On Hackfest Brisbane and Open Data Competitions

Lord Mayor Graham Quirk at the launch of hack::brisbane

Lord Mayor Graham Quirk at the launch of hack::brisbane

Last weekend saw the official launch of the hack::brisbane competition by the Lord Mayor of Brisbane, Graham Quirk during the one day Hackfest Brisbane mini competition.

Both competitions are based on usage of the 50 recently released data sets from Brisbane City Council under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (CC BY 3.0) open license.

Covering all manner of data, from bus stop locations to eat safe ratings; from CityCycle locations to dog parks.

The hack::Brisbane competition challenges the developer community to help improve Brisbane through the creation of creative new apps, websites or tools that use Brisbane City Council data.

The coveted 'Hack Brisbane' T-Shirt!

Of course, this is not the first council to open its data and sponsor an apps competition, but it’s fairly unique in that it is offering prizes in two catagories for both competitions. An Open Catagory covering any data set and any application; and an Access and Inclusion Catagory for an app or website using Brisbane City Council data that helps make Brisbane a more accessible and inclusive city.

To be considered in this category, the app or website should focus on making facilities and services universally accessible to all residents and visitors – be they people with disability, carers, seniors, people with temporary impairments or parents with young children.

The Hackfest event was supported by NICTA’s e-government cluster and by the gov2qld community of practice, with a  representative from each being on the judging panel for the day, along, of course with a representative from the primary sponsors (and prize, venue and t-shirt provider) Brisbane City Council.

I was fortunate enough to be one of the judges and, like my fellow judges, was amazed by the quality of the entries after just 8 or so hours of programming.

Some of the apps from the day are showcased on the Council website.

The winners were chosen based, amongst other things,  on originality and usefulness to the community with the winning app in the Open Category being an Android app called ‘Brisbane Toilet Finder‘ by Jack Marrows.

Brisbane Toilet Finder is an app that locates the closest public toilet to a person using an Android phone.  The longitude and latitude of each toilet provided by the dataset is used with the geolocation capabilities of Android phones to direct a user to the closest toilet with only one click.

Winning App

image courtesy Brisbane City Council and Jack Marrows

Looking at the UI, it is evident that all of the additional information about a restroom provided by the dataset is shown to the user such as, accessibility and opening hours.  Furthermore, using the Google Street View API it was possible to display a thumbnail picture of the toilet to the user.

The app also allows users to view the average cleanliness of a toilet for a given day and rate it.  The data generated by users rating the public facilities has the potential to be used by the BCC in the future when planning the allocation of resources.  These ratings are stored in the cloud using a webservice built upon Google App Engine.

Finally, users can get direction to the toilet from their current location by a single click.  This was implemented using the Android Google Maps API.

What we loved about the app was it’s simplicity. A number of entries mapped the location of toilets but this one was based on the premise that, at any given location you don’t want (or need) to see all toilets in Brisbane – just the one closest (or the next one if you’re not happy with the rating of this one etc).

The ability to rate the cleanliness of the toilet and the potential for that information to be fed back to council in real-time provided what, for me, is the real benefit to council of opening up dataset- crowd-sourced feedback to help deliver better services to the community.

(Jack also talked about potentially adding QR code reader capability to the app so that Council could attach a QR code to each toilet block making the process of rating a given toilet even easier).

The winner of the Access and Inclusion Category was the ‘Accessible Brisbane’ app by Mike Burns and James Kennon (and also featured on Chanel Ten News that evening!).

Winning Entry Access and Inclusion

image courtesy Brisbane City Council, Mike Burns & James Kennon

Our application, Accessible Brisbane, addresses the fundamental shortcomings of the Access Brisbane database (which, ironically, is its ‘accessibility’). We took the data in the Access Brisbane database, and added a spatial dimension to that data. Then the Accessible Brisbane app puts it in context by giving the user information about accessible venues nearby. Accessible Brisbane also allows the user to quickly and easily contribute new information to the community. Through the Facebook connection, users are motivated to contribute, which addresses the other shortcoming of the Access Brisbane database (ie, the lack of up-to-date data).

The dataset we used was the Access Brisbane database, which we mashed with data from the Google Places API using some matching algorithms that we wrote.

The great thing about this app was it’s focus on building a community to improve the data using existing social networks (Facebook).

You can see more about these apps, and some of the other great entries on Council’s website.

lunch sponsored by Domino's

lunch sponsored by Domino's

Of course there are those who see little long term value in these app competitions – and, to be honest, I might have put myself in that camp a while back. Now I see things differently. Opening up data in this way provides potential for economic benefits through new applications, sites and analysis of multiple data sets being generated within a jurisdiction (we’re now starting to see the latter in the UK).

But for me, the value is far more than that. It’s about fostering and encouraging a culture of innovation in the context of government; it’s about government and the community working together; but mostly, I believe, it provides a way for the resources of the public service to be supplemented by passionate and motivated citizens (even if it’s just providing feedback on the state of a given toilet block!)  in order to deliver even better services for the community.


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