Open science and hacking
This weekend sees developers and scientists converge in London for the first Wellcome Trust Hackathon. Kevin Fong tells us what a hack is and why we’re running one around ‘open’.
‘Open’ has become the new buzzword; openness the new ambition. It makes processes more transparent, engendering trust, offering a new line of defence against fraudulent practice. But it is more than a way of simply telling people that you’re on the up and up.
We live in an age when we’ve begun to realise that the terabytes of information that literally fly through the air all around us should be put to better use. Somewhere, in all of that, lie answers waiting to be discovered, the raw material – perhaps – of revolutions in science and medicine.
It’s an exciting time. The mass of hitherto sequestered data, now made available to all, has come to represent a virtual continent that might be explored, with no one really sure what prizes might lie in its interior.
But this is only the beginning. There is a job to be done in better organising and expressing content. There is suspicion to overcome, privacy to be respected and trust to won – especially when it comes to biomedical data. Patients have yet to be convinced that what they have to gain by sharing is greater than what they have to lose. Pioneers in this field have a duty to win their trust. That’s part of the reason why we’ve organised this Wellcome Trust Hackathon around the theme of ‘Open Science’.
‘Hacking’ has historically been regarded as the electronic equivalent of breaking and entering. The sort of thing one might get arrested for. But recently the term has come to mean something else.
The new ‘Hacking’ is about making objects, electronic platforms and software do things that their manufacturers perhaps never intended. It’s about finding the hidden utility in things and realising the potential in everyday objects. At its best, hacking is an ingenious alternative use or a shortcut to make our lives easier. Hacking, in this sense, is an innovative and constructive pursuit.
Our hackathon invites developers and designers to explore ways that biomedical research data can be made accessible, interesting and useful to a wider public beyond the scientific community. Participants will spend the weekend developing mobile and web applications using publicly available research data, health data (such as those we collect and share through running apps and the like) and medical equipment.
Making research data widely available to the research community in a timely and responsible manner ensures that this data can be verified, built upon and used to advance knowledge and its application to generate improvements in health.
Part of the goal of this hack is to demonstrate something of what might be gained by individuals and organisations from a more open approach to the data they own and generate. What we might gain in better understanding the world around us and ourselves, simply by adding our information to the pot and allowing it to be used for the greater good.
Learning how to uncap the reservoirs of knowledge that we all possess and how to work across that information is the key to creating new and genuinely disruptive technologies. In medicine, I think, that is especially true. As with all exploration there is hazard to navigate. But if this can be accomplished there are great prizes to be won. The message is clear. Openness is the fastest way to the future.