Image credit: Dave Pearce

Accountability Hack 2015 — here’s what happened!

tl;dr — Accountability Hack 2015 was totally awesome!

Here’s how the history stacks up. This was the fifth year of the hackathon run as part of Parliament Week, the second anniversary of the re-branding to Accountability Hack under the trifecta of Parliament, National Audit Office (NAO)and Office for National Statistics (ONS), and the very first year that our gang got to be involved as Rebels.

You see thus far, between us, we’ve participated, facilitated and even circumambulated previous Parly and Accountability Hacks (ok, you got us, we threw that last one in for whimsy). But this was the first year that the new look team Rebel Uncut joined Nick Halliday and Tracy Green at the helm — and we absolutely loved it.

As with the four events before it, Accountability Hack 2015 was a great opportunity to look at data from Parliament, NAO, ONS and beyond to build prototypes that create real social value in some way; improving transparency, accountability, and above all engaging citizens in this process. The first snow of the year may have been enough to thwart some, but not all, and on a bitterly cold November morning we were joined by new names alongside familiar faces of the civic tech scene to get the accountability party started. Because all good parties begin with accountability, am I right?!

“Part of the idea is to get an outside perspective on the data we’ve got. But also it’s just as much about introducing people to other people, and making connections that have got a longer term value” — Nick Halliday

To formally kick off AccHack15, we were joined by Meg Hillier, MP for Hackney South & Shoreditch, and 2015 Chair of the Public Accounts Committee. Meg gave a very honest introduction, calling for everyone in the room and beyond through the Periscope to ask more questions, demand better answers and hold herself and fellow MPs to account for all their actions. Her vision for change led by “citizen auditors” can be found here.

This year, our gang had the opportunity to work on one of four challenges, one set by each of the three organisations partnering to make AccHack possible, and a wildcard thrown in for good measure:

  • NAO: Use spend data and any other data set to improve accountability.
  • Parliament: Best use of linked data to improve accountability.
  • ONS: Use the ONS OpenAPI to improve accountability.
  • Wildcard: Use any three open data sets to improve accountability.

We shook off the introductions with a look to these challenges, clustering around flipcharts to introduce ourselves, ideate, and try and figure out where we knew the names of the personas from. About that — one of Team Rebel is reliving her youth Slayer style (that’s vampire and not thrash metal), so we let her turn Angel into a retired techno-novice, and Buffy into a full time mum of three. These personas, alongside user needs, kicked off conversations that would ultimately lead to one of the most user-driven hackathons Team Rebel have encountered. And it was ace!

“There’s been a lot more focus on user need — not for every entry but for quite a few of them. The ones that were winning were about user need and that’s a lot stronger than it has been at other hackathons” — Sarah Baskerville, jude extraordinaire

Much chatting, hacking and eating ensued. Collaboration was welcomed and encouraged via the hackpad and our home within the UK Gov Camp slack. The concentration was broken only briefly by Kevin, who ran a very successful inaugural round of AccHack Code in the Dark. The premise? To test your front end skills. The rules? 15 minutes to recreate a site of Kevin’s choosing. HTML & CSS. No previews. Sixth form student Zak Cutner walked away victorious with his recreation of the Bootstrap site.

Code in the Dark closed official Saturday proceedings. Save a couple of dedicated 5am coders, it was all quiet on the hacking front until Sunday morning, when the gang reemerged for breakfast and the mad dash towards the 3pm deadline.

For the auspicious task of judging Accountability Hack 2015, we were joined by three auspicious characters from in and around government. We were lucky enough to have Mark O’Neill (BIS), Sarah Baskerville (DofT) and Matthew Rees (NAO) take their place at the front of the auditorium to scrutinize, question and cajole the very best out of our teams.

Right, so who won?

  • NAO
  • Winner: Splender — Marek Labos
    Automatically aggregate and provide (council) spending datasets in usable form.
  • Parliament
  • Winner: MP Expenses Bot — Chris Wilson, Alex Kitson and Josh Doherty-Turnbull
    A twitter bot that tweets random MP expenses and tags them in it. It also responds to people tweeting it with a MPs name.
  • Special mention: ParlDashboard — David Timmins
    Linking API outputs to provide better visibility of available information.
  • Special mention: Any Questions Answered? — John Sandall and Florian Rathgeber
    Forensic fun with MP’s Q&A data.
  • ONS
  • Winner: You Work For Them — Katie Beacham, Jeni Tennison and John Sheridan
    A way for MPs to understand their constituents.
  • Wildcard
  • Winner: Blueman — Zak Cutner & Cameron Bamford
    A tool to help disabled blue badge holders park legally.
  • Special mention: DDPy: data.parliament for humans — Florian Rathgeber 
    Easy to use command-line interface to interact with linked data.
  • Rebel Uncut Prize
  • Best representing community spirit: Florian, Frankie and Rose

AccHack15, as ever, proved to be a great opportunity for each of the organising institutions to get feedback from the developer and civic tech community to better the work they do.… And we’re not going to lie. Some of this feedback was pretty rough. Words like “horrendous” and “awful” being banded around in response to the state of the data. But each organisation responded in the spirit of the hack — with true transparency and an eagerness to inspire change. Nick, Tracy and their teams know there is more work to be done, and were honest in admitting this. They are pushing harder than ever to make their data better, more open, and more usable for the people. But we must not allow what still needs to be done to entirely take away from the huge progress Nick and Tracy have fought so hard for over the last five years.

“There’s still more that we can do to make [our data] accessible to the developer community so I think some of the feedback that we’ve got from people on their particular projects is going to be really helpful to us. Also, some of the data modelling that was done — so really thinking about how our datasets work together as a whole and not in their silos — will be really helpful.” — Tracy Green

It’s in the name of better data that events like Accountability Hack are born. So, too, are groups formed like the new Parliamentary Data User Group that was briefly mentioned over the weekend. After spearheading another successful AccHack, both Nick and Tracy are keen to see the PDUG up and running before Christmas, so please do go forth and tweet at them for more details. And of course, Team Rebel will help out in any way we can.

And with that, so ends another year of partying accountability style. At this point, Team Rebel wish to say a huge thank you to all of you who attended the hack, the show & tell, followed along on Twitter or even expressed interest in Accountability Hack 2015. We had a really brilliant time over the weekend, and once again left feeling inspired at your commitment to making things better in government, and at just how much can be achieved in just 24 hours.

Finally, we would like to take this opportunity to once again thank Tracy and Nick for working so hard to rally the troops, open up the data (and in Nick’s case open up the NAO itself) to make events like Accountability Hack possible. You guys totally embody the Rebel spirit — and we love having you in the gang.

You can see more videos from the weekend on Rebel Uncut’s YouTube channel, and head to our Facebook to check out some photos from the weekend.