The first annual Ann Arbor Health Hackathon brought together medical professionals, software engineers, public health workers among others to brainstorm solutions to global healthcare problems from Friday to Saturday in Palmer Commons.

The “hackathon” included 24 hours of health-related “hacking,” which involved teams pitching ideas and creating prototypes for solutions to health problems. The event focused on preventing disease in underserved areas of the developing world.

The hackathon was created and operated by Beatrix Balogh, a research associate for the William Davidson Institute, an independent non-profit that provides emerging market solutions; Britt Johnson, a consultant at Integral Chain; Diane Bouis, the innovation programs director at The Inovo Group, an innovation consulting firm; and Neelima Ramaraju, the global health applications director at LLamasoft, a supply chain management software company.

Though there are other hackathons in Ann Arbor, the four co-founders wanted to create something different to engage a more diverse crowd.  

“We wanted it to be free and available to the community,” Johnson said. “Many other hackathons are focused on the University, and coming in as a working professional, it’s cool to see all of the people working in startups in health and software. There’s just such a variety.”

The co-founders brought together their past experiences to create a health hackathon that encompassed the most successful practices from other events.

“I participated in hackathons at MIT in Boston and again in Cleveland,” Johnson said. “I just loved how it brought so many different experts together in one room at one table that generally don’t have the chance to meet and talk. I liked the idea of starting with a problem and thinking through a solution with a group of people.”

Johnson added that sometimes real products have developed from hackathons.

Johnson said organizers had two goals: uncovering new ideas and uniting the community.

“Our goals are two-fold: to bring innovative thought and new design and solutions into a space where there have been a lot of traditions,” Johnson said. “The second is more local: bringing those diverse parts of our community together to talk and work on it and get to know each other.”

The event commenced Friday evening for participants to meet and exchange ideas. Saturday morning began with three keynote speakers — Eden Wells, Mark Wilson, and Hamid Ghanbari — who discussed how multifaceted nature of global health issues.

“(Ghanbari) was my favorite,” rising LSA senior Jenny Tou, a participant in the hackathon, said. “He talked about global health and how multidimensional it is. Sometimes the problems intertwine so if you solve one, then you solve others as well.”

Once the hacking began, 91 participants were faced with the challenge of creating a basic product or prototype in 24 hours to crack a disease prevention problem. Seventeen teams, ranging from one to seven members, each chose a pitched idea to work on during the event.

Johnson said many pitched ideas covered hugely problematic issues in healthcare, health habits and disease and cultures.

The teams worked with a wide variety of ideas, including a website to inform the local residents about the three-mile-long dioxane plume in Ann Arbor and how clean the water sources are, an app that simplified the language in insurance policies for people to better comprehend, and a paper diagnostic strip for cardiovascular disease and other key diseases for developing countries and rural areas.

Johnson said the organizers aimed to have diverse participants, including the students.

“We tried to get a big mix of participants,” Johnson said. “We were really looking for people in health, software and tech. We wanted a mix of ages that pulled from different backgrounds, like working professionals as well as the student population.”

Tou’s team worked on a program that created a physical therapy strategy to help with limb motion in people with diseases, like multiple sclerosis.

Tou said the allotted time was adequate since a portion of the work was done beforehand.

“I think the scope is pretty reasonable,” she said. “They had the basic coding beforehand already, so we are trying to use the wall data to calculate the angle, which should be doable in two days.”

Once the hacking ended, the teams pitched their ideas to six judges from healthcare-related fields. The teams competed for first, second and third place for cash prizes.

First place was awarded to a team that created child-friendly mobile apps allowing children to get involved in research studies. The team in second-place developed an app prototype for patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Third place went to Tou’s team for their physical therapy program. The winning teams were also awarded Ann Arbor SPARK’s competitive boot camp and The SearchLite’s Customer Discovery Program, which offers support through research consulting.

The Frankel Cardiovascular Center at the University, one of the event’s sponsors, gave out the award of Best Cardiovascular Disease Prevention Solution to the team that developed the disease-diagnostic strip. The People’s Choice award, which went to the crowd favorite, was awarded to a team that connected transportation to grocery stores to improve healthy food accessibility.


Editor’s note: a previous version of this article indicated that there were about 50 participants, not 91 and did not specify that the competitive boot camp is hosted by Ann Arbor SPARK. 

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