Geeks who love the NHS: NHS Hack Days

Posted by s.hettrick on 19 March 2014 - 3:00pm

By Helen Jackson and Carl Reynolds, academic clinical fellow and CEO, Open Healthcare UK.

The NHS Hack Day (NHSHD) series was the brainchild of Dr Carl Reynolds, an academic clinical fellow in respiratory medicine and founder and CEO of Open Healthcare UK. NHS Hack Day, London Edition 2014, will take place in May with the final date to be confirmed very soon. This will be the seventh event in a very successful series of hack events with a healthcare theme. 

On how he had the idea, Carl says "I was whinging about broken NHS IT, and Tom [Taylor] told me about the recent hack day he had participated in at the Cabinet Office and said why not have an NHS Hack Day? It seemed like a good idea, so when we got home we decided to make it happen...".

Carl began by writing a one-page brief Can NHS digital services learn from the Cabinet Office?, and recruited friends including Ross Jones, Sam Smith, Nicholas Tollervey, Francis Irving, Wai Keong Wong and a handful of others to help organise the first NHS Hack Day, which took place in London in 2012. Since then, there have been events in Liverpool, Oxford, Cambridge and Cardiff as well, with the upcoming event marking the third visit to London.

From the outset the goals have been:

  1. Have fun. This is an opportunity for bright doctors, developers, and designers to meet and learn from people in other disciplines they wouldn't normally meet.
  2. Make software that promotes health. This is the challenge and there are prizes.
  3. Showcase the benefits of open: open source software, open governance, open data, challenges, and the talent in the SME software development community.

All of these aspects come up at one time or another on Twitter hashtag #nhshd (we tweet from @NHSHackDay), and are explained in a video that we made at the Liverpool event in 2012. Lots of attendees have written blog posts about their projects or experiences, many of which are linked from our website.

The format of our events broadly follows that of a usual software hack day, with short pitches given at the start of the first day, and presentations or demonstrations at the end of the second. We invite judges with a wide range of backgrounds and interests to watch the presentations, and to award prizes as they see fit. Previous judges have included Clare Gerada, Ben Goldacre, Geraint Lewis, Muir Gray, Graham Lord, as well as representatives from patient groups and charities, practicing clinicians, and people from the open-source tech sector.

Organisational aspects of NHS Hack Day are more or less crowd sourced using the mailing list and wiki. The basic recipe for how we do it is on our website. Different people have taken a leading role in organising the events, with Open Healthcare UK backing each one. All details of the events are planned thoroughly in advance, and to date there have been no major hiccups. We have kept the events free to attend by sourcing friendly sponsorship from organisations that fit our culture, and offer a healthy lunch each day as well as tea and coffee throughout.  We keep open accounts, which can be seen on our website.

NHSHDs are great fun, but have also produced some great work, with several projects undergoing continuing development, for example CellCountr (a simple way to count cells on a blood or bone marrow sample), CCGSee (a viewer for Clinical Commissioning Group data) and OpenEyes (a web-based Electronic Patient Records system for ophthalmology). More examples of successful projects be seen linked from our website.

The NHSHD community is one of the friendliest of its kind. Everyone is welcome, whether they have coding skills or not, and we have been delighted to see doctors and patients with no technical skills coming along and getting stuck in. We want to stress that anyone with any interest at all in healthcare IT can make a valuable contribution. Most projects are open source, which helps with the friendly atmosphere we have at our events, and fits well with a culture of openness and transparency within the NHS. There is a real sense of people working together and learning from each other.

I think the hackday was best summarised by David Miller from Open Healthcare UK:

If you’re from a background which isn’t well-represented in most geeky meetups, come along – we want to make a difference. If you’re from a background which is well-represented in most geeky meetups, come along – we want your help to make a difference. If you’re worried about not being computery enough, come. If you think you’re an imposter, come. If your day job isn’t code, come. This isn’t a group of experts, just people. We are interested in the social and technical problems. This is a support group. No-one knows what they are doing.

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