Melbourne hack Tuesdays building OpenMRS e-health extension

This week's Melbourne Knowledge Week celebrations expected to drive newcomers to ThoughtWorks' Weekly Hack Nights for Humanity, whose developers have half finished a module for expanding the globally used OpenMRS e-health system.

Two dozen ThoughtWorks employees and enthusiasts from outside the company are expected to converge on the company's Melbourne offices tonight for several hours of collaborative work on an open healthcare-interchange standard that's delivering e-health to some of the world's most impoverished countries.

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The e-Health platform will get an extensibility tool built during Melbourne open hack nights. Image: City of Melbourne

The software in question — OpenMRS — is a free and open-source medical records system that has an extensive development base around the world and has been successfully used during crises such as the response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

Its free access and open design have made OpenMRS a favourite for charity and relief organisations around the world, which can quickly roll it out to large numbers of relief staff without considering licensing costs.

Thoughtworks' Melbourne team has been engaged in developing the OpenMRS Concept Proposal Module, a framework that lets medical staff add new information fields to OpenMRS systems on the fly.

"OpenMRS is a quite structured, regulated, and standardised system," said Maia Sauren, a software tester at ThoughtWorks and a regular participant in the hack nights. "Sometimes, clinicians want to make additions to the software while it's still in development, so our module allows them to create new methods. If they have new kinds of symptoms appearing in the field, or new diseases or medications they want to track, they can just add it themselves."

Supporting the coding effort, regular Hack Night for Humanity events have been held every Tuesday for the past year at the company's offices, with catch-up nights for new participants held on the second Tuesday of every month and the overall project around halfway complete.

"We're about halfway through to the first decent, stable, usable release – and we've dramatically increased the output that we're getting out of Tuesday nights."

"We have most of the backend functionality down, but now we've just got to make it work in specific ways," she said. "We're about halfway through to the first decent, stable, usable release — and we've dramatically increased the output that we're getting out of Tuesday nights just by restructuring a few things, such as adding a newbie night to upskill new members where we're up to."

Hack Nights typically attract from 15 to 20 people, but tonight's meet-up will have a higher profile after it was picked up by the City of Melbourne as part of the Melbourne Knowledge Week 2013 celebrations, which include over 60 events geared to highlight the city's plentiful knowledge activities.

That should "probably double" attendance numbers this week, Sauren said, noting that many participants show up unannounced and that — despite the increasing productivity of a core team of developers — overall attendance can be quite fluid.

"Because it's a volunteer project, we've got heaps of turnover," she said. "People come in and out, just to learn the language or because they're working — so development can be a bit slow because realistically, two hours a week isn't a whole lot of time. But it is happening."

The Hack Night for Humanity will be held tonight — Tuesday, October 29, 2013 — from 6pm to 9pm at ThoughtWorks Australia, 15/303 Collins Street, Melbourne. Attendance is open and free.