Hackathons as gateways to more and better open data

Posted: August 22nd, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Inspiration | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

There is a piece up on O’Reilly Radar by Andy Oram about the sustainability of applications built during hackathons. I am involved in Hack de Overheid and we have organized (Apps for Amsterdam) and still are organizing (Apps for Noord Holland) several hackathons and I thought it would be good to add our experiences to the fray.

First: I do not agree with the premise that most apps created in government challenges are quickly abandoned. I have not done a tally of our Apps for Amsterdam contest, but the completeness and polish of most apps submitted was impressive. I still use several of the apps from that contest regularly. Snelstepontje.nl for finding out which ferry to take is a godsend just to name one.

Maintenance is indeed an issue. It is my personal experience that if the app is deployed to a suitably robust platform (Google App Engine is a notable one), it may continue to run unsupervised for many years.

But yes, I do have my own doubts when it comes to the sustainability of apps from app contests as I have stated in my review of Apps for Amsterdam.

Data quality is the largest issue on all levels and it needs to be addressed. From gathering data, to publishing it, to responding adequately to issues. Most datasets that are released for contests are not of the highest quality due to time constraints. And after the contest is over they are seldom kept up to date by the publishing office. When it comes to sustainability, government should first turn to itself and start releasing their data in a way that is sustainable.

Besides releasing the data in a proper format, a very important consideration is the licensing. Re-using data should happen under conditions as liberal as possible (CC0 preferred) as not to deter companies from investing in using that data.

But even then creating apps that are successful and sustainable at scale may be too lofty a goal. Productizing apps in a professional way implies conceiving, building and expanding a startup company. If one or more such initiatives come out of a hackathon that may be called a resounding succes. But what of the rest?

Well, communities of practice are built on exactly that: practice. Data does not overnight become readily at hand and usable. It takes a lot of hard work from all of us.

Having organized several hackdays we are seeing an increase in number of people attending and their proficiencies as well as a wider awareness of the possibilities of data in journalism, government and politics. Those are exactly the things we need if we want to make open data (and not just applications) the foundational fabric of our information society.


Apps for Amsterdam

Posted: May 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Events, Policy | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Tonight the Apps for Amsterdam awards ceremony takes place and stage one of the Dutch open data trajectory will be completed.

Last year at the end of summer I helped Thijs Kleinpaste and Stefan de Bruijn co-author a proposal to sponsor open data within the municipality of Amsterdam. This proposal was accepted near unanimously by the commission in November (full write-up) and it started a roller coaster ride for open data in Amsterdam that is now starting to have far wider effects throughout the Netherlands.

Hack de Overheid (Hack the Government), the soon-to-be foundation I’m in the board of, partnered with the City of Amsterdam and Waag Society to realize the competition and a series of events. This series culminated for us in Hack de Overheid #3 an inspiring day and hackathon for over a hundred developers who built civic apps.

The completion of the contest tonight and the sometimes stunning applications —many of which display excellence in cartography and visualization— submitted to it mark another high point I am proud to be a part of.

What’s next?

But as I said this completes just the first stage of what is bound to be a long and tortuous road. As we speak there are local initiatives being formed to open up data in at least Enschede, Rotterdam, Utrecht, Eindhoven and the Hague. It will be interesting to see what comes out of that and if some of the smaller cities may in fact outpace us here in the capital.

But we need to do more. Recent questions about privacy violations in data releases make it more than a little obvious that there is a massive issue in data literacy. I wholeheartedly agree with Adam Greenfield if he says that data and its affordances need to be a core subject starting from school onwards. We need to explore materials, interventions and processes that allow us to teach data literacy and that allow others to teach it for us if we ever want to spread this knowledge at scale.

Literacy is required not only in school children but also in decision makers in business and government right now if we want to keep the momentum we have right now. Future developments run the risk of being hamstrung by backlashes against the malignant consequences of data or open data being unused because the ecosystem is not in tune. There are still lots of issues to be resolved around ownership, privacy, responsibility, licensing and business models.

From a commercial point of view, the sustainability of many of the applications in the contest is doubtful. Creating proof of concept apps for the data is a more than a good start, but it is by no means enough. The real need is for open but comprehensive systems where open data is a given. That data needs to be technically excellent and fully engrained in the fabric of our information society so that everybody can use it to enrich their app/site/discourse. Data owners and producers need to participate and be accountable for their data to accept feedback from the public both in the specific and in the general case. Such a system cannot be built or be static, but needs to be grown and evolve continuously. The only thing we can do is plant, nurture and weed.

So tonight will be fun, but let that not distract us from the massive amount of work still ahead. We are ready for it. Will you join us?


Upcoming public speaking

Posted: May 17th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Events, Talks | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

The agenda is filling up again just before the summer break. Alper will speak at:

  1. May 24th – Technical review of city dashboard concepts at HvA
    A brief bit of teaching with design and technical critique of city visualization dashboards developed by students.
  2. May 25th – Apps for Amsterdam Awards Night
    Judging and attending the awards for the Amsterdam open data application contest.
  3. May 27th – What Design Can Do
    Presenting an engaged data-centric approach for designers’ benefit (blurb).
  4. Update: May 27th – Participating in an expert meeting on the topic of Cities, Games and Data organized by Virtueel Platform (our entry).
  5. June 6th – Spring Break Stimuleringsfonds voor de Pers
    Going to demo Statlas live for the first time at the congres of the people who funded it.
  6. June 20th – Expertisedag Journalistiek
    Giving an introduction to data journalism to a large amount of journalists.

And Kars & Alper will be attending the Alice Taylor lunch lecture this Thursday in Hilversum. Talk to us at any of these events if you are present.


Hack de Overheid

Posted: February 28th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Events | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

Our Alper has joined the board of Hack de Overheid a Dutch think tank that creates software and events to advance thinking about transparent government and open data in the Netherlands. Actually more of a do tank in that respect.

Each year Hack de Overheid holds a developer day where civically inclined programmers gather to exchange knowledge and create new open data projects either with government’s consent or without.

This year the devcamp is part of a broader program along with an application contest for local data and local applications in the city of Amsterdam called Apps for Amsterdam. There is a lot of momentum and it looks like open data is finally being taken seriously.

Until the event, updates here may be a bit sparse, but do register for the March 12th event if you have any interest in data and let’s create something great together.