Hackfarming Politmus

In November 2011 we at Clearleft hired out a farmhouse in the countryside and left client work behind for a week and just hacked on something for fun. The result was Map Tales, which I’m very proud of.

We knew straight away that we’d want to repeat the experience in 2012. A few weeks ago we all disappeared into the countryside once again. This time the location was in Dorset and it was less of a farm and more of a manor house. We still decided to call the outing a Hack Farm …although Hack Manor has a nice ring to it.

Hack Farm Jessica

Before we went away, we got together for a meta-discussion on how to approach the week. We didn’t want to decide what we were going to build before we got there (that’s part of the fun) but there was some talk about doing things slightly differently this time. For example, what if we weren’t setting out to actually launch something? What if the final deliverables were less tangible and more conceptual than that?

My initial reaction was to bristle at the thought of not launching something at the end of the week. After all, I thought, that’s the whole point of a hack day/farm/athon. But I came around to the idea. I think it’s because we succeeded in building and launching Map Tales in one week last year that I was able to accept the idea of doing something a bit different this time ‘round.

We brought some friends of Clearleft along: Mike, Brian, Emil, Andy, Kyle, and Jessica. It was a pleasure spending a week in the country with them.

Going for a walk Paul and Emil Mike, Mark, Richard and Brian Emil, Mike and James

In total there were eighteen of us there. That’s quite a lot of cats to herd when you’re trying to reach consensus on what to spend a week working on, but after some fun design games and exercises, we agreed on what we wanted to do. Surprisingly the area we all gravitated towards was in the not-so-sexy field of politics.

We designed a service called Politmus. The basic idea was to take the best of the “quantified self” movement and apply it to politics in the UK. The elevator pitch was:

The only personal political opinion tracker that gathers your stance on issues, for disenfranchised voters in the UK who want to feel more connected in a time when we have increased participation in everything but government.

Here’s how we imagined it working. Let’s say your MP is going to be voting on a question in parliament very soon. We’ll ping you with that question and ask how you would vote. Then we can see how well your answer matches that of your MP. Over time, we can start comparing trends: you and your MP; you and your constituency; you and the rest of the country.

There was a lot of research to begin with (not helped by the crappy internet connection), looking at how the UK parliamentary system works. It’s complicated. They Work For You was, unsurprisingly, a huge help in figuring this stuff out.

Hack Farm Hack Farm

I got very interested in the potential input mechanisms for voting. A website with a form is the obvious choice, but what about some more old-fashioned media? A postcard? An email? A phone call? SMS?

I did some hacking on the Tropo API to come up with a telephone interface. You can try it on 020 3051 6587. I put together a little video sketch to demonstrate some of these interactions.

Meanwhile a whole lot of work was being done on the voting interface, displaying the patterns of voting over time, and all that good stuff.

One of the areas that yielded the most benefit (and was a real eye-opener for me) was designing an API for the service before any interface decisions had been made. This “API First” approach meant that lots of tricky problems were solved early on, without getting distracted by the implementation issues of which kind of screens (if any) would be displaying the data. It also meant that visual design and development could be done in parallel.

(By the way, the food at Hack Farm was superb. Jessica cooked amazing meals for eighteen people each night!)

By the end of the week, we had some pretty solid deliverables: design principles, some prototypes, an API, branding. But it’s a shame we didn’t actually get a working website. It would have been very hard work, but I like to think that we could have got a minimal viable product out the door.

But we do have something to show. We’ve put together a nice little website that documents the process:

Hack Farm

You can skip straight ahead to the product or can follow along with the day-by-day account.

I hope that the site conveys something of the flavour of this year’s Hack Farm. It was a lot of fun, mostly because of the excellent people gathered together in one place.

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