By 4 a.m., the hackers are nearly silent.
They sit, huddled in groups around their computers, weary faces sagging under the fluorescent lights. Frustrated groans, muted whispers and the soft tapping of keys occasionally break the silence. They’re down to the final six hours.
It’s mid-September, and they’re all competing in Dementia Hack, a 24-hour long competition organized by the programming group HackerNest and the British Consulate-General. Taking place at Ryerson University in Toronto, Ont., the goal of the competition is for participants to assemble a group, then create a functioning program, device or application that would benefit people living with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia and their caregivers.
Participants come from a range of backgrounds: doctors, programmers, policy makers, designers. Many have no prior connection to dementia, other than a workshop the previous day, where a number of people shared their personal stories. Still, the hackers are determined to make their inventions count.
For them, and for organizers, the hackathon is a way to go beyond simply “raising awareness,” to creating tangible solutions for the millions of families affected by dementia worldwide.
“We wanted to get young people involved, and to have voices from fields other than health care,” says Dr. Arlene Astell, one of the contest’s judges, and the research chair at the Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health.
“Lots of research exists around diagnosis, but once people are diagnosed, there’s not a lot for them. The technology is out there, but there is a lack of developed products. We wanted to start changing that.”
The groups stay up all night as they build their submissions. Rows of nerds, stationed along collapsible grey tables, hunched over their work. About a third of the hackers wear glasses. All of them have rectangular frames.
Some finish by 5 a.m., then take naps wherever they find the space; some slump on the tables. One man finds a closet and sleeps in there. Others carry on right to the 11:30 a.m. deadline.
As the work period draws to a close, and the hackathon’s emcee announces there are five minutes left for teams to finish their prototypes, one scrambling woman cries out. “Oh my God,” she says, bent over her keyboard. “Oh my God this is so terrible.”
By noon, the madness is over, and the teams each present their prototypes. Ideas include a scheduling app that texts users reminders; a wearable mouse that helps people with declining fine motor skills to independently use a computer; and an online, cloud-based program that allows users to curate their life histories, among other things.
After a short deliberation, the judges announce their winner.
The prize goes to CareUmbrella, a web portal powered by Near Field Communication (NFC) connectivity, which allows users to bring up information on their smartphone screens by tapping their devices against an NFC-enabled sticker.
In practice the device functions like this: if there is a person with dementia who often forgets how to use the microwave, their caregiver can upload operating instructions to the CareUmbrella web app, and place an NFC tab on the mircrowave. At home, if the person finds themselves getting confused, they can tap their phone to the tab, and call up the instructions.
CareUmbrella was created by a group of five members—Nishant Rampal, Tammy Le, Steve McCann, Hayman Buwan and Ravi Amin. They chose NFC because of how accessible it is: many new phones have the technology built in, and tabs themselves cost only a few cents to purchase.
“With a lot of technologies, you have to go to the website, click a bunch of links, and it’s confusing,” says McCann. “But this breaks down the barriers. I don’t think there’s anything else that offers quite that level of universal access.”
The team says their goal was to create something that could help people with dementia remain self-sufficient for longer.
“The most common thing we heard from people with dementia was ‘We’re motivated to be independent. Just give us something to help us,’” says McCann. “I thought, ‘Hey! I’m a designer. I can make these things for them.’”
For some group members, like Amin, the hackathon was personal. “My dad has Alzheimer’s and we took care of him for 10 years. Now he’s in a home,” he says.
Amin kept his experience in mind as the team developed their product. “This technology could have benefited my family immensely. It might be a little late to save my dad. But I still have my mum to work for, and the rest of my relatives.”
As part of their prize, the group is invited to Cardiff, Wales, where they will present their innovation at the December UKHealthTech conference.
On the day of their win, though, they have more immediate things to catch up on.
When asked when the last time he brushed his teeth was, McCann laughs, and says, “Yesterday.”
He smiles sheepishly. “I forgot my toothbrush at home.”
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