GovHack 2014

Posted on July 20th, 2014

July 11-12th saw the 3rd country-wide GovHack - a hackathon intended to bring together local, state and federal government data sets, and release them openly to designers, developers and storytellers to create mashups, websites and mobile applications for social good. Coordinated by the luminary Pia Waugh at a national level, and by the equally illustrious Fiona Tweedie at the Victorian level, the event saw over 1300 developers register at over a dozen sites across the nation.

GovHack stickers

GovHack stickers

Hosted in Melbourne by well-known agilistas Thoughtworks, over 100 Melbourne-based participants descended on Collins Street on Friday night, welcomed by warm dumplings and cold drinks. Proceedings were opened via video link, although Malcolm Turnbull’s cameo had a distinctly mixed reaction from the audience, with one or two comments of ‘where’s our #NBN??’ audible over the general buzz.

Thoughtworks’ IKEA-inspired workspace was ideal for the event, with lots of open space, collaborative open plan style desks and standup areas, and an open space for presentations. The stone-clad kitchen was well-stocked with goodies, and proved a prime example of space setting the tone and shaping the type of activities undertaken within it – as it become a focal point for collaboration throughout the night. The space had lots of walls for improvising Agile- and kanban-styled Post-It Note-based story boards, and was in close proximity to both good coffee (mandatory) and excellent Melbourne laneway food.

Nametags at GovHack 2014

Nametags at GovHack 2014 had coloured stars corresponding to developer, design and other skills to help teams form with multidisciplinary skillsets.

Teams either formed beforehand, or through an exercise run by Fiona on Friday night, which paired developers, designers, data visualisation gurus and data scientists together. Luckily the team I was in, Accessible Melbourne, had got in contact via Twitter the week prior, and although some of us hadn’t met in person previously, we bonded quite quickly and got down to delivering a minimum viable product. Matt and Lachlan were our back-end developers, I did some front end design and Lilly was a video guru as well as being a front end designer, and Sarah was our storyteller and documentation point person. We took to our roles well and over the course of 48 hours, we had delivered a minimum viable product – a map of Melbourne with accessibility information drawn from different data sets on it.

In conclusion, GovHack was a fantastic, frenetic, rewarding and eye-opening experience. The high level of collaboration, the high delivery rate of usable products and the atmosphere were phenomenal – and I can’t wait to do it all again next year, hopefully in Geelong.

Key takeaways

  • Javascript is huge. We leveraged two Javascript frameworks quite heavily during development, including Leaflet.js for mapping, and jQuery as part of the front end. Javascript is very much in the ascendance, and mature frameworks such as d3.js are positioning Javascript very much as a technology in its own right, rather than a useful utility to add interactivity or enhance UX – as called out in this Thoughtworks technology radar report.
  • Bootstrap and Bootswatch are incredibly helpful to begin interface development from scratch, and they provide
  • git is in ascendance as the preferred collaborative version control tool. Given all our team were comfortable in git, we chose to host our cost on github.com, and this made it much easier and much more efficient for collaborative coding.
  • You need a grunty machine for video compositing, editing and rendering. One of the acceptance criteria for each of the teams was that they produce a 3 minute video – our team decided to use OpenShot, a great opensource program. Luckily, the machine I took had 8 CPUs and 16GB of RAM, but rendering a 3 minute video in HD format on something less powerful would have taken a lot longer.
  • The exercise at the start was great to get teams together and to better understand one another’s skill sets. GameStorming is the phrase that comes to mind.
  • We were hampered in a couple of places because there is no defined data standard for representing accessibility information of buildings. Different cities represented data differently, and although it was in a similar file format – the ubiquitous JSON – the structure of the data itself meant that it was difficult to aggregate this onto a single map. Future iterations of this project – and accessibility developers in general – would be assisted by a defined and agreed data format.
  • One of the insights I drew was that great minds bounce off each other. During discussions for the project, the team came up with the idea of a ‘SpoonRating’ for conferences – ‘spoons’ is often used as a metaphor by those with disabilities or chronic illnesses for representing what capacity they might have – ie. ‘I’ve used up all my spoons for today’. Sparks lead to lightbulbs.

Key info

 

Wrap up of BarCampMelbourne 2013

Posted on March 19th, 2013

With huge thanks to Pomke and the team at Small World for lending us their fabulous Causeway House Boardroom venue, BarCampMelbourne 2013 got off to a great start.

Pomke on Angular JS

The talks I got to see where many and varied. First up, Pomke spoke to us about Angular JS and using node.js on the backend – moving processes to the client. This is becoming less of an issue with powerful browsers.

Steve on programmable logic controllers

Steve spoke to us about process control systems – and how they present a number of security risks. PLC – programmable logic controllers – drive inputs and outputs on machinery – essentially replacing buttons and switches and dials. They are programmed in ladder logic, and the PLC scans through the logic continuously – evaluating and acting on logical conditions. PLCs are low end devices in terms of capacity and communications – and could still run on 9600 baud RS232. SCADA systems are generally proprietary and generally only run on Microsoft Windows. There are risks here – such as the Stuxnet virus which was exploited before USB keys. These systems were born in the days before security was an issue, and this means that there are ways to interface remotely with many of these devices – as you have to be able to get into them to diagnose them and repair them if required. Another issue they found was that the equipment was only capable of running at 10mbps – which made it vulnerable to TCP broadcast storms.

Marc Cheong on teaching with engagement

Marc told us the story of how he became an accidental teacher – having started his PhD, falling into a tutoring role, he discovered the knack of engaging students. In his role, he found that students weren’t engaged – they wouldn’t learn anything. When exploring the underpinning causes he found that there is a paradigm shift involved in adult learning – it is self-directed, not spoon-fed. Students felt like a cog in a huge machine, and lecturers weren’t paying them very much individual attention. To remedy this problem he chose to ‘engage with empathy’ – learning everyone’s first name, ensuring icebreakers to reduce the feelings of isolation and building bonds between the class and the teacher.

He explained that the theory chained low motivation with low engagement to result in low marks – so the key to better marks is engagement and motivation – making the learning process fun and making people proud of their work.

Alec Clews on the ICT education crisis

Alec spoke about the challenges of ICT education in Victoria – there is a skills shortage, but the skills people are leaving the education system with are not great. Much of the proposed ICT curriculum should be in other parts of the curriculum and not in ICT education. For instance ethics and being safe online really belows in citizenship, while data interpretation and modelling really belongs in humanities. We need more of a focus on programming – and there was a strong sentitment in the room that visual programming is a copout. We also need more co-ordination between subjects – such as writing databases for humanities. We need to bring hacker skills into woodwork through 3D printing etc – using low cost accessible devices such as the Raspberry Pi. These devices will be a huge enabler for education.

computingatschool.org.au

Trystan on robot design choices

Trystan spoke about robot design choices, and what sort of need or objective your robot was serving and what sort of senses your robot should have. This allows you to make key design decisions so that you can build a robot to your desired budget. Once your robot has sensors, it needs some form of brain to blue all the pieces together. Microcontrollers are one way to make this happen – and you might have to design your own controller using a field programmable array (FPGA).

Lars Yencken on the quantified self

This was one of my favourite presentations of BarCamp, around the quantified self. Lars explained that everytime we use someone’s website to record something they are tracking what we are doing – but it is harder for us to capture this information about ourselves. The ideal situation would be that we have an agent measuring what we do, and providing useful advice such as ‘don’t drink that coffee because it will interrupt your sleep patterns’ based on the gathered data. Lars explained how the key areas he was trying to quantify were food and weight, but one of the challenges he had was balancing the need for bookkeeping with getting value out of doing it.

The key takeaway from me was that the mere act of measuring can serve to change behaviour – such as getting more exercise or eating fewer calories.

He also went into details about some of the glitches experienced in quantifying the self – such as battery life, GPS glitches and difficulties exporting data captured over long time periods.

One tool he mentioned that looks interesting is Huginn - which helps to measure changes in behaviour.

 

A huge shout out to to sponsors No ISP for helping make the day happen – their business model for an ISP co-operative is interesting indeed.

Wrap-up of linux.conf.au 2013

Posted on February 3rd, 2013

After being on the core team for linux.conf.au 2012 in Ballarat, it was somewhat of a relief to just be a delegate for the 2013 conference in Canberra. Luckily, I’d pre-arranged leave from work a few months earlier before starting a new role, but the downside was that I knew there would be a few  work emails that would need attention during conf, so I packed my thumping 17″ gaming laptop. Big mistake. It weighs nearly 2kg, and doesn’t fit neatly into my backpack handbag anything.  Next time, the little netbook comes with me instead!

After a quick trip to Melbourne airport on the Gull Bus, where I got to catch up with a couple of people from work who were also going, it was time for a Ballarat crew reunion – we’d booked out a whole row on the Qantas flight up. While waiting for the flight, we also had a chance to meet quite a few other Victorians who were going up, and we all got introduced to each other. Win! It was great to catch up and reminisce about the amazing experience we’d had last year, and get excited for this year’s conf.

Qantas really impressed me on this trip – with buffeting winds, the pilot was able to give us a smooth takeoff and landing, and the service was impeccable – a far cry from some of my previous Qantas experiences. MEL to CBR was much shorter than I’d anticipated, and within an hour we were disembarking. My first impressions of Canberra Airport were that it was small – around the side of Adelaide airport. The lack of shops and eateries seemed surprising, but it was wisely pointed out to me that most of the travellers through Canberra are generally fly-in, fly-out, and not wanting to hang around.

A quick, well-organised shuttle bus to Australian National University’s John XXIII College and we’d arrived at linux.conf.au. Registration was an absolute breeze. Organisers this year had sent people ‘boarding passes’ with a barcode that was used by Rego Desk to print badges. So, so easy. Next, it was off to Barton and Garran Hall for accommodation. On entering the room, my schwag had already been placed on the desk, with a t-shirt in my size, and my pre-ordered KeepCup. Fantastically awesome!

#lca2013 KeepCup #lca2013 KeepCup

That night, it was off to Debacle for Ghosts’ dinner. Absolutely delicious pizza and tapas, and a lovely way to get into the spirit of linux.conf.au. It was a great chance to catch up with Ghosts past, and hear their views on how the community had changed over time. Then, time for a delicious gelato (hazelnut of course!) on the way back before a quick shower to stave off the oppressive humidity – and an early night.

Bdale Garbee

Monday kicked off with a keynote by industry luminary Bdale Garbee, whose presentation centred around some of the changes and directions he’d observed in the technical direction of Linux. He noted that Linux was gaining ground in the mobile space, as the entire world shifts from the desktop to the laptop, to the tablet and to other mobile devices. His key message was that end users want applications that work seamlessly across platforms, and noted the key pickup in cloud services that offered these experiences. He criticised developers for making it difficult for end users to be able to modify their own applications, and similarly advocated that students should be taught more theory rather than vocational-style ‘how tos’ in a particular product or vendor suite. He also noted that there is no incentive for manufacturers to save costs by loading free and open source operating systems on their hardware instead of Windows; Microsoft provide significant financial incentives to OEMs not to load alternative operating systems – so it’s not in their financial interest. This was an eye-opener, given my recent negative experiences with getting a Win8 laptop to dual boot and having to work around UEFI. A solid talk, but not one I would classify as inspirational.

I had intended to sit in on the MobileFOSS miniconf to get a better handle on what’s happening in this space, but I needed to catch up on some work so headed back to the dorm rooms.

Radia Perlmann

Tuesday started with a keynote by Radia Perlmann, inventor of the spanning tree network protocol, who provided an overview of the invention of a number of key network protocols, including IP. The really interesting take away from this talk was that the best protocol is not necessarily the one that gets adopted – the selection is not a rational process, and evangelism is a key part in driving forward a number of initiatives. She walked the audience through the spanning tree algorithm using a series of pictures – which communicated the point very well. Her engaging nature, passion, use of appropriate anecdotes and delivery style made her an excellent speaker. I will never forget the story she provided in closing, where she recounted where her son, at that time a toddler, had come running up to her with what appeared to be a sore arm. After kissing it better she asked him ‘What happened?’, to which he replied ‘I got pee on it!’. In Radia’s words,

Make sure you’re solving the right problem

Then, it was off to the dorm rooms to grab my Arduino Lilypad gear for my Haecksen Miniconf presentation.

Fee Plumley

After my talk, Fee Plumley spoke on open cities and nomadic creative digital culture and one of the quotes she used in her presentation really resonated;

The law doth punish man or woman
That steals the goose from off the common,
But lets the greater felon loose
That steals the common from the goose.

Her ideas were around how decentralised communities, based on open source models, can operate more effectively than existing urban constructs. Really amazing lady, and wish I’d had more time to spend chatting with her.

Ruth Ellison

Ruth Ellison, a UX practitioner based in Canberra had one of the most inspiring talks at Haecksen. She opened with a great quote;

Everyone has lasers in their garage, right?!

and proceeded to tell the audience about how she uses open source technology to make laser-cut jewellery using a laser cutter. She’s an active member of Canberra’s Make Hack Void and Maker communities, and one half of the jewellery business CrankyBot. One of the most inspiring pieces she had was a 3D jewellery visualisation of climate ranges, plotted in SVG and then cut with a laser cutter. Inspirational stuff.

Katie Miller

Katie Miller  presented about teaching girls FOSS, and went through a case study of the best way to deliver teaching of FOSS by getting people actively involved, having tangible outcomes, and setting the difficulty level right so that people were challenged but not overwhelmed.

Next, I really wanted to see the Browser Miniconf sessions which dealt with the history of web development, and advancements in HTML 5, but caught up with work shennanigans ;(

Wednesday morning was the PDNS breakfast, which I didn’t go to.

Rusty Wrench goes to Donna Benjamin

During the conference opening, Donna Benjamin was awarded the Rusty Wrench award for services to the Australian open source community. Very well deserved.

Next, I took Peter Chubb’s excellent shell tutorial – I’m a bit rusty and it was a great refresher.

Adam Harvey

One of the standout presentations for me was Adam Harvey’s talk on ‘Users delighted’ which covered advancements in CSS3, HTML5 and user experience (UX). The key takeaways for me were that everything we do in this space needs to make it easy for users to do what they need to do, independent of what or where they’re doing it from. He’s a strong advocate of responsive design, and an excellent presenter. One of the key quotes from the talk was;

We were at the pub, as you do, because if you’re a web developer it’s the only thing that numbs the pain of IE6

Adam advocated the implementation of open web standards, and noted frustration with having to write browser-specific workarounds in CSS for different browser families.

Thursday’s keynote was Bunnie Huang, who invented the Chumby. I got caught up with moar work shennanigans and missed it. I also wanted to see the Git tutorial, but, well, moar work shannanigans…

Sir Tim Berners-Lee

Friday’s keynote was packed with people eager to inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee speak. His presentation had two key tenets; the first was the openness and power of the web, especially under HTML 5, and the second was the tragic suicide of anti-SOPA campaigner Aaron Swartz, who had been the target of prosecutors for several years for alleged breaches of copyright. Berners-Lee’s presentation style was non-linear – in many ways it was like trying to drink from a firehose. The main is clearly a genius, and his plethora of ideas took a lot of concentration to keep pace with. He is a staunch advocate of the openness and neutrality of the net – and in his words he summarised the issues down to

no spying, no blocking

I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at his meeting with Julia Gillard. One wonders whether Stephen Conroy would offer him an audience.

 

In summary, linux.conf.au was a brilliant, tiring, exhausting, overwhelming, inspiring, demanding experience. And I can’t wait to do it all again in Perth next year.

NOTE: Videos from #lca2013 are going up on the mirror at the time of posting.

 

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