Hacking hospitals for hearty health

Mention the word “hacking” and most people will think of wily cybersleuths breaking into secure computer servers and revealing embarrassing secrets to the world. But a group of switched-on South Africans are turning that notion on its head by hosting a “hackathon” for schoolchildren aimed at doing good – by developing an app to benefit the public health system.

On June 3 and 4, up to 150 girls and boys from all backgrounds will gather around computers at Kingsmead College in Rosebank, Johannesburg, for an intensive, 48-hour Hack4Health hackathon, organised by nonprofit organisation Africa Teen Geeks. They may or may not sleep, quips Lulu Burger, the college’s head of innovation.

The aim of these young “geeks”: to put their heads together and develop an app that government hospitals can use to improve or automate their admission and discharge systems, so reducing the amount of laborious red tape that patients and staff routinely endure.

“Any kids can join,” says Burger. “It’s a real community partnership and we’re all going to learn together – empowering young people regardless of their background or socioeconomic status.”

As the venue partner for the Africa Teen Geeks hackathon, Kingsmead will be hosting free JavaScript coding workshops for would-be “geeks” on May 6 and 27, facilitated by Oracle, to prepare participants for the two-day hackathon in June. This means that children (from grades 4 to 12) don’t need to have any coding or computer science experience to take part – almost everyone will start the project at more or less the same level of programming ability.

Africa Teen Geeks, which aims to nurture a love of coding among young South Africans, hopes the Hack4Health hackathon weekend will draw together enthusiastic youngsters from the suburbs and townships to work together towards a common goal.

“We want to ensure every child has the opportunity to learn computer science,” emphasises Africa Teen Geeks founder Lindiwe Matlali.

“Coding should form part of every lesson”

Youth empowerment organisation loveLife has come on board as partners for the Hack4Health hackathon. They will also be training up their groundBREAKERS – go-getting volunteers aged 18 to 25 – around the country to teach coding in remote areas not currently covered by Africa Teen Geeks’ free Saturday computer science classes at Unisa labs.

Leading the hackathon from the Kingsmead side will be Grade 11 learner Chantel Maina, 16, a self-taught beginner Java programmer who is attending the college on an accounting scholarship.

“I believe technology is the future and that everyone should know a little bit about programming and technological advancements, at least,” says this assured young woman, who started teaching herself coding last year. Her interest was sparked after she took information technology as a subject at school, laying the groundwork for extensive online self-study.

She’s been learning basic programming via South African online school SSIR (ssir.co.za), as well as YouTube videos, and has since started writing basic programs.

“I’m really interested in going into statistics and analytics, with an emphasis on creating systems,” says Chantel. “The most impactful job shadowing I did was at Discovery, where I saw how they are developing systems to analyse data, and there’s a lot of programming involved in that.”

Having largely learnt her skills by herself, she is looking forward to the upcoming hackathon, which will give her the opportunity to immerse herself in teamwork.

“I’m really excited about it. I’m interested in collaboration because a lot of the work I’ve done has been by myself. So it will be great to have a lot of minds working together, particularly African students and African girls who aren’t well represented in the industry right now,” she says, with enthusiasm.

Burger says one of the benefits of working in groups to develop an app, which will then be judged by a panel of experts to see which one has the potential to be developed into a prototype, is collaborating to “ideate”.

Ideate, she explains, is new-speak for “taking an idea and creating something”. This, she believes, encapsulates “the true nature of education – we need to give young people exposure to real-world problems and show them how to empathise, ideate and brainstorm solutions”. She adds: “Coding shouldn’t be an extramural – it should form part of every lesson.”

Chantel agrees: “I hope more women – and more African women – become involved in computer programming and IT, as it’s a basic skill that everyone needs to know in the modern world we live in. South Africa, being a developing nation, still needs to develop its technological skills and the number of people in the workplace with those skills.

“I believe that encouraging all students to dabble a little bit in Stem [science, technology, engineering and maths] and computer programming is really important if we want to develop our business sector and economy.”


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