Health care organizations in recent months have hit upon a new way to spark innovation in software -- an "app challenge" that offers cash rewards and considerable exposure to the application developers who participate.
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Coding challenges and competitions have surfaced in both government and commercial health IT circles over the last year and a half. The Department of Health and Human Services' Office of the National Coordinator (ONC), the National Cancer Institute and drugstore chain Walgreens Co. are among the entities pursuing this variation on crowdsourcing.
The basic approach: define a problem and invite interested parties to develop solutions. Sometimes an app challenge is a live event, as is the case with code-a-thons, while others are conducted online.
Adherents view challenges as a way to generate ideas outside of the traditional procurement method. The usual path to software involves a requirements document, a formal request for proposal (RFP) process, and an award to a contractor. Challenges, on the other hand, open development to a broader set of coders, which inspires greater creativity and a wider range of technical approaches, so the thinking goes.
Challenges could bump into limitations, however. One key question: Will they actually generate viable products? Some participants see the potential for productizing the code generated in a challenge, and challenge organizers contend competitions can be structured to promote app sustainability.
While app challenge sponsors tweak the model, the trend toward competitions shows no signs of abating.
"We are seeing only increasing demand in challenges," said Jean-Luc Neptune, M.D., senior vice president at Health 2.0, an organization that runs developer challenges. "I think it's going to be...an increasingly adopted mechanism for driving innovation."
Public sector wants innovative health care software development
The public sector provides much of the impetus for challenges. Neptune said the America Competes Reauthorization Act of 2010 set the stage for increased uptake of the approach. While the Departments of Defense and Energy have been conducting prize challenges for a while, the reauthorization act gives more agencies the authority to conduct competitions.
ONC is among the federal groups moving in that direction. The agency earlier this year awarded Health 2.0 a contract to conduct health IT innovation competitions. Additional evidence for the rise in health care competitions comes from Challenge.gov, which debuted in 2010 as a government crowdsourcing platform. Brandon Kessler, founder of ChallengePost, a marketplace that manages Challenge.gov, cited 43 health care-related challenges since the site's launch a year ago.
"That, by far, is the most of any category," he said. "Health in general is absolutely a prime area for challenges and competitions."
Challenge.gov health competitions cover a range of gigs, from app development to video production. Overall, participants find motivation in the sheer number of problems to solve, a passion for disease prevention and treatment, and a desire to build an ecosystem around health-related issues, Kessler explained.
On the commercial side, Walgreens and pharmaceutical firm Novartis International AG have also spun up challenges. Walgreens in September wrapped up a three-month challenge to create a tablet-based application for its in-store health guides. For its part, Novartis seeks a solution that lets people manage their cardiovascular health. The winner will receive $100,000 to develop the idea. The award is slated for February 2012.
The role of developer challenges, according to a Novartis statement, is to “develop and bring to market” high-end health care solutions that will ultimately drive better patient outcomes.
App challenge benefits include diverse ideas, networking opportunities
Organizations that sponsor challenges benefit from a more diverse set of participants. RFPs tend to circulate within a government contractor ecosystem accustomed to competing for them. Competitions attract more than the usual suspects.
"You can bring in expertise beyond the typical group of solvers," Neptune said. "You tend to find novel solutions that may not have been thought about before."
Sponsors also view challenges as a marketing vehicle. That's the case for the independent National Opinion Research Center. NORC at the University of Chicago is co-sponsoring a Medicare Claims Data Developer Challenge that revolves around recently released Medicare claims public use files. Participants are tasked with building a dashboard to help researchers work with the files.
"We began to think about ways we could introduce these data sets to a wide array of potential data users," noted Michael Davern, senior vice president and director of the Public Health Research department at NORC. "One of the ideas generated was using the innovation challenge. We thought of it as a way to market our new data product."
Not every app challenge views commercial product development as part of its mission. But a competition with that goal in mind can look for ways to encourage developers beyond the challenge itself.
The app challenge, he added, aims to get people to work with the data and, hopefully, create useful tools while doing so.
Developers also benefit from the app challenge milieu. Stan Valencis, president of Acsys Interactive Inc., an interactive agency offering digital marketing and software development, said challenges have helped his company bring new ideas to customers. The company has participated in two health-related challenges, including Walgreens' health guide competition.
"For us, it shows our clients what can be done and helps keep us on the leading edge," Valencis said.
Sheetal Shah, health solutions architect at Avanade Inc., a business technology solutions provider and MSP, said an app challenge provides an avenue for introducing technology the company has developed for other industries into the health care field. Avanade is currently working on the Medicare Claims Data Developer Challenge. It also participates in code-a-thons.
Shah finds the in-person challenges useful for networking and "engagement from the community." At one event, a previous challenge winner provided useful advice on how HIPAA impacts mobile messaging.
Can an app challenge bring sustainability to participants?
Health care challenges generate plenty of ideas, but do they lead to sustainable products for businesses and consumers?
Kessler said not every app challenge views commercial product development as part of its mission. But a competition with that goal in mind can look for ways to encourage developers beyond the challenge itself. Winners could be given an opportunity to meet with venture capital firms, for example, or an awards ceremony might include introductions to investors.
"You build into the opportunity a way for them to sustain their applications," Kessler said. "That makes it attractive for them to enter in the first place and deals with sustainability."
At Avanade, Shah has come across tech accelerators and venture capitalists at live challenges. "We have seen keen interest in getting projects off the ground," he said.
In a few cases, health app demos have paved the way for projects and products. Avanade has been able to translate one of its challenges into a product. The company's mobile messaging integration app came out on top in a competition earlier this year. The company now markets that app to customers as the Avanade Mobile Health Messaging Framework.
In another example, Acsys put together a mobile augmented reality app for a challenge last year. The app, which lets users look up population health data on a county-by-county basis, caught a hospital customer's eye and led to the creation of a mobile concierge application. That system is designed to help patients in the hospital for long-term treatment.
The concierge development was only loosely based on the challenge app, Valencis said, but the challenge app "was helpful in sparking the conversation."
John Moore is a Syracuse, N.Y.-based freelance writer covering health IT, managed services and cloud computing. Let us know what you think about the story; email firstname.lastname@example.org.