NHS Hackday 2012

It all started for me on 17 November 2011 in the upstairs bar of the Jericho Tavern in Oxford. Oxford Geek Night 24 was in full swing when Doctor Carl Reynolds took the stage. He was very engaging and entertained us with humourous tales of IT disaster within the NHS. We were all laughing and enjoying ourselves when he dropped a bombshell.

He told of an elderly lady who died. She died due to a completely avoidable IT administration error.

The room fell silent.

As I returned home I promised myself that if an opportunity to help arose, I would throw myself in feet first.

Fast forward to last weekend. The first NHS Hack Day took place at the University of London Union. More than 120 geeks, designers and doctors got together and spent two hot days creatively putting together “disruptive solutions to problems in the health space.”

After a pleasant commute into London I found myself instantly comfortable in unfamiliar surroundings.

It began with the pitches. Each of the health experts briefly described their ideas for projects that could tackled within the next two days. Teams quickly formed (I’m still not entirely sure how), responsibilities were agreed, coffee was shared and the hacking began.

Team Wobblies

We had a core team of 6 with major areas of android app, iOS app, multi-platform website and webservices for holding it all together. One of our developers, Joe, was only 15 and his work on the website was inspiring for one so young. Amazing.


Our project was an incentive based weight loss application, the technical requirement of which can be summarised as follows: pictures are taken on phones and uploaded to the server, converted into stop animation (showing weight loss) and replayed back on the phone at a later time. A penalty based system encourages sticking to your weight loss plan, all backed by psychological research.

My initial tasks involved setting up the infrastructure (EC2 and S3) and initialising github repositories. I then moved on to creating the initial web services for the android and iOS applications to use. I chose node.js for the RESTful web service, storing the images in S3 with a planned mongodb index into them (for quick searching). It worked pretty well and the project progressed rapidly. Designers were on hand for help and knocked out great graphics at record speed.

The Sunday involved a presentation to the esteemed panel of judges including Sir Muir Gray, Sir Liam Donaldson, Francis Irving and Ben Goldacre with prizes for the most worthwhile.

There were many amazing projects created over the weekend, my favourite being Mobile Formulary (or Open BNF): “…built as an exploratory research project at the NHS Hackday to explore better ways of providing health professionals with access to drug dosage information via their mobile phones whilst they are working on wards.”

A truly disruptive application.

I was very lucky to be part of such an amazing experience. I returned home on a high and keen to participate in the next. I would definitely do things differently next time, but I am very proud of what we achieved over the weekend.

All gratitude must go to Carl who’s words got me interested initially, and who’s actions made it happen. Well done and I can’t wait to see where this all ends up.