Hackathons: A Participant Perspective

Wondering what Health Hackathons are like, and if they are for you? My experience at the MGH Global Oncology & CamTech Hackathon

written by: Gavin Ovsak, Harvard Medical School Student

Earlier this year, I saw an email inviting medical students to the Mass General–Global Oncology–CamTech Hackathon, and I was intrigued.  I convinced a couple classmates who hadn’t been to a hackathon before to come with me and check it out.  We all were really glad we went and excited about the amazing clinicians, global health workers, and students we met at the event!

If you haven’t been to a Health Hackathon before, you will probably be surprised.  I’ve seen Health Hackathons here in Boston on Zika Virus, Global Oncology, COPD, and Space Medicine.  They generally all start with presentations by patients, clinicians, researchers, or patient advocacy group leaders to talk about the medical problem and how it affects their lives.  They often surprise you with the kinds of problems that are most pressing to them and get your mind thinking about potential solutions.  Then, the floor opens to the diverse array of attendees to be brave and pitch fragments of ideas which they have been forming, and you’re often given a number so people listening can come join you afterwards.

You can pitch a couple ideas or none.  You can also ditch your idea and join another person’s group that is forming!

Then, fueled by delicious catered food, you get to brainstorming and sketching ideas, and talking with the real patients and doctors there to see if your idea makes sense to them.  After a while, people start developing their powerpoint pitch; they break for the night; they come back in the morning to get breakfast and keep polishing up their idea.

Then some time the next day, the time is up.  You are given a time to pitch your idea to the prestigious judges who give their wise feedback.  Some prizes are given, but the best prizes are the contacts that come to you and your team, and the opportunity to take your idea further with their support!  It’s really a cool opportunity to flex your creative muscles and learn about very real and important problems people are facing.

My big takeaway for people who are curious about hackathons but worried they won’t fit in is that it’s very much a learning experience and not a test of your skills.  Definitely more about brainstorming and presenting well-thought out ideas than building or coding.  Also, it’s often totally okay to come and check it out and decide later to leave.  However, the end presentations are often the best part!

In Boston, the group that supports a lot of teams interested in running their own Health Hackathons is MIT Hacking Medicine which has a calendar of upcoming events here: http://hackingmedicine.mit.edu/events-list/list/