Tuesday, 29 January 2013

NHS Hack Day Oxford - The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

My Experience at NHS Hack Day Oxford

Let's get the "Ugly" out of the way. By the end of day two (and possibly earlier) - the first stall had the seat broken and strewn on the floor, the second had no paper, and the third had been filled by a mysterious bulging carrier bag. Given this was a hospital, nobody had dared investigate its contents.

The "Bad"?. The networking. Getting reliable internet connections for an event like this is a must. There had been some effort to get BT Wireless connectivity, but this was costing £20 for the weekend per person, and even then there were reliability problems. I connected freely using the Eduroam system for academics but the connection would regularly drop. With an average of 2.1 WiFi devices per person at this event (that's a rough guess!) it can be a deal breaker. At least one person arrived late on Sunday to take advantage of the unlimited fast broadband at their friend's house where they were staying - although he also admitted the unlimited toast and Australian tennis action was another factor.  I wonder if wired network connections and a few switches and hubs scattered round the venue might be a better solution. For the FOSS4G Conference in Nottingham this year (shameless plug) the network connectivity has been top of our agenda since our first meeting. 

For future Hack Day events, it might be worth putting a reminder out for power extension leads a bit further in advance. Also, most of us have a couple of lanyards kicking around from previous conferences and a reminder to bring and share lanyards might be an idea too. Sticky labels were okay, but sub-optimal!

So, onto the work itself. Given the huge number of people who turned up I was surprised at the level of traffic on the email and the google group. Perhaps a dozen or so individuals voiced up on the pre-conference channels, yet at least ten times that number walked through the doors on the day. What were that 90% thinking beforehand?

Partly I suspect some of the work groups were formed in advance. There seems to be a classification of hack day work groups:
  • The group of people who have met and worked before. They have a plan for the hack day worked out already, and are perhaps using the weekend to set aside two days from the sound of ceaseless door-knocking (or the ping of arriving emails) in their day jobs to get this done. These groups can be hard for an outsider to help out with, since their work programme is decided and the division of labour is understood. They get down and get on.
  • The small group that has a plan, and knows what it needs, and knows it can find it at the hack day. Perhaps one or two people have the kernel of an idea together, but need a database expert, or a web scraper. They get them, and a designer and maybe a doctor and a patient jump in too as representative end users. Soon a group forms that adds value to the original idea and the development snowballs.
  • The randoms. A group of people with no great agenda, but assorted skill sets, who get together and come up with both a problem and a solution on the day. It may be nothing to do with any of the individual ideas, but emerges from the sum of their parts.
 I skipped the presentations and judging partly because I'm slightly uncomfortable with judging and prizes, especially  for works of art (don't talk to me about the Oscars, the Man Booker prize, or the Queen's Honours list) and I was getting a bit cabin-fever and I fancied some fresh air. I wandered down to the river and was rewarded by a refreshing downpour followed by a DOUBLE RAINBOW! which inspired me with some new ideas. I find a combination of solitary thinking time with group work most inspirational, and a giant double rainbow arcing right across the sky can only help that process.

The time spent with other people is the real "Good" of the NHS Hack Day. Even if none of the code cut at the weekend goes into production then the value in making those connections makes the weekend worthwhile. What this means is that even if the WiFi doesn't work and there's no electricity, just stick everyone in the room, lock the doors, push sandwiches and cake in at midday and keep a flow of coffee and good things will still happen.

The big challenge is getting these things continuing, which requires funding, further collaboration, acceptance and adoption. The greater challenge is integrating the spirit of the hack day into the processes that produced, for example, the ePortfolio that was so hated that a hack day group spent the weekend conspiring to produce a better one. So-called solutions are seemingly often imposed from above, based on marketing promises from big business, and the vast majority of users have no input to the problem. This is not a problem confined to the NHS, and there is a need to "loop back up" so that managers have a better awareness of user requirements, something they could learn from modern agile computer science development methods and open-source practices. 

So overall a great weekend - and I'll probably keep an eye out on some of the projects to see how they develop. All the details are available from the NHS Hack Day web site.

Comments etc to @geospacedman on twitter