AT&T scout mHealth talent for autism app

April 12, 2013 in Medical Technology

ATT is looking to mine the creative mHealth talents of the autism community through a two-day hackathon, which kicks off April 12 in downtown San Francisco.

The “Hacking Autism Hackathon by ATT and Autism Speaks” will sift through the best of more than 230 app ideas submitted through Autism Speaks’ Facebook page. Of those entries, 12 were selected to compete in this weekend’s hackathon in four categories – verbal, non-verbal, school-aged and adult – with $20,000 in prizes set to be awarded. Editor Eric Wicklund recently chatted with Geeta Nayyar, ATT’s chief medical information officer, and Andy Shih, PhD, Autism Speaks’ vice president for scientific affairs, about this unique crowdsourcing effort.


[See also: mHealth app market poised for big growth.]


Q: Is this a first for Autism Speaks? Has the organization looked to mHealth in the past for solutions or services?


Andy: Autism Speaks has been exploring opportunities in this sector for a number of years. Our Innovative Technologies in Autism initiative has been around since the organization was established seven years ago. But we have seen an incredible outpouring of interest from our families, especially over the past couple of years, driven largely by the availability of tablet computers and sophisticated smartphones. Autism Speaks currently uses different mechanisms to support the development of mHealth and other technology-related solutions to reduce disparities in care and enhance the efficacy and efficiency of services. These include community-based crowdsourcing events like Hacking Autism, iPad giveaways to low-income families, research grants to evaluate the efficacy of devices and applications that claim health or therapeutic benefits, and a soon-to-be-launched website that will allow families and professionals to rate products, share experiences, and learn more about the science behind the technologies.


Q: Is crowdsourcing a viable method for mHealth projects? What are the concerns?


Dr. Nayyar: In the end, apps are for the users, and in this case, developers want to create apps that appeal to consumers. There’s no better way to understand the types of apps that make a difference in consumers’ lives than by asking them directly. Particularly when you’re talking about something like autism that truly is a spectrum, the experience and needs can be varied even within the community. That’s why we wanted to hear from the people who know autism best – the community themselves – about the apps that would make a difference in their daily lives.


There are many mobile apps out there – 97,000 by one count. The problem is most of these apps can’t communicate with each other. The key is connectedness – apps that can talk to other apps and are integrated on the back end to be shared by a variety of healthcare institutions such as hospitals, physicians and health insurers. The ATT mHealth Platform gives developers a way to bring together different apps, devices and data to create integrated health and wellness tools.


[See also: 3 mHealth changes in developing nations.]


Q: How can mHealth be used to help people dealing with autism (not just those with autism, but caregivers and family members as well)?


Andy: mHealth presents an emerging opportunity to better support individuals and families around the world. The mobile computing platforms that have gained prominence in recent years are helping to transform where, when and how we can communicate and access care-related information. This enhanced mobility, often backed by sophisticated storage and analytic solutions, not only allows individuals on the spectrum new communications channels and opportunities to integrate sophisticated assistive technologies into everyday life, but also helps enhance the capacity and efficacy of the caregivers as well as provides support for family members. Caregivers, for instance, will be able to access information – even online courses – on the latest in best practices remotely, and coordinate better or more efficient care by sharing information with other professionals and the parents. Family members can also benefit by having access to high-quality support and guidance, even if they live in an underserved community, via technologies like distance-learning and supervision.


Q: Where do you see mHealth being used in the future to help people with autism or those who care for them?


Andy: In the U.S., where the average age for autism diagnosis has stubbornly remained at four or five, in spite of the fact that we have the knowhow to diagnose at age two or three, mHealth could play a leading role in helping to reduce health disparities by filling in the gap in traditional coverage, especially within underserved communities (e.g., rural, inner city, immigrants/minorities). In addition, by focusing on leveraging available evidence-based best practices to inform development of these technologies, there is also an opportunity to enhance the overall quality of care delivered.


Q: If this is the first step in developing viable mHealth programs for autism, what are the next steps in the process after the hackathon?


Dr. Nayyar: Teams have the opportunity to continue building their app and bring it to market should they choose. ATT provides developers with the key resources they need to successfully take an app from concept to reality via the ATT Developer Program, ATT API Platform and ATT mHealth Platform. Furthermore, winners can apply the prize money to the funding and development of their app.


At the ATT-Autism Speaks hackathon, developers are encouraged to create open source apps. This allows other developers access to the code used in the app, so Autism Speaks or others in the autism community could build out the app should the original developer choose to not take their app to market.


Q: What do you learn from events like this that can be applied to the development of new mHealth programs?


Dr. Nayyar: Hackathons enable us to connect with developers to solve an issue and work together to create viable products to address the need. For example, we may create a hypothesis that people would eat healthier if it was easier for them to seamlessly track what they eat on their mobile device. Developers would rapidly create an app in 48 hours and then see if this addresses the problem. We may find that the technology needs to be changed or that our hypothesis was inaccurate and it is more than just a technical problem. It also helps to bring together a community with a common cause, addressing a need with innovative technology that may not have been applied to the cause without the hackathon.


Q: What kind of results do you want to see coming from this hackathon? Do you have any concerns about how mHealth might be used?


Andy: We look forward to learning about new and interesting ideas that could help our community. We also will try to work with participants and other stakeholders to further develop the winning entries, and hopefully bring them to market soon.



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