Today’s global community seeks mechanisms to fight urban health challenges, including preventing and controlling non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory conditions, diabetes, and mental disorders. Together, these diseases cause around 70 percent of deaths each year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), and represent the social and financial burdens of individuals and health systems alike.

With growing global populations, changing demographics and shrinking health care budgets, preventative action can be critical – which means more systematically engaging people in their own health care and lifestyle choices. Mobile and digital health solutions can help increase access to information and services leading to health enhancing behavior changes. This is especially promising in increasingly connected urban environments.

According to Deepak Maheshwari, IEEE Internet Initiative vice-chair, “The type of challenges we’re facing in India today include challenges with the healthcare system in urban environments. To create solutions, we must define problems properly with data that ensures security and privacy but works in the greater interest of public health, so we can address sanitation, clean water, proper nutrition and more.”

One promising effort, WHO’s Healthy City program, strives to make health considerations an integral part of urban design and management. A global movement, it engages local governments in health development through a process of political commitment, institutional change, capacity-building, partnership-based planning, and innovative projects.

(Credit: ITU)

Hacking for Health

To engage young, bright minds to collaborate on urban health challenges, the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), the world’s largest technical professional organization dedicated to advancing technology for the benefit of humanity, joined forces with the ITU (International Telecommunication Union), an agency of the United Nations (UN), whose purpose is to coordinate telecommunication operations and services throughout the world. In collaboration with Be He@lthy, Be Mobile (ITU-WHO) at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Forum 2017 in Geneva, the first-ever WSIS Forum Hackathon was held.

Organizers set out to showcase how information communication technology (ICT) solutions could help meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in developing countries. The two-day event in June brought representatives from more than 16 countries – from Algeria and Bangladesh to the UAE and Zambia – to inspire one another and offer solutions that can be applied in cities around the world.

Among the 42 participating students – who were diverse in both gender and culture – the most common areas of study included computer science, mathematics, business, biological engineering, software engineering, chemistry, epidemiology, electrical engineering, and informatics. Ten were expert developers, and of the novices, 16 were just learning to code.

Five teams were challenged to develop innovative digital solutions to reduce exposure to common risk factors for non-communicable diseases in smart, healthy cities in middle-and lower-income countries. Their solutions could be applications or games for mobile devices or the web or other visualization tools or technology applications to address one of these challenges:

  • Clean water access
  • Urban environmental quality
  • Managing NCDs for healthy living
  • Promoting healthy behaviors

Teams had 24 hours to create both a concept and a working prototype to present to a panel of reviewers on the final day of the hackathon. One team proposed a solution to promote healthy behavior by inviting informed users to take responsibility for their own health and nutrition in the context of a moderated collaborative, community platform. Called “InYOUtrition”, individuals would be empowered to transform their health along with peers and support from experts.

The team from the UAE created an application to mine data from social networks, APIs, and Google trends, then visualize the data for governments and decision makers. Availability of the information would be limited, and the solution could pinpoint affected geographic areas so efforts could be focused there – maximizing the efficiency of campaigns and health outcomes.

Bridging the Gap Between Folklore and Fact

Winning first place, Team Norway introduced their “SAGA” solution to improve citizens’ awareness of healthy behaviors and promote healthy habits, such as increased physical exercise, proper nutrition, and stress management. Their creative solution was interactive, kid-friendly media (ebooks, games, cartoons) presented on a website which incorporated local folklore with a factual twist to help teach children healthier eating habits.

Their team said they were inspired to change lives through technology and help children and communities have healthier lifestyles – knowing kids learn behaviors that carry through their adulthood and impact society.

(Credit: ITU)

Non-communicable Disease Management for Healthy Living

Team Poland took second prize with a solution to allow for self-diagnosis, treatment, and greater disease awareness in individuals with NCDs, such as diabetes and heart disease. They created a two-sided application to analyze eating patterns for better health. The mobile patient app acquires basic medical data, physical activities, allergies, environmental conditions, and more, which gives context to the user’s eating behaviors and includes a product scanner for supermarket use to evaluate purchases.

The doctor-side web service monitors patient data and makes recommendations for food intake and physical activity for best health outcomes. The data will allow for the use of machine learning and a classification algorithm to improve the system with less human input.

Urban environmental quality

Team Tunisia tackled the challenge that air pollution is increasing exponentially and serves as a major contributing factor to a wide-variety of global health issues. They invented an application called “Purify IT” that monitors and limits air pollution. Through a network of sensors, the system collects data and sends feedback to the government and citizens with regular updates on the CO2 emission rate. The solution allows the citizens to be part of the change-making process by installing sensors in their homes and drawing many benefits in return, such as getting reductions on public transportation fees. Sensors feed gathered data into an algorithm that provides relevant information for government and citizens to incite healthy practices.

“While working on the hackathon, I realized that Purify IT might actually see the light one day as an IEEE project,” explained Meher Bnouni, who is Secretary-General of IEEE SIGHT (Special Interest Group on Humanitarian Technology) Tunisia. After a sleepless night, his team pitched the project to the jury and received third place.

As IEEE works with partners to meaningfully connect more of the world’s population to the internet, developing practical ICT solutions that benefit humanity is important to its mission. In settings constrained by poverty with limited health infrastructure, people are far less likely to access timely, adequate or affordable diagnosis and care. The WSIS Forum Hackathon served as a powerful model and example of how ICTs can impact global health as it relates to SDGs with the potential to change lives globally. 


About the author

Karen McCabe is IEEE’s senior director of technology policy and international affairs, in Piscataway, N.J. She leads the organization’s partnerships with the UN and other international bodies, with a focus on engagement of the technical community and the intersection of policy and technology in information and communication technologies. She is a member of the Internet Society and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Internet Technical Advisory Committee.