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My first hackathon

Steph Wright

28th June 2017

I’ll have to start by being totally honest.. I really had no idea what a hackathon would be like. Conventional stereotypes of the tech sector suggested that it’ll be a bunch of programmer guys holed up in a room for several days, drinking beer, eating pizza and furiously coding. Much to my delight, it turned out to be so so much more. So here’s a rather detailed account of what happened at the Cancer Data Dive.

The Cancer Innovation Challenge’s Cancer Data Dive hackathon event took place at CodeBase in Edinburgh from the evening of Thursday 15 June 2017 until the evening of Sunday 18 June 2017. Working with Product Forge, the aim of the event was to generate ideas around the use of cancer data, encourage cross-disciplinary approaches to innovative data science and if possible, develop prototypes that can inform our cancer data funding call that we will launch in late July/early August 2017. And to have fun doing it too of course!

And did we achieve that? I certainly think so! We had 61 participants registered from a myriad of backgrounds including clinicians, designers, software developers, informaticians and of course data scientists. Over a period of about 72 hours, we had 12 teams present 12 fantastic ideas on the Sunday evening to help improve cancer care in Scotland.

So how did we do this? For starters, we engaged Product Forge to run the event for us. Product Forge are specialists in hackathons with a twist. Their product focussed intensive process takes participants on a journey starting from team formation to problem definition and solving then prototyping, and finally presentation practice in a venue that remains open 24 hours. Add in social activities, expert mentors, technical talks, food, drink (beer and Red Bull) and you get a Product Forge!

Starting on the Thursday evening, after dinner and an introduction to the event, a series of icebreaker activities preceded the team formation process. This was a fascinating process to observe! Some teams formed within minutes whilst others took a couple of hours. But 12 teams were formed and that’s when the work started. Some teams started right away (in fact, one stayed overnight!) whilst others waited until the next morning. The Friday was a chance for the teams to make use of the working day and carry out market research. It was also an opportunity to benefit from the wealth of experience and knowledge from the expert mentors in attendance. Teams were encouraged to focus on clearly defining the problem they want to tackle before launching themselves into coding. Product Forge emphasise the importance of making your business case and sense checking your idea with external sources.

The Friday also saw a series of technical talks from Clifford Nangle from NSS who was behind the synthetic data sets created for the event, Beata Nowok from the synthpop project and Alex Chandler from NSS. In the evening, all the participants heard from a special guest speaker, Simon Tolhurst. Simon is the Portrait Artist in Residence at the UCL Hospital in London where he draws portraits of cancer patients and their friends and relatives as they go through treatment. Simon’s talk was a poignant way of helping participants connect with the people at the very heart of what the event wants to achieve.

Saturday was the day when everyone just got their heads down and worked away at their project. At this point all the teams had a clearly defined problem and solution backed by a strong business case and this is when the furious coding and design took place. And then before we knew it, it was Sunday and all the teams were practising their presentations. All teams did practice run throughs of their 1 minute and 6 minute pitches. The key mentoring team then gathered and formed a shortlist of 4 teams they felt should be the finalists. I believe the discussions were intense and it was a difficult decision!

The big countdown clock in the room reached zero at 5pm and that was it, the point of no return. The teams were told to leave the room and take a break, freshen up, grab a drink, have some dinner and wait for the guests to arrive for the final presentations. The room was reset and guests started to arrive at 5:30pm. The judging panel; Stuart Fancey (‎Director of Research and Innovation  at the Scottish Funding Council), Aileen Keel (Director of the Innovative Healthcare Delivery Programme) and Jude McCorry (Head of Business Development at The Data Lab) arrived not long after and were snuck away into a breakout room for their judges’ briefing.

At 7:10pm, it all started. Kicking off the proceedings with a brilliant highlights video of the event so far, we then headed into the 1 minute “rocket pitches” from the 12 teams and I was amazed by the ideas presented. Projects ranged from an app to help support families with children who have cancer, a self-monitoring skin cancer Dapp (a distributed app – yeah, I had to look that one up!) to a smart scheduling tool for secondary care. There was then a short break where everyone was ushered off to the next room for a drink whilst the judges decided on the finalists. And then it was time for the four finalists to make their 6 minute presentations and face questions from the judges.

First up was the team named The Brains and the Beauty with their product, Palliatool.  In Scotland access to palliative care is often too late which means people spend their final days visiting A&E and enduring aggressive treatments. Palliatool uses data to prompt healthcare professionals to identify and refer their cancer patients to palliative care services at an earlier stage to enable patients more time to consider their priorities at end of life and access the services needed to realise their wishes.

Next up was team OncoLabs with their tool OncoRadar. OncoRadar is a smart, integrated tool which tracks patterns in healthcare usage and patient characteristics to identify patients at an elevated risk of cancer. It aims to aid early diagnosis in primary care to improve access to care, reduce missed diagnosis and improve quality of life.

Then it was team OIMK with their product Progdict. Progdict uses machine learning to improve prognostication in patients with metastatic cancer to inform and improve advanced care planning i.e. it helps to better answer the question of “how long do I have left?” once you are diagnosed with an untreatable cancer. The tool enables predicting what time you have left with and without treatment and allows a doctor to discuss the options with patients with better accuracy in terms of indicative timelines.

And last but not least, it was team Serapis with their tool that helps cancer patients to make shared treatment decisions with visualisations of risks and side effects from various treatment options. Based on research that people respond better to visual cues, the Serapis tool can be used during a patient consultation and gives the patient a visual representation of the risks involved in the treatment options available to them.

Phew, incredible stuff. On top of all those presentations, there was also the brilliant visual facilitator Clare Mills who was quietly in the corner sketching out all the teams' ideas.

Cue another short break whilst the judges make their final deliberations and then we were back in the room, buzzing to know who won. Starting with a series of fun prizes awarded to various participants and mentors such as Scottish passports for the two participants that travelled the furthest to attend the event (from Cambridge and London respectively), we got down to the serious business of announcing the winners. Stuart Fancey from the Scottish Funding Council spoke about the tough decision they faced and the winner was (drumroll)…… team OIMK with their ProgDict tool! Photo ops galore and huge applause to all the participants and mentors and then it was all over as everyone headed to a bar to unwind.

It was an incredible few days and I was astonished by the creativity and breadth of ideas produced by the intensive innovation process. The vibrant atmosphere and enthusiasm and dedication showed by everyone took me by surprise. The task now is for me to follow up with all the teams to see how we can support them to take their ideas further. A huge congratulations and thank you to all the brilliant participants and wonderful mentors who took part and to Product Forge who has delivered yet another fantastic event. And also a big thank you to the event sponsors, MBN Solutions, SBNN National, R Studio, Medic Footprints, GitHub, StartEdin and .XYZ.

This was hopefully not my last hackathon but the bar has now been set pretty high. And there wasn’t even any pizza in sight…..

**You can watch the highlights video here and watch this space for further updates on the teams!**


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