Camping without the tents: UK GovCamp 2012

I spent Friday and Saturday in London at UK GovCamp 2012, or #UKGC12 as it’s known on Twitter. It was an “unconference” with no prepared agenda. If you aren’t familiar with unconferences, Steph Gray gives a good description in his November 2011 article in The Guardian. It amazes me that so many people are willing to give up large chunks of their weekend for this kind of thing, sometimes travelling all the way from the other end of the country. Many also pay for their own travel and accommodation.

I’m relatively new to GovCamp and LocalGovCamp – my first camp was only last year – but I was immediately hooked. It’s absolutely brilliant to exchange ideas with so many interesting people. There’s also a practical side, and campers often leave with solutions to  problems they’ve been grappling with.

Queuing to suggest topics for UKGC12
Queuing to suggest topics for UKGC12

On this occasion, Microsoft provided the venue, and the other sponsors  picked up the tab for food and refreshments; they even put money behind the bar in local pubs on both evenings.

A vast amount of knowledge was shared over the two days which I’m not going to try and summarise here. Besides which, there’s for that.

For my #weeklyblogclub post this week, here are a few of my favourite bits from the two days. I will probably blog about some other favourites when I get time.

Notable stuff from some of the sessions I attended:

  • Introductions

    • On Friday, more than 200 people introduced themselves in less than half an hour, saying who they were, where they were from, and why they were there.
    • There weren’t quite as many present on Saturday, which I preferred as it felt less daunting.
    • I thought the most telling intro comment was: “I want to be with people who are actually interested for a change.”
  • Mobile-friendly WordPress led by Terence Eden:

    • Lots of people access the web using their mobile ‘phone. 50% of new phones being bought NOW are not smartphones, and most contracts are a minimum of 18 months.
    • We MUST publish web sites which are mobile-friendly.
    • Actions for me:
      • To make my own blog mobile-friendly I need to install a plug-in
      • But I can’t install plug-ins on my current web version of WordPress.
      • I need to get my blog hosted so I can install WordPress on my desktop
    • Terence Eden has lots more tips on his blog:
  • Open data as a ‘business model’ led by John Sheridan

    • Birmingham civic dashboard via Simon Whitehouse is a great example of open data serving a useful purpose.
    • Redbridge Datashare is a good example of a local government open data ‘vehicle’
    • Most memorable comment about CSV as a format for open data: “I know its not as useful, but it’s what I can use”
    • via John Sheridan is free to use, and has a technical API. John advocates releasing an API as a way to engage with businesses and developers
    • Chris Taggart’s advice to a small housing association when asked what’s in it for them: sharing data with others will give you a critical mass, enabling you to also benefit from their data.
    • There was a bit of discussion about whether ‘business model’ was the best term to use – someone suggested ‘service model’ as an alternative
    • Billions are being spent on rail as an essential piece of strategic national infrastructure. Compare this with the tens of millions that would cost to sort out the issue of data derived from Ordnance Survey, which is a significant obstacle to publication of open data by public sector organisations.
    • Catherine Howe – we won’t grown economically without having the data to leverage. Existing business models are being disrupted, but we aren’t providing the environment in which their replacements will arise
    • Chris Taggart – biggest data owners in the world are the social networking companies. Either open data or massively closed data – big companies can afford to buy up others
    • Me – perhaps open data can be likened to the air we breathe.  It’s available for free, but it’s up to individuals what they do with it (climb mountains, run businesses, or watch telly)
    • Group consensus that open data clauses should be ‘baked in’ to contracts and that government should provide standard ‘boiler plate’ text to save lots of organisations from having to make it up themselves

I first met Dan about a year ago. I had taken a busman’s holiday for a couple of days and was on a course with Talis in Birmingham entitled: “Introduction to the web of linked data”. Dan was on the same course. I was ok for about two thirds of it, but struggled when it came to coding and Dan helped me out a bunch of times. It came as no surprise on Friday to learn that Dan had developed a fantastic tool. Here are a few notes I took during his presentation :

    • LinkedGov is a community project siming to make public data more usable
    • There are currently lots of steps involved  converting data to linked data: cleaning, correcting typos, improving access via APIs, improving metadata, using online repositories for facts and figures, using online definitions, and enriching…
    • Dan gave a quick overview of Google Refine, a tool for working with messy data, clean it, transform it, extend it and link it. It’s free, and runs in any browser
    • Some of the terminology used in Google Refine is complicated
    • The LinkedGov extension allows the users to do more for themselves.
    • Typing Wizards prompt users to answer questions:
        • Dates and time
        • Measurements
        • Geo location
        • Addresses
      • Other wizards:
        • Columns to rows
        • Rows to columns
        • Blank values
        • Codes and symbols
    • It’s open source, so people will be able to build their own wizards
    • There’s the potential to develop sector-specific wizards (e.g. just for local gov)
    • Potentially save a history of what you have previously done, and then reapply the same changes to the next batch (could be useful with regular data refreshes)
    • Dan’s presentation on slideshare
    • The hosted version will be made available very soon
  • QR CODES – led by Terence Eden

    QR or ‘Quick Response’ codes are variants on bar codes. Most smartphones now are able to ‘see’ the codes through their camera lens, and a QR Code reader on the ‘phone converts the code into an instruction to do something.
  • There are lots of uses for QR codes, including:
    • Open a web URL i.e. a web page you specify (making sure it’s mobile-friendly of course!)
    • Dial a phone number (make sure it’s in international format i.e. +44)
    • Send an email to an address you specify
    • SMS – send a text message (can include keywords)
    • vCard – electronic version of a business card
    • vCal (goes straight to your calendar e.g. for an event)
    • wifi login (saves attendees at events having to enter wifi user id and password)
My first attempt at a QR code - this leads to the Hampshire Facts and Figures web pages
1st attempt at a QR code with a practical use

I had played with QR codes a while ago and tried embedding an image in a QR code. I tried setting it with a link to the Hampshire’s Facts and Figures web pages and it seemed to scan quite well with my iPhone.

I plucked up the courage to show the group and it didn’t seem to go down too badly, although the page it links to isn’t designed for mobiles. Terence  suggested keeping the code edges straight, and I really should have used black rather than the dark blue I had chosen.

We had a good discussion about creative ways of using QR codes. We looked at a few interesting examples include:

I really hope there’s a full #localgovcamp in the Summer. I’m happy to volunteer to help with arrangements.

In the meantime I’m looking forward to LocalGovCamp North West in Preston on Saturday 4th Feb.

That’s all I’ve got time to post today – sorry to have gone on a bit. I just want to finish by thanking @lesteph @davebriggs and @hadleybeemam, the sponsors, and anyone else involved in organising such a great event.

By Mark Braggins

Walking, usually with my two ex-racing greyhounds. Interested in lots of stuff. Work: Business Development and Research at Drawnalism


  1. Mark

    Thanks for writing this summary. It was not too long for me.
    I’m intrigued by English local government structures, as my parents live in a large district council areas in Hampshire. In Scotland we have unitaries across all the country.
    Someone from the district has been writing about their starting commissioning in April, and I wonder whether they would talk to the County.

    Walks – have you ever done the West Highland Way ?


    1. Hi Alex, thanks very much for commenting. I’d forgotten that Scotland has unitaries across the country. I think there’s a lot to say for unitary structure for simplifying decision-making but I don’t profess to have any great expertise in that area. In reality any structure has its pros and cons. In England it tends to be cities that are unitaries. In Hampshire both Portsmouth and Southampton are unitary (as is the Isle of Wight just over the water).

      No, I haven’t done the West Highland Way. In fact, I’ve done hardly any walking in Scotland at all – must change that! Cheers, Mark

  2. Blimey, that’s a memory and a half you’ve got there Mark, cheers.

    Thanks especially for the Linked Gov extension write up. It’s a session I missed ‘cos, well, ‘cos you always end up missing something at these things, don’t you? So, it’s really useful to have the precis and a link to Dan’s slides.

    Looking forward to maybe having the time for a chat at GovCampNW

  3. Thanks for giving such a good summary on some of the sessions that I might have attended if I had been there.
    Why black rather than dark blue? I’ve seen QR codes work that have far less tonal contrast than that. I understand that there can be problems in reading them if the surface is shiny and reflects a lot of light (eg if laminated).

    1. Hi Janet, thanks very much for reading and commenting on this post. I think black just maximises the readibility, but dark blue certainly works. Good point about shiny surfaces – I forgot to mention that .

  4. Hi Simon. Thanks very much. I wish! My memory is actually terrible, so I counter that by taking lots of notes. I can type pretty fast with two fingers and the occasional thumb.

    There were loads of sessions I wish I could have been at. That’s the great thing about loads of people blogging about it – hopefully between the lots of us we’ll have a comprehensive record and also a bunch of different perspectives.

    Would be great to have a proper chat at LocalGovCampNW – love to hear your plans now you’re leaving localgov
    Cheers, Mark

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