GovHack Geelong 2016

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

After the great success of GovHack Geelong 2015, exemplified by the recent production release of Geelong Free Wifi Data by Parham Hausler and Daniel McCarthy, I was thrilled to be given the opportunity to run it all over again this year.

Event planning and promotion

Planning for the event started around May, which was a little later than the 2015, however this year’s event had been scheduled later in July so that it didn’t fall over the University and School holidays. This year’s organisation was much easier given that we knew what to expect, and had learned a number of lessons from our inaugural year, including the importance of strong, easy wireless, clear instructions on what had to be done, and ensuring our GovHackers were well fed. We decided early on to split up into teams to spread out the organisational load of the event – with a national liaison / admin type role, a marketing and communications role, a sponsorship role and a logistics / catering / venue liaison role. This worked out quite well, and it’s a strategy that we’ll likely employ in future years.

Our promotional strategy this year was a little different from last year, where significant efforts were made to engage with the secondary school community around Geelong. These had only limited success, and so this year we turned our attention to attempting to engage at the business and industry level in Geelong, in particular with development and software companies. This was an excellent idea by Todd Hubers, our communications and marketing lead, and we were able to attract at least one corporate-based team. By using registrations from last year, we were also able to engage developers who’d participated in 2015. We also engaged media early on, with a write up in the Geelong Advertiser. This helped to spread the word early on. Of course, we also put significant effort into social media, with our Twitter and Facebook presence growing significantly in the lead up to this year’s event – a mechanism which can then be leveraged further into future year’s events. We supplemented all these efforts with a poster campaign that was delivered through key developer and student channels (GovHack Geelong 2016 Learn New Skills poster, 2MB PDF).

Open data providers

City of Greater Geelong Open Data Portal

In terms of data providers, Andrew Downie from City of Greater Geelong did a great job engaging with multiple institutions around Geelong, and we were delighted to have Geelong Regional Libraries Corporation come on board this year, releasing data sets related to their collections. The open data love continued, with the City releasing their open data portal in the week before GovHack!

There are however some Geelong institutions and open data sources I’d really like to include in future year events so that we continue to build and grow on the momentum that’s already being generated. In particular, it would be great to have organisations like Barwon Water, Department of Education (in particular I’d really like Year 12 completion data by location or school), and Barwon Health more actively engaged. Of course, both the engagement component and the ‘doing’ component – gathering, cleansing, governing and releasing open data – has a resource overhead. While movements like GovHack help to prove the value of open data, it can take some time for large organisations to come around to the viewpoint that their data is more valuable when it’s shared openly, and be willing to invest time and resources in doing so.

The event itself – hackers, hacking and hacks

The event itself was a blast! We had great representation from our sponsors – City of Greater Geelong, Deakin University, Geelong Regional Library Corporation and Aconex – and this allowed us to provide strong catering (thanks to the folks at Waterfront Kitchen). Well fed hackers are happy hackers. Some of the glitches we experienced last year with internet connectivity were ironed out before this year, and we only had one instance of someone being unable to connect to the wireless network. The network survived a massive onslaught, with video, massive datasets and large imagery all testing its mettle!

The biggest technical issue of the event turned out to be the GovHack Hackerspace itself. With the flood of submissions just before ‘keyboards down’ at 5pm on the Sunday, the site ground to a halt – causing consternation amongst the hackers that they’re hard earned projects may not be recognised. The Hackerspace was kept open for an additional few hours to allow the teams to upload their finished products.

The atmosphere of the day was fantastic. One of my favourite moments was Baby Olive helping out her Dad – Ian Priddle of Codeacious.

Inclusion was the theme of the day, with some great diversity of participants and skillsets in all the teams.

Above all, it was great to see creativity unleashed  in all its forms, including mood, temperature and open hardware sensing!

Popular tools and techniques

IBM Watson Twitter Analysis for @KathyReid
IBM Watson Twitter Analysis for @KathyReid

Again, visualisation – both in 2D, and increasingly in 3D with tools like Unity – was a key theme of the event, and one of my favourite tools was the super-easy-to-use IBM Watson Twitter visualisation. Javascript and visualization libraries such as d3.js again featured heavily this year. Javascript – and jQuery – is now considered an essential for all front end web developers – HTML and CSS (and variants such as SASS and, decreasingly, LESS) are no longer sufficient. Mapping tools – Google Maps, MapBox, CartoDB and so on, are also gaining more prominence as ‘must have’ skills, particularly for visualization of geospatial data.

Without a doubt, having good Git skills for any coder or developer is becoming a prerequisite for all hackathons now, as is a GitHub account. There was mention of using Bitbucket occasionally, but Git is still by far the most popular choice for distributed version control for developers.

Slack really took off this year, with the GovHackHQ Slack having nearly 900 simultaneous users during the event. It’s fair to say that Slack has hit widespread adoption – and that’s largely due to both the large range of integrations it has available, as well as the excellent user experience it provides – irrespective of platform or operating system. It’s one of the few tools I can use that has both a native client on the operating systems I use – mainly Android and Linux – as well as an excellent and feature-equivalent web interface.

Hardware wise, I observed lots of wireless mice, and lots of ‘second screens’ – one screen just doesn’t seem to be enough anymore – perhaps a symbol of our ever-more-multitasked world?

UX skills and techniques also seem to be gaining traction – I saw user stories, wireframing, storyboarding and even some basic persona mapping going on.

Projects delivered by Geelong teams at GovHack Geelong 2016

Project
Team name
Link to project
Link to project video
Pet-tential Claws and Effect Homepage Video
NewsPulse Settlers of Cremorne Homepage Video
5-D City Explorer IDeEA Lab Homepage Video
Video (alt)
SmartPath SmartPath Homepage Video
GreenWalking GFox

 

We’ve reached Peak Hackathon and this is what we need to do about it

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Over recent years, the term ‘hackathon‘ has entered mainstream parlance. There are many nuances in just what a hackathon is – very eloquently articulated by Jack Skinner. What I’d like to unpack today however is the growing number of hackathons in the Australian technical and entrepreneurial scene – and whether we’ve reached a point where there are now so many that they’ve become ineffective. This saturation point is a condition I’ll term ‘peak hackathon‘.

What hackathons are there?

Over the past two months alone around the city of Melbourne, Australia, there are a plethora of hackathon events;

  • GovHack – a national open data hackathon where participants leverage open data from federal, state and local government authorities to build new tools for citizens (free to attend)
  • Girl Geek Academies #SheHacks – a hackathon for women only where a number of female mentors are present, aimed at providing connections and a space for women to test new business ideas ($AUD 100 to attend)
  • #Moonhack by Code Club Australia – aimed at children aged 9-11, this hackathon is a world record attempt to get as many children as possible hacking at once (free to participate).
  • Unihack – run by Monash University’s student IT society, this hackathon is aimed at university students only and has fairly open-ended goals – with a working product being the overall goal (free to attend).
  • Random Hacks of Kindness Melbourne (#RHoK) – positioned as a social hackathon, RHOK focuses on developments that provide social outcomes (free to attend).

Why are we reaching ‘peak hackathon’?

The rise in the volume of hackathons is completely understandable. While the empirical evidence is thin – largely because hackathons are a very recent phenomena, the case studies that have emerged are generally positive – hackathons are great ways to generate ideation, to facilitate social connections and to grow innovative products and services (see references below).

Hackathons are also great was to build social capital and technical communities – for instance around a particular language, a geography or a product.

So, what’s the problem?

As hackathons gain additional traction and recognition as hotbeds of innovation, the sheer volume of hackathons being run is now becoming the problem itself.

Why? It comes down to dollars and people.

Hackathons have a number of expenses. Firstly, you need a venue to house the hackathon. Sometimes this will be donated in-kind or at a discount, but sometimes not. Then, you have to feed your hackers – well, you don’t have to, but it’s considered de rigueur to do so. Often, the venue will have a contractual obligation in place to use a particular catering company, so even if the hackathon is able to obtain the venue for a low price point, the provision of catering is often much more expensive. Next, you will need stationery, which for a smaller hackathon is often a neglible cost, but can run to hundreds of dollars for larger events. Factor in marketing and media coverage (such as promoted posts or tweets), prizes for hacks and suddenly the cost of running your hackathon can run to thousands of dollars.

Sponsorship, up until recently, has generally been relatively easy to obtain. Organisations want to align themselves with groups that represent innovation and creativity, and especially where the organisation receives additional benefits, such as the ability to scout for talent or first pick of the minimum viable products delivered at a hackathon. However, as the number of hackathons in the market increase, sponsorship is becoming more difficult to obtain in some cases. Alternatively, the amount of money that organisations are willing to direct to hackathons is diluted – meaning that a hackathon may need to deal with twice the number of sponsors – who are contributing reduced amounts of capital – thus placing an administrative overhead on the hackathon organisers – who are generally volunteers. Building sponsor relationships takes time and effort – that often needs to be sustained over several years.

An alternative to this is to charge attendees – such as #SheHacks charging $AUD 100 per participant. However, this choice – as financially necessary as it may be – places additional barriers to entry in place for participants. For instance, some potential participants may need childcare to attend (something that GovHack Melbourne provides for free), and others may need to give up paid work to attend. So, competing for sponsorship indirectly means more barriers to participation – something that all hackathons want to avoid.

The plethora of hackathons sprouting up also means that competition now exists not only for sponsor patronage, but for developer / creative / entrepreneurial attendees. A hackathon is a significant time commitment – often two-three days over a weekend – competing with leisure time, family time – or for the more introverted attendees – ‘alone’ time.  Hackathons are intense. They require significant investment of cognitive effort, long hours – and although fun, exciting and exhilarating – often leave participants tired or drained. There is a limit to how many of them attendees can actually do without feeling drained our burned out – again something all hackathons wish to avoid.

Lastly, but certainly not leastly, the other resource that becomes contended when we reach peak hackathon is volunteer time. Most hackathons – apart from corporate hack days – where the organisation has paid members of staff organise the hackathon – are run on volunteer time and effort. The number of volunteers we have in Australia has actually increased over the last five years, but the number of hours they are volunteering on average has significantly reduced. While it’s unknown whether this statistic extrapolates to hackathons and the technical community, it stands to reason that if there are more hackathons, requiring more volunteer effort, and that the pool of volunteer time is finite, sooner or later hackathons are going to contend for the same volunteers. This in turn leads to volunteer burn out – which reduces the overall capital of the community.

So, what can we do to collectively address the situation?

  • Dates – finding dates are hard. We have to schedule around university holidays (as students won’t attend if they’ve gone home for term break), major events (such as sporting events), and simply time of the year (if it’s 40 degrees outside, you might be at the beach). Trying to then co-ordinate around multiple other hackathons may then appear to be a bridge too hard to cross, particularly if the hackathon is national or international in scale.
  • Hackathon summit – another option is for the leaders of various hackathons to stay in regular and constant contact, and identify the areas where they should, and should not be collaborating. This might take the form of co-ordinating around which sponsors will be approached, or co-ordinating around dates, or co-ordinating around shared resources – for instance information on how to source childcare. Great collaboration will mean less competition.
  • Volunteer pipeline – the most effective volunteers are those who have significant experience and connections throughout the hackathon community. The downside of course is that if people are effective in a volunteer capacity they are often ‘rewarded’ with additional work. Collectively we can work together to identify, nurture and grow the volunteer base. Of course, this nurturing itself is an additional task.
  • Less money for prizes, more money for participation – with significant funds from hackathons going to prize money, it may make more sense to divert funds to participation activities – bursaries, child care, travel and accommodation grants – from prize money. Whether this would deter those hackers who come to hackathons purely for the money on offer is unknown – but it may serve to increase participation from under-represented cohorts.

What do you think? Are there other actions we could be taking as hackathon organisers to address peak hackathon?

 

Full disclosure: I’m the site lead for GovHack Geelong, a GovHack official event, and sit on the board of Linux Australia, an incorporated association which auspices GovHack as well as many other technical events such as Pycon-AU and linux.conf.au.

References

  • Decker, A., Eiselt, K., & Voll, K. (2015). Understanding and improving the culture of hackathons: Think global hack local. In Frontiers in Education Conference (FIE), 2015. 32614 2015. IEEE (pp. 1–8). IEEE.
  • Isaac-Menard, R. (2016). Hack the library Organizing Aldelphi University Libraries’ first hackathon. College & Research Libraries News, 77(4), 180–183.
  • Jetzek, T. (2016). ElEmEnts of a succEssful Big Data HackatHon in a smart city contExt. Geoforum Perspektiv, 14(25).
  • Leclair, P., & a Catalyst, O. D. I. (2015). Hackathons: A Jump Start for Innovation. Public Manager, 44(1), 12.
  • Lewis, B. A., Parker, J., Cheng, L. W., & Resnick, M. (2015). UX Day Design Challenge Hackathon to Apply Rapid Design Ideation to a Practical User Experience Challenge. In Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting (Vol. 59, pp. 304–306). SAGE Publications.
  • Rice, J. (2015). Hackathon implementation for industry and academia. UTICA COLLEGE
GovHack 2015 group photo, credit: Mo Xiao Xiang
GovHack 2015 group photo, credit: Mo Xiao Xiang

 

My #ausvotes 2016 experience – a trail of #UX fails

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

So, another three years has come around and it was time to choose between Biggie Smallstick and Burst Watermain. In Australia, voting is compulsory – you get fined by the Australian Electoral Commission if you don’t vote – and it would be reasonable to assume that because voting is mandatory, the processes to do so would be streamlined, simple and frictionless.

Hahahaha! Silly Australians. (props, Sammy J).

Firstly, you have to vote in person. While electronic voting has its detractors, this is 2016, and quite frankly, we should have figured it out by now. Maybe it would make referenda on things like equal marriage and becoming a republic too easy and less costly? Who knows. Maybe we need a strong and robust national broadband network to make it work. Whatever, you can’t currently vote online.

You can however do an early vote, in person or by post. This requires pre-registration, and there are rules around who can early vote. Sigh. Too hard. Just easier to nip across the two blocks to the Senior Citizens Centre, where I’ve voted dozens of times before, wait in line for a little while, get a #democracysausage, and even take the doggie for a walk.

Nope.

Even though I’ve voted at the local Senior Citizens Centre dozens of times before, it’s not actually a polling place for the 2016 Federal Election. So, after taking the doggie for walkies on our usual route, which passes by the Senior Citizens Centre, I was surprised to find no AEC signage or personnel there, and no party volunteers. “Perhaps it’s not a polling place this year” I wondered, “I’m sure they will have signposted it if that’s the case”.

Silly Kathy.

There was no signage around at all, and two other ladies walked up to the centre as well. We chatted, and they patted the doggie, and I used my mobile device (Nexus 5X, vanilla Android 6.01) to attempt to solve the problem.

My first approach these days is just to ask Google. So, using Google Now, I asked “Where can I vote today?”.  Google Now helpfully responded with this list of options.

Where can I vote today? Google Now results.
Where can I vote today? Google Now results.

Now, ‘nearest polling place’ sounds like pretty helpful information, right?

Silly Kathy.

Clicking this (sponsored) link took me to the AEC website, which had lots of information on voting types, and how to vote, but not the actual information I was looking for – where I could actually vote. At least it was responsive and showed up on a mobile phone. Not a high barrier, admittedly, but one that all to many websites fail on these days.

General information on voting, not the actual location of where I could vote
General information on voting, not the actual location of where I could vote

Hot tip: If you’re going to use sponsored Google Adwords, please for the love of all that is good in the world, make sure the URL goes to the specific, actual information that you’re promoting.

Also helpfully, Google Now had provided an Australian Federal Election tile. Could this help me, where the website of the government agency actually responsible for elections had not? Let’s find out!

Google Now tile for the Australian Federal Election 2016
Google Now tile for the Australian Federal Election 2016

First, I clicked on the tile. Props to Google Now for knowing that today was an election, and that I was geographically in Australia. So far, so good. Next, I had to search for the electorate I was in, which was a little clunky. I already share both Wi-Fi and GPS location data with Google Now, so from a UX viewpoint it would have been preferable to automatically show the information for the electorate that I was physically in first. But still, much better than the AEC experience.

Then, I had to scroll down a bit to find the actual location information. A handy skip link to locations would have been nice, but still, I could find the information I needed, in the context I needed it, without too much hassle.

Google Now screenshot of polling booth locations for the electorate of Corio, Victoria
Google Now screenshot of polling booth locations for the electorate of Corio, Victoria

For bonus points, the location information linked straight to Google Maps, and also pulled in data from Election Sausage Sizzle (aka Democracy Sausage). Glorious. Thank you, Google. AEC, take notes.

See the full Google election site at https://election.google.com.au

Once I got to my destination, the UX experience continued. There was a banner on the TAFE, where I was voting, but there were no sandwich boards on the pavement or other visual indicators. Really, you could have easily missed that it was a polling place.

Given that I had my doggie with me, there were also few places to securely leave him, and I was grateful for one of the party volunteers, who offered to mind him. He liked her, so I trusted her. Dogs are good judges of character.

The other observation here was that there were few facilities for people – particularly the elderly or less mobile, to sit down. I walked in with a lady who had a limp, and she was clearly in some pain. Somewhere to sit for her would have made it an easier experience.  Sadly, no Democracy Sausage or Democracy Cake, and they would have made a tidy profit – as it was cold and chilly.

The line to vote was thankfully short (I got there just on 0800rs as voting opened), and I waited about 3min 45 seconds to go in and vote (yes, I measured). Once I had my name checked off (painless, the chap had clearly done this several times, he found my name with military precision. He looked like a Menzies fan), there was light at the end of the tunnel. But then I saw it. A donkey voter’s delight.

IT WAS THE SENATE BALLOT PAPER FROM HELL

Measuring up at over a metre long, I couldn’t get this thing into the polling booth without folding it in half. Normally a below-the-line voter, there was no way I could wrestle with this. I admitted defeat, and dutifully pencilled in 1-6 above the line. The poor AEC election official had to stifle laughter as I attempted origami to fold the bloody thing six times to make it fit into the ballot box. No points, would not buy again.

The ballot paper experience actually changed the way I vote, and this is bad for democracy.

On a side note, the election booth actually contained a magnifying sheet for those hard of sight. Admittedly, it would take you an hour to read the Senate Ballot Paper From Hell with the magnifying sheet. But yes, I will concede half a point here for usability.

So, how was my voting experience, or #votex? It sucked. But it would have sucked more if I wasn’t able bodied, didn’t have an Android mobile phone and didn’t have a very clear idea of who I was voting for, enabling me to quickly go from below the line to above the line. If voting is mandatory, we have to make it easier for people. I’m digitally savvy. I’m able bodied. I’m politically astute. And this experience sucked for me. Dammit, I’m an election power user AND IT SUCKED. How on earth does Average Voter Joe feel about this process? No wonder people see their democratic rights as a chore and not a privilege. Australia, we’ve made exercising our democratic rights difficult, clumsy and off-putting.

Making #votex easier for citizens

So, how do we fix it?

  • Electronic voting – we need to find a way to do it reliably, securely, and in a way that all citizens can access
  • If your polling places change from year to year, find a way to let people know. Put a poster on the window of the Senior Citizens’ Centre! Let people set their preferred polling places, so that if their preferred polling place changes, you can notify them and direct them appropriately.
  • UX your website and if you have link that says ‘Click here to find out where to vote’, make sure you take the user to information that tells them where they can vote. It’s not rocket surgery.
  • Fix the senate. Or, failing that, design a ballot paper that isn’t twice the width of the ballot booth.
  • Real time queuing information. That could then be released as open data, so we can do predictive analytics on it for future years. Integrate this with the mobile app.

Democracy. Let’s make it suck less.