“Developer-esque” relations

It’s not technically my official job, but I do some “developer-esque” relations for the ABC’s Digital Network division. I started doing it because I like it, and it’s been very educational.

To clarify, the phrase  “developer relations” could be interpreted in a couple of ways:

  1. Your company has products or services it sells, and you’re trying to help people in the community to make better use of them, to encourage new users, and to get an idea about future features that people are seeking. The end goal is to get more people using your product, and be happier while they’re doing so.
  2. Your company is trying to be more open about the way it builds things, and to build some community. You’re sharing knowledge about your internal processes and decisions, mistakes you’ve made, and what’s coming up in the future. The end goal is to let people find out more about your environment, get people interested in the products you build, exchange ideas, and perhaps even entice some future employees to join you.

My “developer-esque” relations work at the ABC falls firmly in the second camp, and it includes work over the last year such as GovHack 2015, our hackathons, and a new tech talk series we’re starting up. You can sign up here! The first talk is on our internal transcoding system, Metro.

I’m also pretty excited about the latest endeavour, the launch of the ABC developer blog developers.digital.abc.net.au 🙂

The ABC has some really interesting products that millions of people use daily. However, when it comes to who, how, or why we build those products, there is zero external visibility. If you were trying to find information about the ABC’s development team, there really wasn’t anything to see. In an age where almost every company has engineering blogs, talks at conferences or events, and has a community presence, we were falling desperately behind.

The lack of information correlates to a difficulty in attracting good candidates. When you have choices, why would you choose the place that you know the least about?

So the theory is that by sharing more, we hope to get more people in the door. I’m pretty excited to be part of that. If you are too, then please join us.

Digital Network Hackathons at the ABC

This post probably needs a bit of context before we dive in: I’m a Senior Developer at the ABC, and I’ve been working there almost a year.

I get to work on products that people use day-to-day, which is great, but I’ve also had the chance to pour effort into things I believe are fantastic for a development team: driving the ABC’s involvement in GovHack 2015, efforts in diversity, and the best part… not just one, but two internal hackathons to drum up some inspiration and build communication links within the division.

On the roadmap is an ABC Development blog, with contributions from various developers in the team. Unfortunately it hasn’t got off the ground yet 🙂 The blog would be perfect to talk about these hackathons, but since that space doesn’t exist yet, I’m doing so here.

Background

Earlier this year, the ABC was undergoing a restructure of all its digital teams into a single Digital Network division. With the restructure, we really wanted to help bring together separate teams – who often sit on separate floors, and rarely get to interact – around a fun event.

Our main aims were to introduce people to others, and foster new communities within the dev team. It was also a great chance to let people flex their creativity muscles, and build prototypes for future products or features.

Our Challenges

The ABC has a lot of developers with different technology backgrounds, and we wanted to ensure that everyone had a fair opportunity to join a team and build something that interested them.

We also have many colleagues who work interstate. Facilitating teams and introducing everyone to each other was a bit of a puzzle, especially since we wanted to have team formation and idea pitches done before the day.

We’d also never run a hackathon at the ABC before, so we were given the chance to run a small-scale version in March to help us prepare for a larger, two-day event in June.

The First Hackathon

This was a one-day event held at the ABC in Ultimo. We invited 20 people from ABC Innovation (later Digital Network) and gave them 6 hours to build anything they wanted.

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Seven teams produced a variety of hacks, surprisingly all ABC related, and had their demos watched by an audience of around 60 staff.

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We got a lot of great feedback:

  • People really enjoyed meeting and working with others they didn’t know
  • It was fun working on something different
  • It was great getting the chance to build something you’ve wanted to for a while
  • Showing off the hacks to an audience was satisfying

We also learned what to improve for next time:

  • Attendees needed more lead time so they could prepare an appropriate idea, research what data they’d need, and explore what technology they might use to build it
  • Including a wider range of staff such as product managers and more designers would produce more diverse hacks
  • All attendees would benefit from guidance for hack presentations, including sample slides
  • The biggest challenge was team formation, especially considering the next event included interstate staff

The Second Hackathon

Our second event was much larger, with around 70 people hacking over two days at the Powerhouse Museum, just down the road from the ABC – complete with Angry Birds and Minecraft.

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Given more time to hack, and more time to prepare, there was a big improvement in the quality of the hacks compared to the first event. It was also great to have all the teams from interstate mingling together in the same room.

Our main feedback (aside from faster wifi!) was still around team formation: teams had to be composed of people who didn’t work together normally, and were capped at 4 people. If someone hadn’t found a team a week before the hackathon, they would be allocated at random. Given how dispersed people are physically, it favoured people who already worked on the same floor, or knew other people socially. So, there are still things we can improve with this process.

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For more coverage of the second hackathon, there is a complete rundown of the day, including summaries of the projects, photos and winners available on Storify in reverse chronological order. 🙂

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Looking forward to the next one!

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 myschools.edu.au.

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.

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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!