Time to tinker: why hackdays are brilliant


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.

The winners

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.

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