Hacking for Better Health

By ahhb
Friday, 07 August, 2015

The healthcare sector has much to gain from the new developments in eHealth and soaring popularity of lifestyle apps contained in mobile and wearable devices. The question is, what to do with this data to help patients? A community of IT enthusiasts have come together to help connect the dots via a national hackathon writes Dr Maia Sauren.

What is a hackathon?
“Hacking” is the (legal) process of creative problem solving. A hackathon is an event where people come together to collaboratively solve problems, often using software or other technologies. You might have heard it described as a hackday or a codefest.
What happens at a hackathon?
Participants typically form teams of 2-5 people, gather their laptops, and work on finding solutions to a problem. The event might run for a few hours or a whole weekend. Often participants compete for prizes, either as money, goods or simply prestige.
The problems may be predefined or brainstormed at the start of the event. The focus is on usually centred around iterative prototyping and innovative solutions.
A hackathon can be a platform for people to show off their skills, launch new research projects, seek alternative opinions on an existing problem, or simply grow and fertilise the community.
This model has been so successful that in recent years, companies such as Commonwealth Bank, Realestate.com.au and Fairfax Media have begun holding internal, external and mixed hackathons. These are used as a way to kickstart innovation or connect staff from different areas. Prizes range from ‘tech toys’ such as Chromecasts to tens of thousands of dollars.
The outputs may not always see the light of day, but they’re always valuable.
So, what sort of a hackathon is HealthHack?
HealthHack is a weekend hackathon designed to address some of the problems faced by the Australian health sector. It brings together biomedical researchers, clinicians, bioinformaticians, software developers, data analysts, designers, storytellers, and graphic artists.
It has the double advantage of demonstrating the power of new software technologies to scientists and clinicians, and getting the software community involved in healthcare.
Starting with the questions “What about your job makes you cry?” and “What do you wish you could do?”, HealthHack organisers work with problem owners ahead of time, narrowing down interesting projects suitable for tackling over a weekend. The scientists and clinicians participate over the weekend, working with a multi-disciplinary team to find solutions that address their specific needs and processes.
Some HealthHack outcomes
The kinds of problems tackled by HealthHackers have ranged from innovative visualisations of scientific publications, to better models of life expectancy calculations for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, to a quality assurance tool for genomic data assessment.
Although the main output of HealthHack was open products to assist health researchers, there was a secondary output, just as important: networks built across communities. The participants on many teams have remained in contact, and even continued discussions with researchers on how to better the tools they created over the weekend.
Dr Ben Fulcher And Dr George Youssef of the Psychology department at Monash University came away from HealthHack with not one but two mobile apps, Android and iOS (Apple), for tracking gamblers’ addictive behaviours and moods.
This project is the first of its kind in the field of Psychology. Gamblers’ behaviours are often assessed months after the fact at a clinical setting. This doesn’t allow people the ability to recognise their own addiction. The apps allow users to track in real time how their mood and environmental factors interact with their problem behaviours, allowing the demonstration of what is going on as well as opening up whole new paths of research.
01-Better-HealthThe broader Psychology department are impressed with the results. They have been disappointed with previous projects in which $50,000 and several months buy them a mediocre product, inferior to what came out of a single weekend at a hackathon.
Developers Bec Martin and Andreas Limberopoulos agreed to continue working on the Android version of the app, on the understanding they will be hired to continue working on it when further funding is obtained. The app is now at a stage where the researchers will begin trialling it with a small number of patients.
Having submitted a grant application a week before HealthHack and missed out by a hair’s breadth, the researchers are confident they will now be able to secure new lines of funding.
First prize winners of Melbourne’s HealthHack 2014, team VizMyGrant’s web application demonstrates where National Health and Medical Research Council grants are allocated. This tool breaks down the numbers by institution, grant type, gender and career stage of principal researcher.
The app has been a hit with the NHMRC, who are keen to make their data more accessible. NHMRC staff have been in conversations with the researcher spearheading VizMyGrant, Dr Marguerite Evans-Galea of the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute, about how to release their data in future in a more accessible format for better, faster visualisation and analysis.
Dr Evans-Galea had spent months collating the original data from spreadsheets and PDFs from the NHMRC site.
How could this help me?
GovHack, an annual weekend hackathon dedicated to exploring what’s possible with open government data, has spawned $50 million startups, council portals, community projects, and a complete overhaul of the way government interacts with citizens, and citizens with government.
With wearable technologies and computational tools becoming more accessible, the kinds of problems that might be addressed at hackathons are limited by imagination. Anything from improving electronic medical records to tracking rehab patients’ movement via embedded cameras is up for grabs.
Want to be involved?
HealthHack will be running in 2015 over the weekend of 23-25 October in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Brisbane. If you have a problem you think might benefit from fresh input, the HealthHack organisers would love to hear from you: info@healthhack.com.au
Why hackathons?
There are many types of hackathons, and many reasons to be involved. To name a few:

  • learn or showcase out a new technology

  • build an application to fill a niche

  • tell a story or highlight a public issue

  • prototype a new product with a view to commercialisation

  • run a hackathon alongside a conference as an alternative engagement stream

2014 HealthHack Projects
Gambling Behaviour Tracker
Problem: www.healthhack.com.au/locations/melbourne/challenge4/
Team page: https://github.com/HealthHackAu/HealthHack2014/wiki/girror%3A-tracking-youremotions-and-gambling-behaviour
https://github.com/HealthHackAu/ HealthHack2014/wiki/VizMyGrant
Dr Maia Sauren is a biomedical engineering researcher turned software consultant. Maia is a co-chair for Open Knowledge Australia, a not for profit that aims to help organisations make data and information available and open. She tweets as @sauramaia.
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