NHS Hackday 2015

This weekend I took part in an incredibly successful NHS hackday, hosted at Cardiff University and organised by Anne Marie Cunningham and James Morgan. We went as a team from the MSc in Computational Journalism, with myself and Glyn attending along with Pooja, Nikita, Annalisa and Charles. At the last-minute I recruited a couple of ringers as well, dragging along Rhys Priestland Dr William Wilberforce Webberley from Comsc and Dr Matthew Williams, previously of this parish. Annalisa also brought along Dan Hewitt, so in total we had a large and diverse team.

The hackday

This was the first NHS hackday I’d attended, but I believe it’s the second event held in Cardiff, so Anne Marie and the team have it down to a fine art. The whole weekend seemed to go pretty smoothly (barring a couple of misunderstandings on our part regarding the pitch sessions!). It was certainly one of the most well organised events that I’ve attended, with all the necessary ingredients for successful coding: much power, many wifi and plenty of food, snacks and coffee. Anne Marie and the team deserve much recognition and thanks for their hard work. I’m definitely in for next year.

The quality of the projects created at the hackday was incredibly high across the board, which was great to see. One of my favourites used an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset to create a zombie ‘game’ that could be used to test people’s peripheral vision. Another standout was a system for logging and visualising the ANGEL factors describing a patient’s health situation. It was really pleasing to see these rank highly with the judges too, coming in third and second in the overall rankings. Other great projects brought an old Open Source project back to life, created a system for managing groups walking the Wales Coast path, and created automatic notification systems for healthcare processes. Overall it was a really interesting mix of projects, many of which have clear potential to become useful products within or alongside the NHS. As Matt commented in the pub afterwards, it’s probably the first hackday we’ve been to where several of the projects have clear original IP with commercial potential.

Our project

We had decided before the event that we wanted to build some visualisations of health data across Wales, something like nhsmaps.co.uk, but working with local health boards and local authorities in Wales. We split into two teams for the implementation: ‘the data team’ who were responsible for sourcing, processing and inputting data, and the ‘interface team’ who built the front-end and the visualisations.

Progress was good, with Matthew and William quickly defining a schema for describing data so that the data team could add multiple data sets and have the front-end automatically pick them up and be able to visualise them. The CompJ students worked to find and extract data, adding them to the github repository with the correct metadata. Meanwhile, I pulled a bunch of D3 code together for some simple visualisations.

By the end of the weekend we established a fairly decent system. It’s able to visualise a few different types of data, at different resolutions, is mostly mobile friendly, and most importantly is easily extensible and adaptable. It’s online now on our github pages, and all the code and documentation is also in the github repository.

We’ll continue development for a while to improve the usability and code quality, and hopefully we’ll find a community willing to take the code base on and keep improving what could be a fairly useful resource for understanding the health of Wales.


We didn’t win any of the prizes, which is understandable. Our project was really focused on the public understanding of the NHS and health, and not for solving a particular need within (or for users of) the NHS. We knew this going in to the weekend, and we’d taken the decision that it was more important to work on a project related to the course, so that the students could experience some of the tools and technologies they’ll be using as the course progresses than to do something more closely aligned with the brief that would have perhaps been less relevant to the students work.

I need to thank Will and Matt for coming and helping the team. Without Matt wrangling the data team and showing them how to create json metadata descriptors we probably wouldn’t have anywhere near as many example datasets as we do. Similarly, without Will’s hard work on the front end interface, the project wouldn’t look nearly as good as it does, or have anywhere near the functionality. His last-minute addition of localstorage for personal datasets was a triumph. (Sadly though he does lose some coder points for user agent sniffing to decide whether to show a mobile interface :-D.) They were both a massive help, and we couldn’t have done it without them.

Also, of course, I need to congratulate the CompJ students, who gave up their weekend to trawl through datasets, pull figures off websites and out of pdf’s, and create the lovely easy to process .csv files we needed. It was a great effort from them, and I’m looking forward to our next Team CompJ hackday outing.

One thing that sadly did stand out was a lack of participation from Comsc undergraduate students, with only one or two attending. Rob Davies stopped by on Saturday, and both Will and I discussed with him what we can do to increase participation in these events. Hopefully we’ll make some progress on that front in time for the next hackday.


There’s some great photos from the event on Flickr, courtesy of Paul Clarke (Saturday and Sunday). I’ve pulled out some of the best of Team CompJ and added them here. All photos are released under a Creative Commons BY-NC 2.0 licence.



We got a lovely write-up about out project from Dyfrig Williams of the Good Practice Exchange at the Wales Audit Office. Dyfrig also curated a great storify of the weekend.

Hemavault labs have done a round up of the projects here

KSRI Services Summer School – Social Computing Theory and Hackathon

I was invited by Simon Caton to come to the KSRI Services Summer School, held at KIT in Germany, to help him run a workshop session on Social Computing.  We decided to use the session as a crash course in retrieving and manipulating data from Social Media APIs – showing the students the basics, then running a mini ‘hackathon’ for the students to gain some practical experience.

I think the session went really well, the students seemed to enjoy it and the feedback was very positive. We spent about 90 minutes talking about APIs, JSON, Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare, then set the students off on forming teams and brainstorming ideas. Very quickly they managed to get set up grabbing Twitter data from the streaming API, and coming up with ways of analysing it for interesting facts and statistics.  A number of the students were not coders, and had never done anything like this before, so it was great to see them diving in, setting up servers and running php scripts to grab the data. It was also good to see the level of team work on display; everyone was communicating, dividing the work, and getting on well. Fuelled by a combination of pizza, beer, red bull and haribo they coded into the night, until we drew things to a close at about 10pm and retired to the nearest bar for a pint of debrief.

Hackathon Students
Teams hard at work hacking with Twitter data

It was a really good experience, and I think everyone got something useful out of it. I’m looking forward to the presentations later on today to see what everyone came up with.

Our slides from the talk are available on slideshare. As usual they’re information light and picture heavy, so their usefulness is probably limited!

Open Sauce Hackathon – Post Mortem

This weekend saw the second ‘Open Sauce Hackathon‘ run by undergraduate students here in the school. Last years was pretty successful, and they improved upon it this year, pulling in many more sponsors and offering more prizes.

Unlike last year, when I turned up having already decided with Jon Quinn what we were doing, I went along this year with no real ideas. I had a desire to do something with a map, as I’m pretty sure building stuff connected to maps is going to play a big part in work over the next couple of months. Other than that though, I was at a bit of a loss. After playing around with some ideas and APIs I finally came up with my app: dionysus.

Dionysus Screenshot

It’s a mobile friendly mapping app that shows you two important things: Where the pubs are (using venue data from Foursquare) and where the gigs are at (using event data from last.fm). If you sign in to either last.fm or Foursquare it will also pull in recommended bars and recommended gigs and highlight these for you.

The mapping is done using leaflet.js, which I found to be nicer and easier to use than Google Maps. The map tiles are based on OpenStreetMap data and come from CloudMade, while the (devastatingly beautiful) icons were rushed together by me over the weekend. The entire app is just client side Javascript and HTML, with HTML5 persistent localStorage used to maintain login authentication between sessions. It’s a simple app, but I’m pretty pleased with it. In the end I even won a prize for it (£50), so it can’t be too bad.

The app is hosted here, and the source code is available here. Obviously though the code is not very pretty and quite hacky, but it does the job!

Foursquare Hackathon Post Mortem

Note: I wrote this post just after the hackathon, but then forgot to actually publish it! 

There’s a fair amount I learnt from taking part in and helping to organise the foursquare hackathon here at the university that probably deserves its own post. I’ll split it into two parts, the taking part and the organisation.

Organising a hack event

There were a couple of things I learnt from helping to organise the event that perhaps weren’t clear to begin with:

  1. Expect dropouts. A lot of them. We ended up with about 50% of the people that said they would attend actually attending. Which is fine because we hadn’t planned on providing catering etc. anyway, but if we had, we may have overspent massively.
  2. Get someone in to run the day that doesn’t actually want to code. All three of us organising the event really wanted to get involved and create stuff, so there was no-one left to organise the other essential things like food. Too often people would talk about ordering food, or going out for dinner and then get sucked back into programming and it would get forgotten about. By the end of the weekend we’d all eaten really badly, often very late at night. Having someone there to do things like order pizza or make coffee runs would probably have helped things go a lot smoother.
  3. If you’re going to be communicating with the world at large using twitter or something similar, make sure you communicate with each other within the organising team about posting updates. Often two people would try and reply to a query at the same time, which made us look a bit silly. Not a major issue, but it might help give a more professional feel, event if you’re total amateurs.

Participating in a hack event

We also learnt a lot about participating in a hack event. My top tips for a successful project would be:

  1. Do your research. If you can, go into the event with an idea already, just in case no-one else has any. It’ll help you get started quicker.
  2. Keep it small. Don’t over reach. 24/48 hours is not a long time to code something, and by making it too complicated you’ll be disappointed with the outcome. Simple is best. Add extra features later if you have time.
  3. Small, agile teams. These projects have to be small because of the time constraints, so if teams get too big there won’t be enough for everyone to do. People will end up feeling useless or left out, which is never good. I would say a maximum of 4 people per team.
  4. If you want to learn something new, a hack event can be a great place to be forced to up your skills in a particular area very quickly. It can also be a great place to learn new skills and tools from others. However, this may lead to the end result not being ideal. If you can live with that, great, you’ll walk away happy. I personally upped my javascript knowledge over the weekend from approximately 0 to something approaching a passable working knowledge, which was great.
  5. Know your tools. This is pretty much common sense, but if you’re not after learning something new and you just want a successful app/outcome, pick and use the tools you know really well. We went with django on the back end because myself and Matt know it pretty well, and we were able to get that part of the site running really really quickly. Had we gone with something else it may not have worked so well.
  6. Get coding. Screw the design, you can worry about that later. Start coding early, and code fast.
So thats the things I learnt from the weekend. Hopefully we’ll be able to use this knowledge again in the future, both organising and participating in future events.

Foursquare Hackathon Cardiff – Day 2

Wow. I thought Saturday was busy, but I was wrong. Saturday was a cake walk compared to the crazy nightmare that was Sunday. The challenge of trying to get something (anything) working before the app submission deadline was incredible. Coding was fast and intense, and required a lot of good communication and fast thinking. Unfortunately we hit a few roadblocks that slowed us down (2 hours debugging problems with django’s static file serving really didn’t help, neither did jQuery mobile being an absolute pain in the rear end), but by the end of the day we had a nice looking site with some actual working functionality. Nowhere near the level of functionality that we’d hoped for, but it’s a start. All three of us that were working on the app towards the end are aiming to carry on the development, so hopefully I’ll have another project to post about up here as the months go on.

A number of people didn’t make it to the Sunday, which is a shame, but the core teams of both projects were in early and working hard, and by the end of the day both had been declared ‘working’ enough to submit. Maybe they’ll do ok against the competition, but we’ll see. A couple more hours on our pub crawl app could really have helped as there’s some key functionality missing, but there just wasn’t time to get it working. Overall though, the event was a success. We managed to pull in people from outside our own hyper-local school development team, we all managed to learn some new things and teach some things to others, and I think most people genuinely had fun. It’s definitely an experience I’m looking forward to repeating, both as a hackday organiser and as just a participant. BOX UK have a ‘For the Social Good‘ hackday coming up in November that I’ve already registered for, and I’ll be keeping my eyes open for others in the future, and for opportunities to organise more.

I think I learnt a few things about organising and participating in these sorts of events, so I’ll be putting up a post in the next few days to share the knowledge.

Foursquare Hackathon Cardiff – Day 1

I was fully intending to try and live-blog the progress of the foursquare hackathon today, even going as far as to install a live blog plugin, but things have been going very quickly and we’ve been hitting the coding hard so I just haven’t had time!

We’ve managed to get a decent crowd in, a roughly 50:50 split of people we already knew from the School and other people from elsewhere. At the peak today we had fifteen people in, but at this stage we’re down to ten – but those who have left are coming back tomorrow! There’s an interesting mix of skills and knowledge levels and a number of people have come who are just eager to see how other people do things and to learn more about foursquare or coding in general. Luckily everyone is talkative and keen to get on and create something cool.

We started this morning at about 10am and managed to come up with a few ideas in a brief brainstorming session, eventually splitting ourselves into groups working on two ideas. The first idea is being driven forward by Vlad and is quite related to the work we’re doing on Recognition – creating a system to pull in information on a venue or location and create a ‘digest’ of what’s relevant about the place. This could come in handy later on for our research. The second idea is a more ‘fun’ idea – building a system for creating, managing and participating in pub crawls. There’s a couple of parts to this: a management website that allows users to search foursquare venues and add them to a crawl, a backend that manages the storage and retrieval of users and crawls and an application front end that allows you to participate in the crawl itself. At this stage early on day one we’ve got most of the backend built, and the management web app is coming along well. Tomorrow we’re going to start the android app.

Some pictures of the day so far are below:

Foursquare Hackathon

Along with Matthew Williams and Chris Gwilliams I’m helping to organise the Cardiff edition of the Foursquare global hackathon this weekend. I’m hoping it’ll be a pretty good event. Signup‘s are looking pretty positive and I’m hopeful that we’ll get some decent apps being created.

The organising is actually quite fun, but it is remarkable how much there is to do and remember. Thankfully the School of Computer Science & Informatics are being very supportive and allowing us to host it there, which makes things easier. I’ll be posting here throughout the event (and afterwards).