HHS announces code-a-thon to address national opioid emergency

By Dave Muoio
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As an opioid epidemic continues to threaten the US, the government is looking to its tech-savvy citizens for support. Here at the Connected Health Conference in Boston, Department of Health and Human Services’ Chief Technology Officer Bruce Greenstein called for developers to participate in a government-sanctioned codeathon to devise a technological solution to the epidemic.

“When the government holds a code-a-thon, there’s an admission in society that we have hit a roadblock, that we need help, and we go out to the polity to help us,” Greenstein said during the conference. “Maybe it’s not unique around the world, but it’s certainly rare when a government admits that it’s stuck and needs help from its people. And this is one of the most participatory forms of the relationship between a government and its polity, for maybe one of the most important, pressing questions and problems in our society today. I take it very, very seriously.”

The two-day code-a-thon is scheduled to begin December 6, and will be held at HHS headquarters in Washington, DC. It will feature three specific challenges for participants to hone in on: how to improve access to opioid recovery and treatment addition services, how to identify at-risk populations and risk characteristics, and how to predict and analyze the movement of legal and illegal opioids.

Greenstein said that the event will be preceded by a symposium that will showcase promising data and technology practices that have already shown real-world results, and include TED Talk-style presentations from those on the front lines of the epidemic. Participants of the codeathon will have access to state, federal, and private industry data as they develop, with the most promising solution from each challenge track being awarded $10,000 for their idea. Greenstein said that the program is part of an ongoing goal to release HHS datasets to the public, and will be the largest release of opioid-related data in the department’s history.

“Releasing this data is historic and, believe me, putting it together and opening data from within government is quite a challenge in itself. We’re doing it for the best possible reason for humankind, and I hope that you all join us and participate, whether its remotely or [within] Washington DC,” he said.

Those interested in participating in the codeathon can sign up at HHS.gov/challenges.

The announcement of HHS’ codeathon came just prior to President Donald Trump’s designation of the opioid epidemic a national public health emergency. In a press conference held this afternoon, the president said that he has directed every executive agency to “use every appropriate emergency authority” to respond to the epidemic.

“Families, communities, and citizens across our country are dealing with the worst drug crisis in American history,” president Trump said this afternoon. “It is time to liberate our communities from this scourge of drug addition — never been this way. We can be the generation that ends this opioid epidemic. We can do it.”