GovHack: All your data are belong to us

By Adam Knight

3 July 2015

3 minute read

Image of numbers appearing inside a tube

The hackers are coming to abuse our data, in the best possible way.
Image: http://dailygenius.com/

Groups of skilled hackers are congregating in cities around Australia, and they are hell-bent on forcing government data to do their bidding. These mercenaries (oh yes, there’s monetary incentive) are coming together to pick-apart, dismantle and unravel carefully curated data from Australia’s biggest government agencies – our data included.

Before you worry too much, we should let you know we’re excited to be targeted by this group. In fact we are offering up our data, willingly, to these hackers. They are, after all, participants in this year’s GovHack competition.

The annual GovHack event kicks off this evening. The competition pits teams of hackers from Australia and New Zealand against each other, to see who can re-imagine Government data in the most fascinating, interesting and positive ways.

Words 'All your government data are belong to us' over an image from Zero Wing.

Fear not, the GovHackers are looking to use government data for good, not for ill.

For some the term ‘hack’ may not be positive. You may automatically think of large security breaches or even a derogatory term for a lazy professional. But for someone at GovHack, a hack is a clever solution to one of life’s problems.

Every year the Government collects and publishes huge quantities of data across its many different agencies. Because of the sheer volume of information it isn’t easy to get this data into the hands of the community. And even when it is available, most people wouldn’t find much joy in going through so much information.

This is where GovHack comes in. The competition encourages the best and brightest to find ways of scooping this information together and spitting out something new and improved; perhaps in the form of a new application, a video game or an interactive map?

For our part we are letting the hackers loose on a range of data-sets including Science Image, AuScope Portal, Atlas of Living Australia, and the Data Access Portal to name a few. You can see the full list on the GovHack website.

While we are fond of this precious information, we can’t wait to see the how the GovHackers will redeploy and reinvigorate this data. In our experience some of the best science happens when clever people turn data on its head and come up with something new.

Before this year’s teams get stuck into our data, we thought we would share three of our favourite ‘CSIRO hacks’. It should come as no surprise that our teams have nailed some incredible solutions over the years, so hopefully these stories will inspire others:

  1. 3D mapping is awesome. Video Games are awesome. After we mapped the Jenolan Caves with our Lidar device (see image) – known as Zebedee – we worked with IntoScience to create a video game. Using 3D environments, mapped from real world locations, we were able to re-imagine the mapping data as an immersive interactive game that student can explore.

    3D mapping of the Jenolan Caves.

    3D mapping of the Jenolan Caves.

  2. Our Land and Water team had compiled an extensive data-set detailing bushfire movement patterns in Australia. This information was publically available and emergency services could theoretically use it to help with their bushfire response. But these data-sets were not user-friendly. Enter Spark. This application combines historical data for predicting bushfire patterns with surface maps and current meteorological information. This lets users simulate how bushfires will spread or predict the likely location of future bushfires.
  3. You could argue that our most ridiculous and brilliant ‘hack’ was turning the ‘failed’ observations of astronomical black holes, into a technology that would become a standard for over 5 billion devices worldwide. You may have heard of it? Most people know it as WiFi.

Are you taking part in GovHack 2015? Take a look at the data libraries we’ve made available for the celebrating science this year. You should be able to create a solution as momentous as WiFi, right? No pressure!