GovHack 2014

GovHack, held on July 11-13, was a fun experience. It’s been running for many years, but it was the first time I’d been involved, and the format is quite different compared to other hackathons.

Firstly, it’s huge: over a thousand hackers get together in 11 cities around Australia, and the timing is all coordinated so that everyone starts and finishes at the same time, and has access to the same data to play around with.

Secondly, thanks to the help of some really dedicated campaigning by individuals in government, particularly Pia Waugh, there’s a lot of public data that is released which probably wouldn’t see the light of day for years. This year included taxation data, land satellite geo data, a whole collection of images and newspaper articles by the National Archives,  and a load of census data by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, to name a few. The aim is to build something interesting, useful or fun. Details about the data are released around 6 weeks in advance, and a special session is run where the custodians explain the formats, where to find it, and how to access it.

Thirdly, there are actual cash prizes. Lots of them. It pays to be prepared by looking at the data beforehand, and working out what your hack idea might be. Also, the judging is done after the event, and results aren’t announced until weeks later. The public are also encouraged to get in on the act and vote for their favourites.


Contrary to my own advice, I turned up on Friday night with no specific plan, and no team members. I was initially curious about doing some kind of map visualisation of the ABS census data using Leaflet’s Choropleth Map tutorial, but none of the data I was interested in had enough granularity (it only went down to state level, whereas I was hoping for postcode or council data at least).

After some quick introductions, our new found team of Keith Ng, David Ma and myself attempted to build something with the NSW Education and Training statistics, which we thought might be fun to show with school boundaries. Unfortunately, we still hadn’t found the boundary data by Saturday, and had also found most of the statistics already published on

So we went back to the drawing board, and decided to try an animated visualisation of public transport movements over the course of a day in Sydney. There is a video to go with our presentation, and the mandatory project page which also contains voting, and the source.  The hack was also featured in this Tech World article about GovHack (woohoo!)

About our hack:

  • Each red dot represents a scheduled departure of a train, bus, ferry or light rail service.
  • We used Leaflet, MapBox and D3 to animate the dots on the map.
  • The dataset is large, and difficult to animate on a single map, so we cut it down to a subset.
  • Unfortunately, the timing isn’t quite right – the lifetime of each dot is longer than it should be, so as the animation goes on there are more red dots on the M2 (for example) than you’d find in real life. However, they all start at the appropriate time of day.


Other hacks I enjoyed from the NSW set:

  • The data-by-region comparator which utilises the National Map and allows non-technical people to drag excel spreadsheets with Geo data onto the map, and visualise it instantly.  Fantastic idea.
  • Money money money by fellow girl geek @pyko, which uses graphs to show ATO statistics on income by sex and region. There’s a very clear visualisation that female earnings peak in their early 30s, while men continue climbing until their late 40s or early 50s. (hello, missed opportunities to get women back into the workforce!)
  • Time Machine, a mobile app to show you nearby historical artifacts using data from the National Archives. Developed by a team of 4 people that included two people still in high school.
  • Show the Gap, highlighting differences between indigenous Australians and the general population in a number of benchmarks including health and employment. It’s a sobering view. Top marks for a very polished video and a cohesive message.

I also very much enjoyed working in Optiver‘s offices over the weekend. The only really disappointing thing was the number of no-shows in Sydney. There was a lot of people who had spent time organising food, encouraging mentors to attend, and donating time and effort, and it was sad to see that go to waste. Other cities didn’t look like they’d had anywhere near the same rate of dropouts, so I would support having to pay for your own tickets next year!

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