Up to the Challenge?

Jan 19, 2012, 6:10 PM, Posted by

Todd-Park Todd Park, HHS Chief Technology Officer

Got a good idea for a health app or health innovation? The health agencies of the U.S. government want to know. Since 2009, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has invited citizens and tech and health experts, to submit their ideas for new health apps or strategies to help improve population health outcomes through open "challenges."

A recent challenge, still open to contestants, comes from the Office of the Surgeon General, deemed the Healthy Apps Challenge, to help provide tailored health information and empower users to engage in healthy behaviors. Another challenge from the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology asks entrants to create a video of two minutes or shorter on how to use technology to achieve a New Year’s health resolution.

Ashoka Changemakers and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation have created a challenge called Innovations for Health: Solutions that Cross Borders, with a goal of finding “health care innovations that have the potential to be adapted and applied in different countries experiencing similar barriers to health” – with a focus on both individual health and prevention at a population level. The challenge is particularly looking for new approaches or unique models of change that demonstrate a substantial difference from other initiatives in the field, and for solutions that have demonstrated impact and help vulnerable and under-served populations. The cash prize for the challenge is $10,000 each for up to three winners, and the deadline for ideas is February 13. (From among the entries, the Foundation will also be looking for ideas that show potential to help produce significant improvement in health and health care in the United States).

Why issue a challenge rather than a request for proposals in order to find solutions to so many critical health problems? NewPublicHealth recently asked just that of Todd Park, Chief Technology Officer of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

NewPublicHealth: Health challenges are garnering quite a few contestants, judging by the traffic on the websites. Why are they such a good option for exploring new health solutions?

Todd Park: The challenges are a terrific way to engender innovation for a variety of reasons. One, they tend to attract both usual suspects and unusual suspects. So folks who may have highly complementary expertise or experience in other sectors are now applying their expertise for the first time to help solve a health or health care problem. In fact, the emerging academic literature on challenges in general indicate that the people who win the challenges tend to be, the majority of the time, folks who are unusual suspects; folks who actually come from other sectors who are applying their expertise for the first time to a problem in the sector from which the challenge is being issued.

And another reason why they tend to be – when done well – very successful engenders of innovation is that it’s a very broad-based response that you get. So as opposed to say a procurement where you ask a single organization to come up with the answer to a given question, you’re basically asking the planet for an answer to a question or a solution to a problem, so you get many more responses that are much more diverse than you would get from a narrow solicitation.

NPH: Is there a challenge winner from a non-health sector whose submission blew you away?

Todd Park: There's one kind of challenge we do called a Code-A-Thon, which is done over the course of a single day or a single weekend in a physical location. One Code-A-Thon that we and Health 2.0 and Academy Health partnered on recently was a challenge to build the most useful application fueled in part by health data being made openly available by HHS. One team, Team Maya, a team of five young people. They had no background in health and health care at all, but they were inspired. They looked at the data, talked to a number of health experts, and they decided to tackle food deserts.

Because this team, Team Maya, hadn’t gotten the memo about what’s impossible, they decided to solve the food desert problem in eight hours. And so they came up with this brilliant idea, which they called Food Oasis, and it won. It was a brilliant mash-up of text messaging and farmers’ markets. Using text messaging, people can text in to Food Oasis that they’re interested in buying a zucchini and five tomatoes and your neighbors could do the same, and it all goes to a central website, which is consulted on a regular basis by food co-ops, by food suppliers and by farmers’ markets, who then circle the orders they can fulfill. They then text everyone back who ordered the food and say show up at St. John’s Church at 3 p.m. on Saturday and we’ll have your food. Because you don’t need physical infrastructure, because you know demand entirely in advance, the cost of food drops significantly. They are about to close funding from a major American company and beta test in multiple market cities.

Their expertise is actually in consumer experience design and so they brought that to bear in designing a platform and a service and experience for consumers and for food suppliers – it actually works optimally for both.

NPH: What determines how much you will pay for a challenge that wins?

Todd Park: That’s an area where I think the world of people who issue challenges is still figuring out but I’ll make a couple of observations. One is that the more ambitious or the more extensive a deliverable you expect, the higher the cash prize tends to be. So if you’re actually asking just for great ideas, then a cash prize tends to be pretty low. If you’re asking for an actual implemented solution that challenge has to be higher in terms of prizes.

But quite honestly, I don’t think that the challenge respondents are actually doing their work for the cash prize. I think the cash prize is something that helps to offset the cost of competing, but what they’re really excited about I think is A), the chance to engage in a problem that’s really, really interesting to them and that they think is really important, and B), for the chance to actually get recognition for winning and leverage that recognition, to turn what they’ve built into something at the next level that could keep their work going – whether it be an actual product, a company, an organization or a service of some kind.

NPH: And do the challenges energize the usual suspects, too?

Todd Park: Oh absolutely, absolutely. And what we’ve actually found is that the people and teams that tend to win tend to be those that combine usual and unusual suspects. They combine the best technologies in Silicon Valley with doctors or patient leaders, and therefore, combine an acutely rich understanding of the problem and unconventional ways of thinking about how to solve it in one team.

NPH: What have you learned that has helped better inform the challenges themselves or the responses to people applying?

Todd Park: One of the things we’re learning is that the more specific the challenge is, the better the response you’re going to get. There are certain challenges where you actually want to keep them extremely open-ended, particularly if you’re just kind of interested in general ideation, but in general the more you specify and refine the question, the better the responses to the question are likely to be.


This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.