This week, since it’s the new year holiday period, I thought I'd write more about adventures and well nothing about work. After a massive past month, I managed to jump on a plane and fly to Japan. I love flying and with my favourite TV show, now movie, Absolutely Fabulous on the entertainment system, the movie was just the right length to have dinner and then fall asleep. Having not stopped for weeks, it wasn't hard at all to doze off and wake when the stewards were serving breakfast!
After a muesli and a couple of espressos, I was all ready to go. Another thing I love about travelling is the fact that one moment I can be in stinking hot weather, the next I step into winter. It's not quite like going into your cupboard and discovering Narnia, but not that far off it either!
Shuffling through immigration seems to get faster and faster as they improve technology to check people through. The biggest hassle however, was trying to work out how to make all the connections to get to my destination. The Japanese I did at school hardly prepared me for any of this. It came down to a couple of options. 1. I could wait 4 hours and catch a bus directly to my hotel (boring). 2. Get a mono-rail, bullet train and bus to my destination. Far more interesting… and challenging! Whilst I already knew of these two options and had it planned out in my mind what I needed to do to make this happen, it's not until you're faced with a ticket machine that even when in English Mode doesn't make sense and no ticket sales desks in sight.
I managed to fudge my way through and buy a ticket. I wasn't sure if it were the right one, but hey it kept working everytime I stuck it in a machine, so I guessed I was on the right track. (The track being a monorail, it was kind of hard not to be!)
I made my way to Tokyo Central Station and from here ran around madly trying to find the next connection. It was the bullet train! I again did battle with the ticket machine that had way too many options that didn't make any sense at all. However, I finally succeeded in getting it to spit out a ticket, yet when I went to the gate, it turns out it wanted two tickets. So after the guard said something I didn't understand except for the word two, I went back and got a second ticket (which was apparently slightly different somehow). Placing both tickets in the machine at once, it worked! With a strange feeling that this ticketing process was somehow inefficient and un-Japanese, I raced up to the platform as the train was minutes from leaving.
This was my first time on a bullet train and it was amazing! The sleek design, the aerodynamics, the whole train was awesome. I can't for the life of me work out why Australia hasn't built any lines for them. The smooth pace at which they accelerated and slowed mean that you were never thrown about. Although I have to admit I was slightly disappointed that leaving the station I wasn't nailed to the back of my seat by 5Gs of thrust. Now that would be cool.
Seeing the sheer size and spread of Tokyo was something itself. The high-rise apartments, the industrial areas, the sprawl of the city seemed to go on forever. As the urban centre became more distant, the train sped up hitting over 280kph! The world flashed by and in the distance, I could see the snow capped Mt Fuji dominating the landscape.
The train ride was around 1.5hrs and as the towns became more rural, the design of the building changed and there was some great tranquility about this transition.
Reaching Nagano (venue of the 1998 Winter Olympics), the bullet train ride ended. Stepping off the headed carriage, I was snapped back into winter by the frosty chill in the air. From here, I transitioned onto a bus for the final leg of the journey. As the bus wound its way through the rural townships, light snow began to fall, getting heavier and heavier as we ascended into the mountains.
After another hour and a bit on the bus, we reached the township of Hakuba, a great town now deep with snow. I explored town for a couple of hours buying and eating some random foods which looked like one thing but tasted like something else. One such food looked like a cream bun and turned out to have some sort of black bean mash within it! Ha! It's always worth trying new foods and I eventually stumbled on something I liked for lunch.
Going anywhere new for the first time is always filled with uncertainty, but that's what makes it so exciting. I don't know what's going to happen next, but to an extent it doesn't matter, as enjoying the journey and everything that happens along the way is the most important thing. It's way too easy to get so wrapped up in work and ‘regular’ life that you miss out on the opportunities to travel, to explore and to experience new things. So over the Christmas break, think about somewhere new you'd like to go or something new you’d like to try. Ask yourself where your next adventure will be and go and book it in the next hour! Whatever it is, don't delay, don't defer it, make it happen and have an awesome adventure whatever it may be!
Technology is evolving so rapidly, it’s near impossible to keep up with the relentless pace of change. From one month to the next, we see yet another new development, a new ground-breaking idea, a new way of doing things that will forever change the world! With this amazing digital transformation, which has brought with it so many benefits, it’s important to pause for a moment and think about what the consequences are for education.
Despite the immense benefit that technology has brought to the world, education is a unique field that on the one hand can benefit from efficiencies that technology can bring, but on the other, is at significant risk of failing the next generation of students the more it relies on technology to achieve its aims. The irony of owning a software company and being against technology as an educational driver, is not lost on me, but there’s a reason why I believe the over-use and over-reliance on technology is extremely concerning, as I’m also a teacher.
Firstly, our model of education is all wrong. Despite what some schools will tell you, creating an open-plan classroom is merely window dressing on a system and process that’s essentially not changed since the dark and smoky days of the industrial revolution. You get a group of students, put them in a room, teacher teaches them something, teacher assesses them and students get a mark! Congratulations! You’ve now done the exact same thing the old grumpy guy in the 1890s did, but just without the cane in your hand.
Many people will claim today’s classroom is different because they’ve integrated technology! In most current job descriptions for teachers, there’s a line about your ability to integrate said technology into said classroom, but what does this mean? If you’re still teaching basically the same way that the old grumpy misogynist was back in the 19th century, then throwing in a computer will serve no real purpose, other than making the cost of education go up.
Consequently, it’s worrying to think that by simply adding technology to outdated practices, that it will produce better results. Technology based learning systems are expensive and pointless without real teachers teaching a set of modern skills, which are focused on critical thinking, communications, problem-solving, teamwork and most importantly, adaptability. You can’t get any of this from either traditional education, nor creating virtual teachers and virtual classrooms.
Education for the 21st century needs to be far more experiential. We’re seeing an increasing reliance on devices amongst children and teens that appear to be leading to great prevalence of mental health issues and an inability to form real, healthy and long-lasting relationships. As some of the most important skills needed for the future are all to do with building effective relationships and being able to adapt quickly to changing circumstances, this disconnect needs to be addressed as a priority before we throw any more technology into the classroom in the hope that it will magically address the problem.
The current state of education today is ill-equipped to handle the reality of what our next generation needs to be successful in a world that is changing so rapidly. Critical to the success of education into the future is not technology itself, but the ability of students to understand technology and leverage it for a real purpose. The risk is that our current generation and education system has been caught off guard by the enormous digital dislocation that’s happened in the last 10-15 years. This has resulted in many students and young people today being so reliant on devices that they’re now leveraged by technology. When this happens, we’ve failed as educators and we’ve opened the next generation to a serious risk of failure, if and when that technology fails.
To truly create an education system that helps students to grow in a positive, healthy and pro-active way and set them up for success, far more emphasis is needed on relationship building, teamwork, being able to fail and learning from failure. This needs to be done in the real world, through real world experiences. Technology can and should be a part of this, if it’s a natural fit, but technology doesn’t always need to be in the mix, as often we learn more from other experiences that don’t involve technology. It’s often from the ability of the teacher to identify a teachable moment and use this that students learn the most. It can be unplanned, unexpected, but something happens, or is said or done and the teacher leverages this moment for the benefit of their students.
This comes back to my earlier point that it’s through experiential education that students learn best. Teachers who have a wealth of experience can often find and react to teachable moments that would never be possible with virtual AI type teachers no matter how well-programmed they were.
Whilst in the past you could adequately prepare students for the future by teaching fairly narrow content that needed to be retained for a specific job for life, this is no longer the case. It’s important for the future of education, that we have teachers who have had real life experiences outside of the classroom and the academic world, who can provide real, genuine guidance for our next generation. It’s through the ability of an experienced teacher to react and teach future focussed skills that we will see the best results for our students into the future.
I love to try new things! The fact is that if we’re not living somewhat outside our comfort zones, we’re not doing much living at all. Life is about growth and without growth, we start to go backwards. When I recently jumped in the deep end and created a podcast about experiential education, it was not only a new experience, but a challenging one into which I had to put a lot of thought, time and effort to make it work.
It started out from listening to someone else’s podcast. Since I travel a lot for work, I’ve listened to a lot of podcasts in the car. What struck me though, was the fact that most of them were just conversations about topics I was interested in. However, there was nothing there in terms of really interesting experiential education. Certainly, there were shows out there about education, but they weren’t looking at the future of education. They were looking more at doing the same sort of things that have been done for about 200 years, but adding in a computer to the equation to make everyone feel that that’s progress. I’ll let you in on a secret… “It’s not!”
So I thought, who are some interesting people with whom I want to talk about what cool unique programs are they running? This was the starting point. I reached out to my first guest, explained what I was up to and asked if she were interested in being on the show. I was excited to get a very fast response. The only problem was, I had no recording equipment, never interviewed anyone before and massive time pressures from work.
Often people get to a point with an idea and even though it’s a great idea about which they’re excited, sometimes the first or second hurdle put a nail in the coffin of the idea and it falls onto the trash heap of dreams. That was not to be the case for me. Having already set a bunch of ludicrous goals, this was just another on the list. With my first guest lined up and booked in, I went out and bought a couple of lapel microphones which plugged into my iPhones. Buying stuff is the easy part. Everyone’s great at spending money. It’s what you do next with your purchase that either makes it worthwhile, or just another bit of gear that gathers dust.
With my tech equipment ready, I now needed some questions… This was probably the most challenging part of the whole process. I needed to research my guest and what cool things were being done in experiential education. Since I ended up with a broad range of guests, this meant that no single interview was going to be the same as another. I’d originally come up with a range of generic questions, which I promptly threw out. In researching the individual programs and backgrounds of the different guests, I found that I needed to explore more specific topics with each guest, rather than just try to ask the same questions of different people.
Added to this, when the interview was in progress, half the questions went out the window, as I found myself exploring other topics and issues which the guest brought up. By diving down the rabbit hole, it produced a far more interesting interview as well. For each subsequent guest, I was able to improve my listening skills and ask far better follow up questions on something said. For the first few interviews, I was too nervous for this and preferred to stick to my script, but as I became more comfortable with the fact that I could ask unscripted questions on the fly, it made it far easier to conduct a better interview. After all, the interviews were all aimed to explore their work in experiential education, not just for me to make it to the end of the script. In the end, out of roughly ten questions, I was usually only asking five or six. Everything else was simply further exploration of what had already been said.
As I conducted all the interviews in person, this added to the slight challenge of distance as some guests lived down the road and others in different countries. The craziest two recording days I had was towards the end of 2017. I had two days off work and I needed to record three interviews in two different states! I flew from Canberra to Melbourne first thing in the morning, hired a car, drove to rural Victoria, recorded the interview, back in the car to Melbourne, caught another plane to Adelaide! After staying with a friend overnight, I was off the next morning, to record two interviews one after another. Next, I was back on the plane to Canberra that evening and a 2.5 hour drive home! It was hectic, but worth it!
With a bunch of raw interviews recorded which covered a range of topics, it was now down to editing and adding some theme music. This wasn’t that hard, but still time consuming to ensure that each episode sounded good and wasn’t full of sound errors.
I won’t delve into the technical side of the whole podcast process but looking back on Season 1 for me I’ve learnt so much from the whole experience. On the one hand I now know how to conduct an interview with someone and draw out some key points from the work they do. I also learnt so much about other ways of doing things in education. There really is a huge gap that’s only growing bigger and bigger as schools are so slow to adapt to the changing world. Seeing some amazing standout programs such as the Australian Science & Maths School, really showed me what’s possible for education today, rather than just doing the same thing over and over… ‘because that’s the way we’ve always done it!’ type of attitudes with which so many schools are still battling.
I’m now in the process of recording Season 2 of the podcast, so if you’re running a unique experiential education program, I’d love to hear from you before I fill all the guests, but hey, if we can’t fit it in this time, there’s always Season 3!
Ultimately, if there’s some sort of fantastic idea you have, then no matter what the obstacles are that crop up, you can find a way around them. It was a lot work to complete this project, but anything worth doing always involves some significant effort. I encourage everyone to find something cool that can contribute to either education or helping others from your own experience. The best time to do it is always right now, so don’t delay. Get your next project up and running today and let me know how it goes!
A short one this week, just to let you know that the Xperiential Education Podcast is Live!
The first two episodes are out and another will go live tomorrow! It’s been a wonderful educational experience for me traveling to meet the different educators and cover a huge range of topics and educational contexts. Please join us on this great journey for updates and some key links check out the website & twitter feed:
Web - www.xperiential.education
Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/experientialeducationpodcast/
You can subscribe to the Podcast on:
If you’re running a cool experiential education program, please get in touch, I’m always searching for great new ideas for shows and exploring different techniques and strategies for experiential education.
This week is just a quick heads up on a podcast I’m launching soon called Xperiential Education (www.xperiential.education)
Over the past year, (in my spare time), I’ve been travelling around and interviewing some fascinating people who work in experiential education. Now my definition of experiential education is very broad and intentionally so. This is not a podcast about classroom practice nor is it about outdoor education. It’s about a whole range of interesting and unique approaches as to how leaders, teachers, trainers and businesses are educating others, be it at home, in school, at a retreat or specialised venue, on the job, or any other context where those with experience in life create valuable and meaningful learning experiences for others.
We’re at a pivotal moment in history. Technology has suddenly impacted on everything that we do, so as the world rapidly changes how does education need to change to remain relevant? Does it digitise? Or does it take a step back into more traditional approaches? Or are we yet to really discover and understand what the next step forward is in education? This is just one of many great topics I’ve been able to cover with my guests, with the overall aim of discovering some really effective and powerful learning experiences.
I’ve tried to keep the interviews as diverse as possible, covering:
Theatre & Performance
I hope you enjoy Season 1 of the podcast. This has been a challenging and interesting learning experience for me as well and I look forward to people’s feedback. The full guest list is below and links and show notes will be added on the Xperiential Education website as each episode goes to air.
Season 1 (not in episode order)
Cyn Smith – Tihoi Venture School - NZ
Adrian Deakes – V&A Museum – London
Dr Brendan Nelson – Australian War Memorial – Canberra
Rebecca Cameron – Former Australian Federal Police Officer
Matt Purcell – GovHack - Canberra Grammar
Glenys Thompson – Australian Science & Mathematics School – Adelaide
Mary Preece – Bundanon Trust
Noel Mifsud – Antarctic Adventures & Christian Brothers College – Adelaide
Tim Nolan – Wesley College Clunes – Victoria
Some of the ideas that these great educational leaders have shared with me are truly amazing. Please send me a message with any feedback, ideas or guest suggestions for Season 2. I look forward to sharing with you some great insights into learning through doing and hope you can use them in your own work!
Late last year, I was involved with another film project called The Merger! I enjoy the different sort of challenge that comes with a film project. For me however, the biggest challenge was just finding the time to get there. With that in mind, I was able to sneak it in between work days and I’m so glad that I did.
Film projects are lots of fun (although there’s a lot of work behind the scenes that goes into them and a lot of sitting around doing nothing). I think the bigger the budget, the more sitting around doing nothing there is. I would imagine that actors should be very well-read, as the time spent doing nothing at all, is significant.
A few years ago, I was in the movie Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie. Most of the film was done in Australia and I somehow ended up in it as a journalist. The free haircut was probably the most exciting part of the whole experience and when it came to the day of filming, I sat around for eleven hours in a room full of Nazis and did nothing. Ok, so to be honest, they weren’t real Nazis. They were just dressed up as Nazis as we were supposed to be at the Berlin Olympics. Finally, everyone was called onto the set, where we stood around for another hour waiting for something to happen. As if in the blink of an eye, the scene was filmed and everyone was sent back to get changed out of their SS uniforms. Not really the most exciting of days as the illusion of stardom feels so much emptier and extremely uninteresting after thirteen hours of standing around and waiting.
However, I don’t want to discourage anyone from giving this a go. It’s one of those things where I can say, “I’ve been there and done that.” I was however, far more interested when I became involved in two much smaller Australian films. The first one being “The Backyard Ashes,” and most recently, “The Merger,” which are both by Director Mark Grental.
I only became involved by a chance meeting at a political party convention back in 2011. Mark was the guest speaker and a very unusual one to have at a political meeting, because he was funny and interesting. He’d told his story of growing up in a rural community near Wagga Wagga and what it was like being interested in the arts. He’d moved away to study at NIDA and was now back to work on a feature film called The Backyard Ashes. As expected, this was a movie about cricket. As soon as he gave the overview of the film, I was hooked. It was a great Australian Story that tells the tale of a neighbourhood dispute where the main character and his friends are playing backyard cricket and after hitting the ball for six, accidentally incinerates his boss’s prized cat on the barbecue. He collects the ashes of the cat and returns it to the owner. Long story short to resolve the neighbourhood dispute, they then play a game of backyard cricket with the ashes as the prize!
It’s a funny movie and throughout it, I was able to be involved on the set and off the set with a cameo as an extra and also helping out with the post production marketing! I’d never imagined that a chance meeting at a fairly dull political conference could lead to me to meeting so many interesting people and going to so many cool parties. When I saw that Mark was making another film, I decided that I wanted to be involved once again!
The Merger is another sports movie, this time based around AFL. The basic story is that this country football club is basically going to wreck and ruin. The team’s gone, the clubhouse condemned and it’s not looking good. However, there’s a chance to revive things with the idea of enlisting and training refugees to play on the team. I won’t give any more of the plot away and you should go and see if for yourself. It’s a very politically topical movie given the debate in Australia around refuges and what we should be doing as a nation and there’s not an easy solution, as it’s a very emotive and devise debate.
The beauty of art and film however, is that it can present ideas in such a unique way that’s outside of the standard partisan political debate we see in our daily media. If you look at how art has pushed the boundaries for centuries in helping our world modernise, fight for human rights and become more equitable, you start to really appreciate the value of art within our society.
Whilst I have no intention of going into the film industry, for me, being involved in projects in this way, gives me something different to do. It’s a chance to be part of something much bigger and something that’s going to last forever. Whenever I see The Backyard Ashes advertised, or on TV or even on the inflight entertainment, I feel excited to have been part of it all. From the first meeting of the actors and crew, which happened to be at a BBQ, to the green and red carpet premiers in Wagga and Sydney. The people I met, the friendships I developed, the experience I gained and the stories I now have, were all a wonderful part of this. I now have two films I can watch with great pride and also scream out when I spot myself standing obscurely in the corner of a scene.
As we’re now into a new year and the holidays are coming to an end, why don’t you find something you’ve always wanted to try, just for the sake of it. I challenge everybody over the next twelve months to get yourself involved in something completely different. A random project that you’ve always wanted to try out! You never know who you will meet, or where it will take you. Live your life to the fullest and make the most of every opportunity that comes your way this year.
Friendship in the digital world is an interesting phenomenon, especially amongst teenagers. Since relationships are changing, I feel there’s a need to redefine how we refer to different sorts of friends. On the one hand, teenagers have some friends they know quite well. They probably go to school with, play sports with and hang out with these friends. On the other end of the spectrum, a friend could also be nothing more than a number on a screen.
Given the digital age in which we live, I think we need to split these radically different sorts of friends into two categories. There’s the ‘high-res’ friends (4K) that you see and interact with in real life and real time and ‘low-res’ friends (Internet Friends) that only ever appear as pixelated visages on a screen and may come with some annoying time delay or lag when communicating with them, if you communicate with them at all.
The internet and social media has brought the world so much closer together, especially in terms of people being able to interact with others who have similar shared interests and shared beliefs. However, at the same time, it’s also created a massive disconnect between real friends and those who are often never met in real life, or just appear as a number on a screen.
This can cause significant problems for teenagers as they search for meaningful connections, but especially for teens who struggle making friends at school and who become reliant on the internet for all their socialisation.
The reality is that despite being able to connect with others who may be in similar circumstances or have shared interests, there are many subtle nuances, reactions, facial expressions and body language that go into developing and fostering real friendships. These subtle behaviours and communications are completely lost when those friendships occur online. It’s all these complex subtleties that make up human relationships which are critical to success in all aspects of life and it’s these same complex subtleties, which are most at risk in the digital age.
Whilst some interactions and connections online can be quite good, many should be seen more as the penpals of days gone by where you’d write to someone and learn about their culture through letters, rather than someone suddenly being your new best friend about whom you know very little.
When I was at school, I had a Spanish penpal. We’d write to each other, exchange stories and photos. It was always exciting to get a letter from overseas and through this I gained a wonderful insight into a culture completely different from my own. I enjoyed this a lot, but the reality was that this was a person from another country and quite distant and disconnected from my other friends.
However, as the global network of devices and connectivity grows, the disconnect between people and real relationships increases. The ease at which you can find new ‘friends’ who might have similar interests is remarkable. However, the speed at which these ‘friendships’ fade is also remarkable. It’s almost transactional in nature. ‘I’ll be friends if you like all my posts!’ That sort of thing. However just as fast as the interaction is made possible, people move on to the next person who might, on the surface, appear to be more interesting. The cycle goes on and on and on with friendships being nothing more than superficial at best and toxic and destructive at the other end of the spectrum.
This is the true problem with these low-res friends. It’s often the most vulnerable teens who are searching for friendships online and it’s these teens who need high-res, a.k.a. real friends, they can actually spend time with more than anything else. If they’re experiencing something in life that’s hard or they’re not sure how to deal with it, the low-res friends invariably lose even more resolution and simply fade away into the aethernet. If you have no real connection with anyone, then it’s easy to just leave them in the lurch, especially if helping them makes you feel slightly uncomfortable and many teenagers today don’t like discomfort. It’s a sad harsh reality that needs to be addressed in a meaningful way.
For real relationships to develop and flourish, teenagers need high-res friends, the sort with whom they can go to the park, to the beach, ride bikes, play sport and have sleepovers. I know this may be a way out concept and the paranoid parents of the world don't want to let their children leave the house, as it could be quite scary out there! But the reality is that many of the dangers of the world can now be accessed directly from home. Going outside and playing with real friends is much safer, healthier and leads to far more balanced individuals.
If teenagers understand how to make friends and how to develop friendships in real life with hi-res friends, then equally, they can meet people online and develop friendships over longer distances, through which they can develop a whole range of different and wonderful experiences throughout life with people that have similar interests.
However, the reverse isn’t true. If they make all their friends online first, they have no way of really understanding what relationships are about. They won’t know how to interact with other people properly and in a meaningful way. This problem then flows through to university and the workplace and has the potential to cost a teenager years of their life as they play catchup and try to understand others in the real world around them.
Having said that, low-res friends aren’t all bad because they can open up the world to a whole range of different people which can be wonderful and beneficial. However, the most important thing to begin with is to develop real friendships in real life with high-res friends and then when teenagers have that real world experience, they can go and make as many low-risk friends as they like, but seriously if you’re working through this issue with teenagers, ask them, at the end of the day, what’s more important a high friend count, or friends who count?
I felt the bracing cold of Canberra, as I stepped from the car in anticipation of another challenging weekend at GovHack. I can understand why the Federal Parliament has a winter recess! However, despite this, I was rugged up and ready.
Walking up to the Snow Centre (Canberra Grammar’s amazing technology building), it was lit up with the GovHack and CGS logo projected onto the wall, looking more like a night club, than a school. Thinking of which, imagine how much money you could make from doing pop-up night clubs in schools on the weekends and in the holidays! Think about it! You have the venue, the sound systems, plenty of parking… You just need a liquor licence and you could make a ton of money! Hmmm I could be onto something… (patent pending © David Gregory 2017!!!)
Anyway, walking in, the place was buzzing with excitement. Even the registration process was cool, as I lined up to register. It was in a darkened room, illuminated by a number of computers. My name badge had been printed on this cool looking Perspex, which in the darkened room appeared to glow.
Armed with my badge and my laptop, I walked around and said hi to a few people I’d met last year. However, my nerves were starting to kick in. For me this sort of event, at least getting started is way outside my comfort zone. I may run around the countryside mountain biking, hiking, exploring new places and speaking to large audiences without any problems, going into an unknown project with a team of people I haven't even met yet is a tough and challenging experience for me. However, that's the whole point! Part of the challenge for me in doing something like this, is the fact that it is confronting and nerve wracking stepping out into the unknown.
Whilst I often talk about ways in which to push others outside their comfort zone, it makes little sense to be teaching this, unless you're going to do it yourself. Despite the nerves, the apprehension and not knowing how that night was going to turn out let alone the whole weekend, I walked in. Always worried that I wouldn’t be able to find a team, I pushed through this negative thinking, in anticipation of what could be. As usual, I was proved wrong on this. At the team forming point, I met some amazing and diverse people with whom I ended up working.
Whilst there are prizes for the most innovative use of data and a range of other categories, for me success was more to do with finding a team and working with that team to produce something interesting over the next forty six hours.
The excited noise of the crowd subsided, as ACT organiser Matt Purcell introduced the evening and ran through the rules of the event and provided a rundown of everything that was happening over the weekend and most importantly what was for dinner!
At the conclusion of his presentation, there was hurried activity as teams scrambled to their breakout rooms to start hacking, or grab a can of drink from the fridge, both good options! For our team, the first challenge was to get to know everybody's names and work out what everybody's strengths were. We quickly went around the table and introduced ourselves with a quick background as to what we do and why we were competing at GovHack.
Most teams had been organised beforehand and many of them had already devised some idea of the sort of projects they were going to work on. However, when you’ve just created a brand-new team with people you’ve never even met before, suddenly the challenge of this exercise escalates. Not only do you have to get to know people and work out their strengths really quickly, you have to come up with a cohesive and innovative idea using government data and produce at least a semi-working prototype within forty six hours.
For many, this might be an overwhelming task. However, I believe the key to success in this is effective communication. Even though we weren't able to go straight to a room and start working on our project, we were able to communicate effectively with each other and through our discussions and brainstorming, ideas started to flow and slowly come together.
As I've said many times before, for me being innovative is really hard sitting around a table. Yet this time, I found as ideas were being thrown up as to what datasets could be used, I was able to start bouncing ideas back that over the next hour and a half started to form into something quite interesting. The only thing which stumped all of us was the team name, which in the end pretty much ended up being based upon the solution that we created.
So what did we come up with?
After harassing countless government mentors and asking them what their biggest problem was, we came up with a mashup idea which evolved from using the cat restricted area data to chase down rogue cats, to a mobile app which allows drivers to quickly and accurately report injured wildlife to ACT Wildlife services. With the ultimate aim of faster rescue services and better data-capture on injured wildlife, our team got to work to research the impact of this in more depth and then built a business case and prototype from this.
The day seemed to evaporate as we brainstormed, planned and developed the idea. The sun had set and the rich tantalising smell of Indian food wafted through the air. With the organisers catering for 170 people, I've never seen so many massive buckets of curry in my life. It was a much needed and appreciated meal after a long day of hacking!
I headed off around 8:30 that evening after what had been a very productive day of team work. We’d all been working on our individual tasks, which were all contributing to the big picture of our overall project.
The next day started slowly, but the pace picked up to frantic levels as the deadline approached. We’d completed the project and the video just in time. However, after the first attempt to export the video from iMovie to YouTube failed, I had to do it manually and when I did, the computer was telling me it would take 26mins to upload the video and there were 13mins to go!!! Not able to rely on a timely server crash, I quickly re-exported the video at a much lower res and nervously cancelled the upload, removed the file and started again! The smaller video file uploaded quicker than I expected and thankfully with 4 mins to go, it was in!
Honey I Hit a Roo! - https://youtu.be/Gpi8EZiYi2Q
As the upload was confirmed, a great feeling of relief and achievement flooded in. It felt great to have successfully completed a project that two days ago, we had no idea about. Whilst at this point, it’s easy to reflect and say there was nothing to worry about, which in the end was true, if I hadn’t challenged myself and pushed myself outside my own comfort zone, I’d never have met such a great team who included Yogesh, Anthony, Ian and Mahathir and been able to create a really cool solution to a massive problem in Australia.
For the remainder of the year, I encourage everyone to do something that’s way outside their comfort zone. Don’t just teach it! Actually do it! Through this, you can become far more confident and effective in your own work and your own life. For me, this was such a great weekend, meeting new people and reconnecting with others I hadn’t seen in a long time. If you’ve never been to something like GovHack, then you must save the date for next year! A huge thankyou to Canberra Grammar, Matt Purcell and all the other GovHack volunteers who made it such an amazing weekend! Great work for me! It was a wonderful experience and the atmosphere of the whole event spoke volumes about how well it was done!
It's time to once again brave the cold of Canberra for a weekend of hacking! Whilst it would be more fun to be spending the weekend hacking a top-secret mainframe, unfortunately that's not what this sort of hacking is all about. So for the moment, the secret as to what happened to Harold Holt after he went for a swim and who has the Maltese Falcon, will remain safely hidden in the depths of the top secret bunker under Parliament House for the time being...
Instead, GovHack is a weekend all about hacking together ideas and code in a useful manner to do something productive and constructive with huge government datasets. If you have some free time and you don't know what to do with yourself, why not check out http://www.data.gov.au/ . There's over 30,000 freely available government datasets found here for you to get creative with. Everything from health stats to wave heights out at sea make up this enormous collection of data. Sadly, despite trying, I couldn't find anything about the second gunmen on the grassy knoll or the current whereabouts of the magic pudding.
Whilst last year's experience at GovHack was an amazing one, it was somewhat overwhelming as a first time participant, from the point of view I had no idea how the weekend was going to play out. However, that was part of the excitement, not knowing who I was going to meet or what I was actually going to be doing. This time however, it's exciting for a different reason. Now I kind of know what I'm doing and with that knowledge, I know exactly what time I need to line up for food before the crowd arrives.
Despite having this advantage over others for the food line, the real excitement for me comes back to the fact that whilst I know how it all works this time around from a logistical point of view, the datasets are different, the projects will be different, the challenges and prizes will be different and the team might be different. Once you throw in all these new variables it's an entirely new challenge and experience.
This can be seen as a reflection on how technology is shaping our lives in such a dramatic way. Whilst in the past, experience could make you an expert in a certain area and from one year to the next it wouldn’t change much. For example, if you read lots of books on ancient Rome, you would most likely be an authority on the subject. However, 12 months on since the last GovHack challenge, technology has changed, the world has move forward, (with the exception of North Korea) and what I thought I was reasonably good with back then, I find has completely changed by now. No longer can we get away with creating a mash up of bus schedules and Pokémon Go stops, because literally nobody cares about Pokémon Go anymore. Whilst this might be a wonderful reflection on the progress our society has made in a year, one good thing the game did, was that it got a lot of shut-ins out of their windowless basements and running around town chasing imaginary creatures.
Despite the shifting sands of technology, game fads and social media, no matter how much the world changes, there remain some key educational groundings and skills that are essential for the challenge of GovHack. Being able to analyse and solve real-world problems is what this weekend is all about. Forget the technology, as I said, it constantly changes and so with that, you just have to accept the inevitable change and realise that is now just another variable in the problem-solving process.
For anyone considering going to something like this, it is a fantastic experience and is of immense educational value. You will learn more in one weekend problem solving with others, than you will in six months in a classroom. Even if you know nothing about the technology, it's your ability to look at a problem in a unique way and find creative solutions that will lead you to success. This is really a microcosm of what mainstream education should be about. As the world changes so rapidly, education needs to realise this and catch up with the fact that teachers need to be teaching students how to be looking at problems, considering options and working out solutions.
If you haven't already got yourself organised to go to a GovHack event, then get to right now to do something about it. Find your nearest location and register to attend, because it will be one of the most memorable weekends of your year. If in the process, you happen to find out who has the Maltese Falcon, I am willing to pay handsomely for that information…
Over the weekend, I was involved in GovHack 2016 in Canberra, which was hosted by Canberra Grammar School. GovHack, if you’ve never heard of it before, is a collaborative international competition sponsored by government and businesses that focuses on how to better use the huge collection of around 10,000 government data sets publicly available. There was a huge range of prizes for different categories of solutions. A cynical view would be that it’s the government finding a cheap way to solve the problems that big departments aren’t agile enough to solve themselves. However, a better view is that the government is serious about reshaping the economy in a way that promotes innovation and understands just how tenacious and innovative Australians are when it comes to building things that do stuff! (Ok, NZ is in the competition as well, but I’m kinda biased).
Friday Kickoff Night
Friday night 6pm was the kick off, with the briefing and the announcement of the various prizes and goals. I was a bit worried when most people appeared to be in well-organized teams and were walking in with huge screens and their own computer servers tucked under their arms! I thought I’d be left to fend for myself and the idea of trying to do a project alone is just plain crazy. It simply doesn’t work! You need a team with a diverse skill set who can imagine, problem solve, build and present! Without unique individual skills to make up the team, you’re going to really struggle with the complexity of this sort of challenge.
Luckily when I went to the team signup area, I met Pin and Alec, who were both tech experts in search of a business/presenter type! Well hey, that’s me! :) a fantastic start to the team challenge. With such friendly people. We were then joined by Will who completed the team with his great technical and problem solving skills. With our team ready to go, now the biggest challenge of all… Working out what to do?
Team Work Space
This is probably one of the hardest things, even for for a team of innovative and creative people. There’s a ton of data sets, all with their own opportunities and own problems. I know my best creativity happens whilst going up ski lifts, but despite the Canberra cold, there was no snow in sight. So plan B! We brainstormed for over an hour trying to work out what to do and what data could be used to do it. Eventually, Will and Alec suggested buses and Pokémon! What? I hear you mumbling. What the hell is that all about? Well it’s a natural mashup! Trust me on this! The idea for the app was to take the live transport data from Canberra’s Action buses and overlay it on the street map so you could see exactly where every bus is and watch it get closer as it approaches your stop. On top of this, we decided to overlay the map with all of the Pokémon Go stops and gyms around Canberra! Makes perfect sense! Pin added the local wildlife habitats as well for an additional tourist element to get more people using our buses.
Buses, Wildlife & Pokémon, Oh My!
The remainder of the evening was spent fleshing out the idea, how it would work and what we needed to do for it. With the idea solidly in hand, we decided to come back to it in the morning to get started on the build.
The next day we got stuck into the project. Each of us worked on a discrete component for which each of us had a special skill. The coding talk for me was understandable, but seeing everyone typing and coding on the screen made my head spin slightly! I spent the day focused on researching ACT buses and the wider social issues surrounding public transport usage in Canberra! I then drew out some statistics and evidence to support the business case for the app and complied it all ready to present it. I also did some mock up images of the Action Pokébus, which was fun!
The Concept Taking Shape
It was a long day and we finished after dinner, which was noodle boxes. I have to say, the catering for the event was awesome. Canberra Grammar did a fantastic job of food, drinks and snacks to keep everyone going the whole weekend. I managed to eat waaaayyy too many Oreos and now I desperately need to go for a run. However, back to the event! We finished for the evening with parts of the platform built and the research complete! We were all ready for a good night’s rest, before the final stretch in the morning.
Sunday morning started with a similar pace to Saturday, with each of us working on our own parts of the project. As the day progressed, it all started to gel together with the software being finalised and my speech almost done. I revised it several times before I was happy with the script and then we quickly shot it as the battery on the camera quickly died. We literally had two takes and that was it. No more battery, no other chance to refine.
The last hour was frantic, stressful and exciting all at the same time! After recording the pitch, Will edited it and threw in all of the info and screenshots to demonstrate the platform in action! I could see the clock ticking down as I typed faster and faster to update each of the details for the submission. Meanwhile, the team finished editing the video and made sure the app was running ready for the submission! Just as we were about to upload everything and submit our project, we got a blank screen… The GovHack server went down! We were literally moments from submission!!! You know that sinking feeling when you’re trying to catch a bus and you see it driving off, well that’s what it felt like. Thankfully, it affected everyone else and we were able to submit our work once they got the server up and running again!
Frantic Final Touches
As we waited for the two umpalumpas somewhere in an unlit basement to restart the government servers, we had a chance to just chat and do a bit of a debrief on the weekend. It was interesting going around the table and finding out what the most challenging and reward parts were for each of the team.
The great thing for me about the weekend was being way outside my comfort zone. Even though I understood in general terms what was going on, I can’t code and this made me feel uncomfortable and totally reliant on the others to build the idea. However, their skills were amazing and the benefit of this was the fact that each member of the team had a strength in a different area. Together, it was a fantastic meshing of skills. So in the end, rather than feeling out of my depth, I was able to contribute through my own unique set of skills and provide the business case and marketing pitch for the platform.
Here it is Pitch: Go Go Bus Pitch
It was a fantastic team with which to work and such an amazing opportunity to have been part of GovHack 2016. The technical skills, mashed up with problem solving, teamwork and presentation skills, make this a must do for any budding problem solver. The atmosphere and energy was great and something I would love to do again.
With the servers up, project done and delivered, all I can say now is that that was one awesome weekend.
Transfeed Team 2016