Freesteel Blog » What a long sleepless trip that was

What a long sleepless trip that was

Monday, June 18th, 2007 at 4:29 pm Written by:

I still don’t understand what this wacky Hackday London 2007 incident was. It probably got off the drawing board because something had to. We didn’t see what the other ideas were. This one — whatever it was — was well-executed. A couple of large corporations, such as the BBC and Yahoo, organized Alexandra Palace as the venue. After getting struck by lighting (causing all the hydraulically operated roof vents to spontaneously creak open for the rain to pour in) and the wireless access being on the blink for the first six hours, things settled down for a long haul. Here’s me with one of the few painted laptops.

Francis collected a couple of people who are design experts and they began licking my low-tech backup UN website into shape. I’ve all but given up trying to persuade people of my ideas; it’s far better to show them so I can be sure they’ve seen it, after which it’s fine to throw them away assured that rejection is not due my communication skills. Nothing pisses me off more than believing I’ve got a good idea and being sure that it’s failing because nobody has bothered to understand it yet.

Meanwhile on another table a back-up team was loading the same parsed UN data in a sort of Ruby on Rails set-up with databases and other high highfalutin informational machinery like that. They should have instead been knocking together a mash-up between the the names of the top-40 singles tagged with flickrgrams of fluffy bunnies geomapped to Yahoo mud fields if they wanted to win a prize.

There’s been a question about whether a low-tech or high-tech ways of making these websites is better. I can easily prove that the low-tech way without the use of special content management systems or fancy databases is not difficult. What really matters is how much work a person is willing to do, because whatever way they do it is going to be the most successful.

My guess is that the discipline of Parliamentary Informatics is more specialized than we realize. There should be some high-tech tools that just gets it out there as soon as you have a body of structured data, but there isn’t. At the moment it takes about the same amount of effort to kick one of the general-purpose special-skilled applications (which may not be as general-purpose as we think they are) across into this area as it does to construct a whole system from the bottom up using basic building blocks. At some point someone with the total grasp of the problem might be able to come up with a complete framework that can apply to all Parliaments, and then the right answer will be obvious. But nothing is there yet.

One thing is clear: the parsers that convert the government information into a structured form can’t use high level tools such as HTML readers and so forth. The quality of the data is just too poor. Anything less brutal than treating it as ascii text and hacking it with a large number of RegEx processes will always be defeated. The data comes from broken systems and is validated by the fact that it looks acceptable when printed on paper and distributed to all the officials before quickly becoming yesterday’s news.

There was some kind of nice sounding mood music in the hall late at night. I think it was that which kept me up for the whole time without ever feeling like laying down. I hacked in one of Francis’s ideas that I knew wasn’t going to be any good as it was the only I could demonstrate it was so, by proving that my opinion was not based on plain laziness. The idea is as follows.

In the Assembly they tend to have several short discussions on numbered topics during each day. They might return to these topics on other days. If you put each discussion during the day onto a separate piece of paper you can arrange them into a huge grid where the columns are the days, and the rows are the topics. There are a lot of gaps in this grid because not every topic is discussed each day. You can choose either to read what was discussed on the day by sliding together everything in a single column — if you happen to want to read lots of different stories thrown together. Or you could look at one discussion in place and flip it by bringing together everything along the same row into a single document. Then you are seeing everything all on one subject.

The idea is abstract and elegant, and the main reason why it’s no good is that if you were to come to one paragraph, say from a search engine, you’ve got two alternative document embeddings for this paragraph. I think we’re going to do it with separate pages for each discussion (not my best choice), with side-panels containing separate lists of links that represented the discussions within the alternate embeddings. I don’t like getting too far from the original documents because you lose track of the fact that they exist.

On Sunday afternoon we got our 90 seconds of fame. Out of 74 hacks to showcase on the big stage, we were scheduled at number 6 (I wish I had some footage of Francis beginning with: “Everybody who likes the United Nations raise a cheer!”)

Then I dozed, was too stupid to understand any of the other hacks, and basked in the indifference that was accordingly accorded to our project.

For all the day-dreaming we did at the start of this publicwhip adventure four years ago, it’s really obvious now that we don’t get any money or popularity from this business. It drives my mother berserk. Whilst caving is obviously not going to get her son anywhere in life, I really ought to be getting something which she recognizes as beneficial out of this. Sometimes I’m certain that half the evil corporate capitalists in the world are doing it just to impress their mums.

Look, it’s what you’re born into. In the non-virtual world democracy activists often get beaten up, thrown in jail, or killed. So, suffering an ambient level of indifference, little support, and years of definitely not looking cool among any group on the face of this planet, is getting off lightly.

My mood is almost summed up by the following caving anthem to this tune (with its much sillier words):

We don’t cave for fame or fortune,
We don’t cave for charity,
We just cave for recreation,
And for speleology,


…pothole club
Balls to Oxford Pot-Hole club.

Hmm… I think we’re going to need some enemies if we’re going to get anywhere here.


  • 1. Francis Irving replies at 18th June 2007, 10:36 pm :

    Bah! We get plenty of recognition. But who gets it and in what form is down to personality and marketing.

    So Tom might meet some cabinet minister, and the reason he is able to do that is ultimately (in significant part) because of what you’ve done. Of course, the cabinet minister doesn’t understand that, but I know Tom does.

    I’m quite pleased we got as many as 4 or 5 new people interested, enthusiastic and doing stuff for the UN site at the weekend.

  • 2. Australian first year stu&hellip replies at 19th June 2007, 3:18 am :

    […] alf the evil corporate capitalists in the world are … …Sportzia More Hannah Levin will be hosting The Cave Singers […]

  • 3. Martin Owen replies at 19th June 2007, 12:12 pm :

    Here’s some recognition for you from Craig Smith at O’ReillyGMT:

    “Special mention goes to [snip a few other mentions out] UNDemocracy – a They Work For You for the United Nations – which was my personal favourite, and which for my money has the most immediate practical use.”

    Full article here:

  • 4. Alexandre Rafalovitch replies at 19th June 2007, 2:14 pm :

    About common parliamentary system: have you seen and more specifically ? They are trying to build one from scratch and have universities as well as governments (and UN itself) working on it.

  • 5. Matt Locke replies at 20th June 2007, 8:36 am :

    Hi Julian,

    As one of the judges, believe me, you got a *lot* of attention and recognition. Hackday wasn’t about the prizes *at all* – it was about getting a community of people together who share ideas and passions, and giving them space and time to share them. It was about the 2 days of informal chat and collaboration, not the last 30 mins of prizes. We had a list of about 20 things that we wanted to give prizes to (including UnDemocracy), some of them whimiscal, some of them deadly serious and potentially world-changing.

    Apologies for the fact you didn’t get a prize, but I hope that the weekend was useful in ways that will prove a lot more valuable than an iPod Nano and the chance to shake David Filo’s hand…

  • 6. Freesteel&hellip replies at 21st June 2008, 12:50 am :

    […] building it from the ground up in raw python, I got something ready in time to show to people at hackday last year. (Note: I’m staying up to catch a bus to the equivalent event this year, which […]

  • 7. Freesteel&hellip replies at 23rd June 2008, 10:44 am :

    […] hack-day (called mashed) in Alexandra Palace was served. (Last year’s event is written up here.) I had plenty of sleep on the night, lying across three triangular bean bags. It was the night […]

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