Volunteering at the GovHack Melbourne Open Data Hackathon

Open Data, Open Government and Civic Tech are super interesting to me, and I’ve had my eye on the Open Knowledge Foundation‘s GovHack event for a few years now. GovHack is a competitive hackathon run across Australia and New Zealand, using open data published by all levels of government. This year everything lined up in terms of my location and availability, and I decided to get involved. Being a hackathon n00b and knowing very little, I decided not to compete, and instead signed up to volunteer at the Melbourne event. Volunteering at the hackathon turned out to be a brilliant idea (well done, past Carly!).

I helped for half of Saturday and all of Sunday in any way I could – building entry, meal prep, clean up, connecting people with questions to people with answers, running errands. By the end, I was exhausted, full of ideas, and very happy. I’d made a bunch of new friends, spoken to many interesting people, and learnt a little about running hackathon events, GovHack, Open Data, as well as the initiatives for (and struggles of) encouraging uptake of open data in Victoria and Australia.

For many, the word ‘hackathon’ conjures up scenes of nerds eating pizza and pulling all nighters while slamming down energy drinks and typing rapidly into command lines. It might make one assume the point of the competition is for genius hardcore coders to make serious software projects. These were my assumptions prior to GovHack weekend, and I was pleasantly proven very wrong.

Competitors ‘hack’ the data, not code. Projects don’t need to be code-based at all. They don’t even need to be electronic and they definitely don’t need to take themselves too seriously. They must use government open data – the more unique, insightful and innovative the use of data, the better.

Physical-world submissions this year included a crochet representation of senate election results, a beautiful 3D printed and hand-painted data artwork showing coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef, Brisbane data presented in furniture and physical objects to help students learn, 3D printed fossil reproductions, pom-pom pie charts, and a real fire-based representation of bushfire data.

Photo courtesy of Yiandra Isimiraldi, via Twitter. https://twitter.com/iniandra/status/759593572148449281

3D printed data artwork showing coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, one of my favourite non-software GovHack submissions. Photo by Yiandra Isimiraldi via Twitter, @iniandra

Sometimes using data means presenting new insights like this report using vocational education data, or a traffic analysis for Western Australia, or a hard-waste management analysis.

There was also of course a range of code-based projects like a dashboard aggregating sources of real-time data for areas in Western Australia, a tool alerting farmers to crop heat stress, an app to locate small pockets of unused council land as candidates for community gardens, and a tool to find promising locations to start a business. Of course not all of these got to completion in the 48 hours, but most got enough of a prototype working to present proof of concept in their submission video.

As a developer, the “Informed Personas” project jumped out at me. It creates statistics-based persona profiles for use in software development, rather than just making up personas based on what feels nice. Interesting.

I also loved that fun with Government data was encouraged. There were a lot of games like one involving tourism, cafés and zombies, an extension to the game Endless Sky using a range of data , one exploring indigenous over-representation in youth detention, and one from NZ about health risks an how they affect you, and others.

With over 2,000 competitors this year across 41 locations, and some teams submitting more than one project, it’s not possible to showcase them all (and it’s no wonder judging will take a while!). You can check out the projects yourself.

GovHack teams working hard

GovHack Volunteers


Melbourne Volunteers Shenanigans

There were maybe 100 competitors at Melbourne, with skills covering programming, data wrangling, UX, graphic design, and video production, among other things (the submission video is critical!). I spoke to a few participants who grinned at me when I asked their skills: “Oh, I just like open data / this particular issue / this data set, so I’m helping my team however I can”. Most teams were formed by new friends at the start of the event, or just before. A few teams seemed to be from existing companies, and a small few were from government agencies and local councils hoping to tackle a particular problem of theirs – some of these welcomed individuals to work on their project. Some people arrived with a passion for a certain area or type of project, others just wanted to get involved. Teams did work hard, and some chose to work late hours at home to meet the 46 hour deadline. Some were more serious than others, and some were more prepared than others. Most people took care of themselves, remembered their enthusiasm and humour, and just made the most of a fun weekend challenge.

Competitors were helped by volunteers, data owners and mentors. Data owners are from government agencies – the people and teams curating and publishing the data, and experts on their data and their fields. I had bits of time to meet and talk with some data owners and mentors – conversations that were interesting, enlightening, motivational and quite valuable for helping me build on a few plans for projects.

GovHack Melbourne Volunteer Team

The volunteer team made the weekend for me. I arrived a bit nervous, not sure if I could be of help, not sure what to expect, and by the end feel like I’ve made friends with so many lovely, fun people. I didn’t expect to laugh so much! Like competitors, the volunteers and organisers worked hard. The volunteer team just got in and got things done with minimum fuss, which was wonderful to be a part of.

Many of the volunteers are part of the Open Knowledge Foundation meetup in Melbourne. If you like open data, open source, or open tech, if you have a project you want to work on, or want to find a project to join, or if you want to help organise events in that space, or even if you just check it out, the OKFN Melbourne group meets on Wednesday evenings in the CBD. I’ll see you there.

If you want to get your get your hack on, you haven’t missed out. HealthHack is on in October, working with doctors and research teams to do great things with medical and health data. Get on board as a competitor or volunteer!

And consider getting involved in GovHack 2017 🙂

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