CAMTech Uganda Hackathon

This piece was originally published on MIT Hacking Medicine Blog, December 2014

Thanks to generous support from MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES), I was able to take part in the second annual CAMTech Hackathon in Mbarara, Uganda. I have participated in hackathons before as a team member of MIT Hacking Medicine, but this hackathon in particular struck a chord with me. Not only was the event inspirational in and of itself, but it provided a concrete reminder of why I became interested in global health in the first place.

Three years ago, I spent a summer working at Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST), which coincidentally also happens to be the location of this year’s hackathon. Although I was conducting social-behavioral research that summer, even as a biomedical engineering student then, I could not help but notice many of the challenges that physicians in the hospital in Mbarara faced. Simple things such as using and maintaining donated medical equipment, or providing the correct tools for healthcare practitioners to do their job, proved to be an unceasing problem that perhaps rarely existed in the United States and other developed nations.

Despite the obstacles I observed in Mbarara, what I did notice during that summer was the presence of innovative thinking in the community that one rarely sees in hospitals in the developed world. Working with limited resources forces clinicians to be creative in everything that they do to serve their patients. For example, I witnessed how masterful healthcare practitioners were when working with unfamiliar technology, or how persistent they were in trying to make use of whatever equipment they could get their hands on.

This innovative spirit and passion for providing healthcare to their community members impressed me. I remember asking myself that summer: could it be possible to get these clinicians involved in coming up with effective and more accessible medical technology for their community? How can local entrepreneurs get involved? And would local engineers in Mbarara be interested in working for this type of cause? These questions lingered until I became a graduate student at MIT.

In the Fall of 2014, I found myself as a graduate student sitting in a lecture delivered by Dr. Kris Olson, the medical director of CAMTech at MGH’s Center for Global Health. While sitting in on his lecture, I noticed a significant overlap of interests between his work and my interests. I immediately contacted him wanting to get involved with CAMTech’s projects. Upon meeting with the CAMTech team, I was informed that the group runs hackathons in both Uganda and India and were also launching co-creation labs in these two locations. At that moment, it became clear that everything I was doing was coming full circle. All of my previous thoughts in Mbarara that summer, experiences working on global health challenges, and my efforts of involving local talented innovators to come up with solutions were converged nicely together. A possible process to solve global health challenges became clear: to support and promote hackathons.

Participation in the hackathon in Mbarara after three years from my first time there was incredible. The Hackathon had participants from four different continents, over fifty different pitches were made, and by the end of the weekend numerous teams had proposed solutions to local clinical challenges. The excitement of bringing so many different people together was electric! It goes without saying that I was so glad that I got to be a part of the event in Mbarara.

My own participation in the hackathon ended up being very focused and relevant to my own research at MIT. As a graduate student, I work in prosthetic device research at the MIT Media Lab, and also co-instruct a course at the MIT D-Lab called “Developing World Prosthetics.” Before heading to Mbarara for the hackathon, I reached out to a local prosthetist in Mbarara to see if he would be interested in working on a project together. To my excitement, he agreed.  As a result, I got to tour his facility at MUST, and we subsequently spent the weekend discussing challenges that he encounters, which were surprisingly similar to what is faced by prosthetists in the developed world. The two of us detailed out a few potential software solutions to prosthetic socket design that were based completely on open access software. This ensures that our ideas are accessible to users who have access to a computer anywhere in the world.

The proof of concept that we demonstrated at the end of the weekend seemed viable. This, in conjunction with some encouraging results that my research team at the MIT Media Lab had on a site visit in Kenya earlier this year, makes me confident that with some iteration and collaboration we can develop a solution with long-lasting impact on low-cost prosthetic design. These projects from Kenya and Uganda have even attracted the support of AutoDesk Research, a company that has invited me to its upcoming conference as a panelist on an innovation forum to discuss this work.

I am a firm believer that innovation should be local. This is what my experiences in Mbarara and beyond have taught me. It is too often the case, particularly in the global health sector, that western solutions are imposed on societies with limited resources, or that designs are simplified for developing countries to the point of losing functionality. There is significant room for game-changing innovation by engaging all stakeholders such as community clinicians, engineers, students, and entrepreneurs, etc. in a local context.  Hackathons have emerged as an approach which continues to bring people together and demonstrates there is existing passion, ability, ideas and innovation to solve local problems that is more culturally appropriate and specific.

Even though the duration of a hackathon is 48 hours, the event acts as a catalyst to bring the right people together with infectious energy to work on problems with tremendous impact. As the hackathon in Mbarara came to an end, I vividly remember looking over at Elizabeth Bailey, the director of CAMTech. With a smile on her face, she uttered to me, “seeing this, just makes my heart happy.” I couldn’t agree more.

*Photo credits: Lina Colucci, Bryan Ranger