Extreme Medicine Hackathon

by @edent | # # | Read ~130 times.

Occasionally, I get some really interesting freelance gigs. It turns out there’s a rising market for conference hack-days. New company Digiotology paid me – and several others – to participate in a hackathon based at the Extreme Medicine Conference in London.

Extreme Medicine Hackathon Poster

Conference goers could attend lectures, visit exhibitor stands, and come discuss their needs with a group of friendly hackers. We were somewhere between a curiosity (“what are hackers doing here?!?!?”) and a magic circle (“Could you create…”). It made for a fun and educational day.

We were giving two overarching challenges for the 6 hour event:

  • Communications Challenge – how to address the needs of medical workers in remote areas with poor connectivity?
  • Diagnostics Challenge – can small, cheap, portable diagnostics kit be created which can revolutionise extreme medicine?

My hardware skills are limited – so I teamed up with Max Shelley to create a wonderful little project.

Introducing Tell Tales

Here’s what Max and I (mostly Max!) came up with.

  • Children, and those with low literacy skills, would benefit from simple story-books to help explain basic medical concepts (“Washing your hands is important”, “Why you need an injection”, etc.)
  • Create a platform where people can create their own storybooks, adding text and artwork.
  • Auto-generate PDFs which can be easily read on simple devices – or printed off and distributed.

Great! But not everyone speaks the same language – and not everyone can read. So here’s what I coded up.

  • Crowd-source translations of the stories. Allow people to add translations into their own languages. I used the superb CrowdIn service which also has a Bing powered machine-translation feature.
  • Allow people to add MP3 recordings of them reading the stories aloud.
  • Create a Twilio service which would play back the recordings over a regular phone call.

In the end, it more-or-less worked. We were able to create storybooks and export them as PDFs, we could auto-translate them into multiple languages, if you rang a telephone number you could have a TTS bot read out the story – not bad for a few hours hacking!


Well, we didn’t win – but some of my code did! My erstwhile colleague Sam Machin came up with a rather nifty idea – people in developing countries often don’t keep track of identifying information such as birthdays, ID numbers, or formal names; therefore is it possible to create a simple facial-recognition app which will allow a clinician to match up a person with their medical records? (Let’s ignore the practical and ethical concerns of biometric data here – it’s a quick hack.)

Regular readers will remember I’ve written about using OpenCV to build facial recognition databases. All the code is open sourced on GitHub, so I talked Sam through the basics. He built a brilliant app and, quite rightly, his demo won the challenge!

Final Thoughts

Being paid to be part of an interesting hackathon sounds close to perfection – and, in the end, it really was an enjoyable event.

A few things could have gone better – I’ll give you the same list as I gave the organisers.

  • Sort out IP concerns before the event. The Digiotology gang were very good on this – as paid workers we had to ensure that our code was committed to their GitHub repository and given an open licence. As a result, all the hacks are open sourced on GitHub.
  • Ah, but which OSI Licence? I settled on MIT, but it may have made sense to have some clarity on it.
  • Let people “meet” before the event – we had a conference call and a participants Slack channel. That seemed to work very well and helped get ideas flowing. People have to be careful not to get too stuck to their idea – the best results happen when people put ego aside and offer their skills to others.
  • Better diversity. While there were a range of hardware and software skills available, we could have done with a bit more design, UI, graphics, hackers around.
  • Better diversity. Disappointingly, there was an over-abundance of men. I know that Open Source has a poor record of excluding people who can’t work for free – but this was a paid gig. That said, not everyone has the sort of job which lets you take off random days to work for yourself. A knotty problem to be sure.
  • Better participation from the medical professionals. We did spend some time with doctors, nurses, professors and the like as they came round to see what we were working on. It would have been great to have a professional working with each team – or at least hanging around so we could fact check our assumptions with them.

Overall, it was a great experience. I got to try out some new technology, meet interesting people, and work on a challenge slightly more useful than most Silicon Valley Startups. The organisers got to see a range of new ideas, and participants were able to experience the JFDI nature of quick hacks.

If you’re interested in a curated hack for your event, contact Digitology and tell them I sent you.

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