I wrote this blog post with the primary intention of sharing with my colleagues in NHS Digital to hopefully encourage some more people to get involved – but I don’t think there’s anything here that doesn’t apply to everyone.
It was a brilliant weekend, and there was a super mixture of people there – plenty of healthcare professionals, IT professionals, some senior management types (CIOs / CCIOs), general “techies” (professional, aspiring, and amateur), researchers, and a lawyer.
What’s NHS Hack Day like?
For those who aren’t familiar with NHS Hack Day, it goes something like this:
The event runs 9-5 Sat and Sun
Lunch is provided on both days and hot drinks are available throughout.
Saturday morning is spent using coffee to recover from the work week, chatting with people, and pitching ideas.
Pitches are 2 minutes each and you can pitch anything from a solid idea to an open-ended question (this time we even had someone who wanted to create a sci-fi story about healthcare in the year 2100).
Most people are nervous
Some people only decide to pitch an idea whilst watching the other pitches – the team that won last weekend only decided to pitch after getting confidence from the other pitches.
After pitching everyone has some time to go and talk to the pitchers, explore the ideas, and gradually teams are formed around the projects. Sometimes ideas are merged together, sometimes they’re split off into smaller projects.
The rest of Saturday, and most of Sunday is spent working on projects
Different people work in different ways; some teams like to stick the headphones on and just chip away at a problem and others will spend a lot of time working through problems interactively.
Sometimes people start building software etc. in the first hour, sometimes people don’t build at all.
On Sunday afternoon teams decide if they would like to present their project to everyone else – and if so submit their projects
This is completely optional, but it feels good and is encouraged – the community is friendly and rarely does a team not present something.
At about 15:30 everyone gets together and watches presentations
Each team gets 3 minutes to present their work, and 2 minutes to answer questions.
I’m always amazed at what people have managed to prepare – last weekend we had a Fresh Prince rap from one team, and a promotional video from another…
I had several conversations with people where they were not sure where they were expected to be in terms of progress at various points through the event. Superbly, there is no right answer.
The presentations are one of the most enjoyable bits for me – and last weekend had me smiling throughout every single presentation. There were so many great ideas, and every team had something interesting to show.
Teams will present anything from some paper mockups and a bit of narrative through to a fully working product with audience participation – it is dependent on the type of project, the team, and how good people are at getting up on Sundays mornings.
After presentations, there is a short period of evaluation where either a panel of invited judges, or the community, will vote for the top three projects – and those teams are given some prizes
We tried a new approach to voting this time where the community was given 3 votes each to vote for the three projects they were most excited by. We trusted the community to not vote for themselves, and to only vote three times – this simply doesn’t need policing.
People then help put the borrowed space back to how it was found, and head home feeling enthused 🙂
The last 30 mins is spent clearing up, saying goodbye, exchanging contact details, plotting world domination, and just generally wrapping up an enjoyable weekend.
Why should I care?
If you’re thinking “well I’m sure you all had fun, but does this matter to me?”, here are a few of my thoughts:
There is absolutely no ‘right skill set’
In fact I shouldn’t need to explain that diversity always wins and this certainly includes diversity of skills. The best outputs come from the teams with the most diversity, and there is no buzz quite like building something with a diverse team of techies, healthcare professionals, artists, and users.
On our team, we were all learners in one way or another so a large amount of our time was spent pairing, learning, explaining, and discovering – this is just as rewarding as having something shiny to present the end of it.
This type of event is unconstrained thinking at its absolute best
As an embittered and tiring NHS technology person, I go to these events to recharge my batteries. This kind of community is not subject to the organisational, political, and learned behavioural constraints that many of us are.
It’s incredibly rare that a pitch is binned because “we’ll never get it through the <insert your favourite bureaucratic restriction here> process” – people are there to busk and solve problems. The concept of a political mandate, or a 4:1 return on investment simply isn’t important here.
The ideas and outputs from these events are a map for the future
Maps are so useful – we are all pretty convinced of the benefit of roadmaps, and visions, and Google maps.
The ideas at these events give us a clue about what is around the corner for NHS technology. Many people at these events are recently qualified healthcare professionals, or are maybe only involved with NHS technology as users and see this as an opportunity to have a voice.
The things they want, and expect, are clues – to what we should be thinking about, to where we should be going, and to where we’re falling short.
It helps prove that the centre can engage, listen and help
Do not read subtext into this – I am not saying “NHS England / NHS Digital never engage with the community”.
But it should not raise eyebrows at these events when one says that they work for NHS Digital, or NHS England – people are, but shouldn’t be, pleasantly surprised.
Last weekend I think I counted the number of attendees from NHS England / NHS Digital on one hand – I’d love to see this go onto two hands.
People are enthused to see us there, and actually we can be really helpful as guides, navigators, and mentors. It encourages innovators just to know that we’ve considered it of value to take time to be there.
It’s not just about AI and mobile apps – people solve fundamental problems too
One of my favourite projects from last week: FastPass. A team of seasoned IT support professionals who were determined to sort out the drag of password resets – both for support staff and users. They built a working system for self-service password resets and they intend to take it forward within their local NHS trust.
My team tackled the challenge of collecting timely feedback from users of NHS services at a scale that would produce enough data to be significant.
Real problems, not flashy, that could genuinely make stuff better.