Code a Better Country

By the time I got to Rewired State, the hard work was over – a hundred hacker-days of effort concentrated into a few short hours.  That resulted in 29 presentations, which is too many to keep track of when they are whizzing by at two minutes apiece.  None was a dud, though not all had quite managed working code, and a few more found it impossible to get their laptops to talk to the Guardian’s projectors (one of those irritating little problems which might reasonably be supposed to have been solved years ago, but which is still tripping people up).  But to help keep track, many of the projects are now showing up here, with videos of all the presentations also available -though the sound is a bit variable.

Some of the ideas which particularly stuck in my head were:

  • Parlour Tag – producing a tag cloud from MPs’ written questions to show what on their minds and what’s interesting them over time.  Overnight that has gone live as What’s on Their Minds (site, video)
  • Companies Open House – pulling basic data on companies from the CH database, giving companies permanent URLs (which CH doesn’t), which apart from being useful in its own right also allows for matching with other sources  (site, video)
  • Jobcentre ProPlus – using post codes as the initial way in to the Jobcentre Plus job vacancy database, then displaying just enough about each job to make it easier to tell what they are really about.  More importantly, it sets the data free of the site:  the official version lets you save a search and rerun it on the site when you come back; this version will send you email alerts.  And because there is an API behind it, it also creates the basis for some other fun stuff too – as can be seen on the video. (site, video)
  • something which started as Scottish neighbourhood statistics, and then got interesting:  pulling data into an online spreadsheet where every cell has its own address and is therefore individually manipulable, which holds the promise that lesser geeks and even non-geeks can get to play this game too. (video)

Biggest surprise of the day was that sentencing data is more readily available online for 1707 than for 2007 (video).  Best idea which solves a problem which has been irritating me for years:  hacking the DNS so that actually gets you somewhere, instead of failing gracelessly if you don’t add the www (video).   That’s not a problem limited to government (and to be fair, it’s not quite as prevalent as it used to be) but there are still some very large tax raising departments which fail this simple test.  I would be ready keep those guys in beer for a month if they could also deal with the random hyphen problem:  hm-treasury works, but hmtreasury is not to be found.

Great to have been one of the “govvy people” allowed in to see the show – it was deeply thought provoking at a number of different levels.  I can’t afford to be as cheerfully dismissive of the government (which anyway simply does not exist as a singular noun) as many of the creative minds at the event, but those of us who are in government certainly do need to respond to the challenge.

Holding a mirror up to the inadequacies of government is no bad thing, but there is a risk of marooning this kind of creativity at the level of the user interface.  As one participant cogently argued, doing mashups with Google maps is the easy bit:  the harder bit is working with the fact that the underlying data is separated and combined, and that the rules which then have to run against that data are complicated and inconsistent, have to sit in robust high volume systems and be able to turn on a sixpence.  I wrote a piece just over a year ago, arguing the need to understand the differences between these two domains, concluding that:

We need to apply two different sets of disciplines (in both senses), in two separate domains:

  • An approach to the customer experience – both offline and online elements – which is flexible and responsive and which maximises its exposure to customer intelligence in order to do that
  • An approach to the supporting processes which is robust, consistent and correctly applies the full set of rules

The collective culture and skills of government are much more geared to the second than the first – and the risk is not just that we don’t do the first as well, but also that we can all too easily fail to spot the need to do it all.  The first is where there is the greatest need for change, flexibility and responsiveness – and where tools and approaches are available to deliver that responsiveness.  The second requires the hard grind of implementing big robust systems which do the transactional heavy lifting as invisibly as possible.

But it’s terribly easy to fall into the trap of being beleaguered.  The simple fact that lots of smart people thought the best thing they could do with their Saturday was to think really hard about how to make government better is a force for good we cannot afford to lose.

Two final comment from yesterday which are rattling around in my mind (both paraphrased from memory):

  • we have to change government from the outside, because changing it from the inside doesn’t work
  • these projects show the power of starting from the technology rather than the customer

I don’t agree with either of them.  But I will be thinking hard about both of them.

Rewired State hack room

Poster by memespring, licensed under creative commons
Picture by psd, licensed under creative commons


  1. I *believe* that your two last paraphrased comments are slightly skewed, regardless I too completely disagree with them as they are written here; it is a collaborative attitude that will help in both instances: inside/outside government as well as customer/technology.

  2. Fair challenge. The second in particular should almost certainly be “as well as” instead of “rather than”.
    I put them in not for the sake of disagreeing with them, and still less with the intention of characterising the event that way, but because although I do disagree with them, I think they both repay some thought. There are times when I have been tempted by both of them, the first in particular. The question of how to optimise the balance between external and internal drivers of change is always important and always difficult.

  3. A great write up – I’m sad I couldn’t have been there.
    Though understandably controversial, I think I see the rationale for both of the points at the end.
    For simple bureaucratic reasons, it’s often not possible to take on the vested interests or ignore the internal politics when working from the inside. As a simple example someone gave me on Friday: even a very good writer of user guides who works for Department X will always be influenced to get the nuance and detail of the text exactly accurate. But the external writer of the ‘X for Dummies’ book has a commercial incentive to focus on what readers will buy, and can ignore some of the politics in pursuit of the bigger picture – writing stuff people want and can use.
    Similarly, any good market researcher will tell you that simply asking customers what they want, testing ideas, monitoring trends and so on will only get you so far. To innovate new products and services – think of the groundbreaking Apple examples like the iMac, iTunes or iPhone – you have to look ahead to what’s possible technologically and what might be desirable to users if only they knew it were possible. Users accept poor user experiences all the time. There probably hasn’t been a clamour for a more open JobCentrePlus search tool, but the JobCentreProPlus has the potential to spawn a significantly more interesting and effective approach all round to searching for jobs online.

  4. I agree with Steph on innovation but also that the ‘customer experience’ is way too often forgotten or – worse – ignored. Innovators have to think through who will use their stuff, which audiences? I would also like to see more use of simple, accessible methods to connect with customers rather than always hiring ‘experts’. connecting innovators to real customers could be extremely powerful and there’s just not enough of it happening.

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