How the winning idea of the NTD Hackathon was born
Early in the spring of 2021, Maja Carrion, Professor in the Health Science department at Boston University (BU), announced news of a virtual Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTD) Hackathon to her class: The Task Force for Global Health in Atlanta, Georgia, would be holding a Hackathon on NTDs called “Spread, Truth, Not Disease,” with the goal of bringing an influx of bold ideas, new talent and creative energy into solving the challenges that rumors pose for NTD programs.
Caroline Pane, Julia Hermann and Bridget Yates are health science majors at BU and students of Carrion, from whom they have heard much about NTDs. “We’re also currently taking an innovation class and really enjoying it, so I thought the Hackathon would be a great way to start thinking about real-world applications of health innovation, as well as to learn more about NTDs,” said Pane.
They decided to enter the contest together and then invited Samuel Tomp, an engineering student who they knew and who would be very helpful in product developments, to round out their team. And from there, Team 16 of the NTD Hackathon, “Spread Truth, Not Disease,” was born.
NTD programs around the world are constantly forced to address rumors regarding the purpose of the preventive medicines, fears related to the side effects that the medicines can induce, and misinformation about the causes and cures for the disability that may result from infection. As a result of such rumors and misinformation, individuals may decline the preventative medicines, may ostracize or stigmatize afflicted individuals, or may seek alternative treatments that do more harm than good.
The Hackathon details were announced to teams on April 11 – giving them a week ahead of the weekend sprint to devise a strategy. To avoid the downfalls of “groupthink”, the team began conducting research and brainstorming solutions independently throughout the week before sharing ideas with each other and converging on one solution the morning of April 17.
Then, on April 17 and 18, 2021, they joined 11 other teams of college students to compete. Over 24 hours, the students were asked to determine a solution for rumors around mass drug administration (MDA) or treatment-seeking behavior among those affected with NTDs.
The first task: deciding which rumor to target.
“It wasn't necessarily a conscious choice to go with MDAs. When we were brainstorming we were throwing out ideas for both prompts. As soon as the idea for more effective packaging for the medicine was brought up, we knew that was what we wanted to work on,” said Samuel Tomp.
Next, they thoughtfully researched and planned their solution.
“In doing research on mass drug administration, specifically on Lymphatic Filariasis in Tanzania, we realized that we could come up with a relatively simple solution that incorporated both dissemination of information to combat rumors and misinformation, and a method to distribute the drug in a way that evoked more trust in MDA programs”, explained Julia Hermann.
“If we had unlimited time and resources, our first step in this project would have been to go to Tanzania and interview community members about their hesitations with this medicine. Since we couldn’t do that, we did the next best thing by finding journal articles of researchers who had done this,” said Pane. “One interviewee in a study we read said that the fact that the pills were unlabeled was a huge concern to him, as he couldn’t trust that they were actually for the disease the government claimed they were. This really resonated with me, because I am one of those people who actually reads the whole warning pamphlet that comes with any medication I get.”
Their solution – the Pill Pack – addresses the concern over the lack of clear labeling and information about the disease. Having clear labeling would quell fears raised as pills are frequently delivered by non-medical health volunteers, some of whom may not be known to the community. Primarily targeting a male audience, the solution included information on the packaging about lymphatic filariasis, drug dosing and the role of the drugs in prevention.
They suggested use of Swahili terms for the disease to educate and instill confidence and trust in the drug. “In many of my public health classes at BU, we have discussed how vital it is to develop culturally appropriate solutions for interventions in different communities globally, so as to most effectively communicate information when entering a community as individuals from outside that community (or outside that country),” said Yates.
Winning solutions were judged on the ability to demonstrate creativity, feasibility, sustainability and cultural appropriateness.
“I loved how thoughtful the team was to pull in cultural aspects such as language (Swahili), color and even getting inspiration from a popular Tanzanian comic book as a style for the illustration/communication on the packaging. Plus it felt so tangible, that it could really and easily exist,” said Priya Palani, Associate Creative Director, TFGH, and Judge of the Hackathon.
The four students will each receive $500 and will present their solution at a virtual booth at the Innovation Lab of the Coalition for Operational Research on Neglected Tropical Diseases (COR-NTD) Annual Meeting, to be held virtually Nov. 8-10, 2021 to share their solution with NTD community experts.
“One of the reasons we're so proud of our design is because we think it's something that is both feasible, and worth implementing. In order for it to become an actual solution we would definitely need to spend more than 24 hours on it, but in the big picture I'd love to see at least a trial run deployed in Tanzania. I think we have the potential to really help people,” said Tomp.
“It was super cool to hear what everyone came up with based on the many diverse backgrounds present, and I think I learned a lot from some of the other groups that will inspire/guide my efforts when developing public health interventions or partaking in other innovation projects in the future,” added Yates.
When asked what they would change or do again, Yates responded, “While I loved working with my team of people I knew beforehand, seeing the diverse backgrounds of the other teams made me realize how much we likely could have benefited from working with the other participants who had such insightful real world experiences.”
The team said they would definitely participate again in similar events the future. “I had such a great time working with my team, and it was really inspiring to see the amount of talent and care from the other teams and the solutions they designed,” said Hermann.
“There are so many global health challenges that need solving, and I think getting a bunch of passionate, talented individuals in one room together to address these challenges can create some really meaningful change,” Pane said.