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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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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.

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The Future of Health Is in #Opendata

This Saturday I had the pleasure of helping organize a hackathon that was put together by the Open State Foundation (HackDeOverheid). The theme was “Open Data, open for business” and took place at a very unique place in Rotterdam – WORM (an institute for avant garde recreation). It was a perfect spot to gather almost 150 people from all disciplines and sponsors/partners ranging from the Hogeschool Rotterdam, TNO, Internet Valley Rotterdam to name a few, but also a contribution from Health 2.0.

Open health data is relatively a new initiative within the Open State Foundation with a simple but strong message:

“Open Zorg Data is an initiative to build a community that utilizes open healthcare data, encourages innovation & entrepreneurship, improves transparency in our healthcare system and most importantly turns healthcare into health for our digital citizens”

In the last few weeks, we worked with the Ministry of Health (Ministerie van VWS) to plan out the OpenZorgData Workshop and help inspire the community of developers to use the data for social and entrepreneurial good.

The turn out was great!!  We have more then doubled (2X) the number of attendees to the workshop from the previous workshop that took place in Amsterdam. First up in the morning data pitch session was, Ron Roozendaal (CIO of the Ministry of Health), who took a few minutes to introduce all the stakeholders within the Ministry and the newly opened data sets. He exuded enthusiasm and excitement!

Our workshop kicked off at 11:45 with standing room only, but when I asked how many people were hackers planning to use the open health data, only one guy raised his hand (but noted that he had no plans of doing it that day). Here we are: room full of people, Ministry of Health in the room and not one single individual was planning to hack away at the data. We carried on with the presentations where Lany Slobbe, Hans Loonen & Christian Gonzales presented their respective data sets. The workshop presentations finished off with Seth van den Bossche from TNO presenting their open data & Atilla Erdodi showcasing an open API he put on top of the KiesBeter data (opened up back in June of 2012).

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