Federal Health IT Coding Event Draws Developers

Open software designed to link health IT systems to the developing national health IT network is attracting interest.
The Department of Health and Human Services was so overwhelmed by interest in the inaugural "Code-A-Thon" for its open source Connect health information gateway on Thursday that event organizers had to close registration for lack of room.

Organizers originally expected only 50 developers would show up at the D.C. event aimed at growing the community that will work to extend the Connect system, but had to close registration after about 130 people registered within the first three days. The next event will likely make room for more coders.

Connect is a software suite that lets industry and federal agencies connect their health IT systems to the Nationwide Health Information Network, which is currently under development as a centerpiece of the Obama administration's heath IT initiative. It includes a gateway, an enterprise service component and a client framework for development of end-user applications.

After more than 1,200 people showed up at a two-day seminar on Connect in June, project leaders decided that there was enough interest to begin trying to build out the community. The Thursday Code-A-Thon, which included participants from tech companies, universities, government agencies, and healthcare companies, among others, aims at increasing the size of that community substantially.

"The goal was for the people in the room to leave, seeing themselves as the community, and to be able to identify areas where they could be active or start a path toward that," said Apache Software Foundation co-founder and Mozilla board member Brian Behlendorf, who is acting as an open collaboration advisor for the Connect initiative. "It is to turn this into a community-driven effort where the development work is decentralized among a large community of stakeholders."

With that, added David Riley, the Connect initiative's lead, interested community members will be able to bite off and code the functionality that the government might not be able to get to for one or two years and potentially even commercialize some of it down the line.

"We could have the federal government build it the old fashioned way, or we could look at very innovative open processes where we could lead it, we could tip the market, and then let the market lead it forward," said Vish Sankaran, the Department of Health and Human Services' program director for the wider Federal Health Architecture.

At a higher level, the Connect work, if successful, could prove to be a model for other IT-focused federal government initiatives, Riley and Sankaran said. "We're exploring new territory for the way the federal government and private sector can collaborate to solve large social issues that are out there," said Riley. "It's a way to work together to accomplish the greater good for a large number of people. Maybe this project can serve as a template."

While the main aim of Thursday's event is to create a community, the secondary goal was to do some real work. The Code-A-Thon included work on bug fixes, development tools, and a subscription management client as well as several additional pieces of functionality.

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