This past Saturday, thanks to the spectacular vision and efforts of Emma Mulqueeny, James Darling, and Richard Pope, some 100 coders and geeks gathered at the Channel 4 offices for National Hack the Government Day. As per the Rewired State press release:

Rewired State is a free invite-only event to demonstrate the creative use of public data by great technical minds.

100 developers, designers, hackers and geeks, with support from a few government officials will evaluate government data to see how they could best use this information.

We expect the output of the day to expose better processes, application and ways of working for better use of public data as well as to expose government officials to the concept of allowing great creative minds to play with the data to provide interesting and creative solutions.

At 6 PM, the doors were opened to the non-technorati (including me), who had the pleasure of seeing presentations by the myriad teams who worked throughout the day. A few of my observations from the evening:

  1. I can’t believe that I used to call myself a computer programmer. Although I may have a CS degree, and have spent my life in and around the technology sector, it is clear that the world of code has moved far past me. What has not appeared to change is the general coder ethic. Think about it: 100 men and women (many more men than women, it must be said, must of whom were likely born in the late 80s) gathered on a Saturday to coop themselves up in an office, and just play with code. Just for the hell of it. Just to see what they could do. I love that. I love it in the same way that I once was likely to get together with friends on a Saturday and play with code, just for the hell of it. (Another constant: pizza still seems to be a primary fuel, although the drinks have changed a bit. No Jolt cola.)
  2. The UK is more than capable to create some spectacular software companies. Admittedly, this has more to do with my innovation policy interests than my govt 2.0 interests, but it was amazing to see what UK ingenuity could achieve in such a short amount of time.
  3. Intellectual Property is clearly a non-trivial, and in my opinion completely unnecessary, issue in exploiting government data. Many of the projects acknowledged with a wink-and-a-nod that full roll-out would run into IP issues. Even with OPSI’s click-use license, getting access to and making use of government data (regardless of social or commericial objectives) must be made easier. I applaud the Guardian’s continuing advancement of this issue, and hope to lend my voice to this information revolution.
  4. As spectacular as the results were, I couldn’t help but wonder what could be achieved if we combined the programming talent in that room with some policy wonks that know where the issues are. In other words, put the developers together with their “customers”. On this point, Harry at the Dextrous Web and I had a bit of Twitter back and forth, and he made the excellent point that: “This kind of stuff is for fun. If we’d done other ppl’s ideas it just would’ve been another day@work. Nothx!” My response: “I’m not saying to work on other people’s ideas, but rather *find inspiration* in other people’s *needs*.”

My suggestion to the Rewired State team, then, is not necessarily to change the model, but to consider augmenting the teams with other, equally passionate people, who could bring some context to the table. Social Innovation Camp provides an interesting example of such an approach. I believe that the technical folk that attended SI Camp appreciated having the “customer needs” in the room, and vice versa.

To Harry’s point, doing similarly with Rewired State would likely require a bit of additional coaxing to ensure that the geeks still felt that this was their day and made it out with the same level of energy and curiosity. However, given the level of interest for this year’s event, I don’t believe this would be at all beyond the team. An equal challenge would be to get the right government folks to the table, with open minds and a willingness to take a back seat for much of the action. But again, not insurmountable. And anyway, what would a Hack the Government Day be without a good challenge?

Congrats again to the Rewired State team, the coders who devoted their time to the cause, and the various sponsors that made it possible.

To have a glance at the various projects resulting from the day, check out the Rewired State projects page.