Help us design KidneyX

By Elizabeth Squire, Communications Director, and Ross Bowling, Operations Research Analyst

KidneyX seeks to improve the lives of the 850 million people currently affected by kidney diseases worldwide by accelerating the development of drugs, devices, biologics and other therapies across the spectrum of kidney care including: Prevention, Diagnostics and Treatment. For KidneyX, HHS has partnered with the American Society for Nephrology (ASN) to use prize competitions to spur innovation in preventing, diagnosing, and treating kidney diseases. As we continue to develop and design KidneyX, we are looking for your input and today we’re happy to announce that we have just published 2 KidneyX Requests for Information (RFIs). One RFI gives some background about the KidneyX project and asks for feedback on how the project can be most effective while the second RFI seeks your input on plans for an upcoming KidneyX prize competition focused on developing alternative therapies for kidney failure.

HHS and ASN’s goal with KidneyX is to improve quality of life for people living with kidney diseases. This means we’re interested in a wide range of potential KidneyX prize competition topics. Possible topics for future prize competitions include (but definitely aren’t limited to):

  • Medications– a variety of treatments for kidney diseases, including drugs and biologics
  • Diagnostics – point-of-care or at-home testing kits, better methods to measure kidney function
  • Patient-centered Tools – electronic health record tools designed to identify and track diseases, applications to empower patients to manage kidney diseases, methods to improve communication within the patient community
  • Next Generation Dialysis – wearable or implantable dialyzers, tissue engineering
  • Prevention –– methods to identify people at risk of kidney diseases and to slow the progression of those with early stage or chronic kidney diseases

The KidneyX team is eager to hear from the people that KidneyX has the potential to impact most: people living with kidney diseases, providers, care partners, innovators, and researchers, to name a few. These RFIs mark the first opportunity for the general public to provide input on KidneyX.

Some opportunities for input include:

  1. What unmet needs – including those related to product development—should KidneyX prize competitions focus on? If you are a person living with a kidney disease, what makes these topic areas particularly important?
  2. What assistance or services might HHS and ASN offer to KidneyX prize winners that would encourage the greatest participation from a broad range of innovators?
  3. In what ways might HHS and ASN, through KidneyX, effectively encourage collaboration or cooperation between participants/prize winners while respecting their intellectual property rights?
  4. Particularly for those interested in participating in a KidneyX prize competition but unfamiliar with kidney functions and diseases, what information would you find it most useful for HHS and ASN to share publicly?

The first prize will focus on developing alternative therapies for kidney failure and will launch on Thursday, October 25, 2018.

To submit your feedback on KidneyX, you can e-mail us at or mail your feedback to KidneyX c/o Ross Bowling, 200 Independence Avenue SW, Room 624D, Washington, D.C., 20201.

We will be accepting and incorporating feedback until September 14, 2018.

Ed Simcox named HHS Chief Technology Officer

Photo of HHS Chief Technology Officer, Ed Simcox

HHS Chief Technology Officer, Ed Simcox

Ed Simcox has been promoted to Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at HHS. Ed had been serving as Acting CTO and was previously the Deputy CTO.  Ed has spent over 18 years working at the intersection of healthcare and technology to create a better healthcare system with the goals of reducing cost and increasing quality and patient satisfaction. Much of his focus has been on health IT and innovative technologies dealing with challenges like EHR usability, interoperability and using innovation to improve healthcare operations.

Learn more about Ed, here. 

Data roundtable brings together state and local leaders at HHS

By Visakh Madathil

Today, in coordination with the Center for Open Data Enterprise (CODE), the HHS Office of the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) convened a roundtable discussion on data sharing policies and data-driven solutions related to the opioid crisis.

The roundtable brought together experts from federal, state, and local government, the private sector, nonprofit organizations, and academia to: (1) Explore possibilities and limits of data sharing, and (2) Define challenges, successes, and proposed solutions for using data to address the opioid crisis.

The roundtable builds off the work of the HHS Opioid Symposium and Code-a-Thon. At the Code-a-Thon over 50 teams from across the country worked with over 70 data sets for 24 hours to develop innovative data and technology solutions to address the opioid crisis. The three winning teams from the Code-a-Thon joined the roundtable to share how their innovative solutions have been implemented since the Code-a-Thon.

The HHS Office of the CTO is committed to fostering the use of data for social good while also advancing the goals of the ReImagine HHS effort to “Get Better Insights from Better Data”.  The Office of the CTO is leading a Department-wide effort to better understand how HHS is using and sharing its own data to make more evidence-based policy decisions. The roundtable served as part of this ongoing effort. Through strategic collaboration, such as this roundtable with CODE, HHS can leverage technology and increased data sharing to solve complex problems.

For more information on the work that the Office of the CTO is doing to break down data silos at HHS visit


KidneyX Town Hall Held at Mt. Sinai Health System

In coordination with the Mt. Sinai Health System, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the American Society of Nephrology (ASN) hosted a town hall for KidneyX on Tuesday, June 26 in New York, NY.

The town hall convened a diverse, multi-stakeholder group to better understand how KidneyX can meet the needs of patients and encourage providers, innovators and researchers to participate in the innovation accelerator’s first prize competition focused on developing alternatives to dialysis. The town hall brought together HHS leaders from the Office of the Chief Technology Officer, the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services as well as patients, providers, startups and the biopharmaceutical and venture capitalist communities.

The discussion focused on how KidneyX will aim to accelerate innovation in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of kidney diseases, partnership ideas and perspectives on barriers and opportunities for participation. Specifically, input was elicited from:

  • Patients about what new developments in kidney products they most want and value;
  • Startups in the kidney space about how KidneyX could best help them move from concept to product in patients’ hands (financial, regulatory, business insights, etc.);
  • Academic institutions about how their research efforts, faculty, students, and trainees can foster the success of KidneyX and potentially partner, as well as interface with patients receiving treatment in their facilities
  • Investors about what guides and influences their investment decisions, specifically in the kidney space

Broader community feedback on the pilot round application criteria, judging process and topics for future KidneyX prize competitions will be solicited this summer through a Request for Innovation.

To learn more about KidneyX and be notified when the comment period opens, please visit and subscribe to the mailing list.

HHS welcomes nine students from Coding it Forward

Photo of the Nine Coding it Forward Fellows

Coding it Forward Fellows

By: Coding it Forward

On June 4th, Coding it Forward welcomed nine students to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as a part of its one-of-a-kind Civic Digital Fellowship.

The Civic Digital Fellowship is an engineering, product, and design internship program built for students, by students. The nine Fellows assigned to work at HHS are working across a variety of operating divisions, including the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the National Institutes of Health, and the Health Resources and Services Administration on high-impact technical projects. Students will tackle datasets to detect fraud and help HHS with work around the opioid crisis.

Piloted in 2017 with an inaugural cohort of 14 Fellows at the U.S. Census Bureau, the Civic Digital Fellowship has grown to 36 Fellows across six federal agencies. Its start at HHS can be attributed to former Chief Technology Officer Bruce Greenstein, who had a vision of reimagining how HHS thinks about its digital needs and talent strategy.

Under Greenstein’s leadership, the HHS IDEA Lab, led by Kevin McTigue, has embraced a national effort to attract entrepreneurs and startups to the mission of the Department through HHS Startup Day which has sparked interest from innovation hubs across the country to host Startup Day events of their own bringing together HHS business leaders and the startup community. Internal efforts like the Ignite Accelerator program and the public-private HHS Opioid Code-a-Thon in December have also positioned HHS as an innovation leader in the federal space. This track record is why we are excited to have placed nine high-achieving Fellows at HHS for 10 weeks this summer.

On their first day, HHS’s nine Fellows toured the Hubert Humphrey Building and met with innovation leaders from across the Department, including McTigue, Chief Data Officer Dr. Mona Siddiqui, and Jonathan Sullivan, Deputy Executive Director for the HHS Digital Service, U.S. Digital Service.

“The close support of the HHS IDEA Lab will be a great learning opportunity for Fellows, who bring knowledge of and experience in innovative methodologies including agile development, product management, and design thinking that are common in the private sector,” said Coding it Forward co-founder, Chris Kuang. “The Civic Digital Fellowship also aligns nicely with the ‘Reimagine HHS’ initiative that’s already improving the work that HHS does for the American people, in terms of efficiency, quality, and cost-effectiveness,” said Kuang.

Fellows were welcomed and celebrated on Wednesday, June 6th in a ceremony at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House, where Coding it Forward co-founders Rachel Dodell, Athena Kan, and Chris Kuang spoke about the program’s history and motivations. U.S. Census Bureau Chief Marketing Officer Jeff Meisel also offered advice to incoming Fellows. Meisel, a former Presidential Innovation Fellow, was the driving force behind the Fellowship’s inaugural cohort.

While the nine students bring skills to HHS that are often in short supply in the federal government, they will have to learn to navigate the unique challenges of government alongside their new teams and supervisors, a group composed mostly of dedicated civil servants. At the end of their summers, Fellows will be experienced “bureaucracy hackers” and technologists exposed to the sheer scale of impact possible in the public sector, a combination Coding it Forward believes will spur them into a life of civic tech and social impact.

In attracting the next generation of technical talent into government, it’s more important than ever to start early, emphasize impact, and create accessible talent pipelines, much like the HHS and the Civic Digital Fellowship are doing this summer. The Fellowship model is fully-funded—offering housing, travel, and a competitive stipend—and boasts a diversity unseen in the tech sector, with students hailing from a wide range of racial, ethnic, academic, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

HHS’s nine Civic Digital Fellows are off to a strong start this summer, in both their own professional journeys and in paving the way for a generation of digital leaders to enter public service.

Meet the HHS Fellows in their own words here or learn more about the program as a whole here. Follow their journeys this summer on Twitter @CodingItForward.


Looking Back on a Busy Year as HHS CTO

Photo of HHS Chief Technology Officer, Bruce Greenstein


By: Bruce Greenstein, HHS Chief Technology Officer

After over a year proudly serving as Chief Technology Officer at HHS, I have accepted an offer to move back to the private sector.

Working at the intersection of data, innovation, and technology, the Office of the CTO is tasked with improving business processes within the Department. Additionally, we test and validate solutions to solve challenging problems in the delivery of health and human services.

This year HHS Secretary Azar outlined his top priorities, which included combatting the opioid crisis, reducing the cost of healthcare, and ushering in a value-based system. Our initiatives have specifically tackled those priorities.

We recognized that the opioid crisis was in part a data problem. In organizing the HHS Opioid Code-a-Thon, we focused on connecting data to help HHS and local entities gain insight into this complex health challenge. The event attracted teams from corporate heavyweights, students from Harvard and MIT, and small startups across the nation with the mission to create data-driven solutions addressing the opioid epidemic.

We believe healthcare is costly in part because of a lack of innovative, cheaper medical solutions. No group knows this better than chronic kidney disease patients, where dialysis treatment has barely changed in decades. That is why we launched KidneyX, an accelerator that addresses the need for innovation in the treatment, prevention, and diagnosis of chronic kidney disease. KidneyX is a public-private partnership with the American Society of Nephrology that will soon announce an application and encourage innovators to participate. We’re excited to see more entrepreneurs build devices and solutions for a disease that affects millions of Americans. We are thankful for the dedicated health professionals at HHS and ASN who will continue to drive this work until patients with chronic kidney disease see the improvements they deserve.

Photo of Secretary Alex Azar and Bruce Greenstein

Secretary Alex Azar and Bruce Greenstein

The transformation to a value-based healthcare system necessitates better data sharing and analysis to determine the quality of care. At a department as large as HHS, effective data sharing can be challenging. The Enterprise Data Initiative was launched to collect and disseminate data, publishing 1,900 data sets on to date. Opening data is not enough by itself, which is why the Office of the CTO encourages insightful inter-agency data analysis. We did exactly this between the CDC and CMS, successfully bridging their data divide to produce a robust analysis of infant mortality.

Startup Day at HHS illustrated the value of opening our doors to small teams and entrepreneurs, not just large incumbents. In the Office of the CTO, we believe that attracting more entrepreneurs to focus on federal problems is good for the government. Too many barriers have limited the number of people seeking to innovate in the healthcare space. At Startup Day, early-stage companies gained valuable access to top HHS leadership along with data sets to launch new ventures.

Photo of the Global Digital Health Partnership

Meeting with the Global Digital Health Partnership

HHS is not the only health agency focused on transitioning to value-based care. Other nations have similar initiatives, which is why we helped to found the Global Digital Health Partnership, a consortium of governments from around the world dedicated to sharing digital health practices. As co-chair, I created a framework for how the GDHP as a unified body can demand health technology standards critical to improving healthcare.

In weighing the decision to leave, I had the comfort of knowing that so much has been accomplished in the Office of the CTO. Over the past year, these initiatives–along with the top-notch technology consulting we provide throughout the Department–worked to usher in a culture that believes data sharing, innovative design, and technology are critical to achieving Secretary Azar’s priorities.

Serving this department has been an honor and privilege for which I am incredibly grateful. The people I have met and the team that has supported our efforts have been nothing short of stellar. I’m excited about the next chapter and look forward to bringing innovation to an area of healthcare that is long overdue for change. I wish everyone at HHS continued success on our important mission.

Leveraging the Power of the Crowd in Research and Data Analysis

By Katrina Theisz, Program Analyst, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health

This year at Health Datapalooza 2018, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has put together a panel highlighting the impact of biomedical crowdsourcing on the scientific community. Featuring talks from Jennifer Couch (National Institutes of Health),  Sandeep Patel (HHS IDEA Lab) Stephanie Devaney (National Institutes of Health), Pietro Michelucci (Human Computation Institute), and Matt Biggerstaff (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), we’ll delve into the different ways engaging the public in scientific research can complement traditional research methods while moving the field forward.

By engaging with people who may not normally participate in scientific endeavors you can gain insight and creative solutions you may not be able to through standard scientific approaches. Citizen Science is an example of a collaborative approach to research involving the public, not just as subjects of or advisors to the research, but as direct collaborators and partners. People know their own lives, their health, their communities, and by working in partnership with them, researchers stand to gain so much. The word partnership is of importance here; that, depending on the project, the questions being asked, and how the study is performed, much of this work starts at the individual or community level.

At its heart, true citizen science is bottom-up, not top-down.Graph that says create, collaborate, connect

Crowdsourcing, on the other hand, tends to start with researchers and filter down, typically in one of two ways: 1. voluntary participation or contributions solicited from unknown individuals (aka “the crowd,” be they experts or not); and 2. opening a line of scientific inquiry to a group of experts (typically achieved through prizes and challenges). People are motivated to help science for a variety of reasons- some because the research may directly impact their lives, others simply because they like science. Sometimes adding a game-like or competitive component to the project is enough to draw people to it.  An added bonus of tapping into the power of the crowd is gaining access to insights you don’t expect. (for example, in Galaxy Zoo, participants sort through satellite imagery to identify different classes of galaxies- side note: by giving participants a forum to share their thoughts and converse with each other, citizen scientists realized they had found an entirely new kind of galaxy.)

But it’s not without its hurdles. Biomedical citizen science and crowdsourcing come packaged with issues that don’t commonly plague other types of projects that engage the public in scientific research. When it comes to sharing personal health data, for instance, there are data privacy and security issues that you won’t find in astronomy citizen science projects. Therefore, trust and transparency are key to the success of any such project, starting at the beginning. It starts with consent- consent that is easy to understand, no law degree needed, no lengthy fine print. What data do the project leaders need? What will it be used for? Who can access it? Addressing those questions clearly up front (and sticking to them) is a great way to avoid issues later. Want to reuse those data later for a different project? Great! Re-consent your participants. Concerned that not everyone in your study is comfortable with the language being used? Consistent iconography can help. We’re an increasingly visual society, and utilizing familiar icons and images can help to clearly convey content without resorting to wordiness.

And then there are the never-ending questions about data quality. How can traditional researchers ensure that donated data are accurate? What kinds of quality control methods work best? Available data suggest that the crowd is as accurate as (and sometimes more accurate than) individual experts, something that has been demonstrated time and time again. Additionally, humans are quite adept at making inferences, visual perception, and abstract thought, which, when paired with computers, can help to train algorithms to recognize certain objects or patterns.

On Friday, April 27th at Health Datapalooza 2018 we will delve into these concepts and much more. For more information on the conference please go to:

Editor’s Note: You can register for the Health Datapalooza here. HHS is a sponsor of the conference.

Connecting Data for better insights at the Health Datapalooza

Series of post-it notes

Photo taken during an Office of the CTO brainstorm session

By Bruce Greenstein, HHS Chief Technology Officer and Mona Siddiqui, Chief Data Officer

In 2010, a small group of individuals from HHS and the public sector, tech industry, and healthcare systems gathered with a single question in mind: What data is required to understand and improve health outcomes? How do we share it internally and externally? This first meeting of the public and private sector to identify ways that data can be used to improve health outcomes led to an annual conference called the Health Datapalooza.

The 9th annual Health Datapalooza returns on April 26-27, 2018 in Washington, DC with the same spirit for innovation, bias towards action, and focus on outcomes.

Health Datapalooza is the conference that brings together federal policymakers, health startups, and health system leaders for actionable conversations on how data can be used to improve health and healthcare.

Since, 2010, the HHS Office of the CTO has led the charge for Open Data and has released more than 1,500 data sets on HealthData.Gov. The Open Data movement continues to be a focus of the Department and the Office of the CTO is committed to fostering the use of data for social good. Now, we turn our focus to examining how HHS is using its own data assets to make more evidence-based policy decisions and to develop data-driven solutions for complex problems.

Last year’s HHS Opioid Code-a-Thon, gave our team a look into the many rich data assets at HHS and showed the public and the Department what innovative solutions can be developed when the public and the private sector come together.

We are coming to Health Datapalooza this year looking for ideas: What would you like to see improved on How can we meaningfully engage with researchers and entrepreneurs to understand what is needed and important on How do we balance data quality with data availability and timeliness at HHS?

Health Datapalooza is the perfect venue to listen to your ideas and share our plans for the future.

As we continue to advocate for Open Data, we are also focusing on how data is used internally at HHS through the Data Insights Initiative. Our vision is an HHS where data are shared, connected, and analyzed in responsible ways to improve how HHS delivers on its mission to enhance and protect the health and well-being of all Americans. We are working with HHS data stewards and open data stakeholders to better understand how we can intelligently use HHS data assets to make evidence-based policy decisions.

Responsible and accountable use of data are topics that are pervasive in our daily discourse. How do other large organizations create responsible, transparent, and accountable processes for data sharing? How can data be connected for real time actionable impact? These are tough but timely issues that require a diverse set of perspectives and a continued commitment from all stakeholders.

Photo of a woman with a flyer

Testing patient education materials with 2017 Health Datapalooza attendees

Along with the HHS CTO, this year at Health Datapalooza you’ll hear from the Secretary of Health and Human Services, the CMS Administrator, FDA Commissioner, the National Coordinator for Health IT and other public and private sector healthcare leaders. Breakout sessions will cover everything from public health surveillance, citizen science and crowdsourcing, machine learning and more.

Whether you are a patient, a provider, or a health data enthusiast, the opportunity to share knowledge across sectors and to see how health data is playing a central role in advancing meaningful solutions is an unparalleled opportunity at the Health Datapalooza. Working alongside startups and industry to solve complex problems is a cornerstone and key principle of the Office of the CTO. We don’t have all the answers, but together we can start to connect data to drive change.

We’re attending the Health Datapalooza in order to collaborate and build partnerships as we search for answers to the above questions. The Office of the CTO is committed to being a leader in promoting the use of data for better decisions and to drive change. We look forward to seeing you there and continuing this conversation.

Editor’s Note: You can register for the Health Datapalooza here. HHS is a sponsor of the conference.

Data Analyst Exchange Program aims to share data management and analysis lessons learned from across the globe

Photo of the Data Analyst Exchange Program participants

Photo of the Data Analyst Exchange Program participants

At the Office of the Chief Technology Officer (CTO), we believe encouraging collaboration between agencies within and outside of HHS can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our shared efforts. Using data to make informed, evidence-based policy decisions about health and human services is an important function of the Department. However, it is challenging to collaborate and share health and human service data across agencies due to siloed systems, the inability to combine and link de-identified data, and complex data sharing agreements. Other countries face similar and unique challenges and opportunities to sharing and using health and human service data.

“We started The Data Analyst Exchange Program to promote collaboration, address shared challenges, and share best practices between expert analysts in the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK),” said HHS Chief Technology Officer, Bruce Greenstein. “Learning from other countries will help us liberate siloed data systems, collaborate across agencies, and better understand how to use the data gathered to improve the health of the US and the UK.” The program launched with a week-long onsite visit from six analysts and two executives from NHS Digital, the national information and technology partner to the health and social care system of the UK.


The visiting team included:

  • Tom Denwood: Executive Director of Data, Insights and Statistics, NHS Digital
  • Lisa Franklin: Director of Information and Technology, Southern Health Foundation Trust
  • Simone Chung: Principal Information Analyst, NHS Digital
  • Chris Dew: Information Analysis Lead Manager, NHS Digital
  • Wilma Harvey-Reid: Senior Information Analyst, NHS Digital
  • Emily Michelmore: Graduate Analyst, NHS Digital
  • Thomas Poupart: Principal Information Analyst, NHS Digital
  • Helen Richards: Principal Information Analyst, NHS Digital


The delegation from the UK attended meetings with leaders and analysts from agencies across HHS, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, and the National Center for Health Statistics. The aim of the meetings was to to share challenges, lessons learned, and best practices between efforts in the US and the UK to monitor and promote health. Specifically, this inaugural visit focused on efforts by the US and UK to address the opioid crisis and control antimicrobial resistance.

One week wasn’t enough to solve the enormous issues of the opioid crisis and antimicrobial resistance control, but the team of analysts made progress on brainstorming solutions to support these efforts. Using data from the HHS Opioid Symposium & Code-a-Thon, the UK data analysts made recommendations to build opioid overdose risk stratification tools, which could be integrated as decision-support modules in electronic health records, or used at the population-level to identify at-risk patient cohorts. Additionally, the team recommended mapping disease pathways for opioid overdose, making a directory of opioid addiction services publicly available for at-risk individuals, and creating new services that focus on all elements of a person’s life – health, home, purpose, and community – tailored to individuals at-risk of opioid overdose. To address antimicrobial resistance monitoring and control, the UK data analysts recommended investigating real-time patient tracking tools using patient identification bracelets, and monitoring of prescribed medications using a medication optimization dashboard, which can allow organizations to understand variations in local practice and provoke discussions about the appropriateness of local care.

The analysts also identified other opportunities for comparison and collaboration. Both governments in the US and the UK have challenges sharing data, combining data, and collaborating across agencies, due to complex data sharing agreements and data privacy restrictions. Analysts from the US and the UK exchanged local data sharing agreements to start strategizing ways to mitigate the complexity of data sharing and collaboration across agencies in the US and abroad.

Reflecting on the visit Tom Denwood, Executive Director of Data, Insights and Statistics, at NHS Digital said, “This was a great week exchanging information and ideas with US colleagues. This inaugural Data Analyst Exchange visit has been a great opportunity to contribute, and innovate, and ultimately enable analysts in both countries to help move each data business forward to meet the needs of the citizens we both serve”.

Continuing and expanding international collaboration will improve our ability to maintain and improve the health of our populations. A group of US and UK analysts will start meeting regularly in a Data Analyst Exchange International Working group to continue to collaborate and share best practices. This group will start by producing a final report of recommendations and next steps from the Data Analyst Exchange visit.

New Yale Student-Led Innovation Hub Wins Treatment Track at National HHS Opioid Code-a-Thon to Address Opioid Crisis

Matthew Erlendson and his teammates could scarcely believe what they were hearing. On stage, the Chief Data Officer of the Department of Health and Human Services had just announced that Origami Innovations, was one of three winners at a code-a-thon focused on finding data-driven solutions to address the national opioid crisis.

The judges unanimously selected the team from the new Yale student-led innovation hub as one of three winners among more than 50 entrants, including teams from established tech powerhouses like IBM. Erlendson, a fourth-year medical student at Yale University, had co-founded Origami Innovations just a year earlier. His teammates included Jack Cackler, a developer and data scientist at Palantir, Sachith Gullapalli, a software developer at Google and recent Yale alum, Dr. Frank Lee, a pain physician and Johns Hopkins professor, and Dara Rouholiman, a chemist, researcher and data scientist based at Stanford.Origami Innovations team photo

Over the course of the 24-hour code-a-thon, the team had developed a real-time predictive tool to help local hospitals, emergency responders and policymakers predict spikes in overdoses, so they could muster an adequate supply of overdose reversal drugs and better allocate resources to the locations in most need of help.

“The mission of Origami Innovations is to focus on solutions that move the conversation from how the world ‘should be changed’ to how the world ‘can be changed,’” Erlendson said.

Erlendson and another Yale medical student, Kirthi Bellamkonda, founded Origami to empower students to use human-centered design to make meaningful, real-world impact in the lives ofothers.  Among their ambitious plans: a division that works with students, patients and researchers to design health care companies; a venture arm to help companies born within Origami access the funding they need to grow; and an innovation hub and startup studio in downtown New Haven  where students can get mentorship and funding for their ideas, projected to open in mid-2018.

Erlendson and Bellamkonda were excited to hear about the HHS Opioid code-a-thon because its mission to bring together a range of different stakeholders and community members to create life-saving solutions paralleled their own mission. The Origami team was struck by the decision by Bruce Greenstein, HHS’ Chief Technology Officer, and Dr. Mona Siddiqui, the agency’s Chief Data Officer, to bring human-centered design into a tech hackathon. This seemed like something new, something inspired—Origami, naturally, wanted to be a part of it.

They quickly pulled together a team, and were thrilled when their application was accepted. However, unlike many of their well-resourced competitors, the student-led Origami team relied on funding and general support from New Haven community stakeholder HealthVenture, a digital health foundry and venture fund.

Before the code-a-thon, team members spent a day participating in the Stanford Medicine X led Design-a-Thon, an interdisciplinary workshop that offered insight into the national opioid epidemic. They were joined by other Yale students, including Bellamkonda, Lina Vadlamani from the Yale School of Medicine , Valentine Quadrat from Yale’s School of Management , and Lan Duan from the Yale School of Public Health, as well as Alexandra Winter, an equine surgeon and data scientist.

Knowing the value of listening to build empathy and find solutions, the group paid close attention to the testimonies of Ashley Elliott, a recovering addict, and Joe Riffe, a chronic pain patient and responsible user of opioid pain medication who works as a first responder. Additionally, they spoke at length with a father, Bill Williams, who lost his son to addiction.

Williams was struck by the fact that the Origami team really seemed to hear what he was saying.

“The larger teams thought they had solutions,” he said. “But they weren’t focusing on ‘what questions should we be asking?’”

Several members of the Origami team had firsthand experience with opioid addiction’s toll. As a medical student, Erlendson held hands with patients going through the agony of withdrawal; he’d also lost a close relative to addiction.

In New Haven, where many of the team members are still in school, an overdose spike in June 2016 led to 12 people being rushed to the Yale-New Haven Hospital within a few hours. The hospital didn’t have enough of the overdose reversal drug, Narcan, to meet the spike in need. The city was also in short supply, and couldn’t get its hands on enough medication in time. Three patients died.

During the code-a-thon, over 70 datasets from federal, state and local agencies were made available for teams to use. Instead of taking a traditional top-down approach, the Origami team decided to use smaller community level data sets to find a ground-up solution. They focused on a specific problem: Narcan shortages during spikes in overdoses. By analyzing Connecticut data, they recognized that an increase in overdoses in one community was often followed by a similar increase in neighboring communities. Their concept: a tool enabling hospitals, first responders and policymakers to better allocate resources by using a real-time prediction model for opioid overdoses.

Dr. Larry Chu, Executive Director of Stanford Medicine X, helped organize the event and was one of the judges. He called the Origami team’s ability to listen to stakeholders like Williams “really ingenious.”

“Sometimes the best, most creative use of technology is not about applying a lot of resources,” Chu said. “It’s about how can you solve a problem when you don’t have a lot of resources?”

The Origami team is putting the prize money toward validating the model, acquiring more data sets, and continuing to build the application. They are meeting with Connecticut policymakers, emergency responders and hospitals to implement the new data tool. Eventually, the team hopes it can be used across the country.

“So many students have these brilliant minds waiting to contribute to tangible solutions,” Erlendson said. “It’s just about empowering them to take those first steps.”