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Category: Hack-a-thon

What Do You Mean, “Innovation”?

BY KIM BELLARD

One of my favorite movies is The Princess Bride. Among the many great quotes is one from Inigo Montoya, who becomes frustrated when the evil Vizzini keeps using “inconceivable” to describe events that were clearly actually taking place. “You keep using that word,” Inigo finally says. “I do not think it means what you think it means.”

So it is for most of us with the word “innovation” – especially in healthcare.

What started thinking me about this is an opinion piece by Alex Amouyel: Innovation Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Does.  Ms. Amouyel is the Executive Director of Solve, an MIT initiative whose mission is “to drive innovation to solve world challenges.” It sees itself as “a marketplace for social impact innovation.”    

In her article, Ms. Amouyel notes that traditional definitions of innovation focus on the use of novelty to create wealth. She doesn’t dispute that view, as long as “wealth” includes the less traditional “community wealth,” which includes “broadly shared economic prosperity, racial equity, and ecological sustainability.” I suspect that innovators like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk don’t ascribe to that view of innovation.

Ms. Amouyel’s view is: “For me, innovation is about solving problems. And if innovation is about solving problems, what problems you are solving and who is setting about solving them is key.” She notes the multiplicity and difficulty of both global and community-level problems that we face, and urges: “Most urgently, we should zero in on problems that affect the most underserved among us.”

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Make Hackathons Fair Again

By FRED TROTTER

On Oct 19, I will begin to MC the health equity hackathon in Austin TX, which will focus on addressing healthcare disparity issues. Specifically, we will be using healthcare data to try and make an impact on those problems. Our planning team has spent months thinking about how to run a hackathon fairly, especially after the release of a report that harshly criticized how hackathons are typically run.

A Wired article written earlier this year trumpets a study called “Hackathons As Co-optation Ritual: Socializing Workers and Institutionalizing Innovation in the ‘New’ Economy,” which criticizes the corporate takeover of hackathons. Hackathons are inherently unfair to participants according to these two sociologists.

They argue that hackathons have become a way for corporations to trick legions of technologists into working for free. To a sociologist, that looks like exploitation, and it is hard to see how they are wrong.

After reading the article, I was struck by how many things about typical hackathons are backward:

  • Hackathons romanticize workaholism and celebrate insomnia – With hackathons typically running 24-72 hours straight, sleep is for the weak. Those who don’t sleep are seen as heroes.
  • Junk food is the only option – Most hackathons provide unhealthy snacks, high in fructose and low in protein. Participants are expected to fuel their unpaid work sprints with sugar and caffeine. These are frequently the only eating options available.
  • Healthy work patterns ensure that there are breaks. Opportunities to chat, or walk and take a break from work. And the idea of encouraging people to get up and move, let alone stretch, is unheard of at these hackathons. Hundreds of geeks, unable to shower, or leave the room, can create a pretty bad smell.
  • Judging is at best arbitrary, and in some cases completely rigged, with winners sometimes chosen in advance.

On occasion, I have seen harder stimulants used. Although I have never seen anyone on cocaine win, it does make for super-engaging project presentations. The presentations were not good, mind you, just engaging… In the “Holy Moses, this guy is about to present when he is clearly high AF” sense.

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