A Healthy Hackathon Experience

By Mark Leavitt

True, I’d never been to a hackathon before, but I knew what it was: an intensive, time-limited event where people collaborate to develop some technology – usually software code, but sometimes more. When Mark Murphy came to our local PDX Quantified Self meetup in March with news of an upcoming hackathon, I was intrigued. It was sponsored by the Intel Interaction and Experience Lab as part of their Vibrant Data Project , with Thetus, Inc providing the venue, and included some great speakers like Ward Cunningham, inventor of the wiki. And the theme -- owning your personal data and getting more value from it – resonated strongly with me. So, being somewhat over the age limit for high-speed code-writing, I volunteered to be a mentor.

I got way more than I expected out of it. I’ve been tinkering in the Quantified Self field for a year or so and enjoy the meetups (shameless plug: one’s coming up June 19, it’s free, and there’s food). But a hackathon is different from a gabfest. There’s less talk, and more collaborative productivity. That doesn’t mean interpersonal skills aren’t needed. You just need to overclock your socialization CPU to warp speed. Team members have to agree on the work, laser-focus on the goal, and deliver on time, while remaining flexible and mutually supportive.

The team I was mentoring came up with a Quantified Self type of app called >insight<. The core concept is simple -- a mobile application that ‘pings’ you periodically to ask two questions: What are you doing? How are you feeling? All of this data is saved, along with automatically-collected data such as time of day, location, activity and such. Then a dashboard gives you insights into how you spend your time, and how your emotional state correlates with your activities.

To my amazement, team members were able to crash out prototypes of both an Android and an iPhone app to do the ‘pinging’ as well as figuring out what the best response options would be to describe activities and emotions. Diverse skillsets emerged. For example, a professional photographer on our team had the bright idea of capturing photos of people right there at the hackathon, and processing them into images to represent emotions. Then the team pulled this all together into a presentation and demo that fit the 3-minute (!) time limit allowed.

We knew there were cash awards, but there was no air of competitiveness against the other teams. The common enemy was the clock! But when it was all through, team insight took first place and split a $5000 award. I’ve followed up with the team and learned they’ve set up an online base camp and have continued development of their concept. Another tech startup in the making?

A great result for a Saturday full of fun and inspiration. Hackathons for health! Who’s up for it?
Here are some comments by the team members:

I feel incredibly fortunate to have partnered up with such a talented group of people on team >insight< . Everyone meshed together almost immediately to take a rough idea and make it into more than I ever dreamt Friday evening. It is amazing to think that we had three separate groups of strangers working in parallel and produced a comprehensive, integrated solution at the end of the day.

-- Amy Dorsett, Project Manager, linkedin.com/in/amydorsett

The hackathon was a great event populated by an eclectic mix of very smart, very cool people. People were willing to help one another, to cheer each other, and have fun while generating a bunch of code and solving real problems quickly.

-- Hal Harrison, HalShoot@me.com, photographer

It was AMAZING how the 8 of us so efficiently and effectively all found a piece we could contribute. Our teamwork was incredibly smooth. Everyone had ideas and suggestions, contributing their own strongest skills, and always being willing to negotiate for the good of the attainment of the team goal. Our mentor, Mark, helped guide us, yet stood back to let all us newbies shine.

– Pamela Harrison linkedin.com/in/harrisonpamela, Software Engineer

The vibrant data hackathon was such a great experience! Not only did it challenge us, but it pushed us far outside our comfort zones. In many ways it was like a condensed version of a great startup experience: learning to work with strangers to build a cohesive vision, channeling our enthusiasm to push through doubt and uncertainty in order to build something you could be proud of, and learning to wear many hats and leverage everyone's strengths and experience in order to get the job done. Way to go team! It was great working with you all. I learned so much. Can't wait to see where insight goes!

-- Paula Gill info@healthcareinnovators.com
-- Paul Speyser info@healthcareinnovators.com
Co-Founders of the Healthcare Innovators Network

While I have been to many coding sprints throughout the last 12 years, these have been primarily focused on a single open source project and are primarily populated by just developers. I have never been to a hackathon, and the balance of interdisciplinary participants, whether indicative of the average hackathon or not, was an incredible experience.

We all brought such strong and diverse perspectives to the table, yet we both kept our eyes on the goals of that day, while also making incredible progress at a higher level feeling out the basic ideas and parameters of the bigger picture. This was very impressive! I think these two factors were key to our win, something I had little thought about at the time, nor personal interest in. Most of my motivation to keep on track with the events parameters was to honor the spirit of the organizers rather than to try to win. This turns out to be a classic lesson in how focusing on a healthy set of goals and ideals is a winning strategy!! Oh, it as obvious we were thinking about giving a good showing, yet it was still more focused on success rather than winning. A great thing to be a part of!!!

-- Richard Amerman, fifer@7technw.com.

It was thrilling to work on a project addressing an issue that comes up at nearly every Quantified Self Meetup, which is 'how do you get your data in one place, so that you can begin pulling out meaningful relationships.' Making it easy to analyze personal data, it will embolden ordinary people to conduct more experiments and share their results. The Hackathon was a fantastic start towards that vision.

-- Steven Jonas - Data Analyst & Citizen Scientist – @skjonas

First Vibrant Data PDX Hackathon a Success

Ward Cunningham and Jill Burrows discuss the app, Adaptive Mesh Networks
The first ever Vibrant Data PDX Hackathon drew a crowd of talent to Portland's Thetus Corporation on June 2. About 90 participants, organizers and observers were on hand. After presentations about Vibrant Data and Market Disruption, nine teams formed to create apps. The theme was enhancing the asset value of personal data.

A total of $12,000 from sponsor Intel was awarded to team members on the top 5 teams as determined by the audience and judges Danielle Forsyth, CEO of Thetus, Steve Rosenbaum, CEO of PopArt and John Sherry, Director of Business Innovation Research at Intel. While the judges met, Ward Cunningham talked about his current project, Smallest Federated Wiki.

When deliberations were complete, the winner for the day was Healthy Insights for a mobile app and back end services that allow users to monitor many aspects of personal mood and behavior. Users own their own data and are able to release it to organizations for research and other benefits such as discounts on insurance. The team included mentor Mark Leavitt, a long time participant in Portland's Quantified Self Meet-Up group.

For many it was a first look at Thetus who hosted the event. The company co-founders, Daniell Forsythe and Roy Hall, along with many of their team spent the entire day making the group comfortable while participating as mentors and team members.

A meet-up will be scheduled for the coming month to revisit the apps that continue to be upgraded.

The Apps

In order of presentation the, apps conceived and created were:

Clutch (5th - $1000)

Team: Dave Barcos, Jeff Bunch, Yoan Buch

Clutch aggregates social connections across a user's networks to better find people who have similar interests. It is a more intention-based search service than traditional search.

Healthy Images (4th - $1000)

Team: Daniel Johnson, Justin Barry, Mary Anne Thygesen, Nate DeNiro

This app aims to aggregate health-related images and stories submitted by users to lower cost, improve quality and improve the experience of health care. This team believes citizens are an untapped resource for stories of public health.


Team: Aaron Parecki, Amber Case, Anantha Deepthi Uppala, Ashley McCorcle

A team formed around the co-founders of Geoloqi and created a new use for that SDK. It's about staying dry on your bike commute by getting push notified of incoming bad weather. In one day, the team was able to create the app and put it up in an app store. Custom alerts and partnerships with employers are seen as possible upgrades. Thanks to Amber for also serving as one of the event mentors.


Team: Bill Taylor, Peter Roome

This app connects you with a wider variety of travel partners and energy conscious commuting options. By sharing your personal commuting preferences and travel patterns with fellow commuters, sustainable vendors, and traffic experts, Ecommuter expands your commuting possibilities. Through accurate commuter matching and travel performance tracking, Ecommuter generates trusted recommendations for nearby ride share partners, provides discounts on convenient vehicle sharing services, and generates data to improve public transportation planning for your community. Simply select your preferences and Ecommuter helps you create a better commute and save the planet one trip at a time.

Adaptive Mesh Networks (Tied 2nd - $2500)

Team: Steve Scalpone, Jillian Burrows, Edward Irby

This is an app that would enable protesters to stay organized with via their cell phones outside the cellular network. Using Bluetooth and or WiFi. The technique would be a counter-measure to a repressive government turning of service during an uprising. Users can spread a message through a crowd by bumping their phones together. An initial demo was shown.

EMoo.me (Tied 2nd - $2500)

Team: Brennan Novak, Lisa Kleinman, Nicholas Hallahan

Expanding upon an ongoing project to track personal mood, this app brought in the feelings of the crowd during its demo. The audience shared its feelings during the presentation. Possible use cases could be in shows, classrooms and meetings.

Healthy Insights (1st - $5000)

Team: Amy Dorsett, Hall Harrison, Pamela Harrison, Mark Leavitt, Paul Speyser, Paula Gill, Richard Amerman, Steven Jonas

This is an app with roots in the Quantified Self community. It allows users to record many health related aspects of daily life - exercise, food, mood -- and share the data with friends and family. Users help each other create healthy trends. A possible benefit is to use the data for obtaining discounts in health insurance.

My Future Self

Team:  Dan Vizzini, Ed Borasky, Jason Stafford, Sean Penrith, Whitney Davis, Michelle Liebhardt

A team formed around two employees from EpicOnline.org, a company that promotes creating more effective college students. This app is about getting students in contact with opportunities using a personal database of student diagnostics, social network activity, educational data, workforce and salary data. It allows for employers to find students who fit work needs and empowers students to take on their own future. Ongoing development is planned.


Team: Nick Jacobsen, Muki Hansteen-Izora

Meebl is a tool to analyze and view personal browsing history. It helps you analyze and visualize your surfing by time and category of site. It makes use of a public categorization of 30k different domain names. The initial demo showed analysis of one month's surfing.

Tips for Enjoying (winning?) the Hackathon

Adapted from DevFish's Tips to Surviving and/or Winning a Hackathon
  • Bring some favorite food, drink.  We'll have plenty, including healthy stuff, but pack along some of your favorites too. Bottomless tanks of Floyd's Coffee will be on hand. Remember your lucky mug.
  • Bring business cards.  You will make new contacts.  Who knows what an event like this can lead to.  Networking is key benefit to an event like a hackathon.
  • It will be noisy, bring some headphones and some think music.
  • Wireless internet is essential. We will have adequate bandwidth but depending on what people are making, it could get taxed. Bring your own Internet access, like a cell-carrier mobile access point (ala mifi or whatever) or even better a phone that can serveas a wireless access point
  • Wear comfy clothes.  Wear socks.  Yes, your feet smell.
  • The place could be cooler than you like, have a sweatshirt
  • It's good to have a team formed ahead of time. Use the project ideas forum here.
  • Find a designer - decent graphics by a real designer will smoke away visually anything done by normal developers.  Bring toys for the designer so when they get tired of devtalk they have someplace to hide.
  • Game plan - once your team is formed, work out your gameplan.  Assign responsibilities and work items.  Setup a timeframe.  Stick someone with the managerial / monitoring / coordination duties. 
  • Pre-deploy a web/cloud service for use in your project.  Good starting point is setting up something like Azure or AWS setup and ready to go with base services before you get there. This will save you a ton of time. Time saver, why not do it ahead of time
  • Have a simple template (or whatever) project ready to go to access those web/cloud services ahead of the game. Again, a time saver
  • Map out good resources you can leverage, such as starter kits, graphics, and audio resources . Don't want to spent a ton of time hunting.  Check the resources here. Search around
  • Know the judging.  Read the event description and criteria.  Do this early.  Tailor your project if your goal is to win. 
  • Pick a spokesperson.  They're going to have around 5 minutes to present your project.  Make sure they're good.

OpenPaths: An examplar Vibrant Data app

Here's a good example of what we mean by "making data more vibrant and increasing its personal asset value".

OpenPaths.cc is a project of the research group at the New York Times, nytlabs.com. I learned about it watching a TEDx Vancouver talk by Jer Thorp (It's a fun talk. At 12:30 is the part about OpenPaths). The NYT broke the story about how much location data was stored in iPhone log files and created quite a storm. While concerned about the privacy issues, Jer, as a data junkie, was enamored with the possibilities of having so much location data to play with. To researchers this was gold.

OpenPaths lets people track their movements with iPhone and Android apps. The data are then available to research projects -- and you. If you participate, you can conveniently see your movements in fine detail and download your own data in the format of your choice. One use case might be for groups setting up car pools. Approved researchers see an aggregated, anonymized view. One research project is aimed at improving the tourist business in Spain. Another seeks to create a neighborhood map of New York by having residents bike or walk the perimeters of their various neighborhoods.

This application is a great example of what we are looking for in Vibrant Data PDX. It increases and makes available the value of  geolocation to the people who produce the data. It has a trusted, secure and private third party data banking function. And it creates new value to the community by making possible new insights in an inexpensive way.

A Standard Information Sharing Label?

Would something like our nutritional labels make it easier to manage are sharing relationships with Facebook and Google? Check out the Kickstarter for the Standard Information Sharing Label. It's building on concepts from the Vendor Relationship Management (VRM) effort at the Information Sharing work group. According to one of the authors, "There is great synergy with the PDRL (personal data rights language) conversation that came out of the World Economic Forum Tiger Team discussion about a standardized way to give people control over the information they share online". There's a blog post introducing it and a press release.