National Hack the Government Day 2013

I had the pleasure and the privilege of being one of the judges at National Hack the Government Day 2013 yesterday.

The event is organised by Rewired State and at its heart is about putting public data in the hands of the public. In previous years the focus has been very much on central government data but now, thanks to the work of many, we can see many more datasets becoming available and this is reflected in the hacks.

There were too many great hacks to mention them all individually so this is an impressionistic piece on those hacks and themes that have stuck in my mind.

Hansardine was emblematic of the new style of data analysis – it took Hansard debates and used ngram comparison to pull out topics which were trending above average. 

Universerator won my prize for disruptive thinking by comparing university courses and future earnings. This kind of thing can be crudely reductive but for me it highlighted some of the cognitive dissonance in our culture – why do we value the arts so highly and yet so little?

Plc3bo was a nice piece of classic data analysis looking at NHS prescriptions. Extending this to cover generics vs. proprietary brands is exactly the kind of idea we should encourage.

The Taxpayer’s Alliance provided some datasets around council performance and Chief Exec pay scales. They would be the first to admit that the data needs work but even in its current state it is interesting.

For example, Council Chief Exec pay ranges from £120,000 to £450,000 which may well be “right”, I have only ever known one such Chief Exec and whatever we were paying them it was not enough. And it should never be about simplistic, reductive comparisons. 

The question for me is that my first reaction was astonishment at the range. It is easy for astonishment to lead to a search for overly simplistic responses. Data, like everything, requires context. Perhaps we all need to be better at contextualising the data we release.

I also awarded a feline centric prize to a hack which used cat pictures to represent data categories. Much like les quatre chats de priorité on my office wall, changing how we represent concepts visually makes a huge difference to our understanding of them. 

And finally we had a couple of projects looking at the data now released on the Hillsborough tragedy. One looking at putting an open RESTful interface on the structured data, the other using cloud tools to OCR scanned PDFs to allow for free text search.

These are both potentially very powerful tools but they bring home the obligation we all have to remember the people at the heart of the data. Technology gives us a chance to create a people’s history but that can only be done with the cooperation and support of people themselves.

The teams have done an amazing job and I am going to see if there is anything I can do to help.

So for me this year’s National Hack the Government Day was about people not data. That’s a good sign, it shows that as a community we continue to mature. It’s also the way it should be.