Category Archives: Hack events

What is Accountability Hack 2014?

The details

The event will take place over the weekend of 8-9 November at NAO in Victoria, SW1W 9SP.

Organised by Office of National Statistics (ONS) – Matt Jukes;  National Audit Office (NAO) – Nick Halliday;  and Parliament – Tracy Green.

So are you an armchair auditor? Keen on Parliamentary processes? Use lots of public sector data? Then this is the event for you.

We are also linking the event with Parliament week 14-20 November and we are aiming to run a follow up event at Parliament during that week to show people who were not able to make the weekend what happened. If you are familiar with previous Parly Hacks the Accountability Hack will replace it this year.

Talk about Accountability Hack

Yes – talk, sing, shout about Accountability Hack #AccHack14

There is an Eventbrite page to sign up as a developer or to attend the ‘show and tell’.

There is a Google doc of potential challenges and some ideas for what prizes should be awarded.



Many of you are probably familiar with hack events as explained by this post on the NAO data blog.

I had thought for a long time that it would be worth running a hack event specifically looking at the NAO information and data. However it did occur to me that, based on hacks I have been to in the past, that the following would happen. As soon as we had some developers in the building they would want to go and get some information from Parliament’s website since so much of the NAO’s work is linked to Parliament.

Therefore in January (at Govcamp) when I was talking to Tracy Green at Parliament we were discussing this topic and wondered whether doing a joint event would make the whole process a lot easier. If Parliament were already involved that would make it easier to talk to them about data and what developers might need from them. So a seed was planted.

Similarly after Hack the Government in March I had a similar discussion with Matt Jukes at ONS. The seed was not just planted but was now being watered.

So collectively we thought that because of the way that all three organisations use each others information and data that running a joint event would help us all. It would also make it a bit easier to share the workload and draw upon our own networks of contacts and interested parties.

The result is Accountability Hack 2014. There might be a better name out there so if you can think of it just let me know.



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What I learnt from running an internal hack – or how to make the magic happen

Why run an internal hack?

The idea for an internal hack came partially from talking to a Director who mentioned in passing that it might be good to see what the NAO could do with its own data. Also an auditor had used the phrase data lab in relation to an internal learning event called Learnfest where she wanted to run a session of the Code Club. So I put one and one together and made eleven.

I had a vague feeling that I had heard of internal hacks so I looked on the Rewired State website to find that such things did indeed exist which made me feel a bit better. Though to be honest I was a bit floundering around in the dark. However having been to a fair number of external hack events and having hosted the London centre for Hack the government I was pretty sure what the benefits would be I just needed to convince others.

What were the objectives for the event?

I had a number of objectives.

I knew how great the work of developers can be and I wanted to show audit colleagues the kind of potential that existed to create new applications. This was partially as an eye opening event and also to help highlight were the dividing line might be between what we could create internally and where specialist external developer help might be needed.

I am convinced that the NAO should run an external hack event probably with a number of other organisations and call it an ‘accountability hack’. Running an internal event would help to highlight the potential of such an event.

We were hoping the applications might be created that would generate ideas for new products for the NAO, either internal or externally facing.

Also it might be interesting to see what data the NAO held internally that might either be overlooked or duplicated.

So with these objectives in mind I went off to get hold of the resources for the event and get some colleagues to agree to it being held as part of Learnfest. I think this is called doing paperwork.

How does the magic happen? 

This might be called conjuring something from nothing.

We commissioned Rewired State to provide some high calibre developers based on them knowing what we were trying to achieve. These were:

Stephen Reid @wordsandwriting

Max Shelley @maxshelley

Giuseppe Sollazzo @puntofisso

Anders Fischer @atleastimtrying

After that I was on my own as I was not given a manual saving ‘How to run an internal hack’. So I rather made it up and used my intuition.

It occurred to me that we definitely needed some challenges to aim at during the event. Therefore in the few weeks before the event I started talking to audit colleagues of a more geeky frame of mind to see if they had anything that we could help with. Bit by bit as I spoke to people I started to draw up a list of potential ideas and the associated data that we might need. One idea from a colleague was to look at NAO travel data and see if it showed anything useful, for example how often auditors do travel out to visit audit clients. This was such a genius idea that I really started to see how the event might work.

Things started to look even more promising as I was even approached the team running the new data warehouse and asked if we wanted to have access to that? Yes please.

What happened next?

That would be more paperwork. I had to get various security related issues sorted out and laptops available. On the Monday when the developers turned up we had to get them to do more paperwork and have some training. By the time they were all ready to get started it was 2pm and I was a bit worried. Blimey half a day gone already and not a button pressed.

So we started looking at the ideas we had already and what might be possible and worthwhile. I then started to contact more colleagues for the relevant data and chase up more ideas.

Slowly but surely we started to get going and feeling that we were on track. On the Tuesday we were quick off the mark and I started to see code flying across screens and there were more huddles to share ideas and tips.

By the end of Wednesday Stephen had built his Oscar Explorer tool.   By chance a Board member came past and Stephen was able to show him the tool with a great explanation as to what it did and how OSCAR data is presented. In the meantime Max had contributed to an internal presentation to a large group of auditors about some audit metrics data using the barometer tool that he had built.

Stephen left us on Wednesday night to be replaced by Anders who specialises in mapping.

We pushed on and by now there was a regular stream of auditors coming down to clarify what their ideas where and to check progress with the team. On Friday morning we had a get together to work out on what we would focus on so that we could have a nice range of varied items for the ‘shown and tell’ that I had quickly arranged.

The Magic – ba boom!

On the Friday there were a number of events going on in the auditorium (including a talk by Roger Black) behind us which started to generate even more interest. So we ended up showing what had been built to the head of the NAO the C&AG and another member of the leadership team responsible for Digital and Innovation.

At the show and tell there was a nice group of fascinated colleagues looking at the:

  • Oscar Explorer
  • A map of NAO travel data including trains and planes
  • A visualisation of emails that had been sent to local authorities
  • A quick build in Google Drive of a whizzy chart
  • A interactive timeline of audit QA milestones
  • A barometer of various key audit deadlines
  • An interactive expandable diagram of departmental expenditure.

What did we learn?

Its only hard work and preparation that makes the magic happen and great developers of course who worked as a team to create some fabulous  products

Data quality – not a surprise – we picked up some gaps and areas for improvement

That there is a real internal appetite for innovation and that colleagues have great ideas that blossom given the space.

Ideas for future actions such as how to improve the data warehouse; that travel data from clients might be worth analysing.


Despite my worries on the Monday by the Friday evening we had made some magic.

Closing credits

Thanks to everyone involved which included:

  • the Business Intelligence team – for access to the data warehouse
  • Finance team – for providing the travel data
  • HR – for the security checks
  • IT – for the laptops and related training; and the anonymised email data
  • Learnfest colleagues who promoted the show and tell
  • all the auditors who contributed ideas and turned up for the show and tell
  • Rewired State and Matthew Applegate
  • and of course the developers




Filed under Hack events, Rewired State

What I learnt from hosting National Hack the Government in London 8-9 March 2014 #NHTG14

In a moment of rashness I suggested to the Rewired State team that the NAO might be able to host the London part of National Hack the Government. I think that I had a rush of blood to my head.

Anyway they were struggling to find a venue and I knew we had a great one so it seemed a ‘perfect’ match.

I then realised what this really meant. That is having a foolproof wifi; persuading senior colleagues (and the press office) that ‘hacking’ was actually good; and having the building properly open at the weekend.

So my journey began.

After some travails I was able to get internal senior agreement to go ahead which was to their credit since as the auditor of government linking the NAO with an event called Hack the Government could be seen as provocative.

Also, despite an originally daunting list of requirements from the facilities area when it came down to it they were brilliant and extremely helpful. So for example the cleaners came in on the Sunday morning to give the place a once over.

That just left the IT side who again were outstanding with a network colleague even coming in on the Saturday morning to help with the wifi set up and troubleshooting. We managed to set up a few contingencies which were not needed even when it looked like some of the developers were pulling half the data on the internet into the building. The knowledge that we gained from doing this will help improve our ability to host tech events.

However the best bit was having to sleep overnight in the building it gives you a whole new perspective on how long developers work on a project and the variety of sleeping options including chairs, bean bags and desks. At least I got to go running round the Serpentine on a perfect Sunday morning.

So overall a great experience and I am glad we did it. I had a surprising number of people asking how it went and I think that it was a breakthrough for the NAO to host such an event.

This is a rather good video about the event with some great shots of the building.

These are the hacks that were built.

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How to hack Parliament

Hacking Parliament might sound a bit drastic so I had better explain.

I mean hacking in the software sense (good) of making a new application from existing bits and pieces. Ah. In fact I am referring to the Parlyhack of a few weeks ago that I attended over the weekend of 16-17 November.

Hack events have been around a long time and there are when a group of software developers get together to ‘hack’ existing code, data and whatever they can find create new potentially valuable applications. It’s a kind of creative brainstorming for developers.

For example there is an annual event called Devfort where a group of developers spend a week of their own time (yes, they pay for themselves) locked away on an island creating a new website or application like this site of Nasa transcripts (spacelog) which is rather fab – take a look at Apollo 13 and see what was really said to Huston.

So what is Parlyhack then?

For the last three years the head of online services at Parliament has arranged a hack weekend where developers either work with either existing Parliamentary data or some new data is made available for the weekend.

The developers then hunker down for a day and a half to see what they can build. The results can be wacky, weird and wonderful. Here is a bit of background from Rewired state who often run these events.

So for example one of the best hacks was called Metabill which linked together data from Hansard and to show as much information as possible on a particular piece of legislation. Another app would send a daily email with a short profile of an MP, the messages being send in alphabetical order. Again all the data was copied ‘scraped’ from the Parliament website. And there were many others inventive hacks.

Ok so what is the point?

Well the point is that the event is used by Parliament to get ideas as to what kind of content and in what format the outside world might find useful. It can help highlight uses for content that had not orginally be considered by its creators. Its a hypercharged review of Parliament’s online content. Often developers say, if only you had formatted x differently we could have done something much better; or y was missing; you have too many pdfs. Etc.

So what happens after Parlyhack?

The head of online goes back to her colleagues who produce content and can suggest potential improvements to how they produce it. She also has a innovation fund to try and kickstart some of these useful changes which in the longer run will probably help all their users.

So this is how ‘hacking’ Parliament can be a force for the good and who would have thought that?

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