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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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