In 2019, GovHack turns ten. To mark this milestone, we look back a decade to see how GovHack got started and reflect on how things have changed. We spoke with one of the organisers, John Allsopp of Web Directions.
In 2009, GovHack ran a single event, located in Canberra at the ANU computer science laboratory. The original idea came from government. They had the taskforce and the question was “how does government transform?”. Part of that initiative was to have a “hack event”. John knew Seb Chan very well – he was speaking at a Web Directions conference in 2008 – Seb mentioned that they were interested in running an event.
The reason for having a hackathon was to evangelize the idea of opening government, within government. They wanted to showcase what happens when you open up data sets to open up decision maker’s eyes to the value.
John suggested the name “GovHack”, a deliberate choice to create a bit of tension between Government and Hacking and this was found to be useful for getting media attention.
The venue was great because it had good internet. It was a challenge to get people to participate, the other challenge was to get government to participate.
About 150 people participated. Lonely Planet had a team from Melbourne.
Maxine Cherryn and John were running Web Directions and were the primary organisers. Then there were a few others such as Cherryl Lee and Gloria and her brother Steven helped out.
Once the name was chosen John approached Yiying Lu who has subsequently become a famous designer, who designed the Twitter “fail whale”, to create the logo which is still used today.
The idea was this iconic representation of government, with capital buildings, with pillars in front of it, but the pillars are both people and the whitespace in between the columns is a hammer and a chisel – the tools that the humans build government with.
The use of whitespace is inspired by the FedEx logo which contains an arrow in the whitespace between the E and X.
In 2009, the modern smartphone was only just out. No one built iOS or Android apps. It was all web based stuff.
The project that won is called LobbyLens which was built in Flash.
LobbyLens correlates data about Federal Government business over the last 18 months. It shows the connections between government contracts, business details, politician responsibilities, lobbyists, clients of lobbyists and the location of these entities.
When they demoed it, people would literally gasp. There is a brief video here.
Another project, by a team from News Limited, used census data. You put your postcode in and it would give you local information, like where the schools are. This is years before commercial services like Domain.
A lot of the data was Excel spreadsheets and even during the weekend calls were being made asking for data to be released. One person chose a project to put an API layer in front of the spreadsheets on an FTP server so that users can consume it.
Participating in a hackathon lets you explore a problem space very quickly. It often also works very well if someone comes with a sense of what they want to achieve. The people that won in 2009 had never met each other, but there was a particular woman who had a vision of what she wanted to achieve. She got up and pitched what she wanted to do, was joined by others who then worked together.
Like rapid chess, what drops off are all the concerns about the things that we invest a lot as engineers and problem solvers, like worrying about edge cases or error handling. It’s 80:20, if you only worry about the 20 you can execute very quickly.
A hackathon can be one day where you cast aside all the complexity and just do what you set out to do.
There can be a deep cultural problem in hackathons that encourage a culture of disposability in engineering. John came through computer science in the 80s, learned the craft, learned about the software crisis in the 60s, (the crisis was that most projects failed). Pitch culture in startups is all about the pitch, all about the demo, and while there’s value in that, if we start valuing only time to demo we forget the actual work that needs to be done.
We need to avoid the temptation to just work on easy to solve problems that make you look like a genius.
GovHack is about exploring data and technology, and while there’s value in that, but actually there needs to be a focus on solving human problems which are difficult to address in 36 hours.
If there was a single overarching goal of GovHack in the first year it was to get government to see the value in opening up their data because there was already a hacker culture out there and this was an attempt to build bridges.
While participants with great technical skills have been successful at GovHack, John wonders if there isn’t a place for people who bring a clear understanding of a real problem to be solved.
John is proud that the name and logo are still in use and hold up. There’s not much that still holds up a decade later.
Written by Peter Marks for GovHack.
Peter Marks is a software developer and technology analyst.
He is a regular contributor to ABC Radio National and blogs at http://blog.marxy.org