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 from the hackathon organizers, plus another $1,000 from TigerText, developers of a secure messaging system, for best implementation of their API. 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