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Building, not breaking: when hackers are let loose in government

By all accounts, the recent GovHack was a triumph. More than 1300 hackers — about a third more than last year — logged on in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Adelaide, Brisbane, Perth, Hobart, Ballarat, Mt Gambier, Cairns and the Gold Coast.

Participants raved about how much they loved the government-sponsored hackathon, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull got to spruik the Coalition’s open data credentials, and the organisers got a decent chance to promote the value of open data in the local and national media as well. That is, in the time left after patiently explaining what “hacking” really means.

“Hacking is about building stuff, not breaking into stuff,” clarified GovHack lead organiser Pia Waugh, when asked by ABC News 24 journalist Tony Eastley whether “white-hat hackers” used the same methods as the nefarious “black-hat hackers”.

In fact, the hacker subculture pre-dates the term’s use to describe what those in the know, like Waugh, call “cracking”. Hacking roughly equates to thinking laterally, and it’s proven a very successful approach for computer programmers over the years.

“A hack,” Waugh said, “is basically a clever, creative use of something … to do something cool and interesting.”

Data is, by nature, “a latent resource”, as Turnbull told the hackers in a video peppered with geeky jokes that kicked off the event …

“It does not reveal its benefits easily; they are discovered only through rigorous analysis, mashing and hacking,” he said, before the inevitable call to arms: “That’s where you come in.”

The number of publicly available government data sets had increased sevenfold since the Coalition was elected, Turnbull added. The Communications and Finance departments are working on an open data network that will “build machine-to-machine linkages with key agencies” starting some time this quarter.

Waugh, a relentlessly positive open government evangelist who also happens to run the Commonwealth’s open data portal, is optimistic as always. “This is the year we are seeing the Australian government recognise the value of open data and the real benefits to the Australian people,” she said in the GovHack media statement, pointing to a recent Lateral Economics report that estimates open data could add $16 billion per annum to the Australian economy, and US$13 trillion to the combined economies of G20 member nations.

A hell of a hackathon

Working alone or in small teams over 48 hours — sleep optional — hackers developed some 200 examples of how private sector developers can unlock the value of the data made available by state, territory and federal governments (teams were competing for cash prizes totalling $70,000). The ACT government, for example, helpfully provides a list of suburbs with the number of European wasp nests that have been found in them.

A team of tech-savvy teenagers led by teacher Matthew Purcell from Canberra Grammar School — where students can start learning python programming language in year 7 — chose public art and transport. Their project, Mind The App, demonstrated how small Bluetooth devices called iBeacons could be placed at bus stops or public artworks to send helpful notifications to people with the app when they’re nearby.

Before they could get started they had to “fork” the ACT government’s Mobile Canberra app — that is, split off a new evolutionary branch of this government-driven open source project, eating up valuable time but earning them the local Spirit of GovHack Award, which celebrates the collaborative over the competitive.

“They discovered some dependencies in the Mobile Canberra codebase that was blocking them (and others) using the code,” Waugh explained in the wash-up at the end of the weekend. “Rather than giving up or changing course, they contacted the original developers, resolved the dependencies and then released a fork on Saturday to allow other competitors a shot at the same prize they were competing for.”

Going solo, Melbourne gov-hacker Steve Bennett also ran into some not-so-open data while building a website to answer a question that has surely plagued his fellow Victorians for generations: “Can I boat here?”

Bennett suggests in his submission that perhaps the most valuable work he did was making the data and tools available to the open source community.

“The original datasets are provided as MapInfo files, so we’ve converted them to shapefiles and published them to GitHub,” his submission explains, meaning he took geospatial data in a proprietary format, converted it to a more generic open format and uploaded it to a repository for others to play with.

It illustrates the effort in unlocking the value of open public sector data that wasn’t originally intended to be open, which slows down the whole process. By pitching in to do that work, gov-hackers also demonstrated that the answer is, again, more collaboration with people like them in the private sector.

Florence le Guyader from another Melbourne team, Unlock Australia, mentions a slightly different issue in her team’s pitch video:

“… we thought it would be great if we could link directly to the government data as opposed to downloading a .csv file every time we want to add a database.”

It seems the way forward is to “government as a platform”, where the power of private sector innovation is unlocked through government Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), like the Australian Taxation Office has issued for its Standard Business Reporting program, allowing it to be built into various accounting software packages.

A collaborative culture is key

“You’ve really got to build the ‘open’ in at the beginning; you’ve got to intend it to be open from the start,” Victoria University professorial fellow John Houghton, lead author of the Lateral Economics report, told The Mandarin. “Doing it retrospectively is obviously a lot harder.”

Houghton says that for public servants, the fear of what could go wrong — on privacy, confidentiality and accuracy — is one of the biggest barriers to opening up data.

“It’s natural that [public servants] are concerned; privacy and confidentiality are major issues that do need to be addressed,” he said. “This is why they need clear procedures that people can follow and feel that they’re personally not accountable, because they followed the procedure … but of course, developing procedures to do something you’ve never done before is not an entirely simple thing.”

Houghton points out that when a new government system that collects data is created, making that data open is “a very minor additional cost”.

“Basically every other use of it is a free hit, so the benefits greatly exceed the costs, in general terms, but the problem of course is that the costs fall to the agency [or department] and the benefits occur in the economy outside,” he says.

A nation where the huge benefits suggested by the Lateral Economics report are being realised would not simply look like a scaled up version of GovHack, although that would be the key change to how the public service works.

Unlocking the economic potential of open data is a project beyond individual hackers and the public sector — private enterprise and academia need to play their parts, too. Houghton believes a lot of the value will come from people working “behind the scenes, making better informed decisions”.

On the other hand there are those, like Pia Waugh, who hope it all leads to a kind of utopian future where hackers use their special skills to help digital citizens engage with governments in radically different ways, holding public administrators to higher levels of accountability.

“Well, I mean, that’s good,” said Houghton with a chuckle. “All ranges of enthusiasm are welcome.”

Top image credit: Gavin Tapp (CC BY 2.0)

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.