Python is not a snake, oatmeal cookies are not cookies, and other hackathon lessons

I am writing this from the middle of a health hackathon at Temple University’s School of Medicine. I’m not programming anything today, just writing about the hackathon. I have company, too. A lot of people here aren’t programming, because they’re not all programmers. (The programmers are, in fact, programming, as programmers are wont to do. They are also making jokes about PDFs.) What are we less technical folks doing here? Well, if you want to build a house, you don’t just call up a construction crew, send them to an empty lot with no plans, and tell them to get to work. You don’t expect them to decorate once the house is built, either. At a hackathon, the programmers are the construction crew. They are essential, but they can’t do everything alone.

Still, it is a challenge to get non-tech humans to attend hackathons. It’s partially a language problem, partially an image problem, and partially a self-identification problem. Many people who have a stake in the outcome of hackathons do not think of themselves as hackers, or people who hack. I can say with reasonable certainty that the doctors in the room would not have previously considered themselves hackers. Merriam-Webster defines hackers as people who do covert ops via computer and/or people who are bad at sports. We are a moderately sized group of people with sponsors sitting inside a classroom in a medical school. We have hackathon t-shirts. We are not covert.

I cannot, however, attest to anyone’s talents in the sports arena.

The point here is that the conventional, public definition of hacking is narrow, and it doesn’t capture the multifaceted activity that good hacking often is. In the case of civic hacking, which is all about solving problems of average citizens through technology — it’s not even close.

If you haven’t been to a hackathon, then you might be surprised by the feel of one. Hackathons are full of nerds (cool nerds, though), and nerds are fantastic at getting excited. Hackathons have the energy of new ideas coupled with the satisfaction of getting things done. Layer this with the kind of over-caffeinated freneticism that you might find in an on-campus library at the end of finals — if finals were voluntary, there were no grades, and everyone selected their own assignments. Participants help one another learn new skills and solve problems, but they crack jokes and debate the validity of oatmeal raisin cookies too. They are surprisingly fun for a weekend of unpaid work. They are also kind of a big deal.

At the moment, the group of people to my left are working on an app that will provide doctors with prices for drugs they are prescribing to their patients, with the intended result of helping them to select more affordable treatment regimens. This, like other hackathon projects, involves code and other technical components. It also requires a number of other things, like researching generic drug pricing at various major pharmacies and compiling that information in a spreadsheet. It requires knowledge of patient problems and physician behavior. A little bit ago, a couple of soon-to-graduate med students were debating classification for alpha inhibitors. A few minutes before that, one of them demonstrated his eye-crossing talents and joked that he thought Python was just a snake.

To my right, another group is working on a digital mental health assessment tool, which will give people the tools they need to help their friends or family members get care appropriate for their immediate and long-term psychological needs. They have spent a significant amount of time discussing models of care, the use of plain language in health communications, and the frame of mind of people who are considering ending their own lives. Their discussions have included legal disincentives to calling 911 when a friend overdoses and the impact of involuntary commitment to psychiatric care on an individual’s ability to purchase a firearm.

These are people who give a damn, and they are teaming up to address real everyday problems thoughtfully and quickly. This is what civic hacking looks like. And while we obviously need technologists, we need other types of hackers too. This is particularly true in health, where the most effective solutions bring healthcare, public health, and individuals together.

If we’re going to improve the health of the communities we live and work in, then we have to build our own community first. Join us.