Rewired State – great name, great event

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.

Opening up the policy process

The UK faces some big issues: climate change, an aging population, changing demographics, global competition, etc. Increasingly, these issues are defying the conventional mechanisms we have for developing and delivering the policy to address them. Policy-making roles within government entities tend to conform to rigid structures and internal cultural norms (i.e who can speak to whom, who can say what to the public, who needs to approve new ideas, etc.). Any others who might wish to participate in the process must first learn to conform to those norms and the oft-hidden pathways into the system.

Tackling, together

These problems can’t be solved with one particular skillset or within one particular department. They require interdisciplinary skills, and the combined efforts of many people working across government, the economy, and society. Those with knowledge might be in a national government agency, or in a local council. They might be experts in a think-tank, or a practitioner with years of experience delivering a service in their community. They might live in a city, a rural town, or even another country altogether. And all of them might have a key piece to the larger puzzle. Only with all of the pieces will we see the puzzle solved.

This is where Web 2.0, or the social web, comes in. Frequently, when we think of Web 2.0, we think of blogs, wikis, and social networks — and this is certainly the case. But Web 2.0 is more than than a collection of internet tools. It is a philosophy. One of collaboration and user-involvement. The idea that through the efforts and knowledge of many, we can tackle issues which far exceed the capacity of one.

Bottom-up and Top-down

In the policy and social arena, this philosophy is being born out in grassroots activity and experiments across society. has been building sites for public engagement since 2003. Involve is an exceptional organisation conducting research and experiments on public participation. Social Innovation Camp 2008 brought together dozens of social media mavens, social entrepreneurs, and practitioners to explore different uses of new tools to address social challenges.

Within the government, there are also signs of change. Minister and MP blogs, ePetititions, and community fora — while perhaps not prolific — are no longer unusual. In the beginning of the year, Jeremy Gould of the Ministry of Justice convened the UK’s first UKGovWeb BarCamp, drawing an impressive array of those within government eager to explore tools for engagement and collaboration. Dominic Campbell of FutureGov has recently been appointed [what is believed to be] the first Social Media Manager for a local council. Tom Watson, the West Bromwich MP and a political blogging pioneer, has recently taken up the post of Cabinet Office minister for bringing more web 2.0 principles into government. Within the opposition, George Osborne has long spoken of the potential for ‘open-source policy’, with the Tories using wiki-like tools to facilitate the collaborative development of the party’s numerous substantive white-papers. In the Americas, a term has even been coined to refer to all of this activity: Government 2.0.

A long hill to climb

However, despite these impressive and rapid developments, much remains to be done. Within the halls of government, a long-standing perception that “information is power” stands as a serious obstacle to collaboration and sharing of information. While the tools may exist to facilitate debate and discussion between masses of people, such debate is often seen to lack meaningful deliberation and balanced participation. Even when great ideas and content do emerge, it can be difficult to present these to policy-makers in a manner which is seen as credible and usable.

To explore some of these questions, polyWonk has recently been asked to lead the Policy 2.0 strand at the upcoming 2gether08 festival. At 2gether08 we’re looking to take on these issues, and do something about them. I encourage you to head over to the 2gether08 site, and comment, propose, challenge, collaborate, and debate. The only way we’re going to get better at working together, is by working together.

Note: This entry has (in essence) been cross-posted on