Tech Jam and Team Islington Green



So a couple of friends from TRINUG – Ian Cillay and David Green – invited me to join them at a 36 hour continuous code fest called Tech Jam. Tech Jam was put on Met Life and the Department of Veterans Affairs on Nov 1 and 2 in RTP. This team of 3 developers was joined by Ian Henshaw who helped with some primary data provision and much of the user story development. David handled the MongoDB part, Ian took care of the UI (Bootstrap and Knockout), and I did the analytics (F# and R) and security piece.

The problem domain was that the Veterans Administration has this format of medical records called Blue Button. Blue Button is an unstructured format which make typical parsing and analysis very difficult. Here is a sample:


Also, the VA wanted some kind of mutli-platform solution that a vet can use that can make sense of this data and allow him/her to provide it to a care giver when needed.

Some random thoughts about the contest:

  • MongoDB makes a lot of sense for the data because of it being so unstructured. Note that the VA has now introduced BlueButton+, which is XML format – so that is a step in the right direction. I was impressed how easy Mongo was to use and how powerful it is to tackle unstructured data – but note that even MongoDb still needs some kind of structure – just not xNF relational…
  • Bootstrap was awesome – we used an out of the box template and it was great to knock out an easy design.
  • F# made analytics and predictive analysis a snap. 
  • There were 15 teams registered, 10 actually presented at the end. There were 2 community teams (us and another), 1 high school team (awesome), and a bunch of corporate teams (Deutsche Bank, IBM, Tata(X3!), etc…).
  • One of the teams (Infusion) was a vendor for Met Life already (they worked on the wall project and the infinity project). Unsurprisingly, they won the grand prize.  My only comment on that is that civic/community hackers already view events like this with a skeptical eye – and this did nothing to help MetLife in the eyes of those kind of people – in fact probably did the opposite.
  • I was amazed by how many teams did not actually address the primary problems that the VA needed fixed.  The problems were taming unstructured data and presenting it in a platform-agnostic way.  Most teams used HTML5/Phonegap for req #2 – which is the easier one.  I think only 3 teams actually addressed requirement #1?
  • I am proud to say that my team did address both requirements.  As I sometimes say “I listen to two things in life: my wife and the requirements.  It goes better for me if I do that.”
  • Another team was from a company where the boss showed up on Saturday to present the team’s work. I guess that is the difference with a corporate hack-a-thon.  Also, you can tell the corporate teams because they had more powerpoint and less code in their final presentation.  Not that there is anything wrong with that….
  • The best line this weekend was when I asked a D level person at Metlife why no one at Metlife was retweeting my tweets with their hashtags (#techjam) and he said "we have a guy for that." Sure enough, they had 1 person who was their tweet guy.
  • MetLife really know how to put on a contest. The MC for this – Gary Hoberman – was awesome – a V-Level techie that really could communicate with the coders. The food was good (they took into account different dietary needs), the working space was good and the swag was useable.  Also, they had dev mentors circulating around the room, though they seemed to spend their time with other teams – so we didn’t interact with them.  They also had reps from MongoDB and MSFT helping out – which is great because we leaned on them for specific problems.

The problem with a code contest is that you have little time to learn from your fellow devs – it is pretty much heads down and check-in. In any event, the best part was hanging out great developers like Ian and David and working on a worthwhile project for our country’s vets.  At the end, it was a fun time and my team delivered that the VA can use to springboard into a real application.