Crowdsourcing is the government’s way of saying, “We don’t have all the answers.” 
In October 2017, President Trump officially declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency. In 2016 alone, 11 million Americans abused prescription painkillers, and over 64,000 people died of drug overdoses, more than four times the number of overdose deaths in 1999.  A McKinsey report suggested that most opioid misuse remains undiagnosed and that the crisis will likely worsen in the next few years. 
Less than two months later, in December 2017, 300 data scientists, coders, and public health experts from around the country convened in Washington, DC to participate in a 24-hour code-a-thon hosted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and focused on fighting the opioid epidemic.
Why Open Innovation?
To meet its mission of promoting the health, safety, and general wellbeing of all Americans, HHS is constantly trying to solve the healthcare industry’s biggest challenges. The urgency and magnitude of the opioid crisis only exacerbate the need for innovative solutions. Open innovation allows HHS to leverage the varied knowledge, skills, and experiences of individuals within the government, industry, and academia. Together, challenge participants can generate a larger volume and more diverse set of ideas than would be possible if HHS worked solely within the confines of the department.
During the 24-hour opioid challenge, each of the 50 participating teams worked to create novel, data-driven solutions, thereby priming the product development funnel with potential solutions related to the prevention, treatment, and use of opioids. Winners of the $10,000 prizes included the Origami Innovations team from the student-led incubator at Yale University and The Opioid Prescriber Awareness Tool (OPAT) team, which drew on a member’s experience as a pilot to create a tool that visualizes physicians’ opioid prescription patterns. 
These code-a-thons and innovation challenges allow the government to take a more agile approach to product development. Rather than wait until ideas are fully formed and products developed, HHS can get a sense of high-potential ideas early in the development process and work with teams to adapt their projects to meet the needs of the end-user, whether that be patients and their families, emergency medical technicians, physicians, or local governments. HHS also has the opportunity to provide teams with funding and resources that can help to turn their ideas into viable products.
Data silos and a lack of access to quality data can hinder innovation and limit the benefits of crowdsourcing. For its opioid code-a-thon, HHS overcame this challenge by releasing over 70 data sets from both the public and private sectors, including data from HHS and other federal agencies, such as the Departments of Labor, Commerce, Transportation, and Education, as well as data from several state and local governments.  In addition, HHS published a data brief that highlighted the types of data available and how the data could be linked to support research and development efforts.  Bruce Greenstein, the HHS Chief Technology Officer noted the significance of this action by stating, “releasing this data is historic and, believe me, putting it together and opening data from within government is quite a challenge in itself.” 
To encourage other federal agencies and organizations to hold similar code-a-thons, HHS published a toolkit and the HHS Competes Playbook.  These tools share best practices and offer guidance on how to plan and execute innovation challenges. Building upon lessons learned from last year’s opioid code-a-thon, the University of California Institute for Prediction Technology hosted a hack-a-thon to generate solutions to the opioid crisis with a special emphasis on California. The challenge also served as part of a research study to understand if and how open innovation challenges can be used in response to public health crises. 
Going forward, HHS should consider coordinating with other federal agencies and continue developing partnerships with companies to support the later stages of the product development process. These open innovation challenges generate lots of ideas, but by partnering with other agencies and private sector organizations, HHS can ensure that high-quality ideas move through the product development process – from product definition to testing and launch readiness – in a safe and timely manner.
- Does the government have to take the lead on holding open innovation challenges aimed at addressing social issues? Are there incentives and motivations that could encourage the private sector to tackle social issues?
- Generating ideas is an important step, but just because a product is built, does not mean it will be adopted. Are there other ways for HHS to ensure that ideas turn into feasible products and that they’re adopted by the appropriate end users?
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- GSA Blog Team, “Crowdsourcing Takes on a National Public Health Emergency,” GSABlog, General Services Administration, November 14, 2017, https://www.gsa.gov/blog/2017/11/14/crowdsourcing-takes-on-a-national-public-health-emergency/, accessed November 2018.
- Donald Trump, “Remarks by President Trump on Combatting Drug Demand and the Opioid Crisis,” speech given in the East Room, White House, Washington, DC, October 26, 2017.
- Sarun Charumilind, MD, et al., “Why we need bolder action to combat the opioid epidemic,” McKinsey & Company, September 2018, https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/healthcare-systems-and-services/our-insights/why-we-need-bolder-action-to-combat-the-opioid-epidemic, accessed November 2018.
- “HHS announces the winners of the HHS Opioid Code-a-Thon,” December 8, 2017, press release, on HHS website, https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2017/12/08/hhs-announces-winners-hhs-opioid-code-thon.html, accessed November 2018.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “HHS Opioid Code-a-Thon,” https://www.hhs.gov/challenges/code-a-thon/index.html, accessed November 2018.
- Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, “Research to Address the Opioid Crisis: Approaches to Data Linkage” (PDF File), downloaded from the HHS website, https://aspe.hhs.gov/system/files/pdf/258541/OpioidDataLinkage.pdf, accessed November 2018.
- Dave Muoio, “HHS announces code-a-thon to address national opioid emergency,” mobihealthnews, October 26, 2017, https://www.mobihealthnews.com/content/hhs-announces-code-thon-address-national-opioid-emergency, accessed November 2018.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “The HHS Competes Playbook, https://www.hhs.gov/idealab/competes/playbook/, accessed November 2018.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Toolkit,” https://www.hhs.gov/idealab/competes/toolkit/, accessed November 2018.
- The University of California Institute for Prediction Technology, “The Opioid Hack-A-Thon 2018,” https://www.theopioidhackathon.com/, accessed November 2018.
Image. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Connecting Data to Save Lives,” https://www.hhs.gov/blog/2017/11/30/connecting-data-to-save-lives.html, accessed November 2018.