Last Saturday, the Health 2.0 Developer Challenge code-a-thon took place at Georgetown University.
I should state up front that I didn’t go to code, participate in any particular project, or to specifically push data related to my work. My goals were to observe, learn about how government health data can and is being used by individuals and groups looking for innovative solutions to health challenges, promote awareness of open data to which I am connected, and of course, network. It’s not uncommon for me to attend an unconference or similar event and not actually attend any sessions. I find the hallway meetings to be extremely beneficial. Events such as this are often when discussions occur which simply wouldn’t happen if they had to be organized with the Scheduling Assistant in Outlook.
So now that I have somewhat disqualified myself, here are my impressions of the event.
The words that seem to sum up the event are “exciting mix.” First you have people like me, who spent more time in hallway meetings than in the planned event. Second, in addition to open development time, there were pre-planned speakers on relevant topics, such as CMS.
There were pre-planned projects as well as those organized that morning. HHS CTO Todd Park referred to the health sciences researchers in attendance as “free agents,” adding his belief that the winning team with be one who engaged them. After the morning speakers, there was a “free agent” list posted outside the main meeting room door, next to the list of teams and their topics.
Logistically, the event went smoothly. The internet connection was fast and consistent (it is a major university after all). Coffee and other drinks were always available. There wasn’t actually a “lunch time.” After the food arrived, everyone ate at their own pace. Facilities were excellent (again, it’s Georgetown University). There were a number of classrooms and workspaces available. Smaller private areas were available, of which I made very productive use.
Two areas in which I see the opportunity to expand the event’s impact are virtual participation and digital footprint. It would have been helpful (even for on-site participants) to have a wiki where information was collected about the teams, their projects, and progress. At an event focusing on open data, this adds transparency and accountability to the process. Perhaps there could have been an event reporter who function was to collect this information from the teams and post it on the wiki, freeing the teams, who were already working at a frenzied pace, from this responsibility.
This next comment is not really directed at the Health 2.0 Developer Challenge. It’s the question I always ask. Where were the communities? Where were the representatives of the persons and communities for whom these innovative solutions were being created? There was no lack of experts at the event: physicians, researchers, developers, etc. These are individuals who know their “customers” well. There is, however, no substitute for having real citizens, patients, and caregivers participate in the development process. Also, community health providers would have been a great addition. They should be “baked in” to these processes. Bringing communities in and giving them ownership of the process is key to success and positive impact.
I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about MAYA and BlueMeter, the first as second place teams. My personal favorite wasn’t the fanciest app and didn’t make the data do the craziest trick.
It was Nexercise, an iPhone app that quizzes users on data drawn from health indicators. Correct answers unlocked discounts from retailers, such as athletic wear or dining. The team of two (yes, only two!) built a working prototype and demonstrated it. Watching their presentation, I knew they weren’t going to win. It was too simple compared to the other complex ideas being presented, some of which were presented more as a proof-of-concept, than a vetted system. The organizers came over to this team after the winners were announced and expressed their admiration for their accomplishment. This is where I think we need to be a little more DC and a little less VC. Or at least more like a VC who sees the benefit in funding a small project that accomplishes a single task well.
My final question is the same I ask at every code-a-thon. How many of these projects and apps will launch, or have a positive impact through other processes? Apps don’t have to launch a start-up to be successful. After all, the group of developers from the Great American Hack-a-thon who built a Facebook game from Pillbox’s data, decided to not launch. They did however, post all of their code (including wrappers in multiple languages and a Facebook pill ID app) on github.
The end goal isn’t apps, it’s solutions to challenges that create a positive impact. That isn’t a destination, so much as a direction in which we are all blazing exciting trails, learning and sharing together – researchers, public health agencies, developers, advocates, citizens, and everyone in between.
[2/15/11 edit: info for Nexercise added]
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