Hack­ing hos­pi­tals for hearty health

Turn­ing ideas into so­lu­tions. That is what a group of com­puter coders will be do­ing to help gov­ern­ment hos­pi­tals. Christina Kennedy gets the story from a 16-yearold, self-taught com­puter pro­gram­mer

CityPress - - News -

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.

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.”

PHOTO: EU­GENE GOD­DARD

LEAD­ING IN­NO­VA­TION Teenager Chantel Maina is a self-taught geek who is lead­ing from the front in get­ting more African women into the com­puter-cod­ing space

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