“Health Hack”: crossing the line between hackfest and unpaid labour

I’ve never attended a hackathon (hack day, hackfest or codefest). My impression of them is that there is, generally, a strong element of “working for the public good”: seeking to use code and data in new ways that maximise benefit and build communities.

Which is why I’m somewhat mystified by the projects on offer at the Sydney HealthHack. They read like tenders for consultants. Unpaid consultants.

The projects – a pedigree drawing tool, a workflow to process microscopy images, a statistical calculator and a mutation discovery pipeline – all describe problems that competent bioinformaticians could solve using existing tools in a relatively short time. For example, off the top of my head, ImageJ or CSIRO’s Workspace might be worth looking at for problem (2). The steps described in problem (4) – copy and paste between spreadsheets, manual inspection and manipulation of sequence data – should be depressingly familiar examples to many bioinformaticians. This project can be summarised simply as “you’re doing it wrong because you don’t know any better.”

The overall tone is “my research group requires this tool, but we’re unable to employ anyone to do it.” There is no sense of anything wider than the immediate needs of individual researchers. This does not seem, to me, what hackfest philosophy is all about.

This raises an issue that I think about a lot: how do we (the science community) best get the people with the expertise (in this case, bioinformaticians) to the people with the problems? In an ideal world the answer would be “everyone should employ at least one.” I wonder about the market (Australian or more generally) for paid consulting “biological data scientists”? We complain that we’re under-valued; well, perhaps it is we who are doing the valuation when we offer our skills for free.

9 thoughts on ““Health Hack”: crossing the line between hackfest and unpaid labour

  1. Problem 4 has largely been addressed: ” We have been fortunate to have had some help on this problem before, but sadly we’ve only managed to get some of the way.”

    Also with your particular expertise and being employed on a full time permanent basis at a government body (CSIRO) it wouldn’t kill you to help out at a hackathon occasionally…

  2. I agree with Neil. I’m all for helping the community, but it has to be a *community* — what encourages us to work on open source projects in our spare time is that we are working on a general-purpose tool that can help many people (including ourselves). There isn’t a real attraction to working on a project of limited interest that isn’t all that different from the less exciting things we work on in our day jobs. The only person I could imagine working on the project linked to would be an unemployed bioinformatican who is trying to get a job and treating the project as an internship.

  3. Hi Neil, I’m the organiser of HealthHack.

    You’re absolutely right, participating in a hackathon like this can be all too much like unpaid consultant work. IMO it’s a valuable thing to do anyway.

    The main reason I organise HealthHack, besides the obvious immediate outcomes, is to show scientists the value of bioinformatics and software in general. It’s been a real hard sell showing research academics that investing in bioinformaticians and e-research support is worthwhile.

    Sometimes it is a case of ‘we can’t employ anyone to do this’. Having working examples that demonstrate the value of spending the money can only help. Once the researchers are on board with the idea, I’ve found they push for that kind of ongoing support from their institutes. One researcher that participated last year was in the middle of writing a grant application during the weekend. She changed the estimates entirely to include a developer in her project.

    From the other end of the equation, there are a lot of devs/UXers/mapping/etc people etc that love participating. I’ve had so much positive feedback about the chance to get involved directly in up to date science, showcase skills in a different field… I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard something to the effect of ‘It’s nice to do something more worthwhile than integrate one banking backend system to another backend system’.

    When I asked bioinformaticians from this and last year’s HealthHack why they’re there, they said they were doing it because it gave them a chance to work on problems they won’t get around to during work hours, or just because it was fun.

    So, yes – I agree with your point that offering your skills for free is undervaluing yourself. Bioinformaticians are totally undervalued in Australia. I’m hoping this kind of initiative might help with that.

    • Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. It’s great to hear that HealthHack is addressing some of these issues. My frustration is not really with the HealthHack projects, but the observation that so many people clearly need on-site bioinformaticians and we lack the mechanisms, funding or will to make this happen. I hope it gets better – although I’ve been saying that for a very long time!

      • This:

        we lack the mechanisms, funding or will to make this happen.

        I would really like people from a) funding organisations, b) university boards and c) above all, science policy makers to attend something like what you describe. And, of course, the heads of research groups. They should be given a task which any moderately trained bioinformaticians / data scientist / could solve.

        Maybe, that would teach them? ;)

        • If you’d like to join next year’s organising committee, I’d love your help in bringing them to the table.

        • Maia, thanks for the invitation to take part in organising your future event! I would have fun doing that, heavens! However, I’m currently based on the opposite side of the world, and not remotely connected to anything to do with health issues.

          Also, I don’t have time. Can’t even spare time for proper R-blogging. Shame on me. Bad time management, I guess.

  4. I came to a similar conclusion about the data competition organisation Kaggle (https://www.kaggle.com/). Often for the chance of winning small prizes (in the scheme of things) you can put in thousands of hours into solving someone’s data problem for them.

    We unloved scientists are feeling the squeeze the world over. Functions essential for quality science, like statistics and bioinformatics, are often the first to be cut from tight research budgets. Is it any surprise that people want to get them back for free.

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