DementiaHack: Creating products that improve lives today

It was a form of speed dating with a social purpose.

300 people jammed a large, airy room with a view of the lake at George Brown College’s Waterfront Campus. Brilliant researchers, bleary-eyed from long hours of intellectual labour, gathered around laptops, staring intently at apps and gadgets they had just created. Half-eaten pizza littered the tabletops.

At the appointed hour, just before sunset on a November Sunday afternoon, an organizer picked up a microphone and called out: “3,2,1…GO!” Pitch time at the DementiaHack.

dementiahack1Seventy teams had spent 30 hours brainstorming with the goal of developing new innovations to assist people living with dementia. Now they had to convince panels of judges that theirs was the best idea. They would get three minutes to make their pitch and two more minutes for questions. Post graduate students, more used to taking months to write their scholarly papers now nervously struggled for the right words to deliver a summation in the face of a merciless stopwatch.

At stake: cash prizes, a presentation slot to demonstrate your idea at a major health conference and and an opportunity to meet with key decision makers and potential investors.

It was sponsored by the UK Government, Facebook Canada and by HackerNest, an international non-profit organization that describes its mission as “economic development through technological proliferation”. HackerNest specializes in these kinds of “hackathons” to drive innovation for a social good.

Among the judges working the room was Arlene Astell, the Research Chair in Community Management of Dementia at Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences. She is also a key member of AGE-WELL, leading the workpackage aimed at understanding the needs and preferences of end users. Arlene’s AGE-WELL research is focused on ensuring that older adults are engaged at all stages of the development of new technologies.

Read more about WP1: NEEDS-OA – Understanding the Needs of Older Adults here:

Astell listened intently to each pitch, scribbling notes, asking questions and then with a minute or two break, flipping to the next page on her clipboard and moving to an adjacent table to hear the next competitor. She found the whole process, intense as it was, utterly inspiring.

dementiahack2“To help people live a dignified life, maintain their independence. And for me that’s really exciting because in the marketplace I think there’s a huge gap in addressing the needs of people who actually get a diagnosis (of dementia),” she said.

For the first pitch, Astell and her fellow judges gathered around a team called Epoch, which included a neuroscientist from the University of Toronto, an internet programmer from Lambton College, a software engineer from Sheridan and an independent researcher in “user experience.”

Dano Morrison, from U of T, donned a headband–a currently-available wearable called Muse which is used as an aid in meditation. It is designed to give the user feedback on whether he is maintaining a meditative state or whether his mind is wandering.

The Epoch team proposed to adapt the hardware for use in a new application: to allow people who suspect that they are showing signs of dementia to monitor their brain wave activity. It would take EEG readings daily, weekly and monthly, creating a kind of diary.

“The idea is that they can track this–it’ll give them more information about the course of their illness and the information can also be shared with physicians,” said Morrison.

The second team used a tablet for a show and tell of an app called Kumbuka Pet (kumbuka means ‘to remember’ in Swahili). McMaster medical student Ada Gu delivered a polished presentation, explaining the two games they designed: one built around anagrams, another a form of jigsaw puzzle that uses pictures of loved ones.

“This really helps retain short term memories, helps with brain plasticity, and this also helps with the ‘practice effect’ in which the more you do this the more you retain what you’re learning,” said Gu.

Her team also cut across disciplines: an aspiring physician collaborating with computer engineers from Waterloo, an iOS developer from Laurentian and a user experience designer from the Ivey School of Business at Western.

“It allows different perspectives to come in. I’ve never worked with in the medical space and it was really helpful to have Ada here and 3 software engineers to execute it,” said Alan Li from the Ivey School.

This kind of collaboration is a key element of AGE-WELL’s mission: to break down the silos among the various professions who work with older people, all with the goal of sparking technological innovation and nurturing a new industry.

As well as being as a judge at the hackathon, Arlene Astell of AGE-WELL also acted as a mentor to some of the competitors, and was impressed by their innovations.

“Some of the pitches I’ve seen are actually about things that make life worth living…things for fun, for engagement, help people stay connected socially, to participate in things that they enjoy,” she said.

“And I’m really pleased that we’ve got lots of those projects and ideas because that’s often really overlooked.”

While the room was teeming with promising ideas, the judges ultimately had to pick a short list of winners. The grand prize went to a team called MABEL, short for Make A Better Life Everyday—a care management system that provides a platform for researchers to gather big data.