Finally, A Hackathon That Doesn’t Destroy Your Brain And Body

Mandated yoga breaks, free salad, and plenty of rest–what kind of hackathon is this, anyway? Put together by the Clinton Foundation, Tumblr, Jawbone, and the Ace Hotel in New York, teams were challenged to build innovative tech that helps us sleep better–all without the standard fare of pizza and Red Bull. Could this be a more sustainable model for code sprints?


This might be the world’s healthiest hackathon. Unlike normal all-day code events, in which teams end up sleep-deprived, over-caffeinated, and engorged on junk food, this event was meant to give developers insight into their own health and behavior as they rushed–not too fast, now–to built apps that help us sleep better.


Co-sponsored by Ace Hotel, the Clinton Foundation, Tumblr, and Jawbone, the codeathon for health drew 25 students from New York City to build apps for helping people sleep better. Each of the six teams that participated were given a Jawbone UP wristband health tracker. The UP bands were used for development purposes but also gave the developers insight into their own behavior patterns and how their lifestyle might be adversely affecting their health goals. Throughout the codeathon, there was an equal emphasis on building apps for health and on developers living healthier themselves.

The idea grew out of a join interest between Tumblr and Ace. Given both’s strong base of creatives, the original idea was to hold a gaming-oriented hackathon. “We originally just talked about wanting to do a game jam,” says Max Sebela, creative strategist for Tumblr. “We knew that we wanted to develop digital products with one another in this space. It was very broad and we didn’t know what it would look like.”

Explaining how the sponsors came together to refine the codeathon’s focus, he adds “We eventually got brought into conversation with the Clinton Foundation and became kind of enraptured with this idea of health. When we got in touch with them it all came together. That was the missing piece–the narrowing of the idea coming from them.”

Why do we care about health, anyway?

The codeathon for health is part of the Clinton Foundation’s Health Matters Initiative. The foundation’s work has typically focused on international issues, such as global health and economic development. But late last year it launched a new program aimed at reducing preventable chronic disease through behavior change.

“Seventy percent of Americans are dealing with managing a chronic disease,” Lexie Komisar, strategic advisor to the Clinton Foundation, tells Fast Co.Labs. “And 75% of U.S. health care spending goes to that management.”


The group of unlikely partners settled on sleep as the particular aspect of health they wanted to focus on by examining their collective strengths and interests. In addition to movement tracking, Jawbone’s UP wristband unobtrusively records the length and quality of the wearer’s sleep. Sleep also seemed to be a natural place where health and hotels intersect.

“Sleep being one of the core tenets of health is why we eventually chose it,” Komisar explains. “The fact that 10% of the American population suffers from chronic insomnia and around 60 million Americans suffer from some type of sleeping disorder makes this crucial to address. If we can really provide these tools to help Americans make these behavior changes it can have a huge impact in the way in which Americans live as well as where we spend our money.”

It was important to the sponsors that in addition to coding for health that the codeathon itself was a healthy environment to work in. Through yoga and stretch breaks, walks during lunch hour, and healthy food served throughout the conference, the codeathon succeeded in modeling what a health developer work life should look like.

“Once we were talking with the Clinton Foundation, we wanted to make sure that everything that would take place would be something that promoted good health in some capacity,” says Sebela. “And from there it sort of designed itself. We realized we needed a certain amount of movement every day and we needed to ensure that we’re at least giving participants a mandated rest period where you’re working a normal work day with normal work hours that are reasonable and healthy for you without having to think about cranking through code till 3 a.m. existing only on caffeine.”

Within the context of creating a healthy environment for developers, the organizers recognized that it would be most effective to focus on small changes that were readily exportable to developers’ everyday lives. The goal was to function more like a tutorial for how to code while being healthy, rather than create a weekend spa-like environment that wouldn’t have any lasting impact.


“I think one of the things that’s been interesting is understanding that not everyone in America is going to wake up, eat kale tomorrow, and run five miles,” Ben Sisto of Ace Hotel jests, then elaborating: “We’ve been interested in showing ways that you can create very small, incremental changes. When we brought in the yoga instructor, they originally wanted to do work with yoga mats and large-scale stretching and we thought that it’d be better to do things that are just at your desk that you can do for five minutes in a normal work day.”

“It’s a big ask to get people to do organized activity in the context of one these things. But ultimately I think it’s been a huge success,” Sebela adds.

Coding for health toolkits

Throughout the codeathon it was clear that an incredible amount of synergy existed between these unlikely partners, each of which brought something unique to the table.

Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine provided to the codeathon a dataset of a large cross-sectional survey of corporate workers, primarily businesswomen, that assessed their sleep habits and the social factors that might influence those habits. The dataset is normally closed, but through the partnership with the Clinton Foundation, Harvard Medical School agreed to release their data exclusively to the codeathon.

“We really want to be the bridge between academia and the technical application of how this data can impact research and policy,” Komisar says. “We’re really thankful that Harvard provided that for the first time to our participants.”


For it’s part, Jawbone provided every participant with an UP, which logged participants sleep and movement throughout the weekend. One of the criteria development teams were judged on was in fact the collective health of their team–in the case of one project that criteria kept them just shy of winning the competition.

The final projects from all six teams also made use of the API for Jawbone’s UP wristband. The API is currently closed with plans to open it up later this year, making last weekend’s coders the first to experiment with it outside of Jawbone’s direct business partners.

“We really focused on creating a two-way API, which is somewhat unique for the health space,” says Jeremiah Robison, VP Software at Jawbone. “Most of the APIs are about pulling data out. We wanted to make it a compelling platform for communication because so much of the foundation for our system is that heath is a social activity.”

Explaining the philosophy behind Jawbone’s soon-to-be-open, two-way API, Robison explains: “ We started with a strong philosophy on two vectors. The first is that the user owns their data; users should be able to take their own data and move it from one system to another. That’s kind of unique in the API world and it certainly was when we first got into health. Everybody and their cousin wants to own the health data, but in reality a user owns their data. The second principle is that it’s going to take more than one company to solve the health problems in the world and so the only possible path in that scenario is to open it up for other people to use.”

“The API was very, very simple to use,” according to Jamie Roberts of the winning team. “It’s a really new API so for it to be laid out with clear directions for OAuth and all the intricacies of the values and even the types of values within the documentation was a pleasant surprise.”


The winning apps

Roberts and his teammates Adam Leibsohn and Daniel Finkler developed Fitcoin, a social betting pool for health challenges. Users are able to join teams with friends or strangers and put down money on who will win a specific challenge like meeting certain sleep goals or walking a certain number of steps every day, all logged by the UP.

One of the aspects that contributed to Fitcoin winning was the fact that it had a baked-in distribution method to account for the fact that not everyone in the world is going to own an UP.

“We really wanted to think about how this would go viral,” Finkler explains. “And one of the problems with the distribution would be that not everyone currently has a Jawbone UP band. We were thinking about how do we get our friends on Facebook to care about this and leverage the social network to pull people in and get people involved.”

The solution was to allow Facebook friends to bet for their friend with an UP who is participating in the competition. (You can also bet against, if you’re that kind of friend.) Leibshon adds, “One idea we were discussing was that based on their side-bet on you they get a portion of what you win, so they get a return on their investment on you.”

One of the other most compelling ideas and the runner-up in the competition was Git-Sleep. In addition to being an awesome developer-centric pun, it also has a lot of potential for impact. Unlike Fitcoin, which is oriented for a general audience, Git-Sleep and its command-line interface are clearly targeted at developers.


The team behind Git-Sleep was comprised of Sarah Duve, Max Jacobson, and Ruthie Nachmany, all students at The Flatiron School in Manhattan. Git-Sleep is a simple tool that connects with your UP to log your sleep. When a developer tries to commit code to Git it runs a check to see how much sleep you got last night. If you didn’t get enough, it will display a prompt along the lines of “You only slept 3 hours last night. Are you sure you want to commit this code?”

“It was partially inspired by those apps that prevent you from calling your ex at 2 a.m. or prevent you from sending a Gmail when you’re drunk,” Duve reveals. With its focus on developers and its integration with GitHub, Git-Sleep already has a base of users that would likely get behind it very quickly.

“We heard some really encouraging words about finishing the project and that people might actually find it useful,” says Jacobson, adding that “the UP band is really popular with developers who are obsessed with quantifying themselves.” Nachmany picks up on this, remarking that “developers are really into the quantified-self movement,” which may give rise to wider adoption of Git-Sleep. The team has plans to open-source the tool, which is already available as a Ruby gem.

As each team gave their presentation in the Ace Hotel lobby, other guests could engage with the codeathon if they wanted to, but they could just as easily ignore it. The point is that it was readily accessible to them and integrated into their time in the hotel.

Sisto explained why the codeathon was held in the lobby with the presentations mic’d for everyone to hear: “Ultimately we want guests to feel activated when they’re staying here. We do a lot of events in the lobby–one night might be a drag show, one night might be a codeathon.”


Another noteworthy aspect of the codeathon was the gender breakdown, which came in at 10 women and 15 men. Granted that it’s a small sample size, but seeing a 40-60 breakdown without any artificial quotas or targeted outreach is a welcome sight for the tech scene. Perhaps the fact that the group was primarily comprised of students is a sign that there is a demographic shift underway.

Sebela commented on this, noting that it’s “one of the joys of reaching out to students in New York because you have institutions like Hacker School and Flatiron School that preach diversity so front and center.” He added, “So when you do want to mobilize students you already have this wonderful diverse pool that hopefully comes together on its own.”

It’s easy to be skeptical of codeathons these days, particularly given the critiques that have been coming out recently. But with healthy food, yoga, a full night’s sleep, and a diverse environment, even the most hardened hackathon cynic has to walk away from this codeathon feeling energized about the potential for this space to both do good for the world and be good for developers themselves.

About the author

Jay is an award-winning journalist and former staff writer for Fast Company. Find him at @jcassano and