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

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