BrisBert, 2013 GovHack winner that paid dividends

BrisBert, 2013 GovHack winner that paid dividends

David Ryan was part of a team called “Old Folks United” that created a project called “BrisBert” in the 2013 GovHack. The team was made up of people in their early thirties – hence “old folks”.

When the team formed, they realised that they had a lot in common. At the time, David was working for Red Hat, and he met another team member who was also working for Red Hat, but they hadn’t met because it was his first week at the company. (Red Hat was recently acquired by IBM for $34 billion).

2013 was the first year that entries were pitched in the form of a video so the team looked for ideas that used multiple open government data sources and would present well as a story in video form.

Abe Simpson (Wikipedia)

Looking for a way to tell a story with data, the team joked about The Simpsons, where there’s an old man, Grampa Simpson, who just rambles. This inspired the idea of making a software equivalent of Grampa Simpson, which will respond to questions like “tell me about the gasworks” or “tell me about the powerhouse, when it was actually a power house”, and it start informative rambling.

BrisBert was a “narrative engine” that had been given an old man’s persona, to make it fun to ask questions about Australian data. It would then link up all the data and show photos, poems, artwork and newspaper clippings related to the question.

By implementing BrisBert, the team was “blown away” by all the amazing data that organisations like the NAA (National Archives of Australia) or TROVE (National Library of Australia) have about our heritage. “GovHack really changed the way we understand our heritage by making it accessible to the population”.

Back in 2013, the natural language processing tools were quite unsophisticated compared to today. For the project, the team used rudimentary natural language processing and elements of data federation techniques. BrisBert had bot interfaces to Twitter and a web interface where you could chat with it.

The team comprised a couple of developers, (the backend team) and a couple of front end designers, (the frontend narrative team), so they were able to partition up the work quite well.

The hackathon

“The great thing about the structure of GovHack is that it makes it easy for anyone to attend and immerse in the experience”

We enjoyed the framework that GovHack provides, on Friday night, learning about the data, meeting people, forming teams. Saturday was for hacking, exploring, “the divergence phase”, and Sunday was where it was all pulled together to create a good story – and importantly a good video.

Perhaps because the team was a little older, they were experienced and didn’t do the “hack all night” thing, but rather managed to get a lot done within the constraint of 54 hours while still sleeping, showering, eating healthily, and having social time.

The video was finished just minutes before it was due but they had planned ahead and set up a couple of GoPros to capture the work as time-lapses. A quick screen cast of the app was filmed and it was edited together right at the end. The video has some in-jokes, and some sending up of the form, but it’s a very professional looking piece.

David’s advice on the video is that it doesn’t have to high quality but just make sure you’re summing up the problem, showing a solution and the value.

After GovHack

David and the other team member from Red Hat returned to work where there was an internal startup culture. There was a project underway, and it struck them that they’d learned a few skills from the GovHack experience which could be applied to their “PressGang” project.

Later David took that idea and created a startup called Corilla. One of Red Hat’s co-founders was their first investor. They went through a startup accelerator in Paris, went through Google Launchpad, and subsequently spread to 85 countries.

When company was recruiting, David hired one of the members of his GovHack team who became the head of design and virtually a co-founder, based in San Francisco. That shared experience and that trust meant that he could reach out and just say “hey, we’re growing so quickly, can you come and help?”.

On Hackathons

The concept of the hackathon has gone through the novelty phase, through the backlash, and it’s now simply embedded as a way to say “I’m going to dedicate an amount of time, immerse in the experience and learn a lot”. While you can come in with a pre-conceived idea, it’s an opportunity to try something just outside of your wheelhouse, or something new and a little bit edgy.

David’s advice to potential competitors is to go with an open mind, embrace the feeling of awkwardness, and really dive in to it. “The framework works, the cause is interesting, and you’ll really feel the beating pulse of the industry”.

Many people who participated in the the Brisbane 2013 GovHack have now gone on to become founders including Sandra Mau who is QTMBA’s MBA of the year.

GovHack is ten years old this year and it’s an interesting organisation in that it’s community driven. David’s career path was influenced by his GovHack experience and, having lived in ten countries he’s now returned to Queensland to live and study at QUT.

Story by Peter Marks for GovHack.