What role do designers play at a Hackathon focused on biodata?

By Lou Shackleton | 18/07/2018

Written in collaboration with Elena Lockyer and Francis Rowland, with contributions from Steve O'Connor & Alessia Visconti

On July 2nd and 3rd, 2018, the Wellcome Genome Campus hosted over 120 people at the first Biodata Hackathon. Team members at Sigma are proud to have been involved throughout – including our MD, Hilary Stephenson, who was part of the organising committee from the start – especially since this was such an important event for the Campus community.

As Sigma's business designer, I worked with staff on Campus to help shape the initial concept, facilitating an early ideation workshop with key stakeholders including potential funders, mentors, and hackathon team members.

Francis Rowland, who leads our team at the Cambridge office, worked with each of the five hackathon challenge partners to frame their challenges, in terms of the problems to be solved and who would benefit.

Designer, Steve O'Connor, worked with Francis to create a deck of "design direction" cards, to help guide the hackathon teams' thinking.

We also attended the event as roving mentors, alongside other subject matter experts from the fields of science, business, technology, and policy, so that we could provide advice, feedback and a listening ear for teams to practice their pitches.

“The hackathon was awesome. I have told this to everyone and I will never get tired of repeating it!"

Bringing design thinking to the microbiome

Ahead of the event, our team created a set of 20 specially-designed cards to hand out, each one outlining a different thinking or problem-solving strategy - all things that could be used to direct the design of a solution. Many of the teams used these cards, with some teams seeking us out for extra help on how to best use them. This gave many of them a fresh perspective on how to approach–or perhaps re-approach–a problem. And some handy tips for reaching a solution!

"A FitBit for your poo"

One of the groups – "Team GoGut" – tackled the Challenge set by Arm, ATOS, and Cavium: "How can we use mobile technology to transform biological data processing?".

This challenge highlighted the potential obstacle that huge datasets present to achieving personalised, precision medicine at scale. Gaining new personalised clinical insight requires power-hungry, expensive data centres to process these large datasets.

Peter Ferguson from ARM inspired the hackers to consider what size these data processing centres could be in 5 or 10 years' time as tech continually gets smaller: Might they eventually fit in your pocket?

Team GoGut's winning solution, described by them as ‘A Fitbit for your poo’, was a mobile, AI-augmented device to allow patients with gut diseases to monitor their own microbiome.

Helping Team GoGut to develop their ideas, and design a winning solution

Team GoGut approached members of Sigma toward the end of the first day, just after deciding which idea to run with. Having looked through the cards the team wanted to understand how best to apply them. Steve and Elena (and fellow mentor Uday Phadke) talked through their idea with them and made some suggestions:

  • Using cards such as the Problem Definition, Hypothesis Statement, and Job Statement to define the problem clearly
  • Thinking about the people who would be using the final solution, by using Proto Personas
  • Structuring the pitch so that both the problem and their solution were clearly stated, and would make sense together to the judging panel

When Steve and Elena visited the team the next morning, it was obvious they had applied some of the methods suggested, having created the Job Statement:

"When I am prescribed a new medication, it can take months for my symptoms to change; I need a better way to monitor the effects of medicines and my diet on my body."

This demonstrated how the team had come to look at the problem from the patient's perspective. The team had also used several other cards including Show & Tell, Performance, and Stakeholder Analysis. A couple of pointers were given to get more clarity in their slides, and they were in a strong position!

"Every single interaction helped us to improve our solution, and most likely it will also help my current and future projects."

Go-Gut team member Alessia Visconti (@_alesssia), a computer scientist and research fellow at King's College London, mentioned that Sigma’s help in the event “offered a great insight into aspects that I have often overlooked or completely missed, also in my own projects, such as the Hypothesis Statement and the clarification of the context of the solution,” highlighting the cards as particularly useful. Team GoGut's clear understanding of end user needs contributed to a winning solution that not only worked at a technical level, but was also well thought-out in its design and strategy - netting them the prize of further access to the ARM infrastructure for a limited time and an iPad for each member of their team.

Facilitating design with new ways of thinking

For us, it was a great experience to be involved in and there's already talk of repeating the event. We loved being there to help encourage a focus on people and outcomes, using our approaches and skills to address the challenges. Since the event, it has been great to have so many follow up discussions; new collaborations; and the opportunity to help some of the teams develop their ideas further.

The cards we created were taken away by some of the teams and mentors to reuse or show colleagues. We've heard back from a few since then about the positive impact they've had on business and project decisions since.

If you'd like to know more about the methods and techniques that people used in the hackathon, and how we can help you to apply them to your projects, do get in touch.

For a detailed explanation of Team Go-Gut's solution, read team member Oliver Giles' write up over on the Scibite site.