Health & Medical Human & Social Technology & Computer Science

South Africa’s first health hackathon

Optimistic WomanI recently had the privilege of taking part in South Africa’s inaugural Health Hackathon – two days of building technological solutions to health problems in South Africa. I was totally out of my depth but loved every minute of it.

Having taken Friday off work to attend the Hackathon, I arrived at Groote Schuur Hospital in Observatory excited and unsure of what to expect. Wandering through the halls of the hospital trying to find the venue, I saw first-hand the people and the system we were trying to help: nurses, doctors and patients, going about their work. It was certainly an evocative setting for the work of healthcare innovation. The conference room was filled to bursting with other excited people when I finally found it, and I quickly joined my team and sat down.

The Health Hackathon 2014 (#HHCPT2014 on Twitter, if you’re into that sort of thing), held on 24 and 25 January, was one of the first World Design Capital 2014 events in Cape Town, and was organised by the Inclusive Healthcare Innovation Initiative (IHII). This is a joint initiative between two UCT bodies, the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation at the Graduate School of Business and the Faculty of Health Sciences. IHII aims to provide a cross-disciplinary platform to support health innovation in South Africa and the rest of Africa.

Headed up by Dr. Lindi van Niekerk and Dr. Francois Bennici, the initiative is a result of their belief that all South Africans can contribute to improving healthcare delivery in South Africa. No idea is too small and no voice too insignificant. According to Dr. van Niekerk, this is only the beginning. “We would like to build an ecosystem so that when people do these innovative things, there is a supportive platform in place to carry them forward.” On 29 & 30 January the inaugural Inclusive Healthcare Innovation Summit was also hosted in Cape Town and brought together 320 healthcare leaders, practitioners and innovators together to promote active participation in South Africa’s healthcare challenges. And boy, are there challenges.

The hackathon was very much tailored to put those challenges front and centre in our minds. The room was filled with ‘idea boards’ where the challenges were laid out clearly, and participants were presented with the challenges right at the beginning. Thirty problems were presented in 2-minute slots for participants to mull over – an intentionally short time to encourage less talk and more action.

Challenges ranged from improving patient waiting times or access to health information, to developing more effective systems for doctors and health administrators. What struck me immediately was the magnitude and systemic nature of the problems. As a medical scientist, I thought that I was fairly clued up on the state of SA public health. But it was driven home again and again over two days just how much trouble the public health sector is in.

We moved quickly from the challenges to the solutions – a number of companies had shown up to offer support, advice and technical know-how for those who were interested. These included representatives from Hacking Health in Canada, Medic Mobile in San Francisco, and several companies that provide ICT solutions tailored for health and the developing world (See a full list below).

Google GlassA highlight for me (being a bit of an innovation nerd) was a so-called Google Glass ‘Explorer’, a lucky sod who got their hands on one of the first few thousand models. He is a medical doctor, and is exploring ways to use the Glass for teaching and surgery.

Presentations over, we were encouraged to mingle, find challenges that we liked, and form teams. We had already formed a team – several medical and public health students, and one developer – so we dived straight into the challenge we had chosen. Fuelled almost entirely by sugar and Red Bull (a sponsor), the various teams worked feverishly into Friday night, before returning on Saturday to finalise projects and prototypes.

Over the course of two days, we realised that our initial approach was a mistake. Without a larger crew of developers, we found ourselves under-skilled for the very real challenge of building an app or program, and didn’t get past a very rough design of how the system might operate. Others did though, presenting some real solutions on Saturday evening. Three groups were chosen to present at the Innovative Health Summit a few days later, where a team that designed a digitised patient tracking system took home the R15 000 grand prize.

In the end, I walked away feeling disappointed by our failure to launch, but buoyed and elated by the amazing sense of participation. There we were, changing the world, together. This was why I chose to study science in the first place. It was easy to see that the organisers shared my excitement, and all of them seemed thrilled by the turnout, and the enthusiams of the people present.

As we left, I asked Dr. van Niekerk whether we could expect a Health Hackathon next year. The answer was a definite’ yes’: “Luckily, there are enough health challenges that we can carry on going for a long time!” she said with a smile full of hope. The hackathon left me realising how much I don’t know about this enervating and innovative world, and determined to do it again, properly, next year.


List of organisations involved:

Inclusive Healthcare Innovation

Bertha Centre for Social Innovation

Graduate School of Business

Hacking Health Canada

Medic Mobile


Google Glass

Bandwidth Barn

Price Waterhouse Coopers

Praekelt Foundation


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