HHS Turns to Citizen Coders to Curtail Opioid Epidemic


More than 300 coders and health advocates showed up for the agency’s first code-a-thon.

The Health and Human Services Department thinks a solution to the opioid epidemic may lie in big data, and last week the agency called on programmers to help find it.

More than 300 coders, entrepreneurs and public health advocates from around the country descended on Washington to compete in the first-ever HHS Code-a-Thon aimed at finding solutions to the opioid crisis. From Dec. 6 to 7, teams worked around-the-clock on projects that used government data to target the epidemic.

Of the 50 teams that participated, three finalists were awarded $10,000 prizes.

“HHS’ code-a-thon was a major step forward in the efforts to use data to address the opioid crisis,” said Acting HHS Secretary Eric Hargan in a statement. “The innovative ideas developed today could turn into tomorrow’s solutions as we work to combat the scourge of opioid addiction sweeping the nation.”

In the competition, each three- to five-person team had 29 hours to analyze data sets from HHS and other federal agencies and propose solutions in one of three challenge categories: prevention, usage and treatment.

The Maryland-based data visualization company Visionist Inc. won the prevention category with a project that assesses the needs of states to develop programs to take unused or unneeded opioids out of circulation.

In the usage category, the Opioid Prescriber Awareness Tool team took home the prize with a program that helps physicians compare their opioid prescribing patterns with that of their peers.

A team from Yale University, Origami Innovations, won the treatment category by designing a model that tracks where opioid overdoses are happening in real time, enabling hospitals and medical teams to move resources where they’re most needed.

The projects were judged on how well they addressed the challenge categories and on whether they could be used in practice. The goal was to find solutions that state and local organizations could test and deploy in the field, said HHS Chief Data Officer Mona Siddiqui.

Bringing in fresh eyes from the outside also helped shed new light on exactly which information might prove useful in addressing the problem going forward, she said.

“With a complex public health crisis like the opioid epidemic, it is difficult to predict which data sets will be of high value,” Siddiqui told Nextgov. “We don’t want to be prescriptive, and this sprint provides an important signal for how HHS data is being used currently and how it can be used in the future to address the opioid epidemic.”

Though the Code-a-Thon was the first-of-its-kind event at HHS, the agency is a strong supporter of recruiting technologists outside HHS to address complex public health issues, HHS Chief Technology Officer Bruce Greenstein told Nextgov.

While he didn’t comment on whether the agency would host any future code-a-thons, Greenstein said he promotes the use of the agency’s “Open Innovation” program “as a way to crowdsource complex problems to problem-solvers everywhere.”