A couple of weeks ago, we brought together several NHS Digital internal product teams in Exeter to spend two days hacking on projects related to Directory of Services and service information products.
I feel strongly that not all hackathons have to be developer-centric. We made a point of bringing a range of people and skillsets together for this and it’s an opportunity for people to play whatever role they want to – you do not have to do your day job!
We brought together teams who either work directly on DoS products, or who have some dependency on DoS products. This included teams such as NHS 111 Online who have had to work closely with the DoS teams over the last year to develop their product.
The primary aim of the hackathon was to bring disparate, but related teams together to counter the silo effect that we can sometimes experience working in a big organisation across multiple locations. Allowing people to put names to faces, and make new connections inevitably streamlines the way we work together. It was also an opportunity for people to break away from their daily work routine and ‘backlog’. It was not a requirement that the end result involved production-ready software or ideas supported by a business case!
It was great to see over 20 different pitches made at the beginning of the two days with some people making more than one. By the end of the first morning, teams had self-organised around 8 projects:
“Capacity Grids Reinvented” – The team took our existing Capacity Management product and imagined what a modern, mobile-first version might look like. The team had people doing development, design, and analysis and created a collection of prototypes demonstrating a user experience much more aligned with the needs of capacity management users.
“Alexa, ask Health Info…” – A hackathon favourite – the team combined a number of pitched ideas to use Amazon Alexa to answer questions about health issues (using health content from the NHS.UK API) and then provide service recommendations (using information from the DoS API).
“Alternative triage products searching the DoS” – Related to work going on in the Clinical Triage Platform (CTP) programme, this team looked at how multiple triage products might search the DoS using their triage output. This is a semantics and information modelling challenge as much as it is technical.
“Elasticating the DoS…” – With Elasticsearch being another popular hackathon tool of choice, this team combined several pitches related to using Elasticsearch (or similar indexing technology) to experiment with optimising searches for service information – both in terms of speed and flexibility.
“Postcode microservice” – This team worked up a simple prototype looking at splitting commonly-used postcode reference data out into a discrete service so that it could be used across multiple teams without uncessary duplication.
“Change request microservice” – This team prototyped a “Change Request Service” for the DoS, experimenting with JSON Patch syntax to present some simple request and approval workflow via an API to allow consumers to request a change to their service information.
“Faker” – As is the story with so many startups these days, this team began looking at the potential of using Machine Learning to optimise the search algorithms in the DoS but quickly pivoted to focus on using the Faker tool to generate synthetic service information in bulk. The potential here being not just simple testing, but the opportunity to generate on-demand service data to reflect different commissioning scenarios within the NHS.
“Geofencing (I’m a person not a crow)” – This team decided to tackle the long-standing issue of the DoS using “direct line” distance searching. They prototyped an end-to-end search using Isochrones to define polygons to bound searches, which can then be easily passed into most geospatial-aware database queries.
How did it go?
At the end of the second afternoon each team gave a 10 minute show and tell about their projects. We managed to get some of the NHS Digital DDC Exeter Senior Management Team along for this bit – and I’m glad we did.
Although, as I’ve mentioned, the idea was not to produce “deployable solutions” I was chuffed to see just how much the teams had achieved in just a day and a half. I certainly left the event trying to work out how I could shoehorn the ideas into our product roadmaps, and I am confident that we have turbo-charged some of the work we will need to do in due-course.
It was great to bring lots of different skillsets together and almost everyone felt like they could contribute, but there is always more that can be done to make sure the day is as inclusive for every attendee as possible. It just emphasises that you really do have to put in the prior effort to structure any kind of collaborative / interactive event like hackdays or workshops if you want it to really ‘work’.
Thank you to everyone who contributed to making it a valuable two days – I’m certainly hoping we can do it again, and maybe with a broader attendance.