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GovHack: What it is, what it means and why we are involved

Shaun McGirr takes us through it all

There are some pretty strong negative connotations to the word "hack". Most people envisage sweaty individuals in a room full of screens cracking in to sensitive information to bring the world to its knees. Unless they're "good guy" hackers doing this all for some noble cause, of course. While it's absolutely true that lots of that kind of hacking goes on in the world today, there's another more important usage of the word, as a synonym for "kludge". A kludge is "a workaround or quick-and-dirty solution that is clumsy, inelegant, difficult to extend and hard to maintain, yet an effective and quick solution to a problem."

It's this usage of hack - a quick-and-effective solution to a pressing problem - that birthed the event called a hackathon. These are usually held over a weekend, with kickoff/briefing on Friday evening and then two days of solid work Saturday-Sunday by teams aiming to produce something cool and useful. Often the end products are software, but they can be physical objects and documents as well, as long as they're quick-and-effective solutions to some problem! At the end, teams showcase their work and often there are prizes for

A bunch of the OptimalBI crew are heavily involved in exactly such an event, GovHack 2015, which will take place across Australia and New Zealand on July 3-5. We're helping organise the Wellington edition of the event, to be generously hosted by MBIE at their flash newly-renovated building on Stout St.

GovHack will draw together people from government, industry, academia and our wider community to mould New Zealand's government data into solutions to problems and innovate national/local benefits. In short, the brief to incoming participants is: "use government data in new and interesting ways to tackle existing problems."

As the "data wrangler" for our GovHack Wellington crew, I have two jobs:

  1. tell our incoming teams about all the great open government data already out there and easily accessible (easy, thanks to data.govt.nz and the various agency data web pages)
  2. ask agencies for additional high-value data that isn't yet as open or accessible as they'd like.
I'm involved because I'm a true zealot for the opening of all the fantastic data that the NZ government already collects. This was probably ingrained by my time working for the greatest data source of all, the census, for a lot of the 2000s. It was only reinforced by my subsequent training as a social scientist. Well-organised efforts to collect meaningful data are so important to the advancement of knowledge that it's harmful not to make the results available to the widest audience you can. But then it's up to the people who say this data is important to actually use it!

That's why you have a hackathon like GovHack, to make sure all the great stuff we can achieve using this data gets a decent profile. That way, open data entrepreneurs within government (of which there are many more than I thought just a few months ago!) can make better business cases for opening up more of it. We hope GovHack 2015 will really drive this virtuous cycle.

How can you get involved?

First of all, if you're interested in hacking together cool stuff (apps, visualisations, websites) from open government data, or if you know a lot about some pressing problem we face in NZ (hint, not flags) then read more about the Wellington event here. There's a link to sign up on that page, which you'll need to do soon as there are limited spots!

If you're still at the "what the heck?" stage, then take a look at the 2014 Winners for some inspiration.

And if you're really crazy, and want to help make the event a success, join the Hack Miramar mailing list, and suggest useful open data on Loomio and we'll see what we can do to track it down.

Keep asking better questions,
Shaun