Mon, 09 Mar 09

Hack the Government Day (Rewired State)

James Darling, Richard Pope and Emma Mulqueeny organised the excellent Rewired State on Saturday (7th March) at the new Guardian offices in Kings Cross. The idea behind rewiredstate was pretty simple (from rewiredstate.org):

Government isn’t very good at computers.
They spend millions to produce mediocre websites, hide away really useful public information and generally get it wrong. Which is a shame.

I had a plan for the day. It’s a plan I’d had for about a year or so and it involved the atrocity that is Active Places (a Sport England funded project). It’s really hard to find information about sports facilities (I was specifically interested in public swimming pools) in the UK. I know this because I’ve tried to find public swimming pools that are either near where I stay (when in London), easily accessible from a station on the commute, or near work. At the moment that involves finding and searching the websites of each of the councils whose boundaries I cross or am near. This is certainly not ideal. It’s more frustrating because the government have this information locked up (the entire site requires cookies so there’s no chance of it appearing in google) in activeplaces. Oh, and there’s another little gem of information: activeplaces cost £5.2 million over three years.

Before the event on Saturday, I spent quite a while scraping the data out of activeplaces. This involved issuing a search for each of the postcode outcodes in England (I thought I had this postcode data for the UK but apparently didn’t) and parsing the search results to get a unique list of sports centres. I could then download the relevant site, and facility (which is in separate pages and displayed through an iframe on the main site page), information for each centre.

On the day I was lucky enough to get help from James Adam, James Andrews and Tom Taylor to work on the active places project. I had a rough plan to geocode the sports facility data we had, parse the downloaded site data to extract the access type of the facility (i.e. private membership or publicly accessible) and create a simple alternative to activeplaces. Tom helped me geocode the data (using graticule and the multimap api), while James Adam parsed the access type and James Andrews worked on the site. The geocoded data made it incredibly easy to produce a KML file of sites that Tom could consume in his excellent I am near service (swimming pools I am near). At the last minute I put together a very simple sinatra webservice that allows for the querying of the activeplaces data (by facility and access type) and returns the data in kml (source). You can plug the url of this kml file directly into google maps or download it and plug it into google earth. All that was left was to present (‘slides’ are on flickr) what we’d done (in just two minutes) and go to the pub.

There was a chap from DirectGov at the event and he mentioned that he was interested in us continuing the work we’d started. I’ve also spoken to someone from London 2012 as it sounds like they’re aiming to do something similar. So, not only was it a great day but there’s a chance that we might be able to help shape some of the stuff that the government plans to work on.