Every day more than 130 people die from opioid-related drug overdoses in the US; to combat this, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) officially signed a Public Health Emergency (October 2017) and sought out new ideas for how to address the epidemic .
HHS embraced open innovation and hosted a two-day Opioid Code-a-Thon in December 2017, bringing together more than 300 computer programmers, public health experts, data scientists, researchers, and innovators to develop data-driven solutions for one of three categories – Treatment, Usage, and Prevention – using a combination of federal, state, and private datasets that had never before been made public . Teams had 24 hours to prototype and develop solutions; 50 teams competed, with 9 selected for the final judging round, and three winners awarded $10,000 in prizes . See below for complete contest details and winners.
HHS Chief Technology Officer Bruce Greenstein emphasized the importance for crowdsourcing ideas via the Opioid Code-A-Thon because it enabled HHS to “multiply our combined skills and resources to combat the opioid epidemic… and create a community that will continue to use data and technology to develop new solutions” .
Government agencies have a history of embracing crowdsourcing to solve big problems, and incentivized open competition has become a standard tool for agencies to tackle a variety of technical, scientific, and creative issues. Agencies, like HHS, embrace challenges (crowdsourced idea competitions) because they generate “high-value solutions to complex problems through large-scale and diverse independent experimentation” . Challenges and prize competitions enable the government to establish ambitious goals and pay only for solutions, without having to preemptively predict which team or approach is likely to succeed. Most importantly, prize competitions attract teams outside the norm, increasing the number of solvers tackling a problem, helping to bring out-of-discipline perspectives, and identifying novel approaches without great risk or cost to taxpayer dollars.
To grow the number of participants in government-sponsored challenges (like the Opioid Code-a-Thon), the US supports Challenge.gov, a central repository website for agencies to post and manage crowdsourcing competitions . The US also has a variety of regulations which designate in which capacity federal agencies can host challenges (e.g., the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act of 2017 – currently under review as the American Innovation Act of 2018), as well as special contracting vehicles which support agencies launching, managing, and marketing prize competitions [6, 7]. In the future, US agencies will have to continually review and update these regulations and contracting vehicles to enable and incentivize open innovation, while also continue to grow promotion and attraction of the competitions so that diversity of thought continues.
One question I have for HHS (and other agencies) is how can agencies imbibe this culture of open innovation that is currently centered in one-time or one-off competitions more deeply into the day-to-day culture? The key takeaway from the Opioid Code-a-Thon was not the three winning ideas, but the data set developed for the competition. HHS was able to make public de-identified data from HHS, federal, state, and local government, as well as private industry, which enabled the teams to come up with ideas and new innovative solutions. Is it possible to make more information like this available and develop structures to promote innovative teaming inside and outside HHS more readily so this level of innovation can continue to spread?
We’ve already seen other organizations following the path of HHS’s Opioid Code-a-Thon and using this, and other, data sets to drive innovation and solutions. The University of California Institute for Prediction Technology announced their own Opioid West Hack-A-Thon+ (sponsored by HHS) to further develop new approaches to solving the opioid crisis . The FDA is currently hosting the “Innovation Challenge: Devices to Prevent and Treat Opioid Use Disorder” to increase the development of medical devices to support this space . Can HHS spread this information more broadly and make this a consistent activity?
Another question I have for HHS (and about crowdsourcing contests more broadly) is about the potential reach of the “open call” for solutions from teams. Most people in the US do not know about Challenge.gov or about these open innovation contests. How do we ensure that engagement in these competitions is not limited to interest groups or the traditional teams of researchers? How can we engage and attract broader networks of people with innovative ideas to contribute?
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HHS Opioid Code-a-Thon Overview (from the website):
Treatment Track: In addressing the opioid epidemic, HHS is focused on improving access to treatment and recovery services and promoting evidence-based approaches to reduce opioid overdoses, overdose-related mortality, and the prevalence of opioid use disorder.
- How can you help federal, state, and local stakeholders improve access to effective treatment and recovery services?
- Winner: The Visionist Inc. team came up with a program called Take Back America, to assess the unmet need in five states for takeback programs at pharmacies where unused or unneeded opioids can be returned, therefore taking a source of opioids out of circulation.
Usage Track: One of HHS’s key priorities in responding to the opioid epidemic is to strengthen its understanding of the epidemic through better public health data and reporting. A critical element of this understanding relates to knowing who is at risk for opioid misuse or abuse.
- How can you help federal, state, and local stakeholders identify at-risk populations and their underlying risk characteristics of opioid misuse or abuse?
- Winner: The Origami Innovations team, from New Haven, Connecticut, produced a model designed for real-time tracking of overdoses, allowing first responders and health authorities to be prepared for tracking events such as an outbreak of fentanyl overdoses in communities. This real time tracking would enable area hospitals and local health departments to allocate resources where they are most needed.
Prevention Track: HHS and public health officials across the country are committed to ensuring preventative resources and overdose-reversing drugs are made available to the public. To adequately supply and position resources, federal, state, and local stakeholders are faced with the complex challenge of predicting and identifying the supply of the full range of opioids contributing to the crisis.
- How can you help federal, state, and local stakeholders predict and analyze the supply and movement of legal and illicit opioids?
- Winner: The Opioid Prescriber Awareness Tool (OPAT) team borrowed from military aviation to create an instrument panel providing clinicians with a visual representation of their opioid prescribing patterns compared with those of their peers. The tool also informs the referral process and provides easy access to contact information for multi-modal pain and addiction treatment options in the prescriber’s area.
 “What Is The U.S. Opioid Epidemic?”. 2018. HHS.Gov. https://www.hhs.gov/opioids/about-the-epidemic/index.html.
 “HHS Opioid Code-A-Thon”. 2017. HHS.Gov. https://www.hhs.gov/challenges/code-a-thon/index.html.
 “HHS Announces The Winners Of The HHS Opioid Code-A-Thon”. 2017. HHS.Gov. https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2017/12/08/hhs-announces-winners-hhs-opioid-code-thon.html.
 K. Boudreau and K. Lakhani. Using the crowd as an innovation partner. Harvard Business Review 91, no. 4 (April 2013): 61–69.
 “Challenge.Gov”. 2018. Ideascale. https://challenge.gov/a/buzz/challenge.
 “President Signs American Innovation And Competitiveness Act Into Law”. 2017. Committee On Science, Space, And Technology. https://science.house.gov/news/press-releases/president-signs-american-innovation-and-competitiveness-act-law.
 H.R.6756 – 115Th Congress (2017-2018): American Innovation Act Of 2018″. 2018. Congress.Gov. https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/6756.
 Lab, HHS. 2017. “24 Hours To Change The Future Of Opioid Addiction – The HHS IDEA Lab”. Hhs.Gov. https://www.hhs.gov/idealab/2018/10/12/24-hours-to-change-the-future-of-opioid-addiction/.
 “FDA Innovation Challenge: Devices To Prevent And Treat Opioid Use Disorder”. 2018. Fda.Gov. https://www.fda.gov/aboutfda/centersoffices/officeofmedicalproductsandtobacco/cdrh/cdrhinnovation/ucm609082.htm.