What is a hackathon?

The term ‘hackathon’ combines ‘hack’ (solution reached through innovation) and ‘marathon’ (event of defined length and concentrated effort). These events champion the process of co-creation with stakeholders from a range of geographies and disciplines (e.g., healthcare, design, business), and enable diverse groups to develop potential solutions to a defined problem. While hackathons are well established in software companies, health hackathons first appeared in 2011 through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

More specifically, Health Hackathons are multidisciplinary events bringing together diverse stakeholders to solve key health challenges through a process of co-creation. They carry particular significance for addressing health discrepancies in resource-limited settings, where there is a need for cost-effective innovations that can deliver high-quality health in an affordable and sustainable way. The ‘hacking’ approach focuses on rapid and iterative development of small but scalable projects, that can be refined and built up into full-scale products or services. Outside of health, this has been successful as those participating in the hackathon can identify themselves as the final user of the product or service.

Hackathons are typically 1-3 day events (although can be longer), typically refine intended outcomes close to the event date, include expert mentors to support participants during the hackathons, and assign judges to determine hackathon winners. Hackathon events often provide awards to help encourage development, and some even offer ‘funding opportunities’ such as grants to propel their concept forward.

Who should be in attendance?

A range of diverse stakeholders can be included, including healthcare professionals, end users, scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs. This can be challenging in certain settings where more pronounced professional or socioeconomic barriers exist. Ongoing participation by health care providers and researchers is essential for the development, implementation and evaluation of interventions. Participants should be selected to ensure diversity and interest in the healthcare innovation.

What are the outcomes of successful hackathons?

  • Engage the community of interest and generate passion and ability to solve problems in culturallyappropriate and sustainable ways with potential to improve health outcomes
  • Inspire change, generate ideas and enthusiasm for innovation
  • Establishment of new networks; launching point to inspire further work and collaboration
  • The start of potential successful innovations, solutions, companies

What are the critiques of hackathons?

  • Potential to develop shortlived excitement, while lacking a path to sustainable solutions that create real impact
  • Healthcare hackathons can fall short of developing lasting innovations because challenges are often too complex to be addressed in such a short event
  • Lack of resources that allow teams to work on their projects after the hackathon

Examples of health-related hackathons

  • The group MIT Hacking Medicine (founded in 2011 at MIT) first pioneered health hackathons and aims to energize the healthcare community and accelerate medical innovation through health hackathons. The group has organized more than 40 health hackathons across 9 counties and 5 continents, with themes covering reproductive, maternal newborn and child health, diabetes, telehealth, Ebola, and road safety
  • Hacking Health, the first healthfocused hackathon in Canada, was conducted in attempt to narrow the gap between frontline health professionals and technology experts in a lasting way. The first Hacking Health took place in Montreal (2012) with over 200 health professionals and technical talent who produced 19 working prototypes over the course of a 2 day event.
  • At the University of Waterloo, the inaugural Hack4Health took place in 2015, and aimed to help those living with degenerative neurological conditions, namely multiple sclerosis and dementia. Through involvement of those with lived experience of the disease and other speakers at the hackathons, participants were able to take an idea and create workable solutions in a 2 day period. Hack4Health have now completed four healthrelated hackathons.

Further reading