21st January 2014 London, UK

FCO data hack day

Open Data is one of the underpinning elements of the Prime Minister’s Transparency Agenda. Open Data is the raw commodity which enables government to release new economic growth and social value and improve public services and accountability.  In the FCO we generate and use a lot of information and we are looking at ways – to unlock the potential of this raw data and harness it in support of our policy objectives; Security, Prosperity and Safeguarding Britons overseas. 

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The Transparency Unit (part of the newly formed Digital Transformation Unit) has been working hard to change that balance. In August 2013 we published a refreshed and updated Open Data Strategy which aligned more closely with the importance of transparency in our foreign policy through the chairmanships of the G8 and the Open Government Partnership and their respective summits. In this we committed the FCO to releasing more data of a higher quality and engaging with data users. 

None of this work is at the expense of protecting information and data that needs to be kept securely for the good of the UK. It is more about being clear what exactly needs to be protected and why so we can focus on doing just that and being more open where we can and releasing any information we can in a way that others can reuse it and build on it. Examples of data we’ve released include the Treaties data base, which contains an entry for every Treaty the UK has been a signatory to since 1834, and details of where our Official Development Assistance (aid) projects.

Releasing data is only half the story though – it needs to be used and the first step in doing this was holding a hack day* facilitated by Rewired State. This was open to a mix of developers off all ages and backgrounds and ran over the weekend of 18 and 19 January 2013. After over a year in the planning it was with excitement that we set the challenges for the weekend, asking the attendees to use data FCO has released along with other publicly available data to develop “stuff” in the categories :

  • The best app for Britons abroad/travelling
  • The best app for British businesses overseas
  • The best app showing the value of diplomacy
  • And a wildcard – given the vast amount of data, what can you do with it?

After two days of intense and animated discussions and frenetic keyboard tapping by over twenty developers heavily fuelled by caffeine and sugary sweets the event culminated in the survivors demonstrating their creations for the judges at a show and tell on Sunday afternoon.  There were some excellent ideas – from using individuals tweets to send them targeted travel information to a website enabling you to learn the language of the country you’re visiting as you plan your trip which you can read about hacks.rewiredstate.org .

The winning entries were:

  • FCO Alerts – an android application providing customizable alerts from the FCO travel alert webpage  (available now play.google.com)
  • TINATAPI – an API with information useful to travelers such as areas of risk, travel alerts, human rights info and more
  • Relations Tracker  – a heatmap for analyzing the international relations of the UK using weightings of data such as Treaties signed, Membership of International Communities  and trade levels
  • FCO Data On the Operating Table – an analysis of the data provided by the FCO – to a certain degree painful to watch but very constructive analysis of what we need to do to improve the quality of our data and what other data would be useful to developers to have.   

It was a great event which everyone involved seemed to enjoy, showed that FCO has data which is useful and can be built from and sparked off a lot of ideas about FCO can better manage and use data to further our core objectives and release the economic and social value of the data and information we work with. Oh and made some pretty cool, useful stuff.

See our storify of the day.

*A hack day is a competitive event where a group of developers are brought to the same location and given a set of data, a challenge, an idea or a theme.  From 24-48 hours they undertake an intensive piece of research and programming resulting in working software.


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2 comments on “FCO data hack day

  1. Thanks for doing this – it was a lot of fun and there were some interesting data sets available!

    We built Tinatapi and (as with hackdays that have gone before) have decided to keep it going and see what other useful country specific data we can include from external sources.

    Although amount of information is available online, very little of it is provided in a format that’s easy to reuse programatically (i.e. for building applications or performing analysis).

    As well as reviewing and improving the existing data http://api.tinata.co.uk has been expanded to fill in the gaps in the current gov.uk API access, so that the travel advice (both general and specific to things like health, money, safety etc) is included.

    Hopefully FCO HACK will happen again in future and next time a lot of the grunt work will be in place to make it a lot easier for participants – allowing people to spend more time on creating interesting things. 🙂

    I hope too that the FCO is able to reflect on what other interesting data (like the Treaty information) it no doubt has that it would be able to release for reuse to build interesting things – include data it has already published in summary form but perhaps could provide in a different format that would make it easier to use.

    1. Following up my own post by noting that it turned out all the current travel info was in fact already available on older /api/ URL’s (as GOV.UK has been moving away from them I forgot to look for them under there!)

      Would add again the information released on an ongoing basis by FCO – and the permissive terms under which it’s licensed – is super useful, especially the stuff provided in JSON. Thanks again!

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