You’re an expert if you can find a good problem at a hackathon


I am sitting in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel in Vienna. The Healthcare MIT Hackathon ended this morning and we are all toasted. We didn’t win. I’m sitting here instead of visiting the city in order to stalk the judges.

It was really fun. You know how they say that these events are for meeting people? It’s true. For me it was particularly when we were arguing, and then out of the blue stumbled on an idea that was a perfect fit to our team. At that moment, there were sparkles in our eyes.

It took forever to arrive at that point though. In a hackathon they don’t ask you to solve a specific problem. You and your team have to come up with a problem.

That’s when you realize that it’s impossible to come up with a good problem if you’re not knowledgeable in the area. The overarching topic of the hackathon was Infectious Disease and Climate Change, by the way. On which I don’t know shit about. So all my ideas were crap.

1. The people expert

I was sitting at my table not knowing anyone, and my neighbor, this super friendly charming guy starts talking to me.

– What’s your expertise?
– I have none. I’m a physicist.
– But that’s great! We could use a physicist. They know how to connect all the dots.

I had no idea what this group was doing but I didn’t care. I couldn’t distinguish a good idea from a bad one anyway, so whatever. I joined because they wanted me.

The guy, let’s call him A, has such great people skills that he managed to hand pick an amazing team just because he was nice.

2. The field expert

But as soon as the team was formed, he was pretty much useless. It was now time to narrow down on a problem that was solvable with the existing team in 48h and which could be economically viable. Suddenly A’s idealism of making the world better was not the right solution. And that’s fine. He’s a people person and solved the team formation with grace when others (like me) didn’t even see the problem.

E. was the field expert. She’s a veterinarian specializing in livestock-human disease transmission. She worked in Mongolia. She went with the Peace Corps. She’s a superhero. So suddenly she took over because she had seen real issues on the topic.

3. The technical expert

In infectious diseases, the rural-metropolitan gap is very well known. The OIE estimated 70% infectious diseases are transmitted from animals to humans. Part of that is because there are so few communications from the isolated areas to their local metropolitan center, which makes the beginning of outbreaks undetected.

Suddenly it reminded me of this great project, Plant Village, that created an online platform for farmers to post questions on disease for their crops. And other farmers from their local areas and all over the world can comment, vote on questions and answers. I’m linking to them for publicity because I like what their lab is doing.

It’s kind of like RedditQuora, Stackoverflow or Figure One which I just discovered and is the same concept but for doctors. (I am completely addicted to the gruesome pictures on their blog by the way.)

An online community is actually a difficult concept to grasp for those who haven’t experienced it. A. and E. both had no idea, and I challenge you to explain the concept succinctly. 

“Why don’t they just google their question?” “What guarantees the quality of the input?” came up so many times, the rest of the team spent the rest of the hackathon trying to convince them it had value.

48h later, we pitched our idea, this Reddit-style platform for herders and veterinarians.

4. Look for where you are able to identify good problems.

The judges deliberated and announced the winners. We didn’t win. Apparently there is already a similar project that just started in Thailand and we didn’t have a market research expert so we didn’t do a good job there.

But we loved the experience, and it was fun to see each member of the team light up like lightbulbs at different stage of the hackathon, depending on their expertise.

It reminded me, again, that finding the right question is really the hard part in all areas, in business, in research, in relationships. So look closely at where you can actually see good, solvable, hackable problems. That’s probably where your expertises and natural talents lie.

One thought on “You’re an expert if you can find a good problem at a hackathon

  1. Internet continues to change our relationship to neighbours – The Quasi Physicist

Leave a Reply