HackathonCLT challenges coders to improve access to health care

The seventh annual hackathonCLT brought teams of coders and programmers to Charlotte’s Discovery Place, where they had less than a full day to create a project that improved access to health care.
The seventh annual hackathonCLT brought teams of coders and programmers to Charlotte’s Discovery Place, where they had less than a full day to create a project that improved access to health care. Photo provided by Tresata

Call it beginner’s luck.

The three developers at Welch Labs had never participated in a coding competition before this weekend. But that didn’t keep them from winning the seventh annual hackathonCLT on Saturday. Their winning entry was a portal that allows Mecklenburg County’s health providers to centralize information about — and conduct outreach to — some of Charlotte’s vulnerable populations.

HackathonCLT, which is organized by the Charlotte-based automation company Tresata, challenged teams this year to design practical solutions to increase access to health care for Charlotte’s underserved groups.

In a city where approximately 120,000 people are uninsured, organizers and judges said the hackathon was meant to create real change and make Charlotte the “healthiest city in the world” by 2025.

“We want those patients to be engaged, encouraged, and to access care for themselves,” said Kurt Dowswell, one of the winners.

MedLink of Mecklenburg County, a consortium of six clinics and providers in the area, provided competing teams with data sets on the zip codes of their patients for participants to use for their projects. Other data sets about healthy cities and rates of HIV and AIDS in Charlotte were also made available.

In a matter of hours, coders turned that data into several projects meant to help the MedLink organizations become more efficient and increase their outreach in the community. Finalists included a social networking platform for adolescents struggling with substance abuse and a mobile app that maps free and low-cost health clinics in the Charlotte area.

But Dr. Michael Dulin, a population health professor at UNC Charlotte and one of the hackathon’s judges, said that Welch Labs’ portal took first place because it presented a solution that could benefit MedLink — and even more local organizations.

“The way they used data visualization was unbeatable,” said Dulin, who also directs UNCC’s Academy of Population Health. “They identified the link between the services provided by the different free clinics and the needs of the communities.”

During a presentation on Saturday morning, the three teammates — Chang Lee, Stephen Welch and Dowswell — showed off overlaying maps that displayed the most prevalent health issues in each zip code alongside the zip codes that were most heavily served by each MedLink organization.

For instance, the free health clinic at Camino Community Center in University City serves many patients from zip code 28213, where mental health is an especially prevalent issue, according to national data sets. So their portal also includes a feature that allows the clinic to reach out directly to patients through a text message, asking them how they’re feeling and encouraging patients to reach out for help.

Dulin will assist the team in putting the portal into implementation over the next year, using half of their $30,000 prize for that purpose.

Jamie Sunde, the chair of MedLink of Mecklenburg, said she was ecstatic to see a tool that allows health agencies to develop a shared database of information, so each organization can focus its energies in the right way.

“This is hopefully a language that can speak to all,” she said.

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Teo Armus writes about race, immigration and social issues for The Charlotte Observer. He previously worked for The Washington Post, NBC News Digital, and The Texas Tribune, including a stint reporting from the U.S.-Mexico border. He is a graduate of Columbia University, a native Spanish speaker and the son of South American immigrants.
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