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Happy Birthday Rewired State

It was great to get along to the show+tell part of Rewired State‘s third annual National Hack The Government Day yesterday evening, hosted at The Guardian. Despite sponsoring, I’d never made it to an RS event before, and wanted to get a flavour for the events and projects, having heard and read so much about them.

National Hack The Government 2011 c/o Rewired State

It was a great couple of hours, hearing about some really creative, amusing and technically impressive hacks from a seemingly never-ending queue of developers. They’d come up with interesting visualisations, mashups and helper apps using open government data around crime, justice and transport (amongst other sets). I loved iSteal (a tongue-in-cheek mobile app for criminals to pick optimal targets based on conviction rates and local police activity) and the #crimehere bot, which presents a Twitter bot interface to police.uk’s crime mapping data, greatly improving on the traditional listing. Rob Mackinnon’s validator for CSV spending data is important and needed. Tom Scott’s Who Wants To Not Get Stabbed? was amazingly polished and entertaining given the time in which it was developed. I really liked the sheer user-centricity of an app who’s name escapes me which asked you to rate a bunch of quality-of-life criteria from ONS surveys in order of importance, and then gave you a sense of where in the UK you’d might like to live on the basis of those preferences – the kind of thing people want to know but government can’t ever say directly.

In themselves, hackdays like this one are clearly a Good Thing. The participants enjoy themselves, the audience are impressed, some apps become live services. Rewired State, supported by The Guardian, are doing brilliant work. Young Rewired State in particular is a phenomenal scheme, which I wish had been around when I was fifteen.

But I did pick up some oblique references to Ben Griffiths’ recent post on hackdays, ‘No more hack-days for me’:

My hack-day is a developer’s speakeasy.

It’s where I get away from deadlines, milestones, next week’s release, last month’s specification. It’s where I just code… The aim isn’t to build a prototype, nor to start a project that will live on past the day, nor to do some cheap R&D. You could do all of these things, but you can have a successful hack-day without any of them.

In my speakeasy the aim is to spend some time being a coder. If you like, you can share what you discovered. You can throw away what you’ve done, use it to inspire yourself or others. Or, just to get a laugh.

It’s true that there were a couple of significant tweets beforehand from people who know how the state is wired currently, highlighting some of those expectations:

[blackbirdpie url="http://twitter.com/#!/paul_clarke/status/51560990080372737"]

[blackbirdpie url="http://twitter.com/#!/neillyneil/status/51567255187763200"]

Nobody is wrong here. As a fair weather coder, I understand the desire to code for fun – and I think Tim Davies’ app to render Select Committee minutes in the style of restoration comedy was pretty much squarely in that camp. As a former government digital insider, I also understand the impatience that the great ideas and talent don’t make a bigger impact on online public services. It’s one of the tensions of the open data movement more generally, that putting more raw data out there hasn’t yet produced more industrial-strength solutions with major commercial or social benefits. But that doesn’t mean that it won’t.

It was especially good to see Hadley Beeman, currently with LinkedGov funded by Technology Strategy Board, present a prize for the idea with the most commercial potential to an app – Nabbr – which helps you report stolen items to police and insurers from your phone. The prize was some money, but also some ongoing help to make the app happen, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens to it next – including whether the developers who made it want to take it that far, or indeed were coding for fun. Making the transition from a demo to a public service or commercial product will take that kind of ongoing support and commitment, probably a whole lot of process and quite a bit more money. The team who hacked together a neat iPhone app on a Saturday in Kings Cross may or may not be the team who deliver something which changes how crime reporting and insurance claims get made.

And yet the trouble is that some of the people who could help make these ideas reality are heading off. Next week, thousands – likely tens of thousands – of government workers on programme-funded contracts will be leaving their departments as a consequence of budget cuts. It’s a dramatic and sudden change, which will have big implications. Ministers are no less enthusiastic about delivering their policies, so corners will inevitably have to be cut and projects reprioritised by those civil servants who remain (their pay frozen and benefits reduced). I wouldn’t blame them for battening down the hatches and focusing on survival, rather than investing time and shrinking budgets in supporting innovative developers from outside.

So good luck to Emma and the Rewired State team as they enter their third year and plug away trying to win support for some of yesterday’s creations in the meeting rooms of Whitehall. It won’t be easy, and if anything, it’ll get harder. With central government digital strategy best described euphemistically as turbulent and multi-dimensional, it’s not at all clear how the state will get to be rewired in the near future without much more of the kind of support Hadley and the TSB are able to offer. But Rewired State is doing inspirational and important work, and the breakthroughs will come as the community grows, the advocates are converted one by one, and the apps get stronger and smarter. The state will be rewired, eventually.

 

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