Sunday, June 17, 2012

Our Trip to DC

[Our trip to DC]

Betty and I were part of a team that won a code-a-thon in Lafayette a little over a month ago, and part of our prize was entry into the Health Forum III (aka, Health Datapalooza) in Washington, DC. I was excited for the chance to show our software off to the world, to get feedback on our product, to hear and see incredible presentations, and to explore DC; and Betty was excited for a cupcake tour of DC.

The cupcakes were pretty amazing! More on that later! Actually, let me be clear on this up front: this is mostly a blog about food. Scroll down to the end if you only care about the details from the conference!

First things first: we had to get to DC. We had a few options as far as flying goes: We could have flown into DC by way of Reagan National Airport, or flown into Dulles International Airport across the Potomac River in Virginia. We opted instead to fly into Baltimore. This saved us a couple hundred dollars on our flights.

We had a layover in Atlanta, where we found two things that every person who flies into or out of Atlanta should be aware of: 1) They have a Chic-fil-a in the airport; and 2) you need to seek out the gates for Southwest, because there are a handful of leather seats with outlets in the front of each section where you can power your laptop, recharge your iPhone, etc. We were flying AirTran, but nobody in the Southwest gate had to know.

The one thing the Atlanta airport doesn't have is free wifi that lets you connect to any site you want, so this meant that I couldn't connect to my project's FTP site and work during our layover. But that left more time for Chic-fil-a, so I guess that wasn't so bad.

After landing in Baltimore, we had to get to DC. Easy enough! A free shuttle took us from the airport to the Maryland Area Regional Commuter (MARC) train station. The cost of taking a 25 minute ride from Baltimore to Union Station in DC on the MARC is only $6 per person. Let me type that in caps and add extra exclamation marks to make my point about how awesome this is: SIX DOLLARS!!!

This was my first time on a train, so we had to take a picture:

[Riding the MARC]

We stayed with my cousin Elizabeth in DC. It was so good to see Elizabeth! She's not only super smart, great on the piano, has a beautiful singing voice and is related to yours truly (I know, right?!?), but she's also got a masters in Public Health from Tulane. She goes to places like India and Africa and helps to promote activities that will literally save hundreds to thousands of peoples' lives (and maybe more), by helping people get access to medicine, prevent mosquito bites (to reduce cases of malaria, encephalitis, West Nile disease, etc), and to get access to water. If you get a chance, check out her blog about her experiences in Mali - I'm adding "fantastic writer" to the list of awesome things about her. Plus, we got to stay at her place for free, so that makes her like the best cousin ever.

Now that we were in DC, we had to eat. We met up with our friend Shelly and went to a place called Matchbox. We meant to go there the last time we were in DC but we ran out of time. I got the pizza, which is what Matchbox is apparently known for. It was pretty good. But the best thing we ate there were the sliders / mini-burgers.

[Matchbox's Mini-burgers]

Remember, kids: It's not the size of the burger... it's how you cook it.

After eating at Matchbox, we hit up our first cupcake shop: Hello Cupcake. I got a chocolate one with peanut butter icing, and it was amazing.

[Hello Cupcake]

The people from the health forum who were supposed to email our group about the details of what we would be doing in DC totally dropped the ball. We have 8 people on our team, but they wanted a single point of contact, and of course they misspelled our contact's email address. So we literally didn't know anything that we were going to be doing in DC until the Thursday evening before the conference (which was on a Tuesday). We found out that we were presenting our software to the conference and would also be on a live feed shown throughout the world, and also found out that we would have a booth at the conference to show off our product. In addition to needing to have our software as polished as possible (which we knew about and had worked on throughout the previous month), we also needed banners, flyers, etc. We found out all of this 5 days before the actual conference.

I left that stuff up to the rest of the team while I continued working on our software. I went to a Starbucks nearby the cupcake shop to work on my laptop. We only had one laptop, and since Betty doesn't write software we decided that at least one of us should have fun while we were in DC. So she and Shelly went on a biking tour of DC, courtesy of Capital Bikeshare.

[Biking DC]

Capital Bikeshare is pretty cool. The basic idea is that there are several bike racks throughout the city, and you can pay a few bucks to rent one. You pay a base fee of $7, and then you pay a few more dollars based on your hourly usage. When you're done, you park your bike into any Capital Bikeshare rack throughout the city, and you're good to go.

[Betty in DC]

One night we ate Ethiopian food, which was a first for us. We ate at a place called Zula's, and the people were really friendly and the food was awesome! They serve a bread that looks like thin sheets of foam, but is actually very tasty. Then there are blobs of vegetables and spices that you eat with the bread. It was delicious!

[Zula's]

We also ate a Sprinkles, which is another cupcake place. Our good friend Jay met us there. Betty watches the Food Network a lot (OK, I do, too!) and the owner of Sprinkles is one of the judges on Cupcake Wars, so we had to try this place out.

[Sprinkles!]

I got a pumpkin cupcake, which seems like it would be out of season but it was delicious; Betty got a plain one (in order to compare it to all other cupcake places); and Jay got a keylime cupcake. Jay's was the best! These cupcakes were actually our appetizers, as we left Sprinkles and went to The Tombs in Georgetown for dinner.

[Sprinkles!]

The last restaurant that I'll talk about (for lack of space!) is Ted's Bulletin. We went there for breakfast on our last day and shared a big breakfast platter. The thing that sets Ted's apart from anything else we had seen was that they had homemade poptarts. We ate two of them - a blueberry one, and one filled with peanut butter and bacon. We liked the blueberry one the best, but peanut butter and bacon is now one of my new favorite combos!

[A poptart from Ted's Bulletin!]

I did a little site-seeing the morning on our last day in DC, since I was either working or sleeping at all other times. We hit up the American History Museum and a few other places, and of course took the customary pictures outside some of the better known monuments.

[Does that make you horny, baby?!]

We had a great time at the Botanical Gardens, which is right by the Capital. Betty got me to go by promising that I would see some Venus fly-traps. I happen to love Venus fly-traps, and I think it's because I watched Little Shoppe of Horrors so often as a kid. But it was fitting: Venus had just passed in between the Earth and the sun, so we wanted to incorporate Venus into our trip somehow.

[Botanical Betty]
[Trapped!]

The actual conference itself was pretty cool. The premise of the conference is that the government is releasing all kinds of data about healthcare and insurance, and they wanted to show developers how to get that data. (By the way, you can go to healthdata.gov to get this data!) They also wanted to show entrepreneurs what some early users of the data (such as us code-a-thon winners) were able to do with that data in a short time. The goal is to make more apps, websites and physical devices that can utilize this data to hopefully make it easier to get info about healthcare and insurance.

Not sure if this will work? Well, if you've ever watched the Weather Channel, used an app on your phone to see what the weather is or will be like, used a GPS navigation device, or used the map on your iPhone, then you've been unknowingly using data that the government has made available to the public. GPS devices only came into existence because the government opened up its GPS data to the public. Before that, only the military used it. Same with its weather data. The government hopes that it can spur innovation in the healthcare industry in the same way that making weather and GPS data available created all these great tools that we now take for granted.

Three other cool things that we got to do at conference: we got to hear Bon Jovi speak about his involvement in the community and about how new apps are helping homeless people find shelter; we got to meet Bill Davenhall, who leads the Health and Human Services team at ESRI and is also an author who writes a tech / healthcare column for the Huffington Post; and we got to meet Todd Park, the CTO of the US Government.

[Us with Todd Park]

I'm proud to be part of the first wave of people using this data. My team created a product called PlayFit that is mostly about helping kids find pickup games, and want to help get kids out and play more. Think of it like a flash mob but for sports. We've also got a widget that schools, churches, YMCAs, whoever, can put on their website, and we basically can become an events management tool for them. And as for using the government's data, we have a portal for businesses that integrates a lot of the government's health and insurance data (and other data, like farmer's market locations) to help businesses reach kids that don't have a lot of opportunities to get out and play.

[The team]

We didn't get to do some of the cool stuff that we thought we were going to do this trip, like go to the White House. We've been told that we'll be invited back up to DC for that at a later date. I'm not sure if that's the result of the miscommunication with our liaison from the conference, but it doesn't matter. If we're asked to go then we'll go, and we'll have a great time, and we'll hopefully remember to use this blog post to remind ourselves to fly into Baltimore and take the MARC. And if not, then we'll always remember that Ted's Bulletin had homemade poptarts. It's the simple things in life, people!

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