Parliament 2012: How to hack the House of Commons without anyone even trying to stop you

Steve Anderson joins a crack squad of developers breaking apart and rebuilding Parliament’s data

Hacking has got a bad press over the past year or so. Computer-hacker networks Anonymous and LulzSec have made the headlines by attempting to bring down high-profile websites on both sides of the Atlantic, while the much-publicised battle over the extradition of Scottish hacker Gary McKinnon shifted the issue of computer security from the realm of underground web forums to pub chat. Only last week, Lord Leveson released his mammoth 2,000-page report spawned by the phone-hacking scandal.

It may, then, seem a little strange, if not entirely irresponsible, for Parliament to unleash a trough of its own data to a bunch of coding wizards and ask them to hack away at it over a weekend. After all, if there were another gunpowder plot today, you can bet it would come wearing an Anonymous badge, use virtual gunpowder and blow up the information structures and data sets that keep Parliament running daily, rather than the bricks and mortar of the Houses themselves.

But this isn’t real hacking. Or, rather, it is real hacking, I’m told, by Emma Mulqueeny, the chief executive and founder of Rewired State, the organisation behind Parliament Hack 2012, a two-day “hackathon” that brings  developers and designers together to exploit parliamentary data, creating websites, apps and games in order to create a better understanding of the parliamentary system.

“The word ‘hack’ is a bit like the word ‘gay’ – it has two meanings,” she says. “Gay can mean homosexual,  gay can mean happy. Hacking can mean hacking into things, and that’s completely different to the hacking we do at hack days. What we mean is  hacking together information, so you’re not creating some all-singing and-dancing product, you’re just having a bit of a play – you’re just hacking something together.”

Just down the road from the Palace is Haymarket’s Hub Westminster,  an open-plan “creative space” that  any Thick of It spin doctor would  be envious of and the venue for the hackathon.

Reclining in a seat ripped straight from a passenger aircraft – one of the Hub’s kooky fixtures – is another person who’s rather passionate about the distinction between what a hacker  really is and the media interpretation of the term. Fifteen-year-old back-end coder Kaelan Fouwels is part of Young Rewired State – a philanthropic project aimed at attracting under-19s to  developing – and one of the youngest of the 80 attendees.

“The term ‘hacker’ originates from physically hacking components  together. So hacking actually means taking stuff and making something out of it. But the press likes to interpret that as ‘breaking stuff’ and doing it for bad purposes.”

Instead, Fouwels explains, LulzSec and Anonymous (more a label than a finite group) are “crackers”.

Hack days themselves are nothing new. Early versions appeared in the Nineties, with companies inviting outside programmers in to solve problems. Although the structure remains relatively similar throughout, hackathons can use a particular programming language, create for a certain platform, or gear developing towards a cause of purpose, in this case making parliamentary data more accessible.

Rewired State was borne out of Mulqueeny’s work with Tom Watson on the Home Office’s digital-engagement strategy in 2009, at a time when MPs were falling out of favour over the expenses scandal.

“I said, ‘The only way we can do  any form of engagement is through open data,’” she explains. “So we  were always about transparency through openness.”

Now in its second year, Parliament Hack, running in conjunction with Parliament Week, gives the coders,  developers and designers access to reams of data that is already out there but has as yet been left unexplored  – usually still in its rawest form on websites, in databases or simply in Excel spreadsheets. It is the coders’ job to take the data, which ranges from voting records and other parliamentary history to information on individual MPs, and convert it into something useful, with prototypes being judged across various categories.

After a tour of Parliament on the Saturday morning, the 80 developers move to the Hub and split into small teams. By late evening, most are  well into their coding, and amid  mountains of pizza boxes and scattered energy-drink cans, some projects are beginning to take shape. Sleeping bags are few and far between and  everyone assures me that they’ll  be pulling all-nighters.

At this point, one group, with their working title ChaMPion, have something that resembles a basic interface. Number cruncher Giuseppe Sollazzo analyses transcripts of parliamentary debates for frequency of key words, while front-end developer Lewis Westbury builds a basic search page so voters are able to match a cause they are particularly passionate about with an MP who shares their interest.

Other teams have a lot more work ahead of them, with one group of Southampton University computer-science students starting afresh after a ditched attempt at creating a site to rate MPs’ attractiveness named Rate My Member. They get to work on  developing a map that looks for  inequalities in MPs’ wages and expenses records compared with constituency figures on employment and average voter salaries.

For the first time in history, Parliament has released data from its annunciator system, the series of television screens throughout the Palace of Westminster that tells members who is speaking when and what votes are taking place. Using historical data as a model, another team begin setting up a live-alerts system that notifies MPs about what is being debated in the House via either an app, text message or automated voice call.

By Sunday lunchtime,  developers’ eye sockets are looking hollow, and some promises to code right through have been broken as a few heads slump over laptops. The pizza is cold and the combination of stale food and body odour is reminiscent of a school hall as a final rush  begins to iron out glitches before teams present to the judges.

One judge, Edward Wood, director of public information at the House of Commons, says bringing in people from outside is imperative to make sure Parliament stays relevant to the electorate. “To the people that produce the data, it can be quite mundane and you don’t quite realise the power of it,” he explains. “ It’s good to see what people can do with a bit of imagination.”

Some 28 hacks are presented, and while it’s hard to see how an add-on to a shoot-’em-up game that changes the colour of a player’s gun depending on parliamentary satisfaction, or a site that asks which MP looks most like David Mitchell, is going to increase public engagement, it’s astounding to see how far the developers have come in just over 24 hours.

ChaMPion take the award for best in show, while Team Bernard – who developed the annunciator app – win in the “what’s happening now” category for their use of real-time data.

Most projects will now die out at prototype stage but groups share the source code online to allow them to be developed further. Parliament and Rewired State will reconvene in January to discuss the possibility of how they can use the projects.

While his team’s prizes include Raspberry Pi single-board computers for each member, ChaMPion’s Mark Smitham says it’s not the winning that coders come for, let alone the prizes.

“Even if there’s only one decent idea that gets picked up, then the day’s achieved its value,” he says.

For a full list of winners and information on all of the hacks from the event, go to hacks.rewiredstate.org/events/parlyhack-2012

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