Freesteel Blog » How hackday was not mashed

How hackday was not mashed

Monday, June 23rd, 2008 at 10:44 am Written by:

And so another entirely inexplicable 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 before that was the problem, with the insane plan posted up on their event website of a bus pick-up from Liverpool at 3:15 in the morning, intending to reach London by 9am.

This seemed so incredibly stupid I had to go for it.

Unfortunately, the BBC had contracted out the booking of attendees (for its free 24 hour hacking convention) to a (sub)standard commercial package which didn’t collect people’s emails, mobile phone numbers, or give out reminder notices the day before to confirm to everyone that it really was going forwards on the specified times. According to the strict laws of economics, if the punters don’t show up after they have paid for their ticket, it’s a good thing, so why build helpful features for attendees into a commercial event-booking package?

I identified the bus on Lime Street, Liverpool at around 3:30am (I believe I was the only sober person in the surprisingly busy streets at the time), got on, and tried to make myself comfortable with the limited leg-room while resolutely ignoring the fact that the bus continued to remain parked for another 40 minutes with its engine running. I think I dozed off shortly after it finally moved on.

When I woke up it was daylight and the bus was parked in a back alley somewhere with its engine off — probably for the driver to take his statutory break off work or something, I thought. I tried not to be too concerned that the bus appeared empty, apart from me.

The driver was concerned. He was outside on the pavement complaining on his mobile phone, trying to find out why he only had one party on the bus for a weekend trip all the way down to London.

We were in Manchester behind the Oxford Road BBC building and it was 5:45am.

There was something on his job sheet about changed appointments (which explained why he’d spent so long uselessly parked in Liverpool), and those who were in Manchester at 4am were there when there was no bus. There had been no communication to or from these people — whoever there were — and no attempt to detect or rectify mistakes as they were occurring. The BBC guy, who was on the driver’s phone when he handed it to me, said there should have been about 20 people. Also, nobody could explain how I’d managed to catch the bus. Logically, everyone ought to miss it when there is a cock-up of this scale.

“I’ll catch the train,” I said. The BBC guy said, “You’re free to do so, but you have to understand that you’ll be on your own. We will pay for your ticket when you get here.” — Not.

Though contractually it could have been carried forwards, I considered the option of going all the way down to London on an empty bus more extreme than that taxi offer we once had in Esbjerg.

And I don’t see why the whole transport thing wasn’t being done on the train anyway, instead of a bus, other than as a result of the legendary dire crapness of the UK train fare system. In other places there’s such a thing as a group ticket to overcome the rip-off experienced when more than 5 people travel together on the same route and it becomes 90% cheaper to charter a crappy road vehicle, in spite of the fact that there’s plenty of room on the trains at 5 in the morning. In all other businesses there are hefty discounts for bulk-buying and wholesale. So it goes.

And so, in London, I met Dan, formerly of the CADCAM industry, whom I had insisted come over on the 4am bus from Bristol (which did exist), so I’d have someone to talk to. My plans of distributing a general-purpose, simple-to-use, fit-for-the-job parsing and mash-up database (the metroscope) rapidly deflated due to patent lack of interest, so I spent a day and a night teaching Dan about urllib, regexps, and how to scrape and parse the June 2008 Merseyside Police Helicopter flight page (chosen as an easy exercise), followed by uploading the records into my fit and general feature-complete but too-ugly-for-cool-people-to-be-seen-dead-near metroscope database on which I had suspended development exactly two weeks ago.

RP rolled in late in the afternoon, drank some beer for his hang-over cure, and began to write a screen-scraper for some other source of government data. He decided it was better to upload the structured data to his own version of the metroscope, written in PHP, designed incompatibly, and which he had begun work on exactly two weeks ago but didn’t complete due to time constraints that he had been aware of for at least the past week. As such, it was not possible to mash-up any of his scraped data on a map of the country in the time available, because no one had prepared a downstream webpage to render such images beforehand — as had been done for data in the metroscope. But that’s just the brilliance of building on top other people’s hard efforts and componentized systems, instead of just throwing it all away sight unseen, isn’t it!?

Late in the night I began building my unrolling-titles metroscope-front-end. Dan began work on scraping the missing person’s database, but by the morning there clearly wasn’t anywhere for this to go. I suggested Dan go chat with people at the other tables. Having been so long in the CADCAM industry where the companies are (a) highly secretive about what their programmers are doing, and (b) appear to express bugger-all curiosity for what their competitor’s programmers are doing (thus undermining the reason for (a) other than for the purpose of breeding a culture of sad isolation among their employees), the idea that people on other tables actually wanted you to come over and sit down with them to talk about what they were doing, came as a complete surprise.

A guy with a microphone, who claimed to be a radio reporter, approached me and asked what I was working on. At the time I didn’t really want to talk. I would have wanted to show him, because it’s still important and still no one is interested in it, but I knew he wouldn’t be interested in it. So I made up something about mashing-up the locations of all these poxy police helicopter rides in the middle of the night, and letting people know where they had occurred.

I called Dan back and said we had to make a presentation. We got scheduled in for our 90 seconds of fame in slot 22. My computer broke down the moment I unplugged it. And anyway its 24 hour internet connection had predictably expired and refreshed the lovely dynamic Open Streetmap web-page with a Virgin logo. Luckily, we had prepared some static slides on Dan’s computer. But it was an Ubunto machine and unable to access its external monitor socket. The back-up back-up plan on-stage was for the camerawoman to direct her lens over our shoulders at the computer screen so that the text showed up in blur-o-vision on the big stage projection.

I let out a good healthy rant with a lot of genuine emotion about being kept awake by that f***ing police helicopter above my house at 4 in the morning. To sort this out I was going to run a screen scraper to read the log of pathetic excuses good reasons for being in the sky at that time of night. Our system was going to email everyone in the neighbourhoods affected automatically with a quote of their excuse and include a link to the police force web-page for making complaints.

It didn’t win a prize, or even an honourable mention. All of those freebies and respect went to incomprehensible word-soup TV subtitle unnecessary-OCR translating Lonely Fling-it find-your-favourite-music sound-tracks, again.

Meanwhile, the government has promised to produce a crime map, channel 4 has goes on about its £50 million to spend on things like on-line innovative public tools, and who knows what talent the BBC will report that they have painstakingly discovered and nurtured from across the country?

What all these nutty media corporations don’t see is that what we really need more than anything else is some engaged publicity — preferably in the form of a TV program where the stories are explained to the audience about what is happening in such a way that inspired more people that they could do it. You don’t have to waste your talent programming only what your boss tells you to. There are better things which you know you can do.

The fact that not one radio, TV or newspaper outlet has deemed it worth considering so much as a 10 minute broadcast on — for example — the development of the Open Street Map project is outrageous and completely inexcusable.

Same goes for other unique developments, like mySociety and TheyWorkForYou, whose segment, if ever made, will consist entirely without mentioning Public Whip.

Did I say I was horribly grumpy right now?

Must be the lack of sleep.

Meanwhile, Becka got flooded into the cave she was exploring on Saturday, and didn’t get out till seven hours late, missing the club dinner. I’m glad I wasn’t there to have worried about it.


  • 1. 16 Down » Freesteel&hellip replies at 23rd June 2008, 12:06 pm :

    […] Freesteel: How hackday was not mashed …complaining on his mobile phone, trying to find out why he only had one party on the bus for a weekend trip all the way down to London. […]

  • 2. 2 Static » Blog Arc&hellip replies at 23rd June 2008, 12:12 pm :

    […] Freesteel: How hackday was not mashed Luckily, we had prepared some static slides on Dan’s computer. But it was an Ubunto machine and unable to access its external monitor socket. […]

  • 3. replies at 23rd June 2008, 1:12 pm :

    Mashed 2008…

    An excellent mash-up again at Alexandra Palace this past weekend. Front-end development skills were, perhaps predictably for an event around rapid prototyping, not in demand again, especially my brand of rather flawed Zope3 servers! However, the whole …

  • 4. Alan Connor replies at 23rd June 2008, 1:20 pm :

    Was the radio producer this guy? If so, I think he might be interested in UNDemocracy – will drop him a line.

  • 5. B T Express » How h&hellip replies at 23rd June 2008, 10:58 pm :

    […] How hackday was not mashed Having been so long in the CADCAM industry where the companies are (a) highly secretive about what their programmers are doing, and (b) appear to express bugger-all curiosity for what their competitor’s programmers are doing (thus … […]

  • 6. Chris Heilmann replies at 23rd June 2008, 11:11 pm :

    You do know that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, right?

    For the record, I loved your hack, especially the chance to immediately email the police and thank them for the surveillance. I live in Hackney in London and right now I have a helicopter over my house, too. This happens every few weeks and does get very annoying.

    However, you condemning an whole event (or actually every year it seems) is just unfair and it means you don’t get the idea of it. The prizes are in 90% of the cases given out wrongly, but who cares? The main chance of events like these is to network with people you wouldn’t have met before and build something together. I went up and did a small accessible interface to the audio data of the BBC to ask the audience if they would be interested in a hack event that has this as a goal – make data accessible to people with disabilities with mashups and APIs as the maintainers of the sites will not do that (or get caught up in internal politics). I got a prize for that and a lot of feedback and support from the people at the event. I am happy and I was very unsure about the idea when I went up there. I was also sure that it was all about making pretty mashups and showing impressive interfaces. It is not that way, people do start caring and doing more. There is a need for opening data in easy to digest ways but so far this is only fully acknowledged in the accessibility professionals arena – and a lot of those have no idea about technology.

    Posts like these make it hard to get companies to unearth budgets for this to happen though. If you are grumpy, then be grumpy but don’t spoil it for the rest of us who are still seeing this as a great opportunity to do more than draw a paycheck with our IT skills.

    Also keep your eyes open for other events, like channel4’s 2gether08 and social innovation camp. Or be grumpy, it is your choice.

  • 7. Ian Forrester replies at 24th June 2008, 4:30 am :

    I have to agree with Chris. I also love the hack, I use to live in Woolwich (south east London) sandwich between City Airport and some kind of Base? So it was even more frustrating when some helicopter would fly over for most of the night. If I could have posted somewhere or found out why later, that would have been a great help.

    Just in defense of the prizes and judging. At over the air (April) there was a chance for the people in room to vote for best overall hack. And at hackday (last year) the same using a special camera and special poles. Both took extra time and required a lot of prep and attention. Not ideal when sitting on your ass for 2 hours.

    Prizes are a small part of the whole event, and I know it may seem very frustrating not as such “winning.” But to be honest, its all about the taking part. And who knows who might drop you a email asking to know more about your prototype 🙂


  • 8. Freesteel&hellip replies at 1st July 2008, 7:27 pm :

    […] visit to Pembrokeshire to see my old club UBUC on their annual Skomer trip was delayed by going to Mashed -08 on the weekend of Saturday 21 June, a canceled visit by a friend on Wednesday, and Becka’s […]

  • 9. B T Express » Frees&hellip replies at 2nd July 2008, 6:53 am :

    […] Freesteel: How hackday was not mashed …where the companies are (a) highly secretive about what their programmers are doing, and (b) appear to express bugger-all curiosity for what… […]

  • 10. Garry Bodsworth replies at 2nd July 2008, 11:51 am :

    Hi Julian,

    This just appeared on the BBC News website Government launches data mash-up. Thought his might be right up your street.


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