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Happy One Year Media Suite Anniversary to me!!!

To celebrate, I just popped my Nerd Fest cherry. (I’m guilty of using the term “Nerd Fest” (self-invented) to describe any event where a large group of web developers gather.)

It seems pretty fitting, that almost one year since I joined Media Suite, I spent a full weekend immersed in one of the industry’s most famous events – GovHack. 

Yep! You wouldn’t believe that the writer of Climbing Nerd Mountain would end up volunteering to spend two full days in a windowless room filled with web developers. Yet, on Friday night, I found myself doing just that. Whether or not I contributed anything useful, well…

Me + room of devs

This is the story of one non-technical person’s GovHack experience.

Friday 5pm: We take one last swig of our traditional Friday evening drinks, and leave the Media Suite office in convoy. The Christchurch City Council building will be our base of operations until 5pm Sunday. Having done some fairly extensive research on car-parking options nearby, remortgaged our homes and donated a kidney for a parking pass, we’re all signed in by 6pm.

All competitors are based in one large, windowless room off the main building foyer. The vertical wood panelling and lack of natural light demonstrates how organisers have thoughtfully considered their target market – possibly assuming developers might feel most at home in a larger replica of their mum’s basement? To be fair, it’s the middle of winter so we’re not exactly missing much in terms of weather.

Can we talk about the toilet paper dispensers in CCC bathrooms???

By 7pm, the room has filled up. Devs dressed in polar fleece and various types of outdoorsy gear are huddled around tables, drinking from plastic jugs of Speights, laptops already open. I already feel out of my depth, even though I’m sitting at a table with my own tribe of nerds. I count 7 females in the whole room.

What is GovHack???

If you’re a web development outsider, you may well be wondering why a reputable company such as Media Suite is involved with an event named GovHack. You would not be alone. When I first joined Media Suite last year, the team was fresh from this event and I’ll admit to being slightly horrified (and a little gleeful) that I might have accidentally joined a secret organisation for hackers – like on Die Hard.

GovHack is not like Die Hard 4.0.

Perhaps unfortunately, the truth of GovHack is about as far as you can get from international espionage and cyber crime.

GovHack actually goes like this:

As I have repeatedly explained to friends and family unfamiliar with the industry, “hack” doesn’t always mean “criminal”. It’s a tough one to get your head around if you’ve spent your life watching movies like Die Hard. Hack can also mean inventing something cool, by using something in a creative way – like a lifehack. 

GovHack is an event that asks developers to take sets of data provided by the Government, and use them to create useful tools or products that can benefit society. For example, you might take data about the cost of food in New Zealand, and use it to create an app for budgeting on a low income. You know? So it’s about doing good and generating awesome ideas using government data as the starting point.

So, at GovHack, you turn up, and a huge list of datasets has been provided. Government, local government, and private sponsors have donated prizes. Groups of developers then band together, and using the datasets, try to win some of those prizes by generating the best idea/product/concept etc.

Each prize has a specific goal and set of criteria that must be met by entrants. For example, this year, Selwyn District Council asked developers to build a tool that would help coordinate disaster response efforts.

Competitors pick their categories, find the right data, then put together their idea over the course of the weekend, ready for judging. Each team also has to create a video presentation to explain their idea.

Not sure how I will contribute to such a competition, having no actual development skills, but it seemed like a good idea at the time and no-one from Media Suite tried to dissuade me (possibly because I’m too bossy to be dissuaded of much). 

8am Saturday: The Villas is the only nearby cafe we can find open at this ungodly hour. Being from Media Suite, we are accustomed to a certain standard of living, and none of us is willing to start the day without a proper cup of coffee. Plus, there are barely any developers up at this time of day so the GovHack venue is pretty subdued.

One of our teams has already picked an idea, choosing to work on the disaster response challenge. My team is not so organised. We spend most of the morning talking through concepts, only to circle back to our original idea just before lunch time. It’s good to be thorough, right? Charitable organisations have seen cash donations drop, thanks to our cash-free society, and Westpac has suggested solving this problem.

My team is made up of Andrew (Creative Director), Julia (Front End Developer) and Matt (Developer). They all bring pretty obvious skills to the table, so it’s natural to wonder what the hell I’m contributing, other than scathingly dry feedback and a strong opinion. The video presentation part of the challenge is my sweet spot. Luckily for me, before I left the media, I was given some video production training which gives me the chance to participate usefully – I hope.

Plus, I now know what an API is, so there’s that. APIs come up a lot at GovHack, and I could totally define the crap out of that acronym. To be on the safe side, I decide not to talk to anyone outside our company for the weekend, so no-one will know I am an imposter.

12pm Saturday: We decide to prototype a website/app that allows people to make regular electronic donations to any registered charity. I like the idea of doing some social good with our project. After all, that’s what we’re here for. Plus there’s capacity to use cute puppies in our video.

The afternoon is spent hashing out ideas and starting to work on our design mock-ups and video content. By this time, the room is busy and the ideas are clearly flowing. Whiteboards have gone up, there’s a sea of post-it notes floating around, and the GovHack Mentors are circling the tables offering advice and assistance.

Pizza, the staple food of any developer gathering, arrives early-evening. Work is briefly interrupted.

8am Sunday: Shit is starting to get real. Two full days seemed like heaps of time to pull this thing together, but it’s become apparent that it’ll be tight. I need to split myself between both Media Suite teams to do video production, and our team is under the pump, finishing our concept and getting all the entry information ready.

The room is much quieter today. Heads down, bums up. It’s full on completion mode. There’s a countdown clock on the big screen and more frequent trips being made to the tea and coffee station. The trash can is partially filled with empty energy drink cans and chocolate bar wrappers.

3pm: It’s almost time. One of our teams is getting their video up and the other is in final editing mode. Tempers are getting a bit frayed (mostly mine) and iMovie spontaneously decides to be difficult. Maybe the reason for the windowless room is to stop competitors from hurling their laptops out open windows.

Just as everyone is trying to upload their videos, finished teams begin to watch all the ones uploaded so far. The Wifi starts to crawl and stress levels skyrocket. It’s just a waiting game now, watching the uploading bar crawling up, percentage by percentage.

Intern James: mortified at being called to the front…

5.02pm: The video finally goes through. Our intern, James, basically wins a prize for being the youngest person there – he claims to be 18, but he could pass for a mature 15. His initial red-faced embarrassment at being centre stage is quickly erased when someone hands him a portable speaker as a prize.

Both Media Suite teams are knackered. It doesn’t sound like much, but on top of a full working week, a long weekend in front of computer screens really saps the energy levels. There’s nothing left to do now, except check out the competition’s entries, and wait for the results of the judging.

Someone gives me my first nerdy t-shirt. It has GovHack written on it #allthenerdpower. I plan to wear it in public.

Media Suite’s two teams – Frontline Rescue, and GoodCents.

When I get home, my husband asks: “So, how was it?”

I’ll let you be the judge. Take a look at our video entries below!

Climbing Nerd Mountain

A blog post by the resident non-Nerd, about learning to Nerd. Includes gifs, and no technical jargon.
Abbie Posted by Abbie on 16 December, 2016

Debugging CircleCI builds – 3 tips

Our Europe-based correspondent and senior dev Richie discusses fixing broken things.
Richie Posted by Richie on 27 January, 2017

Making testing great again

Steve the Tester - aka the office Willy Wonka - on why testing is the coolest, and why Media Suite believes it's essential.
Steve Posted by Steve on 21 April, 2017
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