2013 Open Source Convention 2

Making clinical information accessible and useful on the Internet is fundamental to clinical open innovation, and a well-planned API is essential in the equation.

This idea was reinforced for us at this year’s Open Source Convention (OSCON), held July 22-26 in Portland, Oregon.

As the Tech Lead for the Lilly Clinical Open Innovation Team I was thrilled to have the opportunity to attend this year’s convention with one of our project leads, Dean Sellis. OSCON is about “how the close partnership between business and the open source community is building the future.” And, here at Lilly COI, we are very interested in learning how open methods of development and innovation can have a positive impact on the future of healthcare.

Here are just a few of things we learned at OSCON that we think will help us along the way:

Key Takeaways

1. APIs are the way to go.

During the conference, we saw several presentations that touted the benefits of offering an API. For the non-techies among us, the acronym stands for Application Programming Interface. Simply put, an API allows software to communicate with each other.  A good API makes it easier to improve or create new applications by providing functionality and data.

If you didn’t know what an API was before now, don’t worry. You’re in good company. According to Leigh Heyman, who oversees the development of whitehouse.gov, President Obama didn’t know either:

One guy who definitely does understand APIs, is Daniel Jacobson, director of engineering for the API at Netflix.  At his Thursday afternoon session he explained how his team built an API that serves 800+ device types for more than 30 million streaming customers.  He said that in order to have a successful API like Netflix’s, you have to make sure it’s flexible and scalable so that it can accommodate unforeseen future needs and developments in your industry.  We are applying the same sort of thinking to our API.

2. Other industries are recognizing the relationship between open source and innovation.

It was great to see such a wide range of industries and domains represented at OSCON. You could find representatives from true open source organizations (i.e. no funding, no commercial backing) and from businesses that were built off of an open source infrastructure. There also seemed to be an increase in the presence of traditionally “closed” industries who are starting to encourage more involvement with their products through open source innovation. GM, for example, was there touting their new GM Developer Portal, which links up to the new version of its MyLink infotainment system. MyLink isn’t yet available in vehicles; we’ll first see it roll out in select 2014 models in the upcoming year. However, developers can start creating apps for the platform right now.

All in all it seems that companies across all industries are starting to invest in open innovation, perhaps due to having seen so many examples of the success it can bring.

3. How to create an innovative organization

Many people at this year’s OSCON were talking about how to create a culture of innovation in your organization–a topic that is near and dear to our hearts here at Lilly COI.  Presentations that stood out to us were Alex Martelli’s “Good Enough is Good Enough,” Laura Thomson’s “Minumum Viable Bureaucracy, and Laszlo Szalvay’s “Creating Environments for Innovation to Flourish.” They touched on using an Agile Methodology, having overall goals of Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose, and what it means to foster innovation.  These are all ideas and principles that we strive to incorporate into our work everyday. It was good to hear from these experts that we are on the right track, and also good to have them challenge our thinking even further.

We were also glad to have a chance to meet with Fred Trotter over dinner one night during the conference. Fred is a data journalist and the author of the book Hacking HealthcareLike us, Fred is a big believer in the importance of empowering patients through technology. We had a great conversation about his latest endeavors, and ours. We were surprised and honored when a couple of days after we returned from the conference, we found that he’d mentioned us in a blog post about open source communities in Pharma.


During his opening keynote, Mark Hinkle made reference to Jonathan Kuniholm, a Marine who lost part of his right arm during a tour of duty in Iraq. The prosthetic arms given to him by the Army were the same as the ones given to soldiers during World War I.  He and his colleagues at Tackle Design launched the Open Prosthetics Project, knowing there had to be better options. And, they figured that using open source methods of innovation was the quickest way to find the best ideas.

This story really hit home for us, because it illustrates why we do what we do. Patients need better options in clinical research; they deserve better options in clinical research. And our hope is that through developing open technologies that allow talented people with many different perspectives to share information and ideas, we will get a few steps closer to providing those options.

We see our API as the first step to providing open resources and tools to support developers and innovators.  (Editor’s Note: In 2015, leadership of the LCOI-API was transitioned to TrialReach. You can learn more about their continuing work in innovation in clinical trial matching at TrialReach.com.) We want you to feel free to use and share it. We’re also interested in hearing your feedback and ideas, and are available to answer any questions you might have.  Drop us a comment, contact us or follow us on Twitter to stay in touch.


  1. Pingback: New R&D Model, Open Source? | bit.Med

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