University of Waterloo students hack for MS wellness solutions

Last weekend the research team and I had the opportunity to head over to the Accelerator Centre in Waterloo and participate in Hack4Health, a 36-hour marathon where students at University of Waterloo were plunged into an epic brainstorming laboratory to find wellness solutions for people living with MS, Alzheimer’s or related dementias. More than 70 student “hackers” partook in the event , along with mentors consisting of people living with MS or dementia, occupational therapists, fitness experts, and technology entrepreneurs tasked with guiding the students in the design of their concepts.

The hackers at the event primarily came from backgrounds in engineering, programming and social sciences, and I was excited by the prospect of witnessing a group of fresh minds delve into the topic of wellness and MS with a unique perspective. An additional bonus of having so much creative talent from outside the MS field was getting young minds thinking about MS and thinking about new solutions for tomorrow.

Hack4Health participants with organizers Drs. Lisa Loiselle and Karla Boluk. Photo: Kwame Ansong

The hackers of Hack4Health. Photo Credits: Kwame Ansong

At the start of the event, each team was given a toolkit of resources in order to tackle the challenge of designing a product or concept with the potential to improve the quality of life for people living with MS or dementia. Among those resources was the data from the MS Wellness Survey that the MS Society released this past summer, which captured the voices of people affected by MS expressing their priorities, needs and challenges concerning nutrition, physical activity, and emotional wellbeing. Specifically, people affected by MS voiced a need for improved technology, communications, integration of care and programs that can help them gauge and improve their state of wellness. This feedback from the MS community, including the mentorship by the people living with MS who attended the event, was critical in inspiring the concepts developed by the hackers.

As the hackathon wound down Sunday afternoon, hackers had the chance to pitch their projects to a panel of judges and showcase their designs. The teams came up with some pretty creative ideas – ranging from “smart” mattresses that prevented bedsores to policy ideas designed to help people with “invisible symptoms” remain in the workforce – and it was tough narrowing down such a group of talented young minds to several finalists. In the end and after much deliberation, two teams were chosen to combine forces and apply to the MS Society for a $15,000 award to develop their concepts further under the supervision of a researcher at the University of Waterloo. Those two teams and their concepts were:

  • MS Won’t B-ME: this team developed a prototype for a web app called “Circle of Care”, which is designed to allow people living with MS track their symptoms, wellness and quality of life and sync that information with their entire health care management team, including caregivers, neurologists, occupational therapists, rehabilitation specialists, and others.
  • TBS: this team retrofitted a health monitoring wristwatch to detect temperature, track symptoms and give real-time feedback to people living with MS to prevent overheating. A custom app interface will allow long-term monitoring and analysis of trends linking temperature changes and specific symptoms.
Winning teams Circle of Care and TBS at Hack4Health. Photo Credits: Kwame Ansong

Winning teams MS Won’t B-ME and TBS with organizers Karla Boluk and Lisa Loiselle. Photo Credits: Kwame Ansong

Congratulations to teams MS Won’t B-ME and TBS for your outstanding projects!

A special thank you as well to Drs. Karla Boluk (Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies) and Lisa Loiselle (Murray Alzheimer Research and Education Program) for organizing the successful Hack4Health event.

Do you have questions or comments about Hack4Health or research involving MS and wellness? Leave them below.

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