Hacking for Better Health

Hacking is not just what computer science students do when they’ve had too much strong coffee.

In 2014, hackathons bring together smart people from a variety of backgrounds for intense, technical problem-solving sessions that often last several days. They are a mainstream method for harnessing brainpower to generate new ideas, business models, products, and technical solutions.

Hacking Pediatrics, held October 18 and 19 at the Microsoft New England R&D Center (yes, the acronym is NERD) was one such Hackathon. About 150 professionals gathered in Cambridge, MA, to spend the weekend developing technologies to improve pediatric healthcare. RENCI’s Ketan Mane attended the invite-only event, and needless to say, he had a productive two days.

Mane, a senior research scientist whose work involves building decision support tools for stakeholders in healthcare, teamed up with four other hackers to develop what they dubbed BreatheSMART, a Bluetooth-enabled device that combines an asthma inhaler and a peak airflow meter. BreatheSMART captures data on how often a child uses an inhaler as well as data about lung capacity through the peak airflow meter. In addition to recording and storing data, BreatheSMART sends automatic alerts to parents when inhalers are used too much and can visually show trends in a child’s condition so parents and healthcare providers are better able to spot problems before they become crises.

In addition to hacking, soliciting feedback, and revising their ideas during several iterations, the hackathon included another important component: making the pitch. After 18 hours of work, each of 22 teams pitched their solutions, prototype technologies, and business plans to a panel of judges that included healthcare professionals and business strategists.

BreatheSMART won third place in the hackathon, a distinction that included a $1,000 award. According to Mane, the device and the app that supports it can provide parents with more information about a child’s asthma, which translates to parental peace of mind and early alerts about changes in the child’s condition.

Whether BreatheSMART evolves into more than a good idea remains to be seen. For Mane, the experience illustrated the power of focused, uninterrupted collaboration.

“I sat down with four people I had never met before and in 18 hours, printed a 3D model of the inhaler, demonstrated how the sensor would transmit information to a device, designed a user interface, conducted market research, built a business plan, and pitched our solution to panel of judges,” he said. “It was hard work, but very rewarding to see the results.”

Congratulations to all the Hacking Pediatrics participants, to the event sponsors (Boston Children’s Hospital and MIT Hacking Medicine) and to the members of the BreatheSMART team. Hack on!

-Karen Green

Building better classifiers for reproducible science

RENCI’s Clark Jeffries recently presented a webinar for Orion Bionetworks called “Seeking Best Practices in Classifier Construction and Testing.”

Jeffries is a PhD-level bioinformatics specialist with an interest in interpreting neuroscientific information to better understand and treat psychiatric and neurological conditions. For years he has worked with researchers in the School of Medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill to analyze data and better understand debilitating diseases like schizophrenia.  Read more…

Environmental science infrastructure across continents

 

The CoopEUS conference will be he;d in Helsinki, Finland, starting Sept. 30

The CoopEUS annual meeting will be held in Helsinki, Finland, starting Sept. 30

Infrastructure for research in the environmental sciences shouldn’t be constrained by national boundaries. That’s the idea behind Cooperation EU-US, or CoopEUS.

Launched by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the European Union through its Research Infrastructures action of the 7th Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, CoopEUS brings together American and European scientists involved in environmental research projects for collaboration that will facilitate building a truly global and integrated infrastructure to support environmental research.  Read more…

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Codefest to focus on collaboration and results

Here’s a concept: a conference where people get real work done.

I’m not attempting to be snarky or to criticize the many worthwhile conferences offered to professionals every year; I’m simply paraphrasing a statement on the Open Science Codefest website. OSCodefest will bring together scientists and programmers involved in developing scientific software who think their work could benefit from collaboration with other researchers, software engineers and developers. Read more…

In science, software matters

Outer Banks flooding from Hurricane Irene (2011). Modeling software used to understand high-impact events will benefit from software development best practices.

Outer Banks flooding from Hurricane Irene (2011). Modeling software used to understand high-impact events will benefit from software development best practices.

In the 21st century, it’s impossible to separate science from the software scientists use to collect data, run computer models and analyze model outputs.

Several RENCI experts make the case for sustainable software development practices in scientific research in two articles recently published in the Journal of Open Research Software.  In the first article, written by RENCI Senior Scientist and Oceanographer Brian Blanton and Chris Lenhardt, domain scientist for environmental data sciences and systems, the authors point out that developing scientific software that is sustainable, accessible, and transparent is especially important when policy decisions and public safety are at stake. Read more…

Coming soon: A “Facebook for hydrologists”

After two years of work, HydroShare, a “Facebook for hydrologists,” will go live in July as an open source website. The HydroShare research team, which includes collaborators from RENCI, Brigham Young University, the University of South Carolina, Purdue University, Tufts University, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of California at San Diego, received a $4.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation in July 2012 for this project.

HydroShare will give hydrologists the technology infrastructure they need to address critical issues related to water quality, accessibility, and management. The open website will be similar to YouTube in that it will allow users to simply drag and drop their models and data to upload to the site, and similar to Amazon, with a message board and rating system. It will provide an online collaborative environment for discovering, accessing and sharing water science research. Read more…

Big data innovation explodes at RENCI

Claire McPherson of Deloitte closes out a great Innovation Summit.
Claire McPherson of Deloitte closes out a great Innovation Summit.

The creative vibes were buzzing at the First NCDS Data Innovation Showcase, held at RENCI on Wednesday, May 21, 2014. The Showcase, centered around innovative strategies for the rapidly-expanding big data field, brought together NCDS members, faculty and students to share data-related projects, activities and ideas.

The Showcase began with a student poster session during breakfast, where students from NCDS academic institutions showcased their submitted posters on data-related projects and networked with industry and university professionals. The group then gathered to hear short presentations from each of the NCDS Data Science Faculty Fellows on the background, goals, and intended results of their research. Read more…

Girl Power in the Programming World

Though their numbers are expanding, women are still the minority in the computer development and website coding community, which remains about 90 percent male. A group of women in the Triangle, Girl Develop It (GDI), formed to provide a comfortable environment where women can learn about coding, website development and new technology and strategies at their own pace. As an institution that believes in diversifying STEM career fields and fully supports broadening the coding community, RENCI recently opened its doors to GDI to provide a space to host its “Python for Beginners” course.

The course, held at RENCI’s Europa Center headquarters on Saturday, April 26, consisted of an all-day workshop on Python, a software program that powers some of the most popular websites and apps, including Pinterest and Instagram. It can be used to build websites, program robots, visualize data and run servers. Read more…

Creating the universe in a Social Computing Room

photoStudents in a communications class at UNC Chapel Hill have been using the recently opened Social Computing Room (SCR) in the Odum Institute to create their own universe.

The SCR provides an immersive 360-degree view of any visual content, allowing users to interact with and explore data in groups. The original SCR, built in 2007, is located in the RENCI space in ITS Manning on the UNC campus. Similar versions based off the original have recently opened at NC State University and in Odum’s offices in Davis Library. RENCI assisted in the technical design and implementation of the room, helping to install all the hardware, baseline operating system, and projectors and supported part of the cost of outfitting the room. Read more…

Hacking for the public good

It’s one thing to say that the explosion of digital data can be used for public good. It’s quite another to sit down in a room for four hours, access open data files and create an application with practical uses.

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View of the Wake County Parks Finder app created using the TerraHub platform.

That’s what Jeff Heard did when he attended the Triangle Open Data Day (TODD) a few weeks ago. TODD, organized by TechnologyTank.org, was a daylong event to promote open data—the idea that digital information from sources such as government agencies should be easy to access and that if it is, smart, innovative techies will use it in interesting ways.

Heard, a RENCI senior research software developer and co-founder of the startup TerraHub, is one such smart, innovative techie. He attended TODD’s hackathon activity with the goal of taking a public data set and creating an application that could transform that raw data into useful knowledge.  And he succeeded. Read more…