Hackathons challenge developers to tackle COVID-19 with tech

Health groups and technology companies are teaming up to challenge developers to apply their skills to problems linked with the novel coronavirus.

Datavant last weekend hosted more than 2,000 engineers, software developers, data scientists and other technology folks to develop tools that help those in the health sector better understand or mitigate the spread of COVID-19. It was part of the healthcare data company’s hackathon event, which it called the Pandemic Response Hackathon.

Datavant unveiled 18 so-called “spotlight projects” on Wednesday evening, selected from 232 submissions in total.

A hackathon, or “hacking marathon,” typically describes an event where engineers and designers gather to create a functioning technology project within a limited about of time, usually capped at just a few days. That took a virtual twist in Datavant’s event, with opening remarks given via a Zoom video call and participants using Slack to collaborate.

It’s the first time Datavant’s hosted a hackathon, according to company CEO Travis May. The idea was born out of a desire to help link up technologists who want to help during COVID-19 with public health organizations and others who understand the challenges on the front-lines.

“Right now’s a moment where there’s thousands of people trying to figure out what they could do to be helpful,” May said.

Other organizations have held COVID-19 inspired hackathons too. The World Health Organization and the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub—a not-for-profit research center funded by Dr. Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg’s Chan Zuckerberg Initiative—provided guidance for the #BuildforCOVID19 hackathon that kicked off last week. That event included participants from Facebook, Microsoft Corp. and Twitter. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Friday launched two virtual hackathons tackling different aspects of COVID-19—one focused on helping health systems, and another focused on protecting vulnerable populations—with support from Partners HealthCare Innovation, Universal Health Services and the Veterans Affairs Department.

Technology groups have found other ways to step up in the wake of COVID-19.

Each year, MIT’s Solve program hosts four challenges for technology innovators focused on a different social problem, such as health, education or sustainability. In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Solve last month added a fifth challenge for 2020 focused on health security and pandemics. Solve hopes developers will submit projects that help track the spread of outbreaks, analyze data to support clinical decisions or protect healthcare workers.

While the MIT program usually develops challenge themes over three months, the health security and pandemics challenge came together more quickly.

“We designed it in four days,” said Pooja Wagh, lead for health community at Solve. “We knew that we wanted to be really responsive, and we knew that tech innovators had a really strong role to play.”

For Datavant’s Pandemic Response Hackathon, healthcare industry experts curated the four project themes: public health information-sharing, epidemiology, keeping health workers safe and social impact. They also selected the event’s final spotlight projects.

HHS’ Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology also got involved in the Pandemic Response Hackathon.

“ONC’s role in this hackathon has essentially been participatory with staff sharing their expertise from similar community-led projects over the years,” an ONC spokesperson said in an email. 

The ONC also shared resources with hackathon participants, such as COVID-19 projects submitted to its Interoperability Proving Ground, an open platform where the agency encourages developers to share projects related to healthcare data-sharing.

Ed Simcox, chief strategy officer at precision medicine software company LifeOmic and former chief technology officer at HHS, said his role on the Pandemic Response Hackathon’s steering committee dovetailed with his experience at the agency. His office had hosted “startup days” to encourage more communication between startups and the department. He’s hopeful hackathons can spur innovation and plans to reach out to some participants to support or collaborate on their projects.

“This is a way for people to find use of their talents in a very active and altruistic way,” Simcox said.

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