The Political Economy of Hackathons

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 9.47.32 AMTwo thousand hackers from 50 universities around the world came to the University of Pennsylvania last weekend, where they were fed, housed, given toothbrushes, Red Bull drinks, and proceeded to create the most innovative and creative software and hardware hacks to date. The event was PennApps, the nation’s largest and longest-running collegiate hackathon. In 48 sleepless hours, people built new ways to interact with iPhones, smart watches, and flying drones. Microsoft and Google were recruiting engineers. Intel even released a new electronics board for the event.

This event was also the debut of PennApps Health, which will hopefully be a part of this event from now on. The turnout was impressive. Epic Systems, Independence Blue Cross, and Mainline Health each presented specific healthcare challenges and rewards. Their presence motivated at least 35 teams to compete in health challenges. Here are the main takeaways from this event:

1. Healthcare hacking is less sexy than device hacking

At open-ended hackathons, the “popular” crowd usually pursues high tech hacks e.g. virtual reality and other cutting edge devices. One group, for example, wired up a motorized skateboard so it could be controlled wirelessly with gestures. Another group created a Google Glass app for the blind that recognized, and spoke aloud, the names of objects in front of the wearer.

Healthcare, on the other hand, is less amenable to this style of hacking. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that data are proprietary, patients don’t want to pay for health, and hospitals are still trying to solve very basic needs. My hospital, for example, is currently trying to solve two-way text messaging and automated schedule creation. The problems we face in health care fail to draw innovate designers and developers to the field.

2. More providers need to be involved 

One of the attention-grabbing apps was Scolio, an iPad app that screens for scoliosis based on shoulder and hip angulation using a front-on photo and the iPad’s built-in level. Nevermind that the USPTF recommends against routine adolescent screening for idiopathic scoliosis because it causes more harm than benefit. And nevermind that the decreased sensitivity from analyzing a photo compared to a scoliometer would only exaggerate the over-diagnosis.

Apps like these need physician guidance in order to find the appropriate problem, before they will ever see adoption in healthcare, and event before physicians will be willing to recommend them to their patients.

These hackathons have a substantial way to go before they produce commercializable products and spinoff companies. Part of the impetus is that healthcare entities are cautious—often unwilling to face inevitable challenges in security, software support, and liability. That is why we need to attract top engineering and design talent at events like these. Healthcare providers, need to identify the problems and guide them in the right direction.

David Do, MD is a physician at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and CTO of symcat.com.