Over the weekend of November 7, 2014, six teams of students, developers, and healthcare professionals united at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, competing to build novel web and mobile applications tailored to women’s mental health needs. The Clinton Foundation, Ace Hotel and Jawbone, in partnership with MIT Hacking Medicine and Brigham’s Innovation Hub, hosted the Women’s Health Codeathon with the purpose of engaging females in the digital health space. Indeed, in contrast to similar tech events, the majority of the participants at the Codeathon were women, although males were also welcome.
Beyond its demographic, another distinctive aspect of the event was an unprecedented focus on the health of its hackers. In lieu of late-night pizzas and all-night coding, participants enjoyed wholesome meals from Sweetgreen and stretch breaks led by Equinox. They also received Jawbone UP Fitness Trackers to monitor their sleep and steps—metrics that were eventually factored into each team’s final score.
Following a weekend of hacking, the teams presented prototypes to a panel of judges—all female leaders in healthcare and entrepreneurship—at a public gathering on Sunday. The proposed apps clustered around several themes in tackling mental health challenges. Though unique in their approaches, all involved leveraging technology to better connect women and girls to supportive resources, from personal health information to communities of friends.
Two teams focused on alleviating the difficulty and discomfort women may face in reaching out for help. “Over the Bump” provided a mobile platform for new mothers to easily share tasks and errands with a network of friends and family, facilitating follow through from those willing to lend a hand. In doing so, the app positioned itself as a preventive intervention for postpartum depression, which affects approximately 14% of mothers.
Another contender, “Groups,” also aimed to de-stigmatize the idea of seeking help but focused on a younger demographic of women. Groups would create a space where girls could construct more intimate social circles from their existing networks. Users would “match” with friends available to chat or hang out in a way similar to Tinder, a popular dating app. “We want to distill Facebook to the face-to-face interactions that we actually need,” said Aaron Ornbey, one of the developers. “Groups is the tool you need to exchange time and kindness.”
Other teams devised mechanisms to improve mental health by empowering women with finer measures of their wellbeing, capitalizing on the native capacities of smartphones and wearable devices. For example, “Mindful” sought to aggregate data from a range of physical and digital activities to furnish a holistic glimpse into behaviors and trends impacting users’ mental wellbeing. The “HappyMomHappyBaby” app intended to increase early detection of postpartum depression by crowdsourcing the creation of a data repository to score and predict depression, proactively providing preventive recommendations and engaging circles of friends and family.
Conversely, “Covalent Bond” focused on the prevalence of mental health disorders among college-aged women, over half of whom report experiencing overwhelming anxiety. By passively collecting mood, sleep, and fitness data from college women who opt in, the proposed app would provide caregivers a high-level picture of how their daughters are doing.
Ultimately, the winning prototype—“Safe.me”—invoked both of these common threads by designing a system to prevent sexual assault by increasing bystander intervention. Safe.me’s call to action was the link between sexual violence and poor mental health outcomes for women, particularly on college campuses. Harnessing the convenience of the Jawbone Fitness Tracker, the Safe.me app would monitor wearable data for user-generated distress signals, summoning pre-programmed emergency contacts. The app would also generate a call to the user to allow her to artfully exit uncomfortable, potentially dangerous situations.
The minds behind Safe.me are diverse—Ying Cao, a psychiatry fellow at Harvard University Health Services; Val Lee, an MBA candidate at MIT Sloan; Nathaniel Roysden, a student at Harvard Medical School; and Dushyanthi Pieris, a Clark University Masters student and Ruby on Rails developer. The group is excited about the possible extensions to and implications of their system. “This tool is useful beyond the United States and college campuses,” Lee explained. “We know there are significant problems in South Africa and Southeast Asia with sexual violence against women. Also, this isn’t latched to one device. Any wearable device can fit within our system, and we are thinking about the potential for other signals beyond ‘I need help.’”
Along with MINI JAMBOXES, members of the winning team will receive support from the event partners and advice from McKinsey and Company in bringing Safe.me to market.
Linda Natansohn, head of sales and corporate development at meQuilibrium and one of the Codeathon’s keynote speakers, closed the event with encouraging words for current and future healthcare entrepreneurs. “Don’t take it for granted that you look at the world, you see possibility, and you’re actually willing to pursue it,” she said. “You are in the minority, and it is a gift.”
**This Codeathon was the second in a three-part Women’s Health Series launched by the Clinton Foundation, Jawbone, and Ace Hotel in partnership with regional stakeholders. The first, held in New York this August, centered on women’s nutrition. The winning app, Feasted, has continued to work with mentors from the Codeathon and plans to pilot its product in the South Bronx in the next few months. The third event will take place in LA in January 2015 and will focus on exercise.
Meher is a post-baccalaureate pre-medical student passionate about global innovations that leverage technology to enhance caregiving and hospital workflow. She lives in Cambridge, MA.
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