Technologists and healthcare workers team up for coronavirus response hackathon

The Pandemic Response Hackathon is a virtual event to bring public health professionals alongside the technology community's talent to boost the world's response to the coronavirus pandemic.

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Many experts have compared the recent coronavirus pandemic to the Spanish Flu of 1918. But one advantage we have today is a robust array of technology that can be put to use in helping stop the spread of the virus. 

This weekend, technology experts and a variety of healthcare workers are joining forces for The Pandemic Response Hackathon, an event designed to bring together some of the world's greatest healthcare experts and the top technology talent all in an effort to help save as many people as possible from the dire effects of COVID-19. 

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The weekend-long event will be hosted by Datavant, an SF-based middleware company that connects health data, and a diverse panel of public health, health IT, and policy experts will serve as the steering committee for project ideas and implementation.

Some of the companies involved in the event include Amazon Web Service, Snowflake, American Public Health Association and MapBox. Major healthcare figures like former Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin and former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle will also be heavily involved. 

"Right now, there are thousands of engineers and companies that are trying to figure out how they can be helpful in a time of crisis. At the same time, there are very real technology needs for how to react to COVID-19 at a local level, an institutional level, at a national level and at a global level," said Travis May, founder and CEO of Datavant.

"The goal of the event is, can we pull together lots of engineers who are looking to be as helpful as possible and pull together public health experts, clinicians, healthcare workers who are on the front lines and have needs right now and try to give engineers a channel to build something that matters and be helpful," May said.

Details on the coronavirus hackathon

Before the event even kicked off, the organizers secured hundreds of project ideas and more than 600 participants registered. The event will run from Friday to Sunday, March 27-29, and some of the first project ideas include tools for medical supply management, civic health and social distancing, disease geomapping, public health information reporting and machine learning platforms to predict disease severity. 

Healthcare experts and technologists interested in participating can still sign up here or visit the Datavant Pandemic Response Hackathon website for more information. 

May said his team has spent about 10 days putting the event together and they immediately received a lot of interest from different technologists who wanted to help as well as institutions looking for ideas from the technology community. 

Four main tracks to the coronavirus hackathon

The event will be split into four different tracks addressing different issues related to the spread of coronavirus. One track will involve public health information sharing and tools that help local governments to share information with citizens, exchange information between healthcare professionals, and provide patients with information.

The second track is centered around the epidemiology and science of the disease. While somewhat similar to the first, this track will try to build different information sharing tools between researchers investigating the disease and novel uses of different data sets to try to understand the disease. They will also look to create tools to try to facilitate clinical trial recruitment and operations.

Another track will focus on keeping healthcare workers safe. May noted that there has been a lot of interest in information sharing tools around best practices and also a lot of interest around the shortage of protective equipment. Healthcare facilities across the country need to know where there is a shortage of protective equipment and where there is a surplus so that matchmaking efforts can begin. 

The fourth and final track is about "second-order" societal impacts related to the response to coronavirus. These tools will try to address things other issues like loneliness and mental wellbeing for people who have anxiety right now.

The goal of the hackathon

"We've had a bunch of project ideas across those four broad categories and see useful things people can build in each of those. Our goal over the weekend is to matchmake teams, help people find exciting ideas, help people connect between technologists and healthcare experts and ideally over the weekend build a good prototype for the projects that they're working on," May said. 

"Many of the projects I expect people will want to keep working on and instead of just building a prototype, will put something real into society. Our hope is the teams stay together and we have a variety of advisers that have offered feedback and support for helping implement these ideas, as well as help with the rollout and spreading different ideas that come out of it."

The teams will own whatever they build and will work with the advisors to build meaningful tools out of their ideas. 

May said Datavant was uniquely placed to help coordinate the event because of their deep ties to the technology community and the healthcare industry. As news began to unfold over the past month, many within the company had the idea that they could help play a convening role of getting people from both the technology and healthcare world to unite. 

Addressing the shortage of medical equipment for coronavirus

Ideas around how to address the shortage of protective equipment have already flooded in and dozens of groups have ideas on how to share information between certain parts of the country that have an acute need. 

Other key ideas involve methods of informing people when and where they can get tested for coronavirus once more kits become widely available, May said, adding that other companies are looking into making visualization tools to address movement patterns for overall disease incidents and other things.

"This kicks off Friday afternoon and Tom Daschle is giving the kickoff address for us. We'll get to work tomorrow afternoon and then wrap up with the first phase of this by the end of the weekend. I'm excited to see what comes out of it," May said. 

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