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Hacking for healthy, happy humans – Color

Jeremy Ginsberg

We just wrapped up another Hack Week at Color — our most exciting one to date! It’s amazing what teams of talented, inspired engineers/designers can accomplish in 4–5 days. Teams described the week as “fun,” “hectic,” “liberating,” “essential,” “concentrated,” “sick,” and “dope” (we’re pretty sure those are all compliments).

Our theme was “re-engagement”: ideas that create value for clients who’ve already received their initial Color test results. Eleven teams of designers/engineers/data scientists/product managers ran with this idea in a number of clever directions. Some prototyped new ways to share genetic insights with our clients, while others demonstrated creative tools and services that can keep people engaged with their own health goals. Everybody had a great demo!

Some of the ideas are nearly publication-worthy — whether in an academic journal or simply as a new Color feature — and you’ll see these revealed in the coming months. For now, we’ve shared just a few of the team’s creative ideas to give you taste of what we’re working on.

Harder Better Faster Stronger

Team “Holy Genome!” went off-theme to test our distributed systems and bioinformatics pipeline infrastructure on an interesting challenge — time-to-analyze a whole genome. We’re proud of how efficiently our bioinformatics pipeline runs today on client samples — details to be shared in a future blog post or journal paper — but haven’t invested in measuring and tuning its performance on whole-genome data. So last week four engineers teamed up to see if they could beat the current state-of-the-art with just a few days of work — an ambitious goal, to say the least.

The initial run on Monday wasn’t great — the team needed to invest in more parallelism and better performance tooling — but much progress was made. By Thursday night it looked like the best they could do was 50 minutes end-to-end for a single whole genome (NA12878). Fast, but not the true goal. As one team member noted, “If we don’t beat the benchmark, at least Hack Week will be our consolation prize.” Au contraire! One last optimization late Thursday night resulted in a final run-time of 19 minutes 27 seconds. Time beaten (provisionally, of course)! But as it happened, breaking a record wasn’t enough for team Holy Genome to win Hack Week at Color… the caliber of competition here is intense!

A history of GWAS

Some teams proposed to engage Color clients by surfacing detailed literature about the mutations found in their sequenced genes. Team 1953 crawled/indexed/parsed decades of published GWAS studies, extracting the appropriate variant identifiers and classifying the type of association described by the study. Result: a personalized map of the human body, showing clusters of studies relevant to the variants found in your genome and which parts of the body were affected. Clicking into details revealed the list of studies and highlighted some of the more interesting associations — ability to recognize facial emotions, birth weight, ear protrusion, etc.

One team member commented they were motivated by “showcasing all the hard work that researchers have done in the past and bringing their findings to light, surfacing which ones are relevant to each person based on their DNA.” What will Color clients think of this feature? The team member paused to reflect. “They’ll just conclude we’re all a bunch of nerds.” Not too far from the truth.

The magic of Hogwarts

Say that again? “We’re working to compete in the wizarding market, which is a big total addressable audience. The ministry is huge.” Huh. We never claimed our engineers have strong business acumen, but to be fair, this wasn’t the craziest pitch we heard during Hack Week. Team #ColorFamilies was inspired by the Shared Family History tool we shipped in early 2017, and imagined what the next level of greatness here might look like. Eventually they decided to support both wizards and muggles.

We can’t reveal exactly what they built, but suffice it to say, you should expect to see even more engagement and appeal to families in our 2018 roadmap.

Bonus: How to Hack Week like a pro

Many aspects of Hack Week are somewhat self-evident and universal across software companies. That said, we’ve found a few twists that help make it a success.

1) Get everyone involved

Color is more interdisciplinary than typical software companies, with our teams of scientists, geneticists, genetic counselors, researchers, etc. These domain experts are great sources of ideas and inspiration, so we asked the whole company to propose Hack Week projects, and rate which ones they believed would be most impactful. Some of our scientists volunteered to consult/advise teams throughout the week, and the whole company voted on winning projects.

2) Encourage novel collaborations

During Fixit Week, many individuals pursued impactful solo projects. For Hack Week, we encouraged people who don’t usually work together to form teams. When your LIMS (lab information management system) expert and a core product engineer work together, great things happen!

3) But wait! There’s more…

Even when projects don’t go as planned, we asked everyone to stand in front of the company and present their findings/learnings, with a healthy dose of comedy. Presenters did a great job demoing their work and explaining in language that most Colors could understand. Since the People’s Choice (popular vote) was a coveted prize, we saw lots of clever pitches and a few shameless appeals for votes. Much hilarity ensued! Some of our engineers might have viable backup careers as used-car salespeople or late-night TV home shopping hosts.

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