New COVID-19 challenge out of MIT seeks solutions from hackers at home

The new MIT COVID-19 Challenge: Beat the Pandemic is a series of hackathons and digital events focused on coming up with ways to address the virus.
By Laura Lovett
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A team works on ideas at the MIT COVID-19 Challenge hackathon this weekend. Photo credit/MIT COVID-19 Challenge

With stay at home orders dominating the news cycle, many are looking for ways to help tackle the coronavirus pandemic from home. A group out of MIT is looking to remedy this with a way for various stakeholders to get involved.

Over the weekend, MIT COVID-19 Challenge: Beat the Pandemic hosted the first in a series of virtual hackathons and events aimed at designing new tools to address the virus. 

The challenge was inspired by co-organizer Alfonso Martinez's desire to get involved in fighting the coronavirus, but not knowing exactly how. 

“How can we make this time that we are spending at home useful for the crisis? How do we have an impact?” Martinez wondered to MobiHealthnews.

When news of the coronavirus started to spread, he and a friend were inspired to develop a digital solution. But this led to a whole host of questions that would require experts to answer. 

“We didn’t know what specific issues for this crisis that we should be tackling, and we didn’t have partnerships in place to scale whatever solutions we would put together to get them to market and have a tangible impact,” he said. 

Creating the challenge 

This got Martinez thinking. Now an MBA student at MIT, he had run hackathons before, and it was a way to get different stakeholders involved.  He reached out to Dr. Freddy Nguyen, post doctoral fellow at MIT, and cofounders of the event, Stephanie MacConnell, an MBA student at MIT, and Paul Cheek, hacker in residence at the Martin Trust Center for Entrepreneurship.  

“What we thought of was building a series of virtual events that can enable individuals that were looking to help in this crisis, all from very different backgrounds, come together and work towards the specific issues that were most pressing at this point in time,” Martinez said. “Not only to work on the specific issues that are relevant today but also work with the partners that can put those solutions [in place] and develop into process.” 

The challenge is meant to follow the disease as it progresses and respond to the medical community’s current needs over time. Traditionally, a mix of voices, including those healthcare professionals, is represented in health-tech challenges, but medical professionals are being called to the front lines of treating the disease. So, when looking at the focus of the hackathon over the weekend, organizers tapped healthcare organizations for input. 

“We [knew we] probably would not get the propensity of the healthcare workers and providers – the front-line workers who know about all the problems they are facing,” Nguyen said. “We decided to partner with a series of clinical partners from across the country … to really be our eyes and ears to find out what problems they are facing on the front lines.”

The Challenge included a number of partnerships with healthcare-focused organizations including Mass General Brigham, Johns Hopkins Medical, and MobiHealthNews’ parent company HIMSS. 

During the weekend hackathon there were 10 tracks that focused on everything from social isolation to treating patients and figuring out immunity to at home patient triaging.

“We are sorting those problems by helping synthesize and compartmentalize those problems. That way we can hand them off to the participants and really be acting around problems that are pressing right now,” Nguyen said. “The areas we ended up focusing on came from all of our clinical partners and really carried a wide range.”

New ideas created  

Each track had four winning teams that scored $500, AWS credits and a mentorship from one of the partner organizations. 

“One of the unique things about this challenge was we had people from every single time zone, we had 96 countries represented in the applicant pool, 49 states. So, the ability for folks to pull from the experiences back home or that they have seen in other cultures and other geographies was super unique,” MacConnell told MobiHealthNews

Many of the teams focused on tools that were effective in other situations and reapplied them to this challenge. 

“We saw a lot of teams coalescing around, 'How can I use this type of product or service that has been proven effective in other industries for this specific crisis?'” Martinez said. “One great example … was the team called Distance Domestic violence.”

He explained that this team looked at optimizing the process of assessing someone at risk for experiencing domestic violence, and then providing these individuals with resources when they may have to be quarantined with their abuser. 

The digital design is also allowing new voices to enter hackathon space. 

“There were a lot of participants where this was their first hackathon. Most hackathons or challenges are in person, so it depends on where you are located and this was virtual,” MacConnell said. “Some of the most successful teams were teams that hadn’t met each other before. They cluster around a certain idea set they thought would be really interesting to pursue and found really unique solutions based on their totally different backgrounds.”


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