Huddled around tables in the Team-Based Learning Center at the UMass Amherst Library this weekend, four Hampshire College students quickly coded a new website. At the next table, a group discussed LED lights for an invention. And across the room, people researched the nutritional value of recipes.
They weren’t engaged in homework assignments; it was a Health Literacy Hackathon. In the span of twelve hours over two days, six groups competed to create a technology-driven tool to improve how people access, understand, and use health information.
The Northampton-based company CommunicateHealth sponsored the event, hoping to draw creative minds together to crack a common problem: almost 90% of adults struggle with complex health information. For example, more than 1 in 2 adults in the US can’t read a prescription drug label, use a BMI graph to find their healthy weight, or understand a vaccination chart.
CommunicateHealth is searching for innovative apps, websites and interactive online tools that will present health information in ways that make it easier to understand and use.
“The Hackathon was designed to let people feed off the energy of others, harness our collective creativity and passions, continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible, and foster out-of-the-box thinking,” said Xanthi Scrimgeour, co-founder of CommunicateHealth.
Graphic designers, programmers, public health advocates, researchers, and students from around New England gathered at the event to compete for the $2,000 first-place prize.
“This is my idea of a good time,” said Lili Dwight, a technology developer in the field of aging.
At the beginning of the day, Dwight only knew one of her teammates, and by mid-afternoon they were all discussing the color and name of their prototype – a cup that prompts people to drink more water. Finally dubbed the “Water Buddy,” the cup is designed to tackle the problem of dehydration in the elderly population.
“My vision of technology is that it should empower us to make decisions, instead of telling us what to do,” Dwight said.
Diana Satin, an ESL teacher from Boston, wanted to make sure immigrant populations were considered at the Hackathon. Her team proposed a tool that helps people seamlessly track all of their family member’s doctor appointments, regardless of language and literacy.
“The immigrant population is often stymied by literacy issues, including important issues like health,” Satin said. “We are figuring out a way to address an issue that would make life easier for them.”
After hours of scribbling on whiteboards, mapping flow charts, and breaking for a fast lunch, four bleary-eyed victors emerged: the Hampshire College students. Their tool, called Carrot/Stick, is a phone-based service that utilizes family and social support to empower smokers to quit. Team members included Amit Ringel, Zeke Nierenberg, Kira McCoy, and Jamie Matheson.
Carrot/Stick allows smokers to listen to recorded phone messages of tough love (stick) or warm encouragement (carrot) from family and friends as they kick the habit. Nierenberg said his team focused their strategy on bridging the gap between “people’s hearts and their minds.”
“Many smokers know that smoking is harmful to their health; they want to quit,” he said. “But, this knowledge alone isn’t powerful enough to change their habits. What do they care about? Their family. We’ve created a tool that lets the message be delivered by the quitter’s family, harnessing the power of community.”
McCoy said her excitement wasn’t as much in winning the Hackathon, but in the process of collaborating to create their product.
“It was also fantastic to hear about the other teams’ ideas,” McCoy said. “I realized the immense power of collaboration, focused hard work and passion for health.” Julie McKinney, a health literacy consultant who has worked in the field for sixteen years, was among five judges at the event. She said she chose Carrot/Stick because it didn’t require a smartphone, and could be used in any language.
“I liked it because it addressed an actual behavior change,” she said. “Using the information to change your behavior to be healthier is the ultimate goal of health literacy.”
Nierenberg and his teammates are considering the next steps for their tool, but the “immediate future is to catch up on sleep.”
The Water Buddy was the runner-up, along with PatientSpeak, an app that utilizes waiting room down time as a place where patients can communicate needs to their doctor – at their own pace, in their own language.
Stacy Robison, president of CommunicateHealth and a judge at the Hackathon, was energized by the level of skills and expertise that came together in the pursuit of better health.
“I think there’s something about the compacted timeframe of twelve hours of intense creativity that can yield really amazing things – better things than we could come up with in years around a table in our office,” Robison said.
CommunicateHealth plans to assist the Hackathon winners take their tools and ideas to the next level. Co-sponsors of the event included Mad-Pow, RTI International, UMass Amherst’s School of Public Health and Health Sciences, and UMass Amherst’s Center for Teaching & Faculty Development.