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Brisbane team Futura win Spirit of GovHack Award. Photo courtesy of Cara Walsh/CC BY.

GovHack tests Australia’s access to open data like never before

Nationwide hackathon GovHack saw over 1,200 participants repurpose government data last weekend, pushing the boundaries of both the event and the accessibility of open data.

Over 200 teams competed across 11 Australian satellite locations, with 109 participants creating seventeen submissions in Brisbane alone. The volunteer run, non-profit event is aimed at encouraging public access and understanding of open data, but has germinated plenty of new applications for government data sets.

“It’s just getting people thinking about open data,” Brisbane organiser Anna Gerber says. “GovHack showcases the kinds of amazing things people can do when the data is made open, in just one weekend.

While judging takes several weeks some local awards have been announced, such as Brisbane’s Spirit of GovHack Award going to Futura, which assists in finding specific geological information.

The event started nationally last Friday night, with QUT’s The Cube hosting speakers from local groups and government departments such as BCC Libraries and QLD Museum. Participants then had 48 hours to create original representations of open data, and were spoilt for choice with access to local, state and national government data sets. Additionally, they created videos marketing their products, which can be viewed here.

“Mostly we expect people to produce either apps or data visualisations; they might be as simple as an infographic, you don’t have to be a coder to be part of GovHack,” Ms Gerber says. “Or it could be a mobile app, a web app or something like that.

“Some of the ideas from last year have actually been turned into apps,” she says, citing prototype energy efficiency apps submitted in 2013 and the official Energy Rating app released July 11th. “Instead of doing the five-star, kilowatts-per-hour thing it actually puts it in dollar values, which people can understand over the lifetime of the appliance.”

Competitor Ben Kolera, an iseek Communications developer, was excited to create “a web app, anything we can do with visualisation”.

“We’ve got the good tools to mash some data and really do some crunching and see if we can use it,” he says. “It’s a good opportunity to really get into the data sets and maybe do some good”.

Ms Gerber, a technical project manager with UQ’s eResearch Group, believes open data to be vital, listing reasons such as transparency and the direct benefits it brings to local businesses and communities. Brisbane’s event included data sets ranging from local transport information to voyage archives to 3-D modelling data.

“There’s so much of it,” Ms Gerber says. “Brisbane City Council has provided some amazing data sets…to do with transportation, parks, libraries, and that’s just at the local level.

“At the state level we have an amazing array of science data sets,” she says. “Queensland State Archives have some really great cultural heritage data sets, and the Queensland Museum has released some really awesome 3-D models of things like dinosaur jawbones and things like that.”

The event also highlighted the limits of open data, notably in regards to personal information.

“Obviously you need to de-identify any data you release,” Ms Gerber says. “The sort of data we’re mostly interested is public data that’s not going to affect anyone [specifically].”

“Like climate readings, that’s not private data but sort of large scale non-personal data,” she says. “And in terms of GovHack we actually encourage people to mash up government data with other open data sets; that way we can create interesting crossovers happening [with] private companies, social media, anything like that.

“So long as it’s under an open licence, CCBY, we encourage people to use it.”

The national results will be announced at the Red Carpet Awards in Brisbane August 10th, where finalists will meet with sponsors, organisers and government officials such as Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and QLD Premier Campbell Newman, according to Ms Gerber.

Brisbane Marketing’s Cara Walsh, one of the local organising members, is excited for the potential the Red Carpet Awards has in kickstarting the city’s startup culture.

“So we’re running a Beyond the Hack workshop for the national finalists at River City Labs, because we don’t want the hackathon to be the end, we want it to be the start,” Ms Walsh says. “And there’s only so much you can do in a weekend, but lots of great ideas and concepts come out of it.

“We’re going to have the national finalists flown into Brisbane, and with our local finalists they’re invited to this workshop on assessing their app; ‘is it marketable, should it be commercialised, do you need funding, how to go to market’, she says. “So that basically they can assess whether ‘this is something cool that I did, or something I should invest time in?’

As manager of Brisbane’s digital strategy, Ms Walsh is dedicated to showcasing the city’s digital environment, specifically with visiting entrepreneurs.

“We’re going to have 50-60 coding finalists and say ‘look we have an ecosystem here’,” Ms Walsh says. “‘We have incubators, we have grants programs and support’.”

Both Ms Gerber and Ms Walsh were impressed by the event’s high level of  community contribution, which extended from volunteers to the total $70,000 worth of national prizes donated by sponsors. Equally, the event attracted supportive observers such as Gurwinder Singh, who “works with government data and so [is] curious what developers want to do with it”.

“GovHack is 100% volunteer run,” Ms Walsh says. “It’s quite an undertaking to get the logistics for sponsorships, prizes, meals, etc, so there’s a lot of rallying in the community to chip in.”

“Our sponsors have been absolutely amazing in supporting us,” Ms Gerber says. “We’ve been amazed at the support for open data, from the business community, and the state and council governments.”

About Chris Woods

Chris Woods (@tophermwoods) is the Tech Street Journal's Editor-in-Chief. He lives in Brisbane, has worked in places like Sydney and New York (State of), and will someday update his media-news blog.