Creating the hacker experience: the TreeHacks Health vertical

Feb. 25, 2016, 8:15 p.m.
Photo by McKenzie Lynch (Managing Editor)
Co-directors Raphael Palefsky-Smith ’18, Vincent Chen ’18, and Christina Wadsworth ’18 were just three of the organizers who helped make TreeHacks possible. (McKENZIE LYNCH/The Stanford Daily)

This past weekend, TreeHacks supported over 600 hackers with food, mentors, hardware and activities including Zumba and a Dish hike – all made possible by the 30 organizers of the event.

The team, which is in its second year organizing TreeHacks, began meeting in the summer of 2015 to prepare for this year’s hackathon, building on the experience of running TreeHacks in its inaugural year. In order to provide hackers with all of the support they needed to hack, the team informally split up into three major logistical teams for the event: food, tech support (for during the event itself) and sponsorships.

Individual organizers also planned and helped execute a number of new initiatives to make the hacker community more accessible to newcomers, while still engaging veteran coders. Many of these ideas originated from organizers’ individual interests.

“Everyone had ownership and authority over the part of the project that they were working on,” said co-director Vincent Chen ’18. “A lot of what me, Christina and Raphie [the other co-directors] tried to do was point the team in a general direction and let them go, and we got incredible results.”

According to Claire Shu ’19, a freshman organizer recruited in October, the entire team met weekly, with additional meetings for the swarm of smaller projects that helped TreeHacks feel more welcoming to all.

“I had mentioned to the organizers that we were looking for cool decorations for TreeHacks, and they came back with all these balloons and these awesome letters,” Chen said. “That’s the kind of initiative that we’re really proud of.”

After the hackathon started, the team communicated using radios that allowed organizers to contact one another and contribute at all times. This manifested in around-the-clock staffing, as well as the capacity to deal with small crisis situations without affecting hackers noticeably.

“I had tunnel vision for all of the things I had to do [at TreeHacks],” said co-director Christina Wadsworth ’18. “I was running around 24/7 talking to sponsors, talking to hackers, addressing problems, setting things up and focusing on all the specific things that needed to happen. It was hectic, but I was happy.”

Creating TreeHacks Health

TreeHacks also debuted two verticals around which participants could center their projects: TreeHacks Health and TreeHacks Social Good. TreeHacks Health was one of the event’s most effective initiatives, and when the hacking ended, 33 out of the 84 total projects were health-related.

Sherman Leung ’16 M.S. ’16, the director of TreeHacks Health and a co-founder of Stanford Health Innovations in Future Technologies (SHIFT), a student group applying CS to health, was inspired to create a health track after observing a pattern where hackers at other hackathons were often unsure how to make an impact with their work.

“My personal interest in health and healthcare, through leading SHIFT, was a big catalyst in creating the track,” Leung said. “I realized that there was a disconnect between the institutional knowledge in healthcare, and the hackers with the technical skills to solve healthcare problems, so that bridging this disconnect could lead hackers to solve some high-impact problems.”

The track was enhanced by the support of mentors from the SHIFT network of medical professionals, in addition to other healthcare institutions. In addition, a number of industry veterans held a panel on healthcare issues to kick off the event, providing a first-hand perspective of the challenges health hackers would be facing throughout the weekend.

Leung explained that he sought to maintain an intimate mentor-hacker partnership as part of the larger vision of hacker inclusivity at TreeHacks. The team decided that mentors would propose projects, which would be prescreened and then offered to hackers as starting points to create partnerships with the supporting mentors.

“It’s not a solved problem,” Leung said. “Other hackathons, including Hacking Medicine at MIT, pair physicians with students, and I think that’s something that should be considered.”

Mental health prize

TreeHacks Health also developed a relationship with the Department of Psychiatry, which sponsored the Mental Health Innovation Prize (MHIP) at the hackathon.

The effort was spearheaded by student David Lim ’18, who collected ideas from Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and psychiatry professors to consolidate and include in the TreeHacks Health umbrella, taking advantage of the technical talent at the hackathon to create change in the mental health system.

“A lot of people share the idea that computers are going to completely change the way psychiatry works, both in making mental healthcare more scalable and in making diagnoses more objective,” Lim said.

Lim worked closely with Steven Adelsheim, a clinical professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford and the main organizer and judge for the MHIP. Adelsheim has worked extensively in the Palo Alto community and is interested in supporting and working with college students on applications of CS to mental health.

“An important idea is integrating mental health more broadly with health,” Adelsheim said. “As Treehacks Health continues to develop, there’s more interest now in looking at integrating mental health into primary care.”

The prize proved successful in luring a handful of teams to tackle big mental health issues through technology. Lim now hopes to encourage more work in this area through further discussions with the psychiatry and CS departments, as well as groups like CS+Social Good.

Wrapping up TreeHacks

At the end of the weekend, Leung declared the hackathon a “smashing success.”

“A lot of experienced hackers commented that this was one of the best-run hackathons they had ever been to and liked the focuses on diversity, healthcare and social good,” he said.

Wadsworth spoke about feedback they received during the event.

“I asked hackers how the event was going, and they told me that it was going great,” she said “People seemed really happy.”

Expo judges Isaac Madan ’15 M.S. ’15 and Shuarya Saluja ’15, who also judged at TreeHacks last year, echoed this sentiment and commented on the structure of the event.

“This year they had a new format, and it was very well-organized,” Madan said in an interview with The Daily shortly after the end of the hackathon. “We got to spend a lot of quality time with a number of teams over the last few hours, and it was great to be able to meet with so many innovative students.”

“They formalized some processes last year, and this year they were really able to optimize to create a better system, which is very Silicon Valley- and Stanford-esque,” Saluja added. “Literally, within hackathon cycles, they’ve changed the system.”

Looking to the future of TreeHacks, Leung mentioned the uncertain state of the organizing team but said that he “felt confident that the directors next year, seeing the success of the tracks this year, might be open to considering other verticals.”


Contact Albert Zhang at albertzh ‘at’

Click here for more stories from TreeHacks 2016.

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