MAYA Design wins Health 2.0 DC code-a-thon

February 16, 2011 in Notes from the Field

On Saturday, five curious MAYAns attended the Health 2.0’s first east coast code-a-thon in Washington, DC We hadn’t done anything like this in the past and we weren’t sure what to expect, but boy what a wonderful experience across many fronts.

The Health 2.0 team, Georgetown University, the many partners and sponsors did a fabulous job bringing together folks from across the spectrum, (technologists, policy-makers, data experts, etc) interested in addressing the growing challenges in health care.

The day kicked off with Todd Park, CTO of HHS, giving an inspiring talk to highlight the challenges and the awesome work that HHS is doing to meet them. He focused on setting up HHS to “move the needle” on the most pressing challenges in the health care space. Just like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) collects weather data and disseminates it so weather stations (and organizations like the weather channel, etc.) and other consumer and commercial businesses can reap the benefits, Park wants to enable smart companies to create the useful and usable products and services that make the biggest impact for people using HHS data as a foundation. Park noted that he’d like to “make HHS the NOAA” of user centered health data. Big thinking, and it sounded exactly like the right model for moving forward.

Todd Park’s call to action fired up the MAYA team and we knew if we followed our Human Centered Design approach (rather than just thinking about the data geek stuff) we’d come up with a contender.

Code-a-thons are structured as competitions, where each team has a set amount of time to develop and build a solution towards a given problem. For the Health 2.0 event, the goal was to utilize the health data available to solve some challenge in the health care space. The challenge was intentionally open-ended, and it was inspiring to see the range of ideas that all the teams developed.

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Given only six hours from concept to delivery, MAYA’s team jumped in with our tried-and-true method: find the room with the most whiteboards and start drawing pictures based on real user challenges! We knew we wanted to focus on healthy eating and address the issue of childhood obesity. With the Health 2.0 data sets in hand, we realized there was a wealth of data, like the USDA’s Food Environment Atlas, illuminating the dire issue of “food deserts” in the US. These food deserts represent neighborhood where residents have limited access to healthy, affordable food, because the traditional big-box grocery stores or farmer’s markets were simply too far away.

We know that healthy eating is paramount to stemming the epidemic of a host of chronic conditions like diabetes and cardiovascular disease in America. Studies show this is costing us billions. For examples, just look at the rate of newly diagnosed cases of Type II diabetes in the 10-19 year old population. It’s frightening, and we started wondering what few of the millions of small improvements we could make to the situation, would drive change.

We knew from our own research that one of the real benefits of mobile connected devices is their ability to create immediate feedback loops to users “in the context” of their need. We also knew that feedback loops with clear rewards at the time of need drive motivation and behavior change.

So how could we encourage and inspire kids to choose home cooking over fast food for example?

What could we do to motivate and prepare someone to cook two meals a week at home?

Our brainstorming started to converge on a “low-tech” solution to improve access to healthy food. We challenged ourselves to only use SMS messages so we could target the largest consumer base, not just the affluent consumers with smart phones or internet access (a recent report noted that 60% of the world’s cell phone using population have SMS/feature phones rather than smart phones). Plus, it added an extra “tech” challenge to the team, to use an older, established, limited framework in a new way. (Go big or go home, right?)

The traditional grocery store provides a market that aggregates the beginning of the long tail of individual consumer needs (e.g., eggs, eggplant, egg rolls, etc). Each consumer doesn’t buy a cart-ful of groceries, but each smaller order adds up to a large overall sale for the suppliers. Could we come up with a way to leverage a simple SMS tool to replicate the traditional buyer-seller relationships that brick-and-mortar stores create but in a far more distributed fashion? Could we fill those food deserts that have no grocery stores or markets by bubbling up the pool of parents who would do the right thing if they just had access to a healthier alternative? We started with a “virtual grocer,” where the technology collects individual consumer needs into economically-viable groups. Suppliers would have the same economies-of-scale advantages they have in stores, but would have the incentive to reach out to the distributed locations of a food desert.

Think Priceline meets Netflix but with a co-op spin, for healthy living.

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We sketched out a text-message-based system, that could expand access to healthy food and expand knowledge about healthy eating.

  1. Consumers could send an SMS message to the virtual farmers market to order specific items.

  2. Those requests would funnel to a central system, where suppliers could aggregate orders and communicate with consumers. The orders would be organized geographically, using existing community institutions (e.g., churches, libraries, etc) as central delivery points.

  3. Consumers could also request information on a food item and receive easy-to-understand SMS messages with recipes and health index information based on the USDA National Nutrient Database.

  4. In future versions we envisioned foodie networks of cooks looking to be the “next top chef” getting into the act as well. They’d be able to sign up, taking on healthy cooking challenges based on the aggregated requests and grow new small and local catering businesses. If they just liked to cook healthy and fun foods maybe they’d join just to occasionally make an impact on a neighboring community. Our system would include a tally of how much the community is helping itself and track achievement points and other feedback indicators to turn the system into a “gameful” ecology.

But we had to stop thinking about the future and jump in and start designing. We defined the scenarios, story-boarded the work flow, figured out the various SMS message types, created an information commons to fuse the various data sets, figured out how we would pass the messages back and forth, sketched the user interfaces and built it!

(We also needed to make sure members of the team didn’t pass out from forgetting to eat! A huge shout-out to the Health 2.0 team making sure we had refreshments!)

In the end, we built a story around the idea and managed to pull of a proof-of-concept to push some messages back and forth between an SMS phone and an online “market” site to make it feel real. It was an amazing feat of interdisciplinary design with team members Katie Scott, Mike Sabatini, Daniel Szecket and Mike Roy working together in “dream team” style to knock it out of the park.

Each team participating in the event developed some amazing applications that leveraged the data to empower people to take action. It was a charged atmosphere where passion and purpose was evident across the event. We saw groups leveraging everything from behavioral economics to game theory in ways applied directly to issues in health care. Team Blue Dot made an application to nudge people to better behaviors by illustrating how they were doing compared to their peers.

In the end, the judges chose our “Food Oasis” idea as the winner, and we’ll be going to the Health 2.0’s Spring Fling conference in San Diego to present our idea to a national audience.

We understand that big ideas are frankly pretty easy, the details are hard. So to that end we’ll be continuing to think through how we can push our idea forward between now and then. Our next step is a small co-design session with members of a food desert to get their input (remember people first). We hope that we can take creative nuggets and turn them into conversation starters with the right policy, foundation and agency folks in San Diego.

Technology is one lever that can move the health care gauge that Todd Park referenced, but we need to focus on unvoiced and unmet human needs as well. We attribute our inter-disciplinary, human-centered approach to our ability to win this round. Any innovative application has to be scale-able, affordable and contextual to address the key challenges in a sustainable way. Can we do it? To borrow a phrase from some key stakeholders — Yes, we can!

Check out a quick walkthrough of the idea!

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