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Hacking for health

Technology becomes elixir in healthcare hackathons

Hacking meet-ups, or “hackathons” as they are increasingly known, are hot stuff in the race against healthcare woes, multiplying with a fervor that could one day contribute to cures. Once a novel approach to exploring problems and solutions, these scrappy sessions are now fusion points to develop new uses of data and technology for the benefit of healthcare.

In fact, in 120 U.S. locations, and in others around the world, on May 31, data wizzes, savvy entrepreneurs, software developers, high school students and post-career baby boomers were part of the second annual National Day of Civic Hacking, sponsored by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. New York City hackers gathered and assessed Web data on difficulties faced by individuals with disabilities. Simultaneously, Atlanta hackers devised tools to encourage Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients to buy more local produce.

But hackathons aren’t just an annual occurrence and aren’t just sponsored by the Federal government. Each Tuesday in Chicago, for example, hackers gather at tech incubator 1871 for Open Government Hack Night. The meet-ups were co-founded by Derek Eder, who launched the Chicago Health App to connect local citizens to health resources.

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“We use open source data from the Chicago Department of Public Health and are even part of the City of Chicago Data portal,” Eder said, referring to the public data streams, already online, that fuel many hacking sessions.

Across the country, hackers are unlocking previously untapped innovations by collecting, analyzing, and working with data. “We’re not hacking into a computer system, we’re building prototypes,” says Andrea Ippolito, co-leader of the MIT Hacking Medicine initiative. “At MIT, ‘hacking’ means to get things done quickly and integrally to make an impact.”

As healthcare tech “street cred” goes, it’s hard to top the MIT three-day confabs, which are held in cities throughout the U.S., as well as in Europe, Africa, and Asia. At the MIT events, attendees discuss emerging trends and pitch ideas to a “Shark Tank”-style panel. After the panel has identified the most implementable concepts, hacking teams are unleashed to make them work. Many of the inspiring and litmus-tested creative ideas make it to market.

“We tend to address recurring issues, like those that have become more prominent due to the aging populations,” Ippolito said. “Chronic diseases, such as diabetes, and mental health are also popular challenges.”

Ippolito herself is co-founder of the app Smart Scheduling, which was first pitched by clinicians at a 2012 hackathon. “Some days in doctor’s offices, many patients are no-shows for appointments. To compensate, doctors often double-book, and this is not a very productive way to schedule patients.”

Armed with a pool of data, including past scheduling information, the app uses a “machine learning algorithm” to more accurately assess whether a patient is likely to make her appointment or not. Knowing a 24-year-old male patient, for instance, almost always misses a Tuesday afternoon check-up – while a 63-year-old woman wouldn’t miss it for the world – enables a better guess at when there are truly available timeslots. “The statistical tool evolves with the data. If it predicts it incorrectly once, the algorithm will get smarter over time,” Ippolito said.

According to David Smith, chief community officer at Revolution Analytics and a noted expert on big data, the machine learning algorithm highlights how the data science process can be activated to improve upon an everyday life. “It’s all about using experience in the past to predict the future,” Smith said.

“The promise in healthcare analytics is being able to individualize treatment and to match treatment to people that are similar to that individual,” Smith added.

Ippolito underscores that science and business aren’t always the only motivations for hackathon participants. Attendees are inspired by not only practical and community needs but also by the passion of personal health battles with diseases, such as depression¬ or cancer. She noted that one clinician whose family was devastated by cancer went on to pitch a successful app dealing with the disease.

“We’re infecting people with this hacking spirit,” said Ippolito. “The most important thing at our hackathons is that everyone opens themselves up to crazy ideas.”

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