While innovation is one of the priorities now for many government agencies, most focus their efforts on easily managed evolutionary innovation rather than blue sky high-risk projects.
So it’s fortunate that every year in Australia a small group of volunteers runs the non-profit GovHack event, enlisting programmers, designers, analysts and entrepreneurs to “hack government for good”, using public data and innovative ideas to develop novel services and insights that may find their way into agency services or commercial digital tools.
GovHack, now run as part of the Public Sector Innovation month, began as a one-city event in 2009 with funding from the Government 2.0 Taskforce. When next run in 2012 it reached two cities, then eight in 2013 and grew to 13 in 2014.
This year GovHack ran on 3-5 July across 31 locations, including six in New Zealand, attracting over 1800 participants eager to innovate and find value in open government data. In fact, more “Govhackers” registered for just the Melbourne city location than all of GovHack three years ago.
With a sponsor’s list that reads like a who’s who of forward-thinking governments and agencies, with a sprinkling of corporations, 400 teams of GovHackers delivered over 260 prototype hacks, services and tools built open data in 46 hours.
— Govhack Melbourne (@govhackmelb) July 4, 2015
For the government agencies participating, GovHack provided new perspectives in a cost-effective way, allowing them to interact with bright people from outside government and observe how they worked and innovated with government data and public services.
For the community GovHack provided a focused way for developers and designers to lend their skills and ideas to government, participating in a range of local, national and international challenges.
Participants came from all walks of life, High School teams such as the Code Cadets in Canberra, public servants such as the Victorian Department of Education and Training’s digital team, through to retired programmers interested in social challenges.
This year’s GovHack saw a number of firsts for the event.
New Zealand’s national and local governments participated for the first time, with six locations across the country, making GovHack an international event.
The Victorian Government sponsored GovHack’s first service design challenge, focused on redeveloping how Victorians transfer vehicle registrations in private sales. The challenge was used to pilot how the government might engage the community in crowds-sourcing the development and redevelopment of other services.
VicRoads introduced a cross-event incubator model, where GovHack participants could continue to develop their prototypes in a subsequent hack event. Teams that won challenge awards would then have an opportunity to work directly with VicRoads staff to develop their tool or service further, potentially into a commercially ready product.
At the Melbourne event, which delivered the largest number of completed projects, teams worked in a highly coordinated fashion over the three-day event, with many teams forming and selecting their projects on the Friday night.
Saturday saw concentrated effort throughout the day, with teams working together to brainstorm and map out their hacks with post-it notes and whiteboards, selecting and cleaning datasets, consulting with the on-site mentors and data custodians from various government agencies and beginning the programming and design required to deliver a prototype.
Sunday was the crunch day, with teams testing and finalising their prototypes, and revising scope where required, while filming their GovHack video showcasing their hack.
Of the 400 hacks registered internationally for GovHack, 267 were completed by the competition deadline at 5pm on Sunday, including 30 from New Zealand.
Notable hacks included:
- AusQuake, a tool that visualises all earthquakes across Australia by magnitude over time for disaster planning
- Brisbane Area Review, a service allowing people to examine and compare suburbs in the greater Brisbane region to support them in selecting appropriate locations to live.
- Can you afford to speed, a mobile app that helps drivers visualise the consequences of speeding based on the fines charged to other drivers along the route they plan to drive.
- Consensus Quiz, an online game designed to make it easier for Australians to engage with government data and policies.
- Crime Sheep, a New Zealand tool for presenting crime data relevant to an individual’s location and demographics.
- EzRego, a digital redevelopment of the process for transferring vehicle registrations in Victoria.
- GreenRun, a system using mobile devices to detect traffic light colour and could be used by emergency services or other drivers in real-time to map the fastest driving route (with green lights) within a city.
- Geelong VR, a 3D visualisation of Geelong, including data on over 8,000 council assets, such as trees as well as wifi hotspots, for town planning purposes.
- Davies Reef Coral Bleaching Temperature Predictions, a project that applied machine learning techniques to predict coral leaching rates on part of the Great Barrier Roof.
- MineCraft your city, an accurate topographic map of Canberra that can be explored and played with for city planning activities.
- Patentstor.ies, a service that visualises the patent process, using news sources to provide context, as an educational tool to explain the patent process and its impact within Australia.
- Talk to me, a national emergency alert system designed for visually impaired and low literacy people that uses text-to-voice to speak emergency notifications to people on their mobile phones.
Local Spirit awards are already being handed out, while GovHack International, Australian and Team Prizes will be announced at the Red Carpet Awards in Sydney on September 5.
The language of GovHack
Open data — data released in a format that allows it to be easily reused and mashed up with other data to generate new insights, services or visualisations.
Mashup — the output of a combination of different open datasets, often presented visually or as a service, such as mashing up data on storm water drains with street map data, to allow the route stormwater takes to the sea to be mapped.
Hack — the clever use of open data to produce a service or visualisation, or provide a novel approach or insight on a challenge.
Data custodian — the organisations and staff responsible for collecting, collating and maintaining data and datasets.
Craig Thomler is a digital advocate and former GovHack National Award Winner with his team, the HackWarriors. With experience working across start-up, corporate and public sector organisations, Craig assisted the Victorian Government to run a pilot Service Design Challenge at GovHack 2015.