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Government app developers team up at Shoreditch hackathon

Intelligence agencies, Met Office and GDS show up

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Software engineers and developers from across government teamed up at a one day hackathon in Shoreditch, East London, today in an effort to build new web and mobile applications that could be rolled out to the public.

The “Public Sector Hackathon”, held by database provider MongoDB and cloud hosting firm Rackspace, attracted approximately 80 IT workers from the UK intelligence agencies, the Environment Agency, Government Digital Services (GDS), The Ministry of Justice, The Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and several other government departments. 

Working in teams of five or six, the attendees aimed to use government data and MongoDB’s open-source NoSQL database platform to quickly build new applications that could benefit UK citizens and various government departments.

Matt Barker, head of public sector at MongoDB and hackathon organiser, told Techworld that the event is a good way to bring together developers from across government.

“There’s more of a feeling that people want to work more closely together between organisations rather than just within individual organisations,” he said at MongoDB’s UK headquarters near Old Street’s “Silicon Roundabout”. “A lot of them are starting to open data up and use data sets they may not have had the chance to explore within their department so we thought we’d facilitate that."

Prior to the hackathon, the website was set up as a portal to allow developers to outline the projects they wanted to work on during the day and give people the chance to choose the team they wanted to be a part of.

The National Archives teamed up with Ordnance Survey, Great Britain's national mapping authority, and “a couple of other agencies” that could not be named, in order to plot and identify the parts of WWI battlefields that witnessed the most fatalities.

Meanwhile, the Environment Agency also teamed up with Ordnance Survey in a bid to plot potholes on London’s roads and build an app, called Spotholes, that allows the public to report the location of potentially hazardous potholes across the capital.

Elsewhere, Armenio Pinto, technical team leader at the Met Office, said he incorporating weather and topographical data into one app that informs home buyers about the flood risk to a particular property. 

Hackathon critics have argued that many of the products and applications built at such events never get taken anywhere.

But Phil Beresford, a software engineer at the Environment Agency said: “I think we can do this in a day. I think we can get something that’s relatively usable. It won’t be polished and it’ll be the ugliest code, but it will be usable."

In order to help promising ideas come to fruition, Rackspace is offering the three best teams free hosting for up to six months after the event so they can "get a domain, host it and work on it."

Rackspace technologist Sean Roberts admitted that some hackathons attract overly ambitious developers who aren’t able to produce anything substantive and are simply in it for themselves in order to get a job or capitalise on the skills that other developers can bring. 

“I think there’s a bit of an advantage here because the people coming into it have real world problems they want to solve," said Roberts. "Everyone here came up with ideas that are really cool using public data or something that can be beneficial back to the people of this country. They’re in a position to take what they do today, bring it back to their department, and say we can do this and grow it.”


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