“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.