Over the past decade, hackathons have become mainstream approaches for energizing teams of programmers, designers, and researchers to develop solutions for complex problems in a condensed time period (typically 24 to 48 hours). The goal of hackathons is to generate ideas and develop plausible solutions, typically in the form of digital interfaces. Teams can then further refine their solution after the hackathon ends. In the wake of COVID-19, the urgency to act efficiently and wisely has sparked several hackathons worldwide, including UNESCO’s CodeTheCurve and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s COVID-19 Challenge, which brought together participants from around the world to dedicate a few days to work in small teams.
Like so many other companies, Mathematica has turned to virtual tools to connect and support one another as we adjust to life changes caused by COVID-19. We have a variety of established online communities where employees can exchange ideas and find help on specific subjects and projects. As global hackathons like the ones mentioned earlier gained steam, they also started appearing in conversations among staff, with many of us looking for an opportunity to contribute to COVID-related initiatives and to connect with one other.
As an organization that has worked in public health for decades, we’re used to pivoting quickly to meet the urgent need for data and tools for states, health care decision makers, providers, and the public. We saw the value in participating in these global hackathons, but the more we chatted, the more we also wanted to create our own uniquely Mathematica event. For us, it was a chance to contribute to the overall effort related to COVID-19, but also an opportunity to build new relationships with staff we don’t typically work with, promote the ideas of others, and encourage staff to leverage their creativity to think about problems.
With COVID-19 creating challenges for everybody, we needed the event to be painless and stress free. We surveyed staff who expressed an interest to determine the most convenient time and the areas of interest. We had a virtual brainstorm and then created a living document in which staff could pitch project topics. We also reached out to others in the company to get project ideas. We decided to break up into teams of four to six based on a combination of staff interest and organizer judgement. Although staff could express preference for a topic, the organizers considered technical and subject-matter expertise, focus areas, and geography when determining the teams. This allowed us to foster working relationships beyond our typical project work or office locations.
Dubbed Hackematica, the event kicked off on the morning of April 4 with 16 participants that were enthusiastic, energetic, and ready to rumble. Because we had staff from across many different offices, time zones, departments, and areas of expertise, we did quick introductions and split up into our teams for the next few hours. Throughout the day, teams communicated through WebEx, Jabber, and email to create their final deliverable. We had three teams that each explored a different problem: (1) how can we calculate the risk of COVID-19 based on adverse health outcomes?; (2) how can we balance the competing needs of COVID-19 and selective surgery while maximizing health gains under the constraints of health care resources?; (3) and how can we address the growing spread of misinformation regarding COVID-19 to mitigate extremism? After five hours of brainstorming, designing, hacking, coding, and inventing, the groups turned their webcams on and proudly entered the WebEx meeting to present their final pitch:
- 19 and Me. This individualized risk calculator estimates a user’s risk of COVID-19 and adverse health outcomes using geographically resolved case data, latest scientific research, and user input about health behaviors and susceptibility. The tool is intended for individual community members in the United States who are concerned about their risk factors for COVID-19. Users can assess their individual risks by entering a ZIP code and answering a few questions about baseline health conditions and health behaviors (such as practicing social distancing, handwashing, wearing facial masks, and so on). The app provides an easy-to-understand risk score and a few recommendations on how individuals can reduce their risk of contracting COVID-19. This app is live at https://19andme.covid19.mathematica.org.
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- A patient risk score calculator for elective surgery. This dashboard is intended to help hospitals and decision makers such as state Medicaid agencies assess the impact on hospitals of different policies regarding conducting elective surgeries during COVID-19.
- Social media misinformation scoring rubric. This framework for a rubric helps social media sites and policymakers assess the extent to which a social media site takes proactive efforts to combat the spread of misinformation related to policy and health issues. The rubric scores social media platforms based on whether the site’s algorithm and community rules promote transparency and accuracy. This tool could help policymakers identify and address areas of misinformation and help hold media sites accountable.
After the presentations, we voted on which project participants preferred, with 19 and Me coming out on top. The criteria for voting included the plausibility of turning the pitch into a long-term project and overall presentation quality.
Since the hackathon, we’ve continued to refine 19 and Me. We’re also thinking about how to improve our approach for another hackathon in mid-May. We plan to open the next event to the whole company, send more project ideas, and continue to build on the three projects we started during our first event.