Project of the Day: The Canadian Health Hackatons

Hacking Health is a hackathon that is focused on social innovation more than technical innovation. Our approach to improve healthcare is to pair technological innovators with healthcare experts to build realistic, human-centric solutions to front-line healthcare problems”.

In Tim Review, Jeeshan Chowdhury relates their experience:

“With the urgent need for disruptive innovation in health and the social barriers to change that currently exist, a group of young professionals spanning medicine, technology, and policy proposed an experiment to test whether the hackathon model could be applied not only to the development of projects but also to interdisciplinary teams. The experiment was Hacking Health, the first health-focused hackathon in Canada. The short-term goal was to develop working software that can immediately improve healthcare by solving known, bite-sized problems. More importantly, the long-term goal was to nurture ongoing collaborative partnerships between technology innovators and healthcare experts.

Unlike other hackathons, Hacking Health’s primary goal was not simply to spur the development of interesting projects, but it was to attempt to narrow the gap between frontline health professionals and technology experts in rapid but lasting way. It is necessary, but insufficient, to simply put different groups of people in the same room. The physical gap between the two groups should be seen more as a function of the social gap between them. Both health professionals and technology experts are highly trained in their own demanding domains, each with their own technical jargon and ingrained methods and perspectives. Thus at Hacking Health, there was considerable focus on educating and training each group to be able speak to one another. For example, before the actual event, we hosted a “pitch clinic” for health professionals to provide training and coaching on how to communicate effectively with technical talent. Similarly, for technical talent, we held a “meet up” days before the event to introduce software developers and web designers to the unique challenges of building solutions for healthcare.

Further, the open and rapid nature of hackathons is in stark contrast to the often regulated and incremental progress of clinical medicine. A number of the clinicians initially expressed concern of losing control of an important idea or ownership of intellectual property in such a setting. Fortunately, even if there is sensitive information, the short format of the hackathon is ideal for testing out one part of a larger vision. By analogy, one can still put together most of a recipe but hold back on sharing the special ingredients behind that secret sauce. Ultimately, for clinicians that may have valuable intellectual property, the real value will never be actualized unless they can execute. Even if a hacker could build their idea, they cannot test and implement it without a clinical partner. What assuaged clinicians is that both parties, health professional and hacker, need each other to move from idea to working product. At the level of the hackathon, intellectual property is owned by the team and it is up to individual teams to determine how it is shared. That being said, considering the short nature of the hackathon and very early nature of any prototypes formed, very little actual value resides in the limited code or early concepts produced at the hackathon itself. Ultimately, the true value lies in the team that has formed and the evolution of the members and project over time. If needed, the team may start afresh from the original code and concept worked on at the hackathon itself.

The purpose of a hackathons can be mainly a social or educational event, or it may be focused directly on launching apps; from the onset, Hacking Health was designed to catalyze entrepreneurial teams and projects to address issues in healthcare through business models. While a small number of teams pursued projects that were nonprofit, the social business model encouraged to the majority of teams was well received by both clinicians and technical experts. The clinicians who had identified problems that could be improved by technology and made the effort to attend Hacking Health also tended to be not only early adopters of technology but entrepreneurial as well. In interviews with developers and designers, many cited personal frustrations with the healthcare system as a primary motivator in attending and described a strong desire to use their skills to address those frustrations and access a robust and growing vertical market.

The first Hacking Health held in Montreal attracted over 200 health professionals and technical talent who produced 19 working prototypes over the course of the two-day event. Projects ranged from a prescription drug reminder application for patients, to a 3D burn-area calculator for physicians, which uses the off-the-shelf Kinect video game accessory. The results can be seen at and this model will be replicated in similar events across Canada.

The first Hacking Health event demonstrated that interdisciplinary teams can be formed in a short period of time at a very low cost. However, it remains to be seen how this level of activity can be sustained over the medium and long term to the final goal of startup companies that are making a profitable and positive impact on healthcare. The next phase is supporting the self-selecting individuals that form nascent teams along the funnel of development. This will require a different set of incentives and supports apart from those that bring the teams together in the first place. This can be practically achieved by connecting the teams that form at Hacking Health to the growing ecosystem of startup incubators and accelerators that support early-stage entrepreneurs.”

In Conclusion:

“Information technologies, namely web and mobile services, have significant impact on a number of industries and sectors. These technologies are thus a keen target for social innovators to bring about change in their respective domain. While technology is always advancing and costs over time will reduce, the primary barrier to the introduction of these technologies to health, education, and other social sectors is no longer technical but rather a social question of how to best implement these solutions into a unique context.

The experiment of Hacking Health has shown that the rapid iterative mindset of hackers and hackathons is applicable not only to the development of prototypes but also teams that have a truly interdisciplinary approach to overcome social barriers to innovation. The key is to break down the barriers between technical experts who can build innovative technologies and the frontline practitioners who know which solutions can make an impact. Overcoming these barriers begins physically by placing both groups together in the same space but extends into bridging the language and cultural gaps between them.

The model of Hacking Health will be expanded to other cities starting first with Toronto in the fall of 2012. While a hackathon catalyzes early action and connections, to form lasting start-up enterprises, these early teams and ideas will require nurturing and support to progress through the innovation pipeline. As such, in the future Hacking Health will begin to investigate and develop mechanisms to translate the spurt of activity during the short period of the hackathon into long-acting startups.

The lack of empirical data on the long-term impact of hackathons in generating lasting entrepreneurial activity is an important area for future research investigation in this field. Designing support systems for teams after hackathons that also track their progress is an attractive means to both increase the throughput of teams through the innovation pipeline but also produce empirical evidence. Nevertheless, the low cost and risk of these types of events – where technology innovators are introduced and trained to work with frontline practitioners – makes the hackathon approach an accessible and scalable means to foster innovation in almost any social sector.”

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