Participated in a Hackathon: ArthritisHack 2017

On the weekend of October 13th to 15th, the #ArthritisHack hackathon took place at the Mars Discover District. It was a cool event and I haven’t attended a hackathon in ages. The last hackathon I attended was a hackathon sponsored by LinkedIn in the same place and before that it was a kind of catch-all hackathon with multiple APIs in the west end of Toronto where people used the Yellow Pages API and Soundcloud API.

At this event, with a team of five, we built a small automated marketing platform for arthritis-focused charity events and built a chatbot to engage people and raise awareness about arthritis.

The schedule for ArthritisHack 2017 was fast-paced, there was really only one day of hacking. On Friday, there were short keynotes, an Arthritis 101 presentation and then people pitched their ideas and chose their teams. Then on Saturday we started hacking on our projects at 8am until 11pm. Finally on Sunday, there was a continuation of that from 8am to 2pm. Then at 3pm the demos before the judges took place.

Keynotes at ArthritisHack, Learning about what Arthritis is

The place was packed and the keynotes were quite informative. I learned that the main challenge was raising awareness about what arthritis is and who it affects, because it is typically seen as affecting more elderly people. This is actually not true and it affects people of working ages too. I also learned that there are around 4 million Canadians who suffer arthritis.

The keynotes pointed out the emotional and mental challenges that compound the physical challenges that people living with arthritis experience. One of the keynote speeches highlighted the move toward eHealth. In addition, it highlighted how Canadians would like to do more online such as renewing prescriptions, booking appointments, etc. Another keynote was by a scientist who pointed out that arthritis makes the simple things in life difficult to do. Things such as opening condo doors or water bottles or using staplers. She also pointed out that arthritis can cause fatigue. Also, it requires many drugs for pain relief and treatment.

Mentorship During The Hackathon

During the hackathon, there were mentors visiting each team and who were available for questions. They were people who had arthritis or who worked at an arthritis charity/non-profit. Some of the judges were around as well. They were extremely helpful and it was an amazing learning opportunity. They told us more about arthritis, the charities that focus on arthritis, and gave us a few pointers on how to prepare our pitch.

What I Worked On: Arthritis Pursuance Platform

On Friday I pitched the idea of a platform for fundraising and marketing automation for arthritis-focused charities. On the platform, people living with arthritis could organize weekly or monthly group activities to build a community for people living with arthritis. Just as important was that arthritis-focused charities could create walkathon events, collect donations. Then, using the marketing automation built-in, advertise the event. The marketing automation would take care of raising awareness. The fundraising side of the platform would take care of raising funds for the arthritis-focused charity.

I chose this idea to pitch because it can have long-lasting effect, something that lasts beyond the hackathon and can be built up further.

We had a team of five and ended up building two things:

Chatbots To Raise Awareness and Engage Canadians

The chatbot was suggested because it would function as an interactive, highly engaging way to raise awareness. The charities right now have a lot of information about arthritis on their websites so we shaped and re-used some of that information into a smaller more interactive format. The potential is that you can raise awareness at a larger scale than going door to door or handing out fliers. Chatbots can also last longer than most market campaigns. They can be incrementally updated with new or fresh information.

Automated Marketing and Donation Platform

The Arthritis Pursuance Platform had a way for us to create an events listing so we could advertise all arthritis charities’ events. It had a donation form so we could collect donations on their behalf. The events creation page surfaced the marketing automation component of the platform. So, when our team created an event we could simultaneously create over 50 Facebook and Google ads and advertise for the arthritis charities.

The code for the platform is available under the AGPL license, you can check it out here. The payment integration used Stripe and works; the next steps are to generate better ads, manually try them out on Facebook and Google, check their performance and then tune/modify/update the ads. After that, TensorFlow can achieve the bigger goal of automated ad generation and tuning (however, it’s important to have a good set of data for training).

Furthermore, the idea is to automatically push the ads to Facebook and Google which requires working with their APIs. I think even that portion of code is so valuable on its own as I’ve seen many marketing agencies and campaigns manually create ads over and over again, so automating that portion would probably save them a lot of time.

The Hackathon In A Nutshell

We built the chatbot and the beginnings of the Arthritis Pursuance Platform on Saturday, finished them up on Sunday and presented our pitch. It was a lot of work and a lot of fun, and it was cool to see everyone else’s pitches and their functioning prototypes.

My biggest takeaways are:

  • Pick a technology that you are somewhat familiar with. This makes easy to get up and running and have a prototype. I have seen some hackathon starter projects that give you authentication built-in. Instantly, with those starter projects your prototype can let people login with Github, Facebook or Google.
  • If you’re going to use a new API or technology, read the docs and try it out. If you can’t get up and running within an hour, pick a different API or technology.
  • Focus on ideas that appeal broadly and are easy to explain. In our case, chatbots were easy to explain, while marketing automation platforms were not so easy to explain. Remember you have 3 minutes or less to make a pitch.
  • Think about the future. Some judges asked questions around monetization and funding. Marketing automation platform with fundraising built-in is easy to monetize, educational mobile games for kids are harder to monetize. Other judges asked how patient data would be shared in the apps that were presented. Specifically with healthcare, privacy and electronic medical records play a big role, something most participants didn’t realize.
  • Have fun! You’re creating a prototype for an idea that you and your team thought up. As a result, you can focus mainly on the tech side of things. You can also treat it as practice for your presentation skills and tech skills. How quickly can you come up with a pitch that wows the judges? How fast can you build a prototype using tech you’re very familiar with?