civic.json is a project started by BetaNYC, the New York CfA brigade to define a simple metadata standard for civic projects that could be defined using a simple JSON file in the root of a project. We explored how this might be improved and extended to work in a UK LocalGov context.
- Stuart Harrison built a quick hack to parse the UK government GitHub accounts listed at government.github.com (which is awesome but doesn't go into projects). In about the last 10 minutes he got a quick integration working of pulling some metadata from civic.json files added to a couple of projects.
- Dan Blundell, Ben Cheetham and myself looked at how a set of LocalGov data standards could be developed. The work by the Poplus Project and Popolo specification, as well as the Service Manual API guide, offered some really useful inspiration for creating Localo, a project where the community can start to iterate and document standards. Generally it might be one piece of building a shared gubbins of government.
It was interesting that Challenge One, who were looking at how more local information could be exposed to citizens, came full circle and decided that it wasn't worth trying to build another Google (read more here), but that led to exploring how better standards and APIs could help to get more data (maybe via microdata, rich snippets, etc) fed into Google.
Perhaps unlike a more traditional hack event, (where everyone who attends will typically end up cranking out code or designs on a laptop) it felt like there was a more diverse mix at the Makers Day, so Challenge Three looked at building a user journey for first time users. Some great ideas from the application of Post-Its, a window and some prototyping with TypeForm.
There was also a parallel Digital Leaders event hosted by FutureGov, which I’ve heard went very well. The cross pollination between the two events during the hack day presentations is a good thing to be encouraged more.
The other more technical session I joined at the camp, run by Dan and Ben, was about creating open standards, taking the discussion further from the day before with a wider group. Waste collection emerged as a good place to start (also the first example discussed the day before), so it was agreed to have a rubbish day in September, which if we recycle what we have, will hopefully not be a waste of time and give us some food for compost (OK, couldn't resist, I’ll stop now). More generally we discussed how to keep the conversation going, how to approach building APIs and the need for working systems and whether it could become another LocalGovDigital workstream. Most inspiring was the view of lets JFDI and build something, not wait for others to do it (Sarah Jennings has expressed this more generally much better than I can). We might create new collaborations by getting stuck in.
LocalGovCamp itself was awesome. Sarah Lay and many others did a fantastic job of organising it. Many highly competent people with great attitudes coming together, freely sharing their ideas and keen to solve fascinating problems that can change the world. My head is still buzzing, it sure wasn't boring. LocalGovCamp seems to have a fair bit of the hacker attitude at its roots :).