Columns, Opinions

Foster ’19: Against hackathons

Staff Columnist
Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Hackathons seem to be the hot new thing. A portmanteau of “hack” and “marathon,” hackathons began around the turn of the millennium when programmers gathered to solve problems related to sending data over a computer network.  In the following decade, hackathons have gained traction in the tech world. During hackathons, groups of coders (and non-coders) get together to take a shot at making the next big thing. At the end of a long, energy-drink fueled weekend, they pitch their ideas to a panel of judges (or investors), and the winner receives a sum of money to further develop their pitch. Unfortunately, most of these ideas never leave the ground. For the most part, hackathons produce nothing.

Today, hackathons are no longer restricted to the tech world. Earlier this school year, Brown hosted Brown Hack Health, a hackathon aiming to “develop tools to change the worlds of medicine and health,” according to its website. In March, Brown will host “Hack for Humanity,” which intends to gather students together to explore solutions to problems emerging from the Rohingya refugee crisis.

We ought to be skeptical of the extent to which we can apply the tools of the tech industry to solve social problems. America’s health care delivery system is broken. Refugee crises are real and persistent. Social problems are caused by institutional failures, misaligned incentives and longstanding cultural issues. These problems can’t be solved with a flashy tech deliverable. To really fix contemporary crises, we need both systemic and policy change. This is the sort of thing that takes longer than a weekend.

Solving a problem requires us to immerse ourselves in the context in which it takes place. When we become deeply involved, we learn what the real constraints of a problem are. Consider some of the ideas pitched at Brown Hack Health last fall. Teams aimed to create products to enhance doctor-patient trust, increase understanding of medication side effects and improve medication compliance in patients. We ought to ask ourselves — why do these problems exist in the first place? A confluence of factors have caused primary care appointments to become shorter in the last several decades. Pressure from hospital systems for doctors to see a high volume of patients have increased the number of appointments providers are expected to complete each day. Comparatively low reimbursement rates for providers have disincentivized entry into primary care. The result? Fewer doctors are left to see more patients in the same amount of time. The ten to fifteen minutes that constitute today’s doctor’s visits aren’t sufficient to build a trusting, personal relationship between patients and their physicians. Similarly, it’s unrealistic to expect that a doctor can effectively counsel patients about medications, review existing health problems, address current complaints and provide guidance about improving health behaviors all in such a short span of time. A new tech product might serve as a temporary relief, but it can’t resolve the underlying problem. An app will not be our saving grace.

I’m not entirely cynical. There’s value in gathering creative people together and getting them excited about making the world a better place. It’s important to dream up solutions to problems instead of doing nothing for fear that no single solution is perfect enough. At the same time, we ought to be skeptical of the hackathon model of problem solving as a viable platform for correcting the ills caused by failing systems. We ought to be honest and call a hackathon what it really is — something between a networking event and a skill-building session. Neither of these things is bad, but it’s dishonest to suggest that a hackathon is a place where problems really get solved. Change needs sustained engagement, and that’s something a frenzied bout of weekend coding can’t provide.

It’s tempting to give into the flashy promise of the tech world — with enough people and coffee and free t-shirts, we can disrupt anything, right? But if our goal is meaningful change, I propose the following: Let’s find the cause that we’re willing to show up for every week. Let’s get involved with a community. Let’s figure out the problems that exist, figure out what keeps them from being solved, then get to work alongside our community members to solve them.

Ruth Foster ’19 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and op-eds to