A Lesson In Rapid Prototyping & Development

Proto Pronto

I had to remind myself several times this weekend that back in 2001 I actually graduated from University with an IT degree. I attended the latest NHS Hackday (or weekend as it seems more appropriate to refer to it) in Oxford, and I have to say that by the presentations on Sunday afternoon it was clear to me that since leaving University and building a career around the softer, less technical aspects of my degree learning, things at the sharp end of IT had moved on. . . a lot! When I graduated if you mentioned the word hacking the first thing people would think about is the film War Games. These days however open source ‘geeks’ (a term that the techies have taken back and claimed for themselves) who like to do social good are reclaiming the word ‘hack’ and are using it to describe a coming together of likeminded people to rapidly develop (hack together) and prototype technical solutions to some pretty challenging issues.

The hack format is very similar to the unconference format which I have previously blogged about; people give up their spare time (in this case a whole weekend) in order to come together and do good things for free. A hack however takes things one stage further and actually produces usable deliverables by the end of the event. I’ve attended a few unconferences over the last 18 months and next on my list of things to try was a hack. I’ve been doing some service design work with some health trusts in the north west around improving health outcomes for people with long term conditions, so when I saw the NHS Hackday advertised I jumped at the chance to book my place.

It required an early (5:30am) alarm on Saturday 26th January in order for me to start the journey from my home in Shropshire to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford where the hack was taking place. I arrived at around 8:45 at the hospital learning complex which over the following couple of days I would become very familiar with. The first thing that struck me was the sheer number of people that were there. I did a rough count and by the time the ideas were getting pitched at 9:30 there were over 100 people ready to roll their sleeves up to start building apps which could very well revolutionise the way the people do things in the NHS.

Around 20 ideas were put forward by individuals and groups, and following the pitching, teams were formed and the work started. Amongst the pitchers were doctors proposing solutions which would make their area of work easier, the updating of their academic portfolios more streamlined, or the outcomes for their patients simply . . . .better. Whilst my background isn’t clinical/medical, the project I am involved with I the north west is looking at ways in which poor health could be prevented by changing attitudes and behaviours, so I became drawn to a small group of people who were proposing to design a solution which would make it easy for health activists to find likeminded people and do good things in their community. The service designer in me jumped at the chance to get started and it wasn’t too long before the flip chart paper was out and we had run through the details, come up with a service proposal and wire framed an online application which we felt would hit the mark. By around 11am we had even come up with a name – ‘Muto’ – a Latin word meaning to change, alter or exchange. It was at this point that I picked up one of my first learning points of the weekend. We were a team of non-technical people. We had a sound idea, and were able to articulate this, but we were missing a techie, and for our aspirations for Muto to be realised we desperately needed a web developer. To be honest, we never really got over this problem, but with the help of some pretty nice people (and a huge amount of work from @robdykedotcom) we got hold of some server space, @amcunningham purchased a domain name and we started to develop the web platform ourselves, not as the bespoke piece of software that we had hoped, but by using BuddyPress on WordPress. It was hard work, and a steep learning curve, and with Wi-Fi in short supply we had done pretty well by the end of the first day to get the bare bones of a site up and running, and live on the internet. When development came to a close at 6pm everyone made their way to the Britannia Inn in order to swap stories and ‘network’ over a few pints. It had been a good first day.

Having stayed over in Oxford I had a somewhat more leisurely start to day two of the hack. I arrived at the venue at around 8:45 and stated working. The team and I spent a large part of the morning messing around with the presentation we would need to make to the panel of judges, and making final adjustments to our BuddyPress platform. I think we did pretty well considering our technical knowledge (or lack thereof), and I’m sure that during future NHS Hackdays http://mutouk.org will continue to be shaped into a more streamlined product. What struck me however was the amount of work that was being done by all of the groups. @muirgray likened the event to a team of ants and looking out across the crowded development hall it was an accurate correlation to make. At 3pm the presentations started and I was blown away with the quality of the work. Some of the teams who had a generous proportion of technical ability had managed to design and create useable tools which had web interfaces as well as interfaces for android and iPhones. It struck me that if the NHS had to pay for this development the bill would run in to thousands, tens of thousands, and if these solutions were created by profit making organisations, maybe even hundreds of thousands. As well as Muto a further 16 projects were presented to the panel and they were all outstanding in my view. This really was a lesson for the public sector in how to cut through the crap, knuckle down, and get things done – quickly! This was rapid development and rapid prototyping in action, and it was a great vision to behold.

Looking at things from a service designer’s point of view, a service designer who last coded seriously over a decade ago, I wish I had been able to do more to turn Muto into the platform it deserved to be. On reflection I feel that my skills would be best utilised in the events that run up to a hack; the research and the ideation. That said, there is certainly a place for designers at these events, I would however offer a few pieces of simple advice to novice hackdayers:

1) Do your research before the event so that you are ready to move into ideation first thing on day one

2) Use the wiki, hash tag and other contacts you have before the event to lobby support for your idea

3) Make sure you are clear on what people/skills you will need to see your vision materialise and get them on board

4) Be prepared to get stuck in, ideatiate, code and prototype (rapidly)

5) Have fun

I enjoyed my first venture into the hackday movement, and I would like to thank @drcjar, the small team of organisers and not least the Muto team members @amcunningham @cdalgety @create_together @gihanw who helped to make the experience worthwhile. I’m going to make sure that I advocate the benefit of such events at every opportunity. For me the benefits to the public sector for designing and developing in this way are almost unquantifiable. I think one of the judging panel‏ @bengoldacre summed it up perfectly in his tweet: it is ‘amazing that in two days some volunteer coders can produce a better ePortfolio than the dreadful official one’.

At the moment there appears to be a great amount of support from the NHS and the public sector as a whole for this type of event, but as the movement gets ever more popular and widespread, I just hope that the public sector at large choose to learn how to get things done by observing what goes on at hack events, and embed the thinking into their organisational approach to problem solving, and doesn’t simply decide sit back and exploit the good will of some of its most talented employees and advocates.

For more information about the NHS Hackday and the project work that was carried out in Oxford please follow the links below:

@GeraintLewis’s Hackday Notes: 17 Fab Projects

The NHS Hackday Oxford Project List

eHealth Insider Article: Heart a-hack

The Twitter Hashtag: #nhshd

The NHS Hackday Wiki

The project I worked on: Muto


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