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Why hacking for good is important: Gleanings from GovHack 2017

A growing community of civic hackers is working across the country to strengthen our democracy and make the world, or at least our local communities, a better place. On the 28 to 30 July, a hackathon was carried out with open data in eight cities across New Zealand. Aimee Whitcroft and Justine Pepperell explain the importance of GovHack, and what insights were gained from this year's session.

Over the last weekend of July 2017, thousands of civic-minded hackers gathered together in Australian and New Zealand cities to compete at GovHack 2017. Searching for new solutions for the challenges facing government and society, teams created working prototypes and mashups with publicly available – or 'open' – government data.

Civic technology and GovHack are about using technology to help empower the public in its dealings with government(s), though better information-generating/sharing, decision-making and accountability. The open data and open government movements are woven very strongly into civic technology and are forming its foundations.

Over the past three years, GovHack events have become a major fixture on the calendars of people across NZ. The event doesn’t just attract developers: It’s popular with artists, storytellers, social researchers, communicators, scientists, tertiary students and more, from the private, public, NGO and academic sectors. Diverse people, all looking to collaborate, learn, build stuff, network, and yes – win prize money.

This competitive side of GovHack helps focus participants’ attention on key government and social problems, and using open datasets.

For example, this year, the Department of Internal Affairs – an New Zealand sponsor – sponsored an award for the best hack demonstrating a common citizen interaction with government. Examples could include getting a passport or finding out your citizenship status using an emerging technology such as voice search, automated chatbots, AI, VR or AR or a combination, all while using at least one relevant open dataset.

The competition also provides an opportunity for corporate sponsors to promote interesting challenges to be solved using their development tools and products.

Returning sponsor Here Technologies took advantage of this opportunity for a second consecutive year. Lucy Lin, data acquisition and community marketing manager, commented on what being involved as a sponsor was like: “As a location data company, Here Technologies are proud to be associated with GovHack to enable visualisation of open data on a mapping platform and further encourage increased amounts of government open data to be released that would influence the quality of our maps. We had eight staff attend five GovHack venues (Auckland, Wellington, Sydney, Melbourne, and Wyndham), and all feedback was very positive. The weekend brought an impressive 2,300+ participants across New Zealand and Australia, and with 379 projects submitted, ensured a lot of great usages stemming from open government data.”

Other major corporate sponsors of GovHack New Zealand 2017 included Media Suite, Ed, Accenture, and IAG, and many more at local levels.

Cash prizes and glory aside, GovHack’s purpose is to build better democracy through innovation, participation, and growing a strong community of civic hackers.   

Around New Zealand, a range of people volunteered their time and skills to help organise and facilitate events, bring in sponsorship, recruitment mentors, and ensure events happened and teams were successful.

Cam Findlay from the Department of Internal Affairs manages product development for data.govt.nz, NZ’s largest open data repository. For the second year in a row, data.govt.nz sponsored GovHack. This year also marked the launch of their refreshed data catalogue.

When asked why he gave up his weekend to be a mentor (and not for the first time) at the Wellington event, Cam said: “I’ve been involved in GovHack for the last 3 years running. It’s a great community vibe and piques my interest in open source culture. From a data.govt.nz perspective, there is no better place to connect with users. We provide a way for GovHackers to discover the data they need to build great things over the weekend. On the flipside, we get a lot of great feedback to help make data.govt.nz better for future events.”

Professionals from the private sector, like Hamish King – an agile coach from Westpac Bank – also gave up their weekend to mentor and support teams.  Said Hamish, “I wanted to support people who were giving up their weekend to try to make Wellington better by sharing my skills and knowledge”.

The New Zealand Open Government Data Programme, led by Paul Stone, focuses on encouraging and supporting government agencies to release open data, and to understand what data is valuable to data users and what makes that data easy to reuse.

Paul Stone said: “GovHack is extremely helpful to us in both aspects. We gain a host of ideas on how the data can be used which are invaluable to us in helping government understand the whole point of releasing open data. We also discover through GovHack stories where innovative ideas are thwarted by poor access to or quality of the data. This is why we have done what we can to support GovHack New Zealand over the last three years”.

Diversity’s a key concept in GovHack. This year, we piloted a number of training and diversity-related leadin events. On this note, Paul acommented that:“Diversity is one of the highlights of GovHack, and this year by getting out of Wellington and joining GovHack in Hawke’s Bay, I experienced diversity in GovHack setting. Despite the small crowd, the spirit of GovHack was the same. Strangers coming together, giving up their weekend to work hard for some public good. Everyone discovers something new, learns off others and come away both surprised and proud of what they have managed to accomplish under pressure. Open government data is just the play-dough used to bring about community and interaction between citizens, business and government in a fun way.”

There’s now an exciting level of government agency involvement and support for GovHack. This year, Her Excellency The Right Honourable Dame Patsy Reddy, Governor-General of New Zealand, spoke at the closing ceremony for GovHack Wellington.  Dame Patsy offered her support and encouragement to participants, noting the importance of cross community collaboration and civic engagement when searching for fresh solutions to societal problems and the importance of civic technology and diversity. 

Hackathons and prototyping have been around for a while now, but they remain very important. We can learn great lessons from what people are doing and have done here and internationally; we don’t want to reinvent wheels, and we certainly aren’t interested in the “not invented here” fallacy.

Civic technology and events like GovHack are still relatively new in New Zealand, and there’s still a lot to be done in opening up more government (and private!) datasets, getting more people from more diverse backgrounds involved, and helping to train everyone in the skills they need.

We’re far from discouraged – it’s an exciting time! We see a brighter future where communities can come together, be empowered to tackle the challenges they see around them and, over time, use technology for social good, economic improvement and political empowerment.

We invite you to join us.

All the projects from New Zealand and Australian events are released under open source, and can be found at 2017.hackerspace.govhack.org/projects.

Justine Pepperell is a learning and development professional. She enjoys collaborating with technical and creative people at events like GovHack to solve pesky civic problems, and ran GovHack’s social media this year. You can find her on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/justinepepperell/, or on Twitter at @justinepepp .

Aimee Whitcroft is half of consultancy GovWorks NZ, and was national co-lead with her GovWorks NZ co-founder Nick Williamson in 2017. You can find her on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/awhitcroft, or on Twitter at @teh_aimee.