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.

Powerful Voices: useful resources

On Friday I was part of Powerful Voices, an event that helped young people create and refine ideas that would use social media to help effect social change.

By the time I got involved the young people – some university students, some graduates – had already put together four very well-thought-out ideas, refined them and pitched them to a panel of experts. My role on Friday was as part of a round table discussion looking at the future of social media and the wider web, and the funding possibilities that could help keep their projects alive and see them have a real impact.

Everyone involved was hugely enthusiastic and brightly hopeful for the future. These were people for whom the idea of running a non-profit and getting elbows-deep in the business side of things seemed a natural step – people with brave ideas who want to use new media to change the world. Here’s what they came up with:

  • The pop-up library project imagines a future where library services are totally mobile and completely adaptable, bringing very specific services to very local communities.
  • Communiteering is aimed at giving people a simple way to volunteer as much or as little as they wish, and to receive recognition for their work – something to go on a CV.
  • Handshake is a service built on the idea of connecting small projects in need of expertise with experts who can provide it.
  • And the final project hopes to help out unemployed graduates by encouraging creative approaches to getting on the career ladder.

The discussion hit on three big areas where the world is changing – the digital divide, open data, and the rise of gaming. I’ll talk more about these in posts over the next few days, I hope – there’s a lot to be said. What I want to do here is provide a resource for some of the concepts I brought into the conversation. So here goes: