Data Innovation: Insight into the Health 2.0 Code-A-Thon



What exactly is a “code-a-thon” you ask? Well, I’m not computer science wiz but according to the Health 2.0 Code-A-Thon DC website:

…bringing together developers, designers and raw data sets to build exciting new applications and tools for improved health care. Developers, designers and other stakeholders are given an overview of health care issues, tools and data sets, and are asked to creatively design new tools for the health care space. Developers are encouraged to use OpenGov data sets as well as private data sets to create their application. At the end of the day, developers present their application to the group, and the best solution is awarded.

In a nutshell, people in the Washington DC area (and another event taking place in Boston this week) got together and built applications using public data to improve healthcare. Although I wasn’t able to attend and cover what was going on – my good friend David Hale (info about him below) was able. He recently wrote his thoughts down about being an observer and I knew I had to get them over onto Pulse + Signal. David’s musings really hit the nail on the head for me when it comes to innovations in health. We can bring together the greatest minds on the planet, the savviest technical people and the most passionate changemakers – but what good is it when the very people who need these things are nowhere to be found? Don’t get me wrong – this is a fantastic way to get new things moving. I just wish colleagues I know from local public health departments or communication agencies were more privy to what was going on. What if they had questions on how they could use these potential tools for their work on the ground, serving the needs of the community?

I digress, check out David’s thoughts and let me know what you think:


Last Saturday, the Health 2.0 Developer Challenge code-a-thon took place at Georgetown University.

I should state up front that I didn’t go to code, participate in any particular project, or to specifically push data related to my work.  My goals were to observe, learn about how government health data can and is being used by individuals and groups looking for innovative solutions to health challenges, promote awareness of open data to which I am connected, and of course, network.  It’s not uncommon for me to attend an unconference or similar event and not actually attend any sessions.  I find the hallway meetings to be extremely beneficial.  Events such as this are often when discussions occur which simply wouldn’t happen if they had to be organized with the Scheduling Assistant in Outlook.

So now that I have somewhat disqualified myself, here are my impressions of the event.

The words that seem to sum up the event are "exciting mix."  First you have people like me, who spent more time in hallway meetings than in the planned event.  Second, in addition to open development time, there were pre-planned speakers on relevant topics, such as CMS.

There were pre-planned projects as well as those organized that morning.  HHS CTO Todd Park referred to the health sciences researchers in attendance as "free agents," adding his belief that the winning team with be one who engaged them.  After the morning speakers, there was a "free agent" list posted outside the main meeting room door, next to the list of teams and their topics.

Logistically, the event went smoothly.  The internet connection was fast and consistent (it is a major university  after all).  Coffee and other drinks were always available.  There wasn’t actually a "lunch time."  After the food arrived, everyone ate at their own pace.  Facilities were excellent (again, it’s Georgetown University).  There were a number of classrooms and workspaces available.  Smaller private areas were available, of which I made very productive use.

Two areas in which I see the opportunity to expand the event’s impact are virtual participation and digital footprint.  It would have been helpful (even for on-site participants) to have a wiki where information was collected about the teams, their projects, and progress.  At an event focusing on open data, this adds transparency and accountability to the process.  Perhaps there could have been an event reporter who function was to collect this information from the teams and post it on the wiki, freeing the teams, who were already working at a frenzied pace, from this responsibility.

This next comment is not really directed at the Health 2.0 Developer Challenge.  It’s the question I always ask.  Where were the communities?  Where were the representatives of the persons and communities for whom these innovative solutions were being created?  There was no lack of experts at the event: physicians, researchers, developers, etc.  These are individuals who know their "customers" well.  There is, however, no substitute for having real citizens, patients, and caregivers participate in the development process.  Also, community health providers would have been a great addition.  They should be "baked in" to these processes.  Bringing communities in and giving them ownership of the process is key to success and positive impact.

I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about MAYA and BlueMeter, the first as second place teams.  My personal favorite wasn’t the fanciest app and didn’t make the data do the craziest trick.  It was an iPhone app that quizzed users on data drawn from health indicators.  Correct answers unlocked discounts from retailers, such as athletic wear or dining.  The team of two (yes, only two!) built a working prototype and demonstrated it.  Watching their presentation, I knew they weren’t going to win.  It was too simple compared to the other complex ideas being presented, some of which were presented more as a proof-of-concept, than a vetted system.  The organizers came over to this team after the winners were announced and expressed their admiration for their accomplishment.  This is where I think we need to be a little more DC and a little less VC.  Or at least more like a VC who sees the benefit in funding a small project that accomplishes a single task well.

My final question is the same I ask at every code-a-thon.  How many of these projects and apps will launch, or have a positive impact through other processes?  Apps don’t have to launch a start-up to be successful.  After all, the group of developers from the Great American Hack-a-thon who built a Facebook game from Pillbox’s data, decided to not launch.  They did however, post all of their code (including wrappers in multiple languages and a Facebook pill ID app) on github.

The end goal isn’t apps, it’s solutions to challenges that create a positive impact.  That isn’t a destination, so much as a direction in which we are all blazing exciting trails, learning and sharing together – researchers, public health agencies, developers, advocates, citizens, and everyone in between.


David Hale is the project manager of Pillbox, a National Library of Medicine (NLM), National Institutes of Health/Food and Drug Administration patient-safety initiative. Pillbox has restructured government pharmaceutical data to create a platform for innovation, promoting the development of resources and applications that empower and enable communities to solve challenges related to drug information and identification. Known as a technology entrepreneur in government, Mr. Hale is a frequent speaker on the subjects of open government, community engagement in the process of opening health data, and social media.


  1. I also agree that there needs to be much greater participation from the end users in this process. I would add though that one of the biggest challenges seems to be how to actually make that happen. There was lots of interest in getting word out about this event (and similar events) but if the end users can’t easily access the venue then the resulting effect is the same as if they weren’t even invited to the table. I would argue that there needs to be some serious thought into better mechanisms to facilitate conversations and interaction between communities/ end users/ local government agencies and the larger groups that are initiating these efforts. There are probably some technological solutions to this but relying on that alone will also end up excluding important stakeholders. So, the challenge on the table is “How do we find better mechanisms to engage with, solicit input from and collaboratively develop solutions with these groups”?

  2. Steve Downs says:

    I think David’s spot on about bringing the users into the development process. It makes me wonder about ways to crowdsource use cases or needs. How can we get target users to pose ideas of what they’d like to have in a way that signals the most pressing needs to developers? For a consumer, there’s this magical phenomenon that if you can think of an app, it already exists. For many people who want to apply public health data to decisions, we’re not there yet. Understanding people’s wish lists would be a good start.

  3. Mike Painter says:

    I really agree with the point about including citizens, patients, families, health consumers, (even!)–to help experts and professionals generate apps that help real people solve real day to day problems. For instance, wouldn’t it be terrific to have one of these code-a-thon events targeted on the needs of RWJF Aligning Forces for Quality communities? Seems like an event screaming to happen… See the RWJF conversation–Transformation has begun:

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