Health Foo 2013: Best Canceled Event, Ever

Apr 24, 2013, 11:52 AM, Posted by Ted Eytan

Regina Holliday's painting from Health Foo 2013. "The Open Door," a painting by Regina Holliday inspired by Health Foo 2013

A version of this post originally appeared on Ted’s personal blog.

At 3:30 p.m. on Friday, April 19, I received word that Health Foo, an annual unconference about health set in Cambridge, MA, was canceled because Boston and its surrounding areas were on lockdown as the search for one of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects continued. Like me, many other attendees were already en route, and we quickly decided that we’d find a way to make Health Foo happen for anyone who was in town and was interested.

There was no mistaking the gravity of the situation on Friday. The decision to cancel was a good one. What happened next, though, was pretty amazing.

On Saturday, after brunch and a walk, we found a home for what was now an un-unconference, thanks to the Little Devices Group at MIT. This turned out to be a great setting, where we worked among students prototyping devices and transportation of the future. And the camp itself was terrific – I learned a ton about my areas of interest (sustainability in health care and transgender health), and about topics that were new to me, such as heart rate variability.

Data journalist Fred Trotter did a great job organizing our work and keeping people engaged. Artist and activist Regina Holliday painted a beautiful piece that incorporated the themes of the weekend, from the sorrow and sadness around the events in Cambridge and Boston, to the things we discussed in our groups. Note the open door and tweets coming from the frame marked “MIT.” The piece, pictured above, is called “The Open Door.”

Our gracious host at Little Devices, Anna Young, was overcome with emotion when she saw Regina’s painting. She told us how happy the Little Devices Group was to have us for the weekend and be a part of Health FOO this year. The feeling of gratitude was very mutual.

I think I’d like to see more un-unconferences. Get people to travel to a city where they don’t live, cancel the meeting, and watch as they innovate. Just go completely DIY. They’ll discover what we did, which is that people will work to be part of something bigger than themselves.

“Health Foo brings us together,” Regina wrote on her blog a few days after the event. “The smart techie, the artist, the doctor, the designer—in this moment we are all equal.”

As Regina reminded me, patients are used to not having resources to achieve their goals in the health system. This weekend, we were like patients, and we learned that constraint breeds creativity. If that doesn’t give you hope in the future of health care, I don’t know what will.

With support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Health Foo (Friends of O'Reilly) is an "unconference" organized by O'Reilly Media.


This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.