Why I joined GovHack 🏛✨

a story of my search for purpose and a way to give back

Preface: Last week I updated my LinkedIn profile with a new position (Partnerships Chief at GovHack, the world’s biggest open data competition with over 3000 competitors each year run by hundreds of volunteers) and have since had a few people ask me what it is all about. This the story.

It first began a couple of years ago. A group of friends of mine (who were also colleagues at the time) heard about an upcoming competition, and sent an email around the office hoping to put a team together.

The competition was scheduled to run over an entire weekend, from Friday night through Sunday afternoon, and promised the coming together of government agencies, citizens (as competitors) and the big players in technology, all in the name of using publicly released open government datasets (“Open Data”) to create awesome innovations for the benefit of society.

Oh, and serious prizes (the best kind!) on offer for the top teams across a broad set of criteria. And a chance to be recognised at the national awards night.

Sign me up! ✅

We formed a small team of 5 people, collectively with a variety technical and non-technical skill sets. We registered our interested for the local Sydney event and blocked out the whole weekend in our calendars:

🗓 GovHack Open Data Hackathon (Fri 5.30pm to Sunday 4pm)

The event was still a few weeks out, and it would be the first “hackathon” I’d ever been to. It was something I’d read about on the blogs of tech companies around the world, an outlet to encourage new ideas and channel creativity within their organisations.

I googled around for some tips and advice, and mostly found articles trying to dispel the scary-sounding “hacker” connotation, a term which previously simply referred to a skilful programmer, but has since been warped into a label for cyber-criminals who use their computers and know-how to gain unauthorised access to the private data of governments, businesses and online organisations.

(Which, by the way, is the complete opposite to what GovHack is all about!)

My research turned to the topic of Open Data. The Australian Government had recently opened a national open data portal. The portal was set up as a central point of access to open government datasets, and provided an index of public data sets from local, state and federal government agencies. With its release, it was clear that the government was fully supporting the Open Data movement, aiming to put as much data as possible into the hands of the public.

GovHack’s role was seemingly to support the public release of these previously private datasets with the fanfare of a competition, generating public awareness of both the availability of the data and the new possibilities that came with each release.

Back to the prizes.

To support the agencies releasing the datasets, GovHack had numerous prizes on offer for the best competition submissions across lots of different problem domains where the data could potentially be useful. And you could nominate your team’s submission for more than one prize.

We studied the prize list.

As a group, we worked out which combinations of prizes were the most compatible to optimise our chances of success! (Tip: I don’t think it worked.)

One of the team members had the genius idea to acquire many of the larger datasets ahead of time, and move them into an environment better suited for all of the complex analyses we were imagining would take place over the weekend, and then spent more than a few hours lifting and shifting data around. (A valiant effort! 🙏)

⏩ Fast forward to Friday evening: GovHack Day 1, and my first-ever hackathon.

We arrived as a team, registered our attendance and collected our name tags and event lanyards. We were at one of the prominent tech incubators in Sydney. My memory is a little hazy, though I recall there were a few presentations to introduce the event, plenty of pizza and loads of those green aloe vera juice bottles floating around. After the initial networking festivities, greetings and explanations of the competition, the data and the prizes, we moved downstairs to the co-working space and set up shop for the night.

After a few hours of brainstorming, speaking with technology vendors (we got a decent helping of free credits courtesy of a particular cloud service provider — awesome!), wading through data and sketching paper-based prototypes, we hadn’t really settled for any particular direction.

That’s ok, still plenty of time left until Sunday afternoon when final submissions were due.

Or so I thought.

I came over feeling quite ill. Maybe I was subconsciously overwhelmed by the experience (unlikely), maybe it was bad pizza (also unlikely), or maybe it was just a coincidence. I decided it was best to head home.

Day 2 never came, at least not for me.

Still not feeling fantastic, I was planning to try and support the team from home, but without a strong plan heading into the day this turned out to be quite difficult and I ultimately dropped out of the event.

I’ll never be quite sure what happened over the next couple of days.

While I had approximately nothing to do with it, the team pulled together a neat submission:

A web application providing a clean and simple way to search through the speeches of politicians, using data collected from the Parliament House website. They even found time to put the application online, film an explainer video and put it on YouTube 📺 (and if you’re interested, it’s still there)!

It was a great result for just a weekend of effort, and the team ended up being recognised winning the GovHack Sydney 2015 award for 🏆 Most Innovative Tech Product/Platform! 👏

Almost a year later, an email from the GovHack organisers came around asking for volunteers and mentors. Due to timing reasons, my team from the previous year wasn’t able to compete again. Keen to still be involved, I signed up as a mentor without much hesitation.

Mentors at GovHack are available over the event to support and advise the competitors with their specialist knowledge of business, technology or the datasets available, and I figured in my role I had enough credential to pass for the first two.

I met all of the local event team, and was kitted with a Mentor Pack containing all the info any mentor could need to support the event.

There were a great many mentors available over the whole weekend covering all different knowledge areas. I personally engaged with many different teams to help them think through their ideas, about how they will work with the data, and about how they could create something of value with it (and even spent time with a few familiar faces!).

But I wanted to do more.

Earlier this year the email from GovHack came around again with a bold message: The Hack is Back! Join us.

I’m not sure whether it was the liberal 🏛 emoji 🛠 use 🏆 (actual emojis used) that spoke to me or just great timing, but I read through the email and felt inspired. Mentoring didn’t quite meet my desire to contribute to this great effort, but maybe the Global or State operations team positions would.

I perused the openings but wasn’t quite sure what would fit me best. I selected a role that seemed relevant, filled in my application and crossed my fingers, eager to hear back. 🤞

It didn’t take too long to hear back from GovHack’s National Director:

Hi Blair! 😄
Thank you for applying for a role in our GovHack Global Operations Team! 😊
And thank you for your patience! The interest that we’ve had from those seeking to join the GOT has been incredible! ⭐️
I wanted to let you know that you have been successful in making it to an interview! 😇 The interview will last approximately 10 minutes. You can select a slot either tomorrow or Friday at [link].
Talk soon. 😎

(GovHack, you had me at 😃)

The next day we had a great discussion about GovHack’s goals and how I might be able to contribute! We spoke mainly about three things:

  1. Finding ways to give competitors more opportunties to participate
  2. Creating further opportunities for project longevity after the event
  3. The important role GovHack partner organisations (including businesses, universities and incubators) play in both of these things

Interview complete.

Three days and one surprise Sunday evening phone call later (to the effect of): Hi Blair! We’d like you to join us as Partnerships Chief! .

🎉 , 🙌, and other physical reactions not unlike the Success Kid meme.

So what now?

GovHack 2017 is just around the corner! This year the competition will be running across Australia and New Zealand the weekend of 28–30 July, which means about 12 weeks total to meet the team, set the direction, make a plan and get rolling!

(For anyone considering volunteering for GovHack now or in the future, our team is 100% remote. Which means Slack is alive with enthusiasm and support 24/7.)

I was amazed at our first team meeting, which filled up a virtual conference room beyond what I previous thought was possible:

GovHack GOT Meeting (via @richardtubb on Twitter)

Over the next few months, I’ll be working closely with potential partners to join GovHack on the Open Data mission!

It’s great to have so many passionate people working together for this amazing cause, and I’m so glad to be a part of it!

Do you have what it takes to be a GovHack Partner?

If you’re keen on Open Data and think your organisation to contribute as a GovHack partner, please reach out to me on directly on Twitter or LinkedIn, or send an email to blair (at) govhack (dot) org and we can talk further! 😃

Want to get involved as a volunteer or GovHack Sponsor?

There so many great opportunities left to get involved. Read more in the 2016 Review and check out this link to register your interest! 🙏

Planning on competing at GovHack?

Save the date, and keep your eyes peeled at govhack.org, subscribe to the newsletter and follow @GovHackAU on Twitter for all the latest event updates! ✨