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Accountability Hack and why every organisation should have a hack day

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Accountability Hack 2014
Accountability Hack 2014

Last weekend saw Parliament joining forces with the National Audit Office (NAO) and The Office for National Statistics (ONS) at Accountability Hack #AccHack14, as part of Parliament Week, working in partnership with Rewired State.

Having a combined event seemed like a natural evolution following the three years we’ve run Parly Hack on our own.  Looking beyond the data sets of just one organisation gave the developers an opportunity to think more broadly and to do some really exciting things with a bigger range of data. User questions and problems rarely fall neatly into organisational boundaries so combining data sets opens up new possibilities.

Highlights from the hack

The event was a great success. We had more than 60 attendees, 19 inspirational projects and a whole host of data sets. The ONS used the hack as an opportunity to promote their open API and for Parliament it was the first time we were able to test our new data.parliament platform in anger as well as promoting other exciting work being done by our Rapid Apps team. Together with the NAO we were all able to take advantage of some great feedback about how we can improve access to our data.

The best in show winning project was Right to Buy-Bye from the DXW team. It demonstrated not only excellent design thinking but used a range of data sets to answer a real world question: how does social housing provision compare to homelessness in each area. The team blogged about their progress as they went along giving an insight into how they approached the project, what problems they encountered along the way and how they solved them.

All of the projects were of an exceptionally high quality and included great use of some sophisticated technology. The SnailWhale  team used the IBM artificial intelligence engine Watson for their Politician Personality Test and Google BigQuery was used by the Wizly team to develop a big data analytics project identifying overlapping projects in central government.

While every project was inspiring we did award prizes for the best use of the data for each organisation and recognised the best use of multiple data sets finishing off with the Best in Show mentioned above. With some fine judging from Tom Loosemore, Meri Williams and Lee Bridges, category winners were as follows:

Parliament category
ONS category
  • Right to Buy-Bye - Comparing homelessness, social housing stocks and social housing that is sold privately in each Local Authority area.
NAO category
  • Politician Personality Test - A Program that analyses MPs from their Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, Hansard Data and others to cognitively assess a politician’s personality
Multi-org category
  • PFi Explorer - Visualise & Explore Private Finance Initiative Data
 Best in Show
  • Right to Buy-Bye - Comparing homelessness, social housing stocks and social housing that is sold privately in each Local Authority area.

There were special mentions for:

  • The Child’s Guide to Parliament, a beautifully designed website combining educational material with real time data to give kids a better idea about how parliament works,
  • SwipeeSwipee - a project submitted by the Data.parliament team that is a Tinder-style application which presents the User with the text of a succession of Early Day Motions (EDMs) together with the portrait of the primary sponsor.
  • Vellum – turning the text of legislation inside out to better understand power and accountability

All of the project entries for Accountability Hack are listed on the event website.

Why run a hack event?

Which brings me to why we do this and why I think every other organisation should at least think about doing something similar.

  1. It builds momentum around your data strategy

Open data is one of the digital aims for the new Parliamentary Digital Service: Parliamentary data will be made easily and freely accessible in an open format for reuse, so that the value of parliamentary data may be fully realised. It has also been a hot topic for discussion as part of the Speaker's Digital Democracy Commission. Building a data platform for Parliament has therefore been a crucial step towards a more digital Parliament and this year saw the launch of our Alpha site. Support and engagement with the wider developer community following each hack event over the last 3 years really helped with this. So much so that we invited them in to test out and advise on the development of the platform. Without that support, engagement and feedback we would not have made as much progress as we have.

  1. It provides a great opportunity for increased engagement with your users

One of the winners of this weekend’s event told us proudly that he’s obsessed with Hansard. I’m always astonished and humbled by the level of enthusiasm and commitment there is outside Parliament for using parliamentary data and using that for good. There’s a huge opportunity for us to build on this and develop and enrich that engagement in the future as well as supporting some of the initiatives in the longer term that grow out of a hack event. Our new data platform will develop community functionality so that conversations and ideas started at the hack can be continued and we can have feedback on our development throughout the process.

  1. It’s an opportunity to find out about new technologies and skills

At every hack event I’ve been part of I’ve learnt something new or been shown a different way of doing things. The way the participants organise themselves and quickly form small project teams focussing around a shared objective is particularly impressive. This year all of the teams demonstrated a high level of technical competence and innovation which was inspiring for me and my parliamentary colleagues and sparked ideas for thiings we can work on and use in the future.

There are many more benefits, particularly in terms of users and engagement but for me these three are key and have made a real difference for Parliament in our journey towards a more digital first world.

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