#jcarn: Dear Santa, please bring us all more time

Given the recent dearth of posts on here, my request in response to this month’s Carnival of Journalism prompt is probably not surprising, though it may be impossible.

Dear Santa, for journo-Christmas I would like more time. Not just for me, but for everyone.

I was lucky enough, recently, to be part of a Guardian hack day. As a result, some awesome tools got built, including three that I started using inmediately. They’re still very much in beta, being improved and worked on occasionally, but I use them constantly. They’ve changed my job. Not by giving me new things to do, but by automating some repetitive, tricky, admin bits of the job and therefore making them require less time and attention – so I can spend more time and energy focussing on the bits that really need it.

That’s wonderful. It’s a gift of time. It means I can work smarter, not just harder. I wish, if I have to be limited to one Christmas wish, that every journalist and everyone involved in making journalism – including developers – could have at least one tool, in 2012, that makes the tedious admin bits of their jobs faster. I hope that every tricky CMS for journalists that contains unnecessary time-consuming admin processes releases an update that makes it no longer so.

And, because this isn’t a one-way process, I hope that every journalist takes the initiative to go find out where their techies live and actually talks to them, in person, about the problems they have. There’s no point griping only to each other about the difficult bits, or in keeping quiet and carrying on doing things that don’t make sense: tell developers what’s wrong, because otherwise they won’t know it needs fixing. Sometimes what looks like a tech problem is actually a communication issue, because the people who need to know that something’s broken haven’t been told.

These fixes often aren’t the big, sexy, exciting projects for devs. They’re the sort of thing that, if it exists, you very quickly take for granted. Things like, say, a spellchecker that also flags up common house style violations, or a geolocation module that understands when you type “Norwich” that you want the geographical area defined by the boundaries of the city of Norwich, not a point at the centre of its postcode area. They’re often small niggles that you’d only notice if you’re doing these processes day in, day out, many times a day.

In an age of cutting costs, one of the most precious resources we have left is our time. Anything that saves it, that means it can be spent doing journalism or making tools that journalists can use, instead of busywork, is a wonderful thing.

Oh, and if you work in a place that has admin staff, go say thank you to them. They deserve it.

Rewiring the state

Last year I reported on Young Rewired State, when a group of committed and amazingly talented youngsters descended on Neontribe‘s offices for three days of making stuff. (The report’s not online because at the time the EDP’s CMS automatically took everything offline after two months; no, I still don’t know why they thought that was a good idea.) I remember being stunned by the results and by the people involved – the energy, the excitement, and the apps they made.

On Saturday, I went up to Neontribe’s new offices in Norwich along with 14 others to be part of the first regional Rewired State hack day – but as a developer, not a hack. (For the record: I’m no dev, I just mash things together and swear at them till they more-or-less work in a cargo-cult sort of way.) I got to work with three brilliant young people – Callum, Isabell (@issyIO) and Ben. They were all way ahead of me – I can’t wait to see what they make in the future.

The aim of the day was to use local government data to make apps. We started out with a computer each, a list of data sources, a whiteboard full of ideas and a lot of very tasty food (seriously, the catering was amazing). Oh, and 8 hours to go before we presented our work to a room full of local dignitaries. So no pressure.

The team I was working with decided to create Kebab Hunter, an app that mashed together reviews of local takeaway joints with hygiene data from Norwich City Council, then plotted them on an augmented reality Layar that could be viewed on your smartphone. The result was an app you could use to quickly find a nearby takeout that not only serves tasty food but also won’t make you ill. The bits I did were mostly to do with finding, cleaning and mashing data together (I’m indebted to @psychemedia for this timely post). Most of the time (well, when not eating the delicious cake, anyway) I had my head down, so it wasn’t really until the very end that I got to see what other people had been working on.

For me, with my very limited hodge-podge set of skills, the day was exhilarating. The time limit gave it a focus and a sense of urgency, and working alongside such a talented group of people was a pleasure and a privilege – and a very fast and efficient way of learning. I felt like my brain had gone through a wringer at the end of it, but in a very good way. And we had some awesome things to show for the effort.

Here’s what we made (I’ll add links to this list if I can find them, and if there are any mistakes let me know – I didn’t catch everyone’s name):

  • Where does Norfolk’s money go? A map of Norfolk council spending – Sym Roe
  • Bin Posse. Reminders of what goes out when by SMS – Rupert Redington
  • AV findings. Where voted “Yes”, and what were they like? (Apparently Yes to AV is strongly correlated with museum visits) – Chris Heath and Katja Mordaunt
  • Bridge Headroom. How much space is there under Potter Heigham bridge? – Michael Holness
  • Words about Norfolk. What words does Wikipedia link to Norfolk? – Rob Young
  • Festival timeline. The Norfolk and Norwich Festival lineup, displayed to investigate – Harry Harrold
  • Hey Chief! A humourous look at the value for money of Norfolk Fire Service. (Norwich has a lot of cat-related incidents, we learned) – Peter Chamberlin, Heydon Pickering, Michael Holness
  • Kebab Hunter. Augments a phone camera’s eye view of Norwich, with takeaway food safety info and reviews – Callum Weaver, Mary Hamilton, Ben Holloway and Isabell Long.

At the end of the day we presented our creations to local politicians, council staff and each other in the Octagon Chapel, a beautiful and oddly stately venue for such a high-tech day. I hope the folks who saw what we made see what’s possible when you get interested, creative people with l33t skills in a room with their data.

Afterwards, people were talking about the power of open data – its scariness, the fact that transparency can’t be done half-heartedly, the fact it can’t be controlled, but also the freedom to experiment and the excitement of possibility. And the need for devs, designers, interpreters and even journalists to bridge the gap between spreadsheets and stories, between data and people. Those were good conversations, and I hope a lot more comes out of this event.

Very, very good day.

Edited to add: @harryharrold has collected the whole day as it happened. Includes geese.