24 August 2009
A couple of hours this afternoon at the mini-Googleplex in Victoria, watching the teenagers of Young Rewired State present their hacks. It was an impressive show, not just for the ideas, all of which were good ones, or for the clarity and self-confidence with which they were presented, but because of the focus on doing something about it, on creating something better in part to make the point that what there is is not good enough.
A quick and very unofficial/inexact roll call of the projects is below. They show the strengths of this approach, but also some of its limitations, which I also felt (but expressed very badly) in my reflections on Rewired State for grown ups. The challenge for government is to find a way of having the conversations which build on the strengths and gets us all past the limitations.
The big strength is that this is easy. Not in the sense that anybody at all could wander in off the street and do it or that it doesn’t take a lot of determined hard work, but that people with the right skills and the right attitude find it easy to see things which are worth fixing and easy to make progress on turning ideas into solutions (subject to being able to get the data they need, but that’s another story).
That in turn means that this is yet another area where the web makes abundant what was once scarce. Its being abundant, it makes sense to apply approaches based on abundance: let there be many ideas, let them be developed not because we know they are right (whatever that means) but because some will falter and fade away, while others will grow, merge and acquire further energy and impetus. We don’t have to play the game of picking the winners in advance and then keeping our fingers crossed as months and years go by.
Having said that, the game of picking winners is irresistible. These were the contenders (listed in order of appearance as I live tweeted them):
- Blab to Betty – confidential unpatronising sexual health advice
- Schoolroutr 2.0 beta – safety data not aligned with routing Working demo, circumventing reported mugging &c
- TFHell Real time London bus information (been waiting for this for years). Need is clear, data exists, join is needed
- Un-transport direct: User focused, providing a journey ID, rather than recreating each time, so sharable, repeatable
- How’s my train – monitoring train level service punctuality. Data available, but only for 2 mins after arrival.
- Will work for peanuts: matching tech talent with opportunities. Registration optional, straight link to other party.
- Uni Cloud – Better course finder for UCAS with more advanced search options
- Stepsafe: crime map data + google routing, but need to add bad area avoidance to routing : choose safest or quickest
- Engage: Improving Staffs CC site esp youth offer – built activities DB API, now adding health, subject to NHS API access
- Education and the Intarwebs – correlate broadband availability with school performance
- Crime rates in your area – plus exam results. Some interesting possibilities for future exploration
- Flooding+ schools+ postcodes – foiled by impossibility of pulling data from Env Agency site.
- Blog-o-tics taking Bills plus blog search searched for emotive terms to create overall attitude score
- Free the theory – liberating driving test theory questions. Data more powerful when unconstrained.
- Stop underage people getting age restricted goods. Not a winner for the teen audience, but right approach -reporting only pass/fail of key data rather than exposing personal data.
Four prizes were awarded:
- What google might buy prize: TFHell
- I wish I’d thought of that prize: Work for peanuts
- Most likely to antagonise CIO council prize: How’s my train running
- Overall best in show award: Schoolroutr 2.0 beta
The Public Strategist awards overlap with those, but there are only two of them:
The Short Term Prize for the service which most obviously ought to exist, for which there is no good reason that it does not exist and which now just needs to happen goes to TFHell. My personal enthusiasm for this undoubtedly has something to do with the fact that London buses are my primary means of transport, but there is more to it than that. The idea was well thought through, some attention had been given to how people might actually want to use it, the problem is a simple one and the solution clear – if only TfL would open up the data.
The Long Term Prize for the service which has no obvious need to exist, but which captures an opportunity to do something radical, simple, interesting and subversive goes to Blog-o-tics. This is, in effect, a way of providing automated feedback to the political process, expressed in very simple but powerful visual terms. I don’t have the slightest idea whether this would work, or would have any effect if it did – but that’s precisely the reason it was one of the more interesting ideas on display.
So where do we go from here? I see three important elements of the way forward.
The first is to avoid the groundhog day problem. Starting from scratch hack days are powerful and inspirational. They shouldn’t stop happening. But we don’t want to carry on just starting at the beginning each time. Looking at the set of projects here and the original Rewired State, there are some clear clusters of related thinking and development. Are there ways of encouraging groups to coalesce, of supporting and encouraging them to move their ideas one or two stages on – and perhaps to return in a few weeks or months to present the next iteration (or, more likely, the next iteration but seventeen). This feels a bit like getting a rocket into orbit: a powerful first stage will get you off the ground, but a second and even third stage will be needed to reach orbit – without that, the rocket just falls back to earth with the effort wasted.
The second – for which doing the first would create some space and opportunity – would be to bring in users and customers more explicitly. These projects can get off to a great start using their originators as their own use case, but they won’t become sustainable on that basis. Government has painfully learned – or, rather, is painfully learning – that starting off with the assumption that you know what is best for people doesn’t deliver the greatest results. I am not quite sure where the tipping point comes between creator-evangelists and customer-centred design, but I am sure it has to come somewhere.
The third and by far the hardest is to apply some of the same approaches and subversive challenges beyond the surface layer of government services. The very last idea presented today began to get into that (though was reported on indirectly, as the person working on it had had to leave early). Essentially it was about finding a better way of demonstrating that you are old enough to get a service with an age restriction. The important bit, if I understood it right, is that they had spotted that what is needed is a binary answer to the question (“based on the information we hold, this person is indeed over 18”) as opposed to splurge of personal data (“here is everything we know about the person, from which feel free to pick the bits you need and root round all the rest”).
None of that, though, should detract from what was achieved at Young Rewired State. There are lots of smart people desperate to do smart things. The rest of us have a huge interest in finding ways of letting them.