WDI Staffer Makes Plans For June Health Hack-a-Thon

Thursday, March 3, 2016

“Hack-a-thons” are best known as weekend-long events where software developers and computer programmers – fueled by pizza and caffeine – team up to create a new software app or build a new tech gadget. These marathon sessions are less commonly associated with tackling global health challenges.

WDI’s Beatrix Balogh, center, works with her team during a recent health hack-a-thon in Boston.

But the same spirit of energy, collaboration, and dedication used to develop new technology could similarly apply to preventing the spread of disease, says WDI’s Beatrix Balogh, who along with three colleagues, plans to host such an event in Ann Arbor in June.

Health-themed hack-a-thons are growing in popularity as those in the field explore new ways to innovate and create new technologies and processes. In February, Balogh participated in a Boston hack, where she and her team worked on a training/business model around self-screening for breast cancer in rural areas of Africa. She also spent time taking notes in preparation for the Ann Arbor event.

“We were able to talk to the organizers about things that worked well, things they struggled with,” said Balogh, research associate in the market dynamics group of WDI’s Healthcare Research Initiative. “They had a lot of good insights.”

About a year ago, shortly before Balogh and Brittany Johnson, a global health supply chain consultant, attended a hack-a-thon in Cleveland, they began kicking around the idea of bringing a health-themed hack to Ann Arbor. They reached out to Neelima Ramaraju, director of global health initiatives at Ann Arbor’s LLamasoft, a supply chain design firm, to gauge her interest.

“Between the resources, talent, and enthusiasm we have in this community, it seemed like a no-brainer,” Ramaraju said. “So far the community has been very receptive and supportive, validating our reasons for getting started.”

Ramaraju brought in friend Diane Bouis, director of innovation programs at The Inovo Group, a strategic innovation consultancy in Ann Arbor.

Together, the four women formed the nonprofit Ann Arbor Health Hack (A2H2 for short) and started making plans for a hack-a-thon in Ann Arbor this summer. They have weekly planning meetings, have created a Facebook page, and a website will be online soon. Upcoming informational mixers are set for March 9 and 29 in Ann Arbor. Check the hack-a-thon Facebook page for details.

The event, A2H2 Weekend: Prototyping Disease Prevention, will be held June 24-26 at Palmer Commons on the U-M campus. The organizers are hoping to attract 200-250 students, researchers, and professionals from the biomedical, engineering, IT, design, and public health sectors.

It will focus on disease prevention in developing countries as well as underserved areas of developed countries. Prevention includes creating information tools, enhancing education of patients and caretakers, policy and social engineering. It also includes products and services such as personal and surgical hygiene, family planning, wellness care, diagnostics, vaccines, and medication adherence.

A networking event Friday evening will kick off the weekend, with the hack-a-thon starting Saturday morning. Participants will work through the night till noon Sunday, and present their projects to a panel of judges. The winners receive prize money and potentially a space to incubate their idea along with some seed funding. Sponsors of the hack-a-thon include WDI, The Inovo Group, LLamasoft, Ann Arbor SPARK, MakeHealth Fest, and Gamestart.

Ramaraju said events like hack-a-thons make the global healthcare space more accessible.

“As a complex and highly-regulated field, the healthcare market requires deep domain knowledge to bring about change, making it difficult for a lay coder or maker to have a significant impact on their own,” she said. “A hack-a-thon will bring together the medical, academic, entrepreneurial, and industry minds to generate novel ideas, and hopefully new products that lead to healthier lives worldwide.”

Organizers, who plan to make this an annual event, ask attendees to come with ideas, but not necessarily with a set team. They are hoping at the pre-hack mixer on Friday night as people discuss their ideas, participants will start to gravitate towards projects that appeal to them.

Hack-a-thons are most successful when diverse teams form at the start of the event, Bouis said.

“Bringing together a diverse team of people from different areas can help find solutions that somebody who is a deep specialist would have never found by themselves,” she said. “You cannot do something radically new if you think along the same pathways with the same people you have already thought with and worked with in the past. Mix it up.”

Ramaraju said a hack-a-thon “can energize the community, make people aware of the existing resources, and create collaboration opportunities that wouldn’t have otherwise existed.”

The event, Bouis said, enables people to do great things. It is a conduit for bringing the right people together.

“If something that changes the face of healthcare comes out of the hack-a-thon, that will be immensely gratifying,” Bouis said. “Can I guarantee that there will be any to change the face of healthcare? No, I can’t promise. Is it possible? Yes, and that’s exciting.”

Image courtesy of Global Cancer Innovation Hack-a-thon.

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