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?”
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?