So, a couple of weeks back I had the enormous pleasure of working on ChaMPion, the winning project at the second UK Parliament Hack Day.
For the uninitiated, a hack day is nothing to do with phone hacking, Anonymous or GaryMcKinnon, but a themed event (usually over two days) where developers and designers get together to create usable apps or websites in a brief, intense period of work. Hack days have been growing in popularity over the past five years or so, both in the commercial sector – where they’re a great way to generate new ideas for innovation and funding – and in the public sector, where hack days have been instrumental in turning open data into usable information for public good.
Here in the UK, Rewired State have been instrumental in championing and delivering public sector hack days, beginning with the first National Hack the Government day in 2009, and have since lent their talents (and that of their extensive and impressive network of 1,000 developers) to a host of commercial projects too, such as Honda’s Power of Minds event, in which developers worked with Honda’s own cultural engineers.
I helped to organise the first Parliament Hack last year; since moving on to financial services earlier this year, I thought I’d put that behind me. But when Mark Smitham asked if I’d join the team he was pulling together for this year’s Parly Hack, I jumped at the chance to work with such a talented, dedicated and generally rather brilliant bunch of people.
But I wondered what I, as someone with no coding skills, could bring to the project. The answer was a solid understanding of the business – the workings of Parliament and the needs of its users, gathered over two years spent there, working closely with a wide range of users and audiences.
So, what’s being on a hack team like?
They’re all different. Some people prefer to work alone. Others come to the event only with ideas and skills, and form teams on the day with others who can complement those skills.
Our team – Mark Smitham, Giuseppe Sollazzo, Lewis Westbury, Hadley Beeman, Glyn Wintle, Brett Husbands and me - began work some weeks earlier, with a brainstorm (in a pub, naturally), where we looked at some of the available datasets and sketched out some of the potential problems which needed solving.
These broke down into a few broad areas:
- Increasing transparency and making the workings of Parliament – the creation of new legislation and the work of MPs themselves – easier for the public to understand (early ideas included ‘Fiddler on the House’, a comparison site showing how hard your MP works and what they claim in expenses)
- Apps or sites which would be useful to MPs (like access to real-time information)
- Data visualisation which, while increasing transparency, also had the potential to embarrass MPs or Parliament (e.g. looking at the correlation between the marginality of a seat and the amount spent on stamps, so an MP could work out how many things they need to post in order to retain their seat)
- Things which would just be funny (an early contender was described as “like Grindr, but for MPs”)
After this first session we divided up tasks to match our own skills, with Mark, Giuseppe and Lewis looking at existing datasets and how these could be combined, Hadley turning unusable datasets into usable ones, and me identifying other potential sources of data.
We met for a second session a week or so later, where we whittled ideas down and threw out some of those we would like to have done but didn’t have available data for, like the idea we had to improve scrutiny of bills in order to identify those which are being rushed or filibustered. Again, we assigned tasks to team members (I was to focus on creating wireframes for the shortlisted ideas), before the planning session moved on to a game of Cards Against Humanity, the best team-building tool ever made.
On the hack weekend itself, 100 or so developers began with a tour of the Houses of Parliament before moving on the The Hub Westminster to begin coding (I couldn’t make it in, so worked remotely). It was only that morning that the judging criteria was revealed, and it was this which swayed the final decision on which project to take forward – people want to find MPs who care about the issues they care about. Often their “declared interests” are not particularly meaningful or up to date, so we decided we could look at the content of their speeches, and create a tool that allows the user to enter a given topic and returns a list of MPs who have spoken about that topic, ranked by relevance.
Over the weekend, Giuseppe, Mark, Brett and Lewis mined the data, looking for keyword distribution by MP, developed functionality and the UI. Giuseppe’s blogged a detailed write-up of the development side. Meanwhile, I worked on design, creating a name and logo, collating assets and pulled together a convincing presentation on what the project was and what we wanted to achieve with it.
Our project: ChaMPion
ChaMPion is a website which helps people find the MP who cares most about the causes they do. It uses an analysis of Hansard, applying text analysis techniques to identify keywords by MP, in order to match users’ interests to the MP who most frequently talks about the subject in Parliament.
We produced this in response to growing political disengagement; turnout at this month’s elections was at a peacetime low. Coverage of Parliament on TV is generally focused on adversarial politics, in particular PMQs, leaving people confused about what MPs actually do all day.
We wanted people to understand that what happens in Parliament really does make a difference, and that MPs’ workload covers a vast range of subjects and interests. Whatever you’re interested in, there will be an MP who’s fighting that corner; this app aims to show just who that is, helping to connect people with the person championing their cause in our democratic system.
Coding continued through the night, with 28 projects completed before judging began on day 2 – here’s a full list. Each team had just a few minutes to present and demo their hack to a panel of judges comprised of MPs and officials.
We were delighted to win the coveted ‘Best in Show’ prize, given the high calibre of other projects. Other winners were:
- Parliament 2015, a visualisation of historical data
- Have your Say, a site which enables people to debate on the issues debated in Parliament
- Toe the Line, an interactive data visualisation on Parliament’s most rebellious MPs
- Bernard, which uses real-time data on what’s going on in Parliament right now (one of the creators, Tim, has blogged about that here)
What happens next?
Mark, Lewis and Giuseppe are continuing to refine the hack and fix bugs. We’re not sure where to take it next, but we’re keen to get your feedback and ideas on what to do with it. Have a play with it, and let us know what you think: http://www.champion.puntofisso.net.
We each won a Raspberry Pi, so I have resolved to teach myself to code, even just a tiny bit.
What did I learn?
This was my third hackday, and only my second as a participant. Every time, I come away with a feeling that hack days are a truly remarkable tool for innovation and creativity. Every time, the quality of outputs generated in two days and with the aid of beer and pizza is frequently well above that created in months of office-based work.
Given I’m not a developer, I was nervous that I’d be a spare part. I was wrong; in fact, it really reaffirmed my feeling that teams which include someone who understands the business create better outputs, because they help to focus work on the needs of the end user and the context in which the project exists. It’s this I do in my day job, and it was great to remind myself of why it’s good to have strong working relationships with your developmer team.
This time around, I came away with a particularly nagging feeling that nearly every organisation would benefit from adopting the spirit – if not the precise method – of the hack day.
Lately I’ve been reading Dan Pink’s Drive, which looks at motivation for success. Pink argues that traditional notions of motivation – chiefly, that if you pay more you get better results – are outdated in a knowledge economy which relies on creativity and ideas. Instead, the secret to high performance and satisfaction is the need to direct our own lives (autonomy), to learn and create new things (mastery) and to do better by ourselves and our world (purpose). If the thought of a whole book on this makes you all tl:dr, there’s a lovely animated precis from the RSA here.
Hack days tap into all three of these motivational needs – talented people choose their own ideas and projects, use the time to develop their own skills in a low-risk, low-reward environment, to make cool stuff that makes the world a slightly better place – to make things which are truly great.
A handful of organisations already build this need for autonomy, mastery and purpose into their way of working; Google famously gives its staff 20% of their time to develop their own projects, and it’s this free time which led to some of their most successful end products, including Gmail. Insurance firm Aviva invited employees to come up with ideas for apps and were amazed to receive hundreds, many of which made it to finished products. Wired reports that ‘time to tinker’ phenomenon is becoming increasingly widespread in technology firms.
But thinking beyond Silicon Valley (or Silicon Roundabout) is this something that more organisations could benefit from doing, even just as a one-a-year event? Having attended a handful now, I really think it is. Think what your own employees could do, given the time, space and permission to make something brilliant.
An unquestioning press release re-hash on The Guardian’s website today claimed “traditional graveyards are being transformed through technology with interactive headstones providing a revolutionary way for people to remember loved ones.”
A £300 QR code etched into granite, claim Dorset funeral directors Chester Pearce, will enable visitors to learn all about the person buried, rather than being limited to a name, age and date of birth and death.
Or will it? QR codes attract significant criticism for being fiddly and hard to use, but in many cases this is simply because they’re used in entirely the wrong contexts.
My concern in this case, though, is that people are being sold a transitory technology for what’s supposed to be a lasting memorial. Let’s look at the issues:
- The QR code links through to a website giving details of the deceased, as well as providing a comment feature where people can share memories.
- All well and good – for now. But how long will this last? Who curates the content? Who ensures the domain remains up in five years, ten years?
- Then let’s look a little further ahead. Despite a great deal of hype, signs are pointing towards QR codes not really gaining traction with smartphone users. People are talking about the (far less faffy) Near Field Communication protocol performing the same job, better. I would wager that the QR code won’t be around in 2030, let alone 2080.
- If my wager is wrong, that’s ok, because I’m pretty sure this website won’t exist either – and nor will the ‘lasting memorial’ websites these QR codes point to.
- So what are we left with, in 2030? A weird design, etched in stone, which no device can decode, and (even if it could) almost certainly won’t point to a live website.
Claims that the QR codes will be “useful to those visiting graveyards to research their family tree” in the future ring very hollow once you think the thing through.
I’m no fan of QR codes, but in the right contexts they perform a useful task. What are those contexts?
- Where the subject is out of doors – for instance, an OOH poster campaign
- Where there is something in it for the user. A good example would be how QR codes were placed on statues of Olympic mascots Wenlock and Mandeville put up across London, allowing people to scan and collect them all as they walked around the city – providing additional details about the surrounding area too
- Where the campaign is time-limited – so it can be guaranteed the content being linked to is a) live (actionable) and b) up-to-date
- Where the content linked to is actively managed and curated. A good example of this (and a good comparison with the less well-thought-out funeral director’s offer) is how QR codes have been placed next to old gravestones in Washington DC’s Congressional Cemetery; these link through to Wikipedia pages about the more well-known people buried there.
As Bruce Willis’s case against Apple over the right to bequeath digital purchases highlights the fleeting nature of online content, many are starting to look at their digital legacy. As content increasingly becomes digital-only, it’s right that we consider the permanence of what we leave behind. But leaving a QR code as your memorial means that you’re merely one whose name was writ in water, not marble.
(with thanks to Adrian Short for the Keats quote).
Forgive me, dear readers: it has been seven months since my last blog post. Perhaps you’ve been wondering where I am.
Mostly I’ve been blogging elsewhere – over at Intranetizen.com I’ve been wittering on about a bunch of intranet-related topics. Knocking out one blog post a month is proving a little easier when I have three fellow editors giving feedback and telling me to publish.
Here’s a few of my recent posts:
- Is the digital workplace “a skiver’s paradise”?
- Advanced intranets and portals – conference review
- Is your intranet award winning?
- Top ten tips for intranet search
- IntraTeam 2012 round-up
- Are these really the 10 best intranets of 2012?
But while it’s given my content a bigger audience, it has given me less to talk about here on my own site, and even less time to write anything.
I’ve also been busy talking about intranets in real life too. I spoke at IntraTeam over in Copenhagen back in Feburary, and at Advanced Intranets and Portals in Amsterdam in May. Back in June I had the great pleasure of co-hosting IBF Live’s 10th anniversary special, where Deutsche Bank’s John Stepper and I presented our top ten intranet mantras.
I was also honoured to join the advisory board for Jane McConnell’s Digital Workplace Trends Survey, collaborating (online, of course) with a stellar group of digital workplace practitioners to plan the next survey and to interpret the results when they come in. The survey goes live in a few weeks’ time and I’m already looking forward to seeing the findings.
But the biggest change has been in my work life: in April I left my role at UK Parliament and joined Standard Chartered Bank as Senior Manager, Online Communications. As well as being a huge change of scene, it’s also a change in focus, as my new role covers external as well as internal online projects. It’s been a busy few months and an exciting new challenge, working with such a huge and diverse global audience across a wide range of channels.
So between working, running, and blogging elsewhere, and life generally getting in the way, this little corner of the web has been sadly neglected. Sorry. While I plan to continue blogging about intranets and the digital workplace over at Intranetizen, I will try and keep this blog up too, with (occasional) musings on digital communications both internally and externally. Watch this space.