Using a Hackathon to prioritise COVID-19 testing: An emergency response

Governments, health and other organisations are working around the clock to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. The wider community is also dealing with the reintroduction of restrictions and reacting in ways that are not always helpful, such as stockpiling essentials, not social distancing and sharing misleading information.

To control the pandemic, policymakers need to work with the community to change individual behaviours rapidly and effectively. In fact, this is one of few moments in world history where individual behaviours can have such a profound collective impact.

Thankfully, this moment also coincides with rapid advances in technologies that make research – and knowledge sharing – faster and easier.

The Hackathon

Prior to the pandemic, BehaviourWorks Australia (BWA) had successfully trialled the ‘Hackathon’ format (product flyer here) to rapidly review products and services being proposed by organisations. Hackathons can involve up to 10 researchers who look at said projects and policies thorough a behavioural lens and discuss the pros and cons of their design in an open setting.

In March 2020, this approach was applied to the problem of reducing unnecessary Covid-19 testing among individuals living New Jersey (NJ) in the US; a project led the GovLab in New York.

The challenge:
Reduce the number of people seeking unnecessary testing for Covid-19
The GovLab and New Jersey (US) Health Department

What did we do?

We adapted the Hackathon approach to help the NJ Health Department reduce the number of people seeking unnecessary testing for Covid-19.

A team of nine BWA researchers conducted a one-hour online hackathon to hack away at the problem of too many people seeking Covid-19 testing when it was not appropriate (i.e. they did not have symptoms associated with the disease).

What did we find?

The hackathon focused on the use of an online screening tool, which uses current and frequently updated US-based diagnostic criteria (similar to the screening tool currently in use in Australia).

The following strategies were recommended by the team to make the screening tool more effective:

  • Provide easy-to-understand information and explanations about the disease and the nature of risk that people face. Doing this should reduce anxiety by giving people information to fill the perceived information ‘gap’ of not getting a test, thereby reducing their drive to attend a testing centre.
  • Explain why the person seeking the test did not require testing (e.g. they did not have symptoms) and why going to a testing centre might do more harm than good (e.g. being exposed to people who are sick or being tested too early and risking obtaining a false negative result).
  • Advise the person on what they should do, rather than what they should not do. The team recommended that the tool tell the person that they should continue to monitor their symptoms and use the tool again if their symptoms change, instead of simply telling them not to attend a testing centre. This makes the person feel like they are doing something to make themselves feel better or safer, giving them a sense of control over their situation.


Within hours of the hackathon, BWA’s advice was being applied to the NJ response.

The screening tool was used over 60,000 times within 12-hours of the NJ governor, Gov. Phil Murphy, announcing its availability to the public. This equated to one in every ten NJ COVID-19 website visitors accessing the tool.

The hackathon allowed for rapid application of prior research and expert knowledge to an important and immediate need.

While this unconventional research method lacks the detail and comprehensiveness of more conventional research, it was the ideal method to provide a fast response to an urgent need commonly experienced in emergency situations, like that of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

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