GovHackNZ 2015: Inspiring use of data

Rowan Smith, Nadia Webster, and I were privileged to attend GovHack 2015 at the Wellington venue in early July. Over 3,000 people across two countries (Australia and New Zealand) gave up their entire weekend from Friday evening to Sunday evening to re-kindle the data-hacking community and create things that will be of benefit to our society using open data. About 150 keen people participated in the Wellington event. Even the Minister of Finance put in an appearance early on Saturday.

The competition registration was free and there was plenty of food and some prizes thanks to the generosity of the sponsors. But nothing was really free, because a lot of people worked really hard, and under significant time pressure. There were some teams that were together when they arrived, but most teams were formed for the first time on Friday night, so to come together and then work under pressure to come up with something by the end of the weekend was an accomplishment in itself.

There was some major stress going down on Sunday afternoon to get the 3-minute videos created and uploaded to describe and demo their product by the deadline. But afterwards there were smiles all round and everyone shared their experiences of the weekend over yet more food — the frustrations, the new tools they learned to use, the neat ideas that came about, the new things they learned as they researched and brought together the data and information for their product, and the new people they connected with.

What was achieved — in 46 hours

So, what has come out of all this? As well as all the benefits of coming together as a community, there were some really good results. Many are not completed, because you can’t really produce a highly-polished, finished product in a weekend, but you can get to the point of proving a concept. Key to some really good results in Wellington was to get everyone thinking about life events and "pain points", which struck a chord with people and motivated them.

As a result, teams came up with solutions to a range of pain points:

The 31 New Zealand projects used over 100 different datasets: 19 projects used multiple sources of data, some using up to 18 different datasets. Of the New Zealand projects:

  • 9 used the 2013 Census data, 13 altogether used various datasets at StatsNZ
  • 5 used Google Maps API
  • 2 used different data from the LINZ Data Service
  • 2 used OpenStreetMap
  • 2 used TradeMe data for property sales/rentals/flatmates wanted and job information
  • 4 used 10 datasets from local government (Wellington, Whanganui and Christchurch)

There were 14 different private sector sources of data used, which was great to see. However, not all this was open source, for example www.flicks.co.nz. Before the proof of concept that scraped data from this site can be turned into a real product, prior written consent must be obtained. That would never be achieved in a weekend. But what an opportunity lost for Flicks, if their data was more open and accessible, goodness knows how much further their content could reach all sorts of apps that could help promote the whereabouts of cinemas.

Roadblocks

So we have some stories to tell how data was used in creative ways to solve real problems. We also have some tales to tell how great ideas were thwarted because data was not available, or bound up in PDF documents, or couldn’t be correlated with other data because of inconsistent location boundaries, or not licensed for re-use. Both the good and bad stories are something to learn from to help keep New Zealand moving toward a data driven culture of innovation leading to many social and economic benefits.

What next?

A bunch of us in government who attended the Wellington event are now using these stories to educate our colleagues about the potential value of data release and to demonstrate what solutions to life event pain points look like from the perspective of passionate people outside government. It’s really quite inspiring seeing what can be achieved by a bunch of people, initially strangers, in one weekend.

We hope to get government better geared up to release interesting and usable data for next year’s event.

Bring on GovHack 2016!

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