On a sunny but cool Saturday in February, almost thirty people from as far afield as Edinburgh converged on the Meston Building at Aberdeen University to collaborate on some as-yet-undefined hacks of public services.
They came from local businesses, the council, the two local Universities, Northern College and National Archives. They were designers, public servants, business people, company directors, lecturers, mapping specialists and coders. Some were free-lancers, some students and some in full time employment. – but all were motivated, not by money or prizes, but by the desire to make things better.
Our attendees were coerced, cajoled or paid to attend but were simply given a framework within which to self-organise, to collaborate and to share their experience and skills; and each was motivated by a generosity of spirit – something that Aberdeen could learn from, and build on, as it seeks to shrug off its ‘dismal city’ label.
— alice (@stuart_foy) February 7, 2015
This weekend hack, the third that we’ve run under the Code The City (CTC) banner, kicked off as soon as we cracked the entry-code to the kitchen and coffee-making facilities.
We began by trying a new ice-breaker: the CodeTheCity ideation card game. This was initially developed and paper-prototyped by Bruce Scharlau with input from Andrew, Steve and me, as a way of demonstrating the CTC approach to a group of EU visitors, only a few weeks ago. Since then it has been refined, improved and printed by Moo as a card deck which was then taken to Groningen by Andrew Sage to run a series of mini-CTC workshops.
— code the city (@codethecity) February 7, 2015
We had a couple of people who had just dropped by to see what the weekend was all about. While all they saw was the card exercise, they told me that they took away a decent enough appreciation of how we run the hack sessions: idea generation, short sprints, verbal feedback and lots of iterations.
The hack weekend started ‘for real’ mid morning Saturday with five teams forming. Each started by looking at specific challenges and identifying issues which possibly could be tackled, They created some user profiles or storyboards and came back after about half an hour to pitch what they hoped to work on. There was some movement as people drifted from one team to another, and then the teams were off and running with their ideas.
The first – Team #NoTimeFurra (as in no time furra name) were formed around one of the City and Shire Archivists’ suggestion that citizens often needed to prove where they went to school. As it happens, school records can be in one of several places including still in the school building or in the city Archives (or even destroyed – as the school building may now be). This proves a challenge to those seeking their records and an opportunity to provide better signposting.
The second – Team #Clockwise – formed around the original theme of how information on community groups and their activities are maintained and how there could be more effectively managed across multiple websites and systems.
The third – Team #Easy Input – were looking to help Community Centres, and the groups which use them, to manage their activities, and their volunteers, and the easy input of that into a management system.
The fourth – Team #MatchTheCity were building on the MatchTheCity platform built over the first two iterations of Code The City. This time there were looking at extending the functionality to allow individuals to register securely, add an organisation to the database, invite others to join their organisation and to start creating events for that organisation. If time allowed they’d create an API for other teams to use.
— Ian Watt (@watty62) February 7, 2015
The fifth and final group – team #tinFOIlhat (for which name I take full responsibility, historically-speaking) were another team building on previous weekends. In this case there had been an initial attempt in June 2014 to work up a scraper for Aberdeen City Council’s FOI disclosure logs. This had been further developed at the Oct 2014 CTC2. Now the reformed team were looking to get the whole system working: scrapers for multiple sites, OCR-ing of PDFs and Word Docs, a database of text results, and a proper front end search capability. A tall order for one weekend.
No sooner had we started, it seemed than lunch came along, in the shape of another fine spread from the Bread Maker, a social enterprise in Aberdeen employing disabled adults.
The afternoon passed very quickly with all teams working quietly, trying to make the most of the time available to them.
Throughout the weekend we had an Eventifier live wall showing social media posts, photos etc
We had some pizza for tea then broke up in about 7.30. We almost had to throw some of the participants out!
Sunday started with attendees queuing up to get in before we organisers could get there! Public transport into Aberdeen from outlying areas on a Sunday really is very poor. For example the first train from Laurencekirk gets in at 12:37pm!
Once they gained access the teams immediately got down to work. The room was quiet, despite the numbers we had there, as everyone focussed in moving their projects on.
We had another status update during the morning. Most teams were making great progress but some needed a push or a nudge to get them to refocus on what the problem was that they were solving – and to be realistic about what could be done in the time available.
Steve brought out his Minimum Viable Product poster:
Some teams were definitely trying to create the full car rather than get a working skateboard on their first iteration.
Another team had lost some of their key stakeholders ( service users and providers) on day one and so the focus on user need had slipped a little – but overall progress was impressive and energy levels stayed up, assisted by another great lunch.
Afternoon brought the final push. We announced that the final pitches would be done at 3pm – which focussed all minds!
The Final Presentations
And so, at 3pm we started the presentations.
First up were team MatchTheCity who had been working on this for three separate hack weekends. In the meantime, Andrew, the independent Code Fellow working with Aberdeen City Council on their Code For Europe programme, has been building on the functionality month by month.
You can see the working MatchTheCity platform here: http://matchthecity.org
Note: Since the CTC3 weekend, Andrew has added the ability to create new Activities and Sub Activities when creating / editing events from within your own organisation.
Next step is adding a valid date range to events so that they can expire or be one off events.
Next were team EasyInput:
Then we had team NoTimeFurra who had made substantial progress on Sunday, producing a working prototype of a search interface for school records in the City and Shire. It looked like it wouldn’t take much to work this up into a fully-functional system:
Then team Clockwise who, while they’d lost their system owners on day one, had managed to produce meaningful use cases and story boards and who had started on a prototype of how a front end search system could be developed onto an aggregated community information system.
Finally we had team tinFOIlhat.
Just as MatchTheCity had built on previous work, so had tinFOIlhat. Rob, the main coder of the system had been here in October’s CTC2 where he’d refined the original concept. Now we had a broad team of three coders and a designer who had achieved a well-conceived functional system which looks great and is already scraping several councils’ disclosure logs. The system is presently running on Rob’s own hosting but once we agree with him that it can be released I’ll add a link to the functional demo site. This was great work from the whole team:
All projects have uploaded their code to github here: https://github.com/codethecity
CTC3 was an enormous success. We have three well developed systems – one of which, MatchTheCity, is live and developing – and the other two would not take a huge effort to make live.
We had a really dedicated group of volunteers who worked hard and were so motivated throughout the weekend.
We missed having the bloggers that we had at CTC1. They captured that weekend in great detail as a record of the work done and in a way that we couldn’t do without them.
The theme of the weekend was around better use of community information. While we’d had interest from lots of organisations and groups we just didn’t have the system owners and users turn up in sufficient numbers to make that aspect of it work. We did have a couple of library staff attend on Saturday morning but they didn’t stick around which was disappointing given that we had volunteers all weekend who were willing to work on the projects. Without the right input from system owners and users throughout the weekend they had a difficult time testing assumptions, trying concepts and building something that addressed a real-world problem.
But that shouldn’t take away from the achievements of the many who did attend and who gave up so much time for the public good, for which we are really grateful.
There is lots of interest in the CodeTheCity model – from the UK and abroad – and each time we run a session we learn more and refine it further.
We hope to run our next major one in Aberdeen in June. Watch @codethecity for more details.