COVID-19 pandemic underscores value of hackathons for problem solving

COVID-19 pandemic underscores value of hackathons for problem solving

February 17, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has showcased the potential of virtual hackathons for rapidly and iteratively identifying optimal approaches to solving a given problem and context, according to a February 9 paper in Digital Medicine describing a series of international COVID-focused hackathons organized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The authors of the paper, Khalil Ramadi and Freddy Nguyen, are both members of MIT's Hacking Medicine team, and were funded in part by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).

"Critiques of hackathons argue they have limited economic impact, as a result of their short duration," they wrote. "However, they do allow for a rapid burst of context-specific solutions to be created and implemented for and by individual communities, addressing health inequity. By activating untapped potential, bottom-up or grassroots innovation is a vital complement to traditional top-down institutional and governmental initiatives."

A hackathon is an event that convenes diverse individuals to crowdsource solutions around a core set of predetermined challenges in a limited amount of time. The MIT COVID-19 Challenge was launched in mid-March 2020 as a series of virtual hackathon events focused on addressing immediate needs with an eye towards rapid innovation from ideation to implementation and impact.

The virtual platform multiplied the scale and reach beyond what would have been possible with traditional in-person events, attracting more than 9,000 applicants from 142 countries and 49 states. Each event facilitated the organic formation of approximately 200 teams spread across 10 tracks, each with challenges identified in conjunction with partners and stakeholders. An average of 70 partners were recruited for each event ranging from universities, hospitals, and health systems to incubators, accelerators, venture capital, technology companies, biotech, and pharmaceutical companies.

After 48 h of hacking, final pitch presentations were run in ten parallel tracks. Winning teams were announced in a closing webinar. Cash prizes ($500 USD) were awarded to four teams in each track. All teams were eligible to receive ongoing post-event support and engagement with organizers and partners of the MIT COVID-19 Challenge.

The primary limitation to implementing ideas developed in hackathons is team perseverance in continuing development of their projects. To address this, a consortium of more than 100 partners from across the healthcare spectrum and beyond defined challenges and supported teams after the MIT COVID-19 Challenge, resulting in the continuation of at least 25% of all teams a few weeks after the event. This rate of continuing teams compares favorably with those of similar in-person events, which average 19% continuation at two weeks post-event.

"These programs will not necessarily yield a new vaccine or drug therapy and are not meant to replace traditional R&D undertaken by academia and industry," the authors wrote. "They do, however, enable interdisciplinary collaborations and empower a new population to tackle problems that the ever-changing world brings."

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