I had heard of GovHack from one of the Morning Startup meetings I like to attend every Wednesday here in Perth.
The West Australian government has been running this competition for several years now to try to promote their new open data policy. The idea is simple, get a bunch of nerds together, give them the data and offer some prizes and see what happens.
Well I turned up on Friday evening not knowing anyone and having no clue what to expect. So I grabbed a beer and started chatting.
Some people were in teams already, some people worked together for a day job but it seemed like there were quite a few other people in the same boat as me, new to it, without a team or project or idea. That made me feel a little better, but I still had no clue what to expect.
After a few short speeches the participants were invited to stand up and pitch their idea. All in all there were about 20 pitches. Some sounded interesting, some sounded really wacky such as one team wanted to use the data to become evil-masterminds. One team even suggested that they were going to correlate the prizes against the data and see which prizes were the best to go for then work out and idea from there.
After the pitches were over, we given 5 stickers to stick posters that had been hastily assembled by the pitchers. I think that the idea of this was to gauge the popularity of the project but im not sure exactly how that affected things in the end.
Also this was apparent the point that you were supposed to be looking to join one of the teams too. I didnt realize this and I spent ages walking around and deliberating while groups of people started separating and disappearing.
The problem was, none of the projects really jumped out at me. The only pitch that grabbed my attention was by a guy that wanted to predict if you are going to win a court case by looking at old case documents, I thought that one sounded pretty interesting but unfortunately I couldn't find him anywhere, and none of the organizers could find him either.
In the end I ended up wandering around for about 30 minutes like a lost lamb as everyone started to form teams. In sheer desperation I started butting into the teams and asking what they were doing and if they needed a developer. After a couple times trying this I was about to give up and go home when I decided to try one more team. These guys were planning on building a app that asked the simple question, should I drive or take public transport to my destination?
I thought this idea seemed simple enough, plus it sounded like something I could help out on, I knew front-end and back-end, had built web and mobile apps before so I signend up.
I think I got really lucky. They turned out to be a truly awesome bunch of people. There were 7 of us in total: Jake, the team leader and front end developer. Cam, the back-end dude with lots of experience with mapping and spacial data. Kim, the data miner and wrangler. Felix, a young but incredibly bright lad who did a bit of everything (including winning the young-and-up-coming guy to watch out for award). James, and his friend Apara who did the super important job of organizing the project and video. And of-course me, who took the role of tooling / data converter / uploader / production / whatever else needed doing.
It was the right mix of skills, ages and experience and over the next 3 days we had a ball. We were asked at one point by one of the VIPs / guests that was walking around how everything was working, who was deciding what needed doing etc.
Well that was a good question. It all just seemed to come together. One of us would say "oh, wouldnt it be cool if it could do X?" then we would all agree and then one person would go off and get the data while others did others set about converting it and uploading it.
We were told to put a lot of effort into the video as that would be the thing the national judges would use to choose who their winners were (national prizes are separate from the local WA prizes and were worth $80k). So right from the start we were scripting and planning the video.
It all kind of came together on the Sunday morning when we filmed it all and produced the following:
I am pretty proud that we were able to not only build a working app that uses the various data sets but were also able to produce the video in the very limited time. Hopefully it conveys the purpose of the app well and maybe also shows you a little bit about the team and how much fun we all had.
We weren't quite done tho as we still had to do a live presentation to a panel of judges. We had 3 minutes to show what we had, then a little more time for questions from the judges.
Personally I felt that this one probably the worst part of the event. There were 20 teams presenting, we were number 14.
We had been told that it was supposed to be 3 minutes long however it seemed like the first 3 or 4 teams were going way way over that, 10-15 minutes each.
For some reason they changed their policy half way through so now you had exactly 3 minutes and were clapped off when the buzzer sounded. It seemed a little unfair to us who werent included in the earlier set of presentations.
Also the presentations were plagued with audio / visual difficulties thanks to the fact that we had to continually plug and unplug laptops. Presentation and demos that worked fine on a 15" laptop looked terrible or didnt work when switched to a projector resolution.
So most teams seemed rushed, unorganized and generally let all their hard work down by failing to properly present what they had done. The judges also probably didnt get a good feel for what the projects were about or what the problem was they were trying to solve.
Some teams simply played their 3 minute video then asked for questions at the end. Personally I think this worked much better as there was much less to go wrong, plus you had already spent a whole bunch of time on the video, you may as well let it do the talking instead of you. I wish we had done this.
Nevertheless our presentation went okay, nothing too major went wrong (apart from from projector issues) but we just didn't have enough time to do the project justice.
After all the presentations, the judges disappeared for 45 minutes while they deliberated, enough time to grab a beer, then the awards started.
There were $35,000 up for grabs in prizes over several different categories. You were supposed to elect which prizes you were going for on your project page, some teams chose to select most if not all of the prizes. We went for 16 of the prizes.
In the end we ended up winning 2 of them including the single largest prize: Main Roads Keep WA Moving Prize of $2,500. In total we won $3,000 between us which was great, not the best but not the worst.
For me tho, it wasn't about the prizes (in fact I didn't even know there was any cash prizes when I entered), it was more about getting out there and meeting other like-minded people who wanted to work together and build something new and cool and perhaps learn a thing or two about the WA data along the way.
I think I succeeded in that modest goal 10 fold and am incredibly grateful to GovHack and my team for letting me be a part of it.