An open tool to explore the health innovation landscape

This interview was originally published by Mozilla Open Leaders - a mentorship and training programme sponsored by Mozilla - which Nesta's Innovation Mapping team is involved with through their work on the Health Innovation Scanner.

The Health Innovation Scanner is building an open, online tool to explore the global research, startup and social health innovation landscape.

I interviewed Kostas Stathoulopoulos, Chantale Tippett & George Richardson to learn more about the Health Innovation Scanner and how you can contribute to the work.

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What is the Health Innovation Scanner?

The Health Innovation Scanner (‘Scanner’) is a free, open, digital tool that scans large-scale datasets to map health innovation ecosystems across a range of global contexts. Our goal is to enable users to explore the latest health research, as well as activity across health-orientated startups and social networking across the world.

Some examples of the types of end-users we might expect include:

  • A programme manager in a health charity, finding innovative research on bowel cancer (for example) in order to develop demonstrator projects or invite experts to workshops.
  • An impact investor, analysing the volume and trends in health startups at the intersection of health and education to inform investment decisions.
  • A UN employee, exploring the broader landscape of research, startups and social networks relevant to the Sustainable Development Goals in order to build new collaborations.

Why did you start the Health Innovation Scanner?

The Scanner is a collaborative project between the Innovation Mapping and Health Lab teams at Nesta, made possible with generous support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). Nesta and RWJF are two foundations that are trying to push the boundaries of innovation for societal benefit, so this is an exciting project with a high potential for impact.

The broader challenge that inspired this project is how best to support people to be as healthy and happy as possible, and to do so in ways that are equitable. Considering our over-reliance on treatment over preventive and community-based options, combined with mounting pressures on health and care systems brought about by an ageing population — this has been no easy feat.

We need new solutions that can empower citizens and can adapt to our ever-evolving environment. However, promising innovations often live in silos across geographies and domains. What works really well in one place may never live out its full potential somewhere else. We believe that there is an unprecedented opportunity to shed light on this landscape through the application of new data sources, analytic tools, and visualisation techniques. This is what the Scanner tries to do.

What is health innovation?

There is no widely accepted definition of what constitutes ‘health innovation’, and it would be difficult (if not impossible) to identify a priori which innovations will have the biggest impact. Rather than trying to fill these gaps or identify ‘new’ innovations, our aim is to a) bring together existing data sources (which we know capture important dimensions of any innovation ecosystem) b) to derive meaning from these datasets and c) to present this information in a way that people can readily use and share.

The datasets we’ve chosen to include in the minimum viable product are the National Institutes of Health dataset on research, which allows us to explore the knowledge landscape that will underpin the new interventions of tomorrow. By including Crunchbase, we capture entrepreneurial technology firms that are often key players in today’s innovation ecosystems, taking new concepts (or existing concepts from another context) and turning them into companies that fill a need in the market. Studies also tell us that social networks are an important element of innovative ecosystems because they permit ideas to be shared and relationships to be built, which is why we’ve also included Meetup in the Scanner.

To try to capture how this ecosystem-level activity relates to meeting the broader needs of society, our team of data scientists have developed a way of tagging projects and companies with their UN Sustainable Development Goal label.

We have also developed an experimental indicator of how ‘novel’ a research project is by comparing the evolution of research subject combinations over time. This will allow users to search for the most ‘innovative’ research in a given field in a given year.

What challenges have you faced working on this project?

The bulk of the technical development is being done by Nesta’s Innovation Mapping team. This is a new type of project for us in that it resembles more of a product offering than the other types of research-oriented outputs we normally produce, such as reports or interactive dashboards.

While a report or interactive dashboard will typically present the results of an analysis based on a predefined set of questions, this product has more complex technical requirements that involve features like search functionality, and inevitably also aim to address a more varied set of use cases. This presents new challenges across our ‘pipeline’ — including backend development, data science, and frontend development — as well as new considerations for questions like sustainability (e.g. will the data be updated periodically after the Scanner is released? If so, how often, and by whom?). This means we are breaking new ground on both operational and technical fronts, which inevitably comes with growing pains.

We have learned a lot over the course of the project, so a further challenge will be to ensure that we effectively collect and share these lessons with others.

What kind of skills do I need to contribute to your project?

We welcome people of all skill-sets to contribute to the project — you don’t have to be a data scientist, developer or visualisation expert! We are looking for people who will provide genuine, honest feedback on our work. For more information on contributing to our project, check out our GitHub repository.

How can others contribute your project?

Three ways to get involved now include:

  • Let us know of other people or organisations working on a similar project — we’re always searching for collaborators
  • Sign up here to be a user tester for our prototype platform
  • Start a buzz! Promote the project through social media (e.g. LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook) using the hashtag #nesta_uk

How has the Open Leaders program helped you with your project?

The Open Leaders programme has been valuable from a number of perspectives. It has given our team a suite of new tools and resources that we can use not only in this project, but in other projects we carry out in the future. It also provided valuable opportunities to sharpen the way we talk about our work, and to reflect on how to make our work as inclusive as possible.

The global community of mentors and participants also provided invaluable constructive feedback, and an opportunity to contribute to the projects of others. We are very grateful for the experience!

If you’d like to find out more about the project, visit our website or check out our GitHub page!

Kostas Stathoulopoulos, Chantale Tippett & George Richardson

Chantale Tippett, Kostas Stathoulopoulos & George Richardson

This interview was originally published on the Mozilla Open Leaders Blog.


Chantale Tippett

Chantale Tippett

Chantale Tippett

Engagement and Inclusive Impact Lead, Data Analytics Practice

Chantale is Senior Lead of Engagement and Inclusive Impact in Nesta’s Data Analytics Practice.

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Konstantinos Stathoulopoulos

Konstantinos Stathoulopoulos

Konstantinos Stathoulopoulos

Principal Researcher, Innovation Mapping

Konstantinos worked as a Principal Researcher on Nesta's Research Analysis and Policy team.

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George Richardson

George Richardson

George Richardson

Head of Data Science, Data Analytics Practice

George is Head of Data Science in Nesta’s Data Analytics Practice.

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