Hackathon generates winners in more ways than one!

23 February 2018

Giving up a whole weekend to work 13-hour days for nothing. Apparently, there are quite a few people willing to do this in the name of public health and in January I was one of them.

January’s Public Health Product Forge event started on a Thursday evening and lasted until Sunday night, with a format resembling shorter ‘hackathons’. The main idea of the event was to use data, technology and participants’ skills to come up with solutions to public health problems. Close to a hundred participants spent their whole weekend working. The event took place in a venue open 24 hours. The participants could sleep there; and being provided with hot food, tea, coffee, water and snacks, there was no need to leave the building.

We, in Obesity Action Scotland, saw Public Health Product Forge event advertised on Twitter only few days before, and I decided to give it a go. After short talks from the Product Forge Team and topic experts, and introductions on Thursday evening, the participants were asked to form teams and focus on one of the three suggested public health issues: childhood obesity, mental health and sexual health. Being a nutritionist and working for Obesity Action Scotland, I chose the childhood obesity theme, and was soon joined by a data analyst, a technical consultant, and a 5th year medical student. Usually, the teams include not more than three to four members but on Saturday morning an energetic academic GP joined us and this only enhanced our potential.

An idea, development and future

After forming a group on Thursday night and spending the evening chatting through ideas, we started Friday full of energy and began by talking through the evidence around childhood obesity, looking at existing data, learning about our skills and experience, and brainstorming ideas. All this was interspersed with short talks delivered by a wide range of professionals: academics, public health experts, statisticians, programmers, product developers, business planning experts, and entrepreneurs. Some of those people stayed for a day or more and acted as mentors, offering advice to the groups. The importance of their input cannot be overstated.

On Friday evening, moved and driven by data showing embarrassingly low breastfeeding rates in Scotland, the links between low breastfeeding rates and childhood obesity, and the degree to which breastfeeding in public places is unpopular (how many times have you seen a breastfeeding woman in a public place in Scotland?), we came up with an idea. Over the next two days we developed a prototype of an app that maps out public spaces and businesses in Scotland where breastfeeding is welcome, allows users to comment and rate these places, and sends them personalised messages to help with, and encourage, breastfeeding. No such service or product currently exists in Scotland.

Currently, only 45% of women breastfeed one week after giving birth. Based on UNICEF estimations if approximately half of the babies in Scotland were breastfed for the first 4 months of their life, the NHS Scotland would save between £2.6 – 21.7 million/year. The app we have designed would make it easy for women to find breastfeeding friendly public places, give them confidence to do it and hopefully in the long term increase public acceptability and rates of breastfeeding in Scotland, bringing immediate savings to the NHS.

We worked on it all weekend and presented the outcome to the judges and the audience of participants and anyone interested on Sunday evening. There were thirteen teams and two teams won the event. I am very happy to reveal that we were one of the winners!

We are planning to further develop the prototype and hoping to run a pilot study to test it, improve it and make it available for free for breastfeeding mums in Scotland.  So watch this space.

Reflection and conclusions

Participation in this event was rewarding in many ways. Firstly, it was encouraging and heart-warming to realise that so many people were so passionate about what they do, that they were happy give up their weekend to work for free for a good cause.

Secondly, the event was a great opportunity to meet and work with professionals with different backgrounds, experiences, expertise, and nationalities (our team of five represented four nations). It is hard to imagine a scenario where I would work for so many hours on one project with a data analyst or a programmer. Such exposure can only broaden horizons and within my team our skills and personalities complemented each other to produce a winning idea.

Thirdly, it is fascinating how much can be achieved in a short time when the right people work together, an honest confirmation of an old adage that two heads are better than one. There is a great potential in meetings like this one, when multidisciplinary teams truly pursue one outcome without distractions of emails, meetings and other projects. This made me wonder why events such as this are only popular in the programming world. Surely, the rest of us are just as passionate and good at what we do and want to share skills and work together!