What the hack? 3

It seems that barely a week goes by without some organisation (frequently linked to the public sector or an NGO) running a hack to address the challenges of poverty, the environment, sanitation, digital inclusion, unjoined up government, weather, using open data, etc etc and of course most recently flooding. Its hack this, hack that or as I would crudely put it “what the hack?”

What the hack s that? Thx to https://www.flickr.com/photos/vissago/

I have been wondering whether there are any tangible outcomes from these hacks and who benefits?

In case you haven’t attended a hack it may look something like this:

  • The organiser provides a venue and some food (pizza and beer is very popular)
  • Many hacks take place over a weekend because the hackers have day jobs
  • People self organise into teams
  • The organiser and/or their partners may provide some domain specific data. This may be truly OpenData or it may be restricted for use in the hack.
  • The organisers and their partners identify some challenges or problem statements that they believe some digital activity will help to address. Sometimes these challenges may even come from the ground up but quite often they don’t and the problem statements are dreamed up by the organisers.
  • It is not uncommon for the hackers to come up with ideas as to what they can do with the data that has been provided (or go and find some OpenData independently) without any input from potential users
  • After 2 intensive days of hacking, eating pizza and drinking coke/beer the spontaneous teams that formed present their results and talk about how they might further progress their project after the hack. There may be a prize, there will be a press release.

You will note a tad of cynicism on my part. I am doubtful that anything genuinely significant gets built in a couple of days and little if anything happens after the hack finishes because most hackers are volunteers who have other commitments. This will be a good point for the hack this hack that community to pile in on the comments of this post and prove me wrong, believe me I would be delighted to be proven wrong.

So who benefits and why does there seem to be a hack of some sort almost every weekend? Well hacks are hip, so the organisers can get some good PR from them. In the UK they fit with the Big Society concept – instead of paying people to do a job properly, get some well meaning volunteers to have a go even if they can’t achieve what really needs doing.

“He’s bloody grumpy today” you might be thinking. Yes I am. I fear that the well meaning participants and their sponsors are nibbling at the edges of massive challenges like over a billion people having no sanitation or the impacts of floods (wider than just a recent UK problem) when what is needed is proper problem analysis and understanding and serious solution design which in many cases will not be primarily digital and certainly will not include the gratuitous use of a map just because we can. Is this really the domain of well meaning amateurs working over a weekend?


3 thoughts on “What the hack?

  • John Frankish

    Well after a 7 mile run to think about it…

    I was at the Cardiff NHS Hackday and have blogged on this https://www.wales.nhs.uk/sitesplus/866/page/69768. What is different about NHS Hackday? It brings together software folk, clinicians and patients. Scarcely a bunch of amateurs working over the weekend. These are the three groups of people with the correct expertise to do the job. Just watch a national IT programme build a specification, and watch, as we all did with, oh I don’t know Connect for Health? as the time passed, the bill grew and very little was delivered to justify the expense. Will everything discussed go the whole way, surely not, will some, well yes, we are seeing products delivered. One of my colleagues from Aneurin Bevan University Health Board who was involved in developing a patient self assessment app to support Out of Hours GP services was there and joined a group developing a simple smart tag for cyclists helmes that will allow emergency services to identify key medical information about a cyclist. Genius as far asIi was concerned, a 20th century, pre computer age child of the 70s who can just about manage to type into one of these things. I saw my colleague this week and she had the finished product telling me that it is going into shops. A long way to go to get it out there but this little group was determined to deliver. I saw a half developed system that needed software support (a great bunch of lads from cardiff in fact helped) to enable clinicians to transmit bedside biometric data from BP/P/Temperature/Sa)2 mintors into a clinical system to manage patient acuity better. Again genius. Not a new idea in fact but one that will allow us to develop this for my organisation at a fraction of the cost. We are talking with the team to develop this as a pilot. I trotted back to my organisation on the Monday (actually i was ringing colleagues on the Sunday and they answered which is a mark of their dedication to the cause) and set up the calls. My informatics colleagues responded with an absolute positivity. It is not an easy task, we are not sure if it will work at this time but it is helped by the fact that this would allow us to make patient care safer without a £100k price tag or more per year. In the NHS we have to do these things because unlike 5 or 6 years ago the development money is simply NOT there. (A quick political aside, we are still the 6th largest eceonomy in the world, expending money on our military as the 5th largest spender – according to Mr Cameron in Parliament at PMs Question Time the other week but for health our GDP or even per capita spend according to OECD is more like 12 or 14th in the world.)

    Anne Marie Cunningham is clear that the purpose of NHS Hackday is not to deliver shelf ready product, that would be naive but I saw idea after idea that had legs. They are not the same as big GP systems or clever lab systems, there is a need to think those through in more traditional ways, but there is real opportunity of this approach to add value, particularly to the patient experience with products that relate to their needs. The challenge for me, you and others is to get on board, to nurture this movement, help the slow moving vehicle that manages the NHS to see the benefit and use this event to build a more flexible approach to the development of healthcare applications that can have a real impact (oh that would be unlike the clodding national products we see too often that are not agile or aligned effectively to clinical need). It doesn’t have to cost a fortune. Do you use the NHS? See it as pro bono work, a different kind of contribution to the general benefit of everyone, a 21st century philanthropy, how cool is that? So please blog in support, don’t throttle these things. I don’t mind a healthy enquiring scepticism but really if you weren’t there you won’t really get it. I didn’t, now i do. Let’s put aside the cynicism, an ugly 21st century sit on our hands attitude that allows us gainsay without engagement and get along to the next one.

    • steven


      Thanks for that comprehensive rebuttal of my somewhat flippant and cynical critique of hack events.

      Clearly the hack that you attended had the mix of participants to articulate some meaningful challenges and to make a start in addressing some. Well done to everyone. I wonder if your experience better reflects the generality of hacks than my observations? It would be great if participants and organisers of some other hacks pitched in to this discussion.



  • Barry R

    I think its very rare for a hack to achieve something on the day, from scratch to product. In fact I’d say it never happens. But that’s not the point, and anyone who thinks that can happen, especially when the problem is large, is deluding themselves.

    So what does happen? I see it as a social event (and I don’t just been post-hack evening beers). You could probably get 90% of the benefits of a hack day if you banned anyone from touching a computer all weekend. It widens your horizons, and its refreshing to be in a room with 50 people when your usual habitat is just you in an office. It encourages focus, but focus within an environment where you are freed from the usual work activity.

    What surprised me at the NHS Hack Day I went to last year was how quick people were to start churning out the curly brackets. The pitches had been done, and two minutes later it seemed most of the groups were pecking away at their laptops. I was expecting much more flipchart action before anyone started coding (although they could have been writing stuff together on a shared hackpad). I suspect the problems were already well understood, and maybe the apps were half-written.

    Want some counterexamples of products from hack days? Okay, here’s two from NHS Hack Days last year:



    Neither of these were constructed from zero at the hack day – most of the problem analysis had already been done because the prime movers on both those projects were people who needed the solution to the problem. The problem was understood.

    What they needed was a couple of days, with maybe a Javascript expert, a database person, and a logo designer to kickstart things off. Both those projects continued development after the hack day. Both are nicely usable.

    Small solutions to small problems should be the point of hack days. I saw groups at the NHS Hack Day who aimed high and spent all weekend just trying to get their database schema right. I hope organisers understand this and don’t think you can pump all the water out of Somerset with an iPad app, although an iPad taped to a stick does make a handy oar.

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