Disclaimer: This article was originally posted on the 26th of March 2020 via LinkedIn.
TL;DR Last weekend I took part in the #WirVsVirus hackathon that was organized by seven German technology incubators and accelerators and backed by the German federal government. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, medical institutions struggle to have the required amounts of medical equipment in stock to effectively facilitate their patients needs. Together with two friends and two more participants, we built a first prototype of healthshare.io, a platform connecting medical institutions that are in need for medical equipment and companies of all sizes that are willing to donate their supply, only one of the 1500 projects submitted by participants of the hackathon.
On the 18th of March 2020, a good friend of mine sent me a link to the website of the #WirVsVirus hackathon, a hackathon organized by seven German technology incubators and accelerators and backed by the German federal government with the goal to find creative solutions to pressuring challenges amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
Immediately, we started brainstorming challenges and possible solutions. One day later, a mutual friend of ours joined the brainstorming session and, within 24 hours, we gathered a total of 17 ideas from which we derived three challenges and our respective solutions that we handed in on the hackathon website:
- SME funding: a one-stop shop mobile app for micro businesses and freelancers to get informed on available means of financial support and receive financial aid by the government and other sources in an unbureaucratic and straightforward fashion
- Retail stock chatbot: a chatbot informing administrators of peer-to-peer support groups what goods were still available in which shops based on intelligence aggregated by members of other support groups
- Hospital supply redistribution: a web-based platform connecting medical institutions that are short on medical equipment and companies that are willing to donate their supply
Further preparing for the hackathon, we evaluated which of our three challenges and solutions would be the best idea to work on for the next two days. For that, each of us distributed 100 points to each of the following four categories:
Based on our evaluation, we agreed that, if chosen as a valid challenge, we would work on hospital supply redistribution.
Considering that the hackathon had not even started, I was already amazed by how, using the right tools, fast and seamlessly we were able to collaborate and work on our ideas even though we were at no point in time in the same room and had only started brainstorming ideas two days earlier. While WhatsApp was used for day-to-day communication, we brainstormed our ideas using Google Docs and shared our three submissions and voting of the most suitable idea via OneDrive, which was also our preferred tool for sharing non-technical material throughout the hackathon. Setting up GitHub as a repository for our code was also done as well as access shared within a matter of minutes.
On the afternoon of the 20th of March 2020, the hackathon started. First of all, access to Slack and Airtable was made available to all of the 43.000 individuals that applied for participation. While I had already worked with Slack before, Airtable was an interesting new tool to me used to consolidate all of the 809 challenge submissions into tracks using a mixture of a spreadsheet and a database. We were happy to see that our challenge made the list (line 191, at the time of submission we thought a mobile app would make sense), so we quickly chose “Resource allocation: How can medical supplies be reasonably distributed?” as our challenge, and entered the wirvsvirus Slack.
After joining, I was impressed by the extensive channel structure the organizers put together. Each challenge had a multitude of equivalent Slack channels, already accompanied by a number of challenge owners and mentors (industry experts) that welcomed people joining and introduced them to the challenge. The main challenge channels were further accompanied by channels for announcements, finding teams, support and of course memes.
As we had already prepared our contribution, we shared our story in the channel and after answering a few questions by the challenge owners and mentors, were good to go. In the process, we were lucky to connect with two more participants that joined our team.
In hindsight, it was good that we were so fast, because while more and more of the in total 27.000 participants, 1.900 challenge godparents and 2.900 mentors wanted to join the Slack and its channels, Slack at some point crashed and it literally took the involvement of the CEO of Slack to get it going again. Luckily, our team agreed on using Skype for Business / Microsoft Teams and Discord for voice, video and screen sharing, so we did not notice too much of the struggle others had to initially endure.
Following the assembly and launch of our team and watching the welcome live stream of the hackathon on YouTube, we started the development of our contribution by introducing all the team members to each other, discussing our idea, scoping our solution and, after setting up a Trello board, collecting stories and tasks we would work on during the next two days. For scoping and mocking our website, we used PowerPoint.
We then agreed on our technology stack. As we wanted to build a modern web-based application, we chose Flask, a web server based on Python for our back end and Bootstrap, a popular front end component library for, you guessed it, our front end. In addition to that, we connected our web server to a MySQL database hosted on Microsoft Azure. As part of our solution would be to allow companies to understand specifically the regional demand for medical supplies, we decided to integrate the Google Maps Platform hosted on the Google Cloud Platform into our front end.
The following two days we tirelessly hacked together our product. That included setting up the database, filling it with test location data, designing and implementing the front end and writing the interface to the Google Maps Platform and the database in both the front end and the back end. Additionally, we conducted an analysis of the current market situation, prepared a presentation of our product and compiled all the pieces into one concise two-minute pitch, all in parallel to monitoring official announcements and taking part in update calls. Überpünktlich (over-punctually), as the Germans say, after just two days of development, on Sunday at 6pm we submitted the documentation and video pitch and at 12pm the codebase of our first prototype of healthshare.io on Devpost, a platform for managing hackathons and their submissions. Our final submission on Devpost in German including the link to our pitch and our repository can be found here.
The inspiration for our idea came from talking to friends working in the medical sector that would deplore the dramatically decreasing supply of medical equipment, e.g. disinfectant, gloves and masks, which more and more resulted in them not being able to fulfill the necessary hygiene standards to effectively treat their patients. On top of increased stress for medical professionals as well as risking their personal health and legal consequences, the lack of medical equipment already leads to turning patients being turned down, not only in hospitals and clinics, but also small local practices.
As a response, many companies are currently changing their manufacturing processes to producing the highly demanded medical equipment. However, adapting products and processes takes time. Immediate support from other countries is not to be expected as they too are struggling with supply shortages in their respective medical sectors.
Therefore, in order to quickly close the short-term supply deficit as much as possible, at least until the manufacturing companies have fully ramped up their production, we thought of enabling private enterprises to share their hygienic equipment with medical facilities. They often use the same products utilized in the medical sector in their respective industry and as offices and production plants are currently closed down do not have an immediate need for them. Large enterprises like Daimler and VW are already doing so. Yet in addition to large corporations, we also wanted to offer small local businesses, e.g. the food service industry, hairdressers, tattoo studios, painters, etc. a platform to effectively support their local communities and corresponding medical institutions. Healthshare.io was born.
Via our web app, companies of all sizes gain insight in the current local market demand, understand who in the region is in need of equipment by using our demand map and can effectively donate their stock of disinfectant, gloves and masks to medical institutions. Gamification elements, e.g. the leader board, incentivize companies for participating.*
For that, healthshare.io allows companies to sign up on our website, choose a medical institution they can and want to support, choose how much equipment they want to donate and then track their donation from its configuration, shipment to its reception. Depending on the distance, shipment could be done by the company itself or a suitable carrier company.
In addition, we imagine that the federal government could be a stakeholder on the platform and reimburse donors for donations. Also, medical institutions could use our platform to trade goods among each other. Federal medical institutions could also make use of our platform by gaining a deep understanding of the current supply and demand of medical equipment in local, regional and national markets and where support is needed the most, especially during a crisis like the one we are facing right now. Part of that could also be the creation of forecasting models that give an insight into how supply and demand of medical equipment might develop in the future.
Healthshare.io currently includes a strong use case, initial understanding of the market and a first prototype of the product. The prototype includes an executable front and back end and the heart of our application, the demand map, that displays location and supply data based on a functioning database. We have also built functioning web pages for signup and login. Nevertheless, due to the limited time we had, parts of the prototype had to be hard-coded and the code definitely needs cleaning up (way too much in-line CSS 😉). Profile settings and delivery overviews were planned, yet never implemented.
In summary, this hackathon was a great experience. Amidst the current coronavirus pandemic, thousands of people took part and submitted a total of 1.500 solutions for pressuring social, economical and medical challenges, the German government presented itself as a digital trendsetter for a change and it was impressive to see how the organizers managed to keep the whole event together throughout the weekend. Furthermore, I was amazed by how seamless my team members and I were able to collaborate, which was made possible by sophisticated online tools available to everyone (for free, mind you) connected to the free internet. Nevertheless, I am especially proud of what we built. Within a couple of days we went from an idea to a first prototype on top of a well-researched use case even though none of us were necessarily proficient in web development or knowledgeable about the healthcare industry. I am sure we all learned a lot and enjoyed the opportunity to take our web development skills to the test. Healthshare.io could be a great way for companies and medical institutions of all sizes to instantaneously come together and share what they can with their local community. I really hope that a few submissions from this hackathon get further matured, get deployed into a production environment and support as many individuals and organizations as possible in their fight against this pandemic. For that, the German federal government has already announced to support selected submissions to achieve exactly that. I am looking forward to updates!
P.S. Closing, I would also like to thank my 100 colleagues at Accenture in Germany, Switzerland and Austria that took part in the hackathon and, being a blockchain guy, point out an innovative decentralized voucher system for paying goods and services that was developed by a team around the German Blockchain Associaton Bundesblock.
* The companies behind the logos were and are not involved in the development of this prototype.