On Saturday, February 12, AcademyHealth joined Health 2.0 and Georgetown University in hosting one in a series of developer challenge “code-a-thons.” A code-a-thon is a day-long event where developers, designers, and researchers come together to build new applications and tools from existing health related data sets. At the end of the day, the teams present their products and the best application is awarded. Staffers Ben DeCoudres and Eli Simons attended the sessions and report on their experiences: Getting Our Code On with Health 2.0 By Ben DeCoudres and Eli Simons It was 9 a.m. on Saturday, February 12 and the energy in the room was rising. Before us, gathered in a lecture hall on Georgetown University’s campus, was one of the most impressively eclectic collections of professionals we had ever seen. About seventy people in all – health services researchers, web developers, coders, designers, and health policymakers – had come to participate in the D.C. event. All sat listening with anticipation to Health and Human Services Chief Technology Officer Todd Park speak of exciting frontiers in data innovation. Park’s speaking style is infectious; he dots his presentation with off-the-cuff coined phrases like “datapalooza” and exhortations to “Scrub In” and “Rock Out!” In his opening presentation, Park called health and health services researchers “free agents,” who were familiar with the data and could offer teams a competitive advantage. What a great endorsement for our field! Code-a-thons don’t follow a traditional conference format. After the opening presentations most activities flow in parallel tracks – with speakers in a main forum and active coding in breakout rooms happening concurrently. These events are all about collaboration. Although some teams came to the code-a-thon pre-formed, the majority evolved organically; one person stands up and pitches an idea, and is then joined by a cohort of interested researchers, coders, policymakers, and clinicians who form a team For those who did not join a team at the outset, two large sheets of paper were posted outside the main lecture hall: one listing the team names, the issue they were tackling, and the room in which they were working; and the other listing free agents and their specialties. The twitter feed #health2dev was also being used to communicate updates, group needs, encouragement, resources, and app ideas.  As one can imagine, the teams were incredibly diverse in terms of make-up, data sources and issue focus. For example, HealthCentral set out to “mashup” their own anonymized search data (what users are looking for on their site) with publicly available data on the location of mammography centers and clinical trials in order to produce: 1. A visualization of the proximity of users searching for breast cancer info and real-world physical places where they could go to access that information, and 2. A tool by which a user could find the closest treatment center to them and get the critical info they needed to evaluate it’s usefulness.” Another team, Nexercise, created an iPhone app that quizzes users on data drawn from health indicators.  Getting the correct answer unlocks discounts from retailers, such as athletic wear or dining.  After listening to presentations describing the data sets being used for the applications, Eli decided to follow one of the teams to get a better sense for how the application design and development process works. The team he followed consisted of researchers, developers, and designers that had just met. They chose to draw their data set from the recently launched Health Indicators Warehouse portal, an HHS data hub that provides health and health care data to support innovations in information technology. With their data set, the team hoped to build a Community Health Outcomes and Infrastructure System (CHOIS), a website that would enable users to compare the capacities of local health departments and assess how these capacities influence community health outcomes. While the initial teams were off innovating in their respective rooms, the main lecture hall turned into a resource center with representatives of different departments presenting their latest APIs.  Staff from HHS, CMS, and NCI all presented large data sets. In addition, the speaker forum included substantive talks from researchers, including Georgetown faculty and AcademyHealth Methods Council member Mike Stoto, Ph.D. After an energizing ‘working’ lunch, the afternoon was spent deep in application development. Although starting as strangers, the team Eli was following began to gel to the point where one would think that they had been close colleagues all along. Each team member offered a different perspective; however, they all shared a similar level of enthusiasm and excitement about developing an innovative tool to improve community health.  When the bell rang and the dust settled at 5:30 p.m., everyone was smiling after a hard day’s work. Judges, including AcademyHealth’s Erin Holve, evaluated each team’s final project, awarding first prize to an application from Team Maya of Pittsburgh, that leveraged SMS technology to provide people living in ‘food deserts’ with sustainable access to healthy food. Although Eli’s team was unable to complete the website by the end of the day and did not win the competition; they plan to continue to develop CHOIS with a limited data set until it is complete. This illustrates what is perhaps the greatest purpose and achievement of these code-a-thons – engaging non-traditional partners in driving innovation through enhanced data access and ongoing collaboration.   To learn more about Health 2.0 code-a-thons and see some of the apps that have been developed, visit http://health2challenge.org/

Blog comments are restricted to AcademyHealth members only. To add comments, please sign-in.