Becoming a winning team at a hack event

Written by: Chris Compston, ThoughtWorks, 10/03/2014

Overview
National Hack The Government is an annual hack day run by Rewired State, they aim to bring great people together to have fun hacking and building things. Hoping to improve transparency, open data and relationships between the Government and it’s citizens.

Leeds City Council and Leeds Data Mill are at the start of an open data journey, working together to harness the power of data in the city. Open data presents a range of opportunities to the people of Leeds, from gaining a greater understanding of their city to encouraging civic enterprise and moving from a state provider to a state enabler in difficult financial times.

The Challenge
For the weekend hack event the challenges were published a week or so before on the Leeds Data Mill website, ranging from healthcare to property development and all based on two core elements — Leeds and Open Data.

All attendees were give the opportunity to decide which challenge they wanted to undertake and people with like minded aspirations came together, there were varying skill sets but all had one core aim — make Leeds a more culturally relevant place to live.

The challenge stated:

Leeds aspires to be a culturally vibrant city.
The challenge is twofold — how can you create an accurate snapshot of the opportunities available to the Leeds citizens to engage with culture . This includes access to events, exhibitions as well as heritage and sports venues. And secondly, how can we develop a transport service that allows us to access these opportunities in new and flexible ways that isn’t restricted to day-time access.

As an emerging Open Data provider Leeds Data Mill had forty seven data sets, not all relevant to culture but certainly enough to start with. Museum article loans was an instant interest to a couple of people; where did the Leeds City museum send it’s articles of interest? Which museums loaned articles to Leeds museums? This quickly brought about questions of what other products and services were being imported and exported from Leeds.

The Team
Due to this shared interest of import and export of Leeds products and services a team was formed, although small each had a set of skills perfect for the project; The TechThe Project Manager and The Designer.

The Process
It’s usually the case with these things, we’ve just been told about a potential data set — what can we do with it? How should we visualise it? Can we create an end product? What other data sets are there that could help?

This was a new team, no one knew each other and already some great ideas were flying around. Given the short time frame it’s easy to rush forward and try to generate an idea with a final output. This was the case here and it was essential we took a step back, considered the challenge and developed a process to effectively move forward.

Agile Product Design is something I’m already interested in and for this kind of project it’s very effective. You can find more about it here but I’ll quickly sum up the overall idea of the process which would usually happen over a five day period:

• Day 1: Research
• Day 2: Idea generation
• Day 3: Idea formalisation
• Day 4: Rapid prototyping
• Day 5: User testing / Output

This being a weekend long hackathon style event we clearly didn’t have the five days we needed for this, however the process is flexible and we had ten hours and each of these sections could be completed in two hour time boxes.

Research
As the museum loan data set excited us we explored this avenue of interest, we didn’t actually have the data set yet but the potential was still interesting enough for us to pursue.

Running through various ideas, expanding on the loan data we could start tracking all products coming in and our of Leeds, what did the data picture actually look like? Was Leeds an exporting or importing city? How could we highlight this to give a better cultural picture of the city?

All of this was interesting but we had no data sets to back up our ideas, even the museum loan data was of relatively poor quality and lacking quantity. We didn’t want to go down a business strategy route and we still needed to achieve the cultural challenge we’d chosen.

New ideas were being bandied about, we had Yorkshire Water reservoir data which we could have used to provide information to visitors. The data was good but it was still just data that the Yorkshire Water website already held, there was nothing new here — a change of focus was needed.

Idea Generation
We needed to stop thinking about the service looking outwards, it would have been great to provide museums or other attractions with data to entice more users to visit however, could we flip this around and use the data to help the user instead?

There was an idea emerging here, a tool users could access that would provide valuable information about a certain event or exhibition. Of course there are applications and websites that provide this information currently, but there didn’t seem to be something holistic where a user could get a great picture of everything available. Making a decision based not only on a per event or location basis, but taking into account the weather, transport services, customer ratings, current attendance and maybe more.

Idea Formalisation
The idea was coming together and we could use the Leeds Inspired API that was already available through Leeds Data Mill, this provided a reliable data set of events, times and locations of what was going on in Leeds.

However great the data was it appeared already on various websites and we wanted more, we needed the user to make a choice based on more than just what event they wanted to attend.

Weather data, national rail times, bus services and Food Standards Agency ratings data were all readily available. Using these various data sets would give the user a great insight into not only what was going on but what other variants should be taken into account.

What we really wanted to do was to organise the event selection based on attendance, if a certain bar in the city classified itself as “The best bar in Leeds!” but only had four people on a Friday night a user could decide to steer clear. This would be great for people who wanted either a lively atmosphere or something more peaceful.

It would also ensure local events or services provide Leeds Data Mill with live or historic attendance data to provide the app with an accurate picture of what’s popular and what’s not.

Here was a great formula for a web app, we had various data sets to utilise and what we thought was a great idea that people would want to use when visiting or living in Leeds.

Initial user experience concepts were drawn up, the data sets located and worked through into something more useable and specific to Leeds.

Rapid Prototyping
Our small team of three were working well together, the data sets were located and worked on and even more ideas were flooding in. Local taxi details, Trip Advisor ratings, user photostreams, social media check-ins, traffic updates and special offers could all be provided per event or location.

While our presentation was being pulled together the design was becoming something that resembled a real product and the data was all ready to go.

Although our team were working hard it became apparent that to make this product a reality we would need a front-end developer to realise the design and plug in the data that we were aggregating.

We shouted out, along with both Leeds Data Mill and Rewired state, over social media to find someone that could either come into our Leeds base or work remotely on the product. There were a couple of developers that could have potentially helped but with dying WIFI and other interruptions we were unable to secure their services. The team would have to settle with a flat design and an API that had all the data sets we’d located.

User Testing / Output
Desperate to output something tangible for our two days hard work we were left with simply hosting some flat designs, it wasn’t the best outcome we could have wanted but it was the only possibility given the timeframe and team skills.

However, the product looks great, the data is ready to go, now we just need someone to build the web app and we could make this project a reality. We’re hoping there are developers out there that are intrigued by this idea and are interested to build something great.

You can find our final design output here: http://goo.gl/yPW04l

If you’re a developer who wants to get involved then please let me know on@ndxcc, we can provide details and access to the designs and API.

It’s nice to be a winning team
The product we created over the weekend won in the category of “User Focus” and we’re pretty happy with that! We purposefully took a user centered approach to our product and this clearly worked. Hopefully in the future the product will become a reality, in the mean time we’re happy with our success.

Thanks

The weekend event was the first of it’s kind in Leeds and was clearly a success. There were some great ideas put forward from great people that are passionate about Leeds and Open Data.

Thanks go to Leeds Data MillRewired StateMatt BarrettLeanne Buchan and Abhay Adhikari for organising a great event.

Our team consisted of:

• The Project Manager: Yara Ocana
• The Tech: Ross Jones
• The Designer: Chris Compston

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