Hackathon improves cancer patients’ lives

It was a cloudy Saturday night, and SFU’s Burnaby campus was quiet — except for the 300 students frantically coding as part of the lumohacks 24-hour hackathon.

Lumohacks was the first big health hackathon in Canada. For those unfamiliar with what a hackathon is, it is an intensive session with a set time limit where groups come together to think up a new idea via computer programming.

All participants, from first-year students to PhD candidates in all disciplines, were invited to create a product or technology to improve treatment and everyday life for cancer patients.

The event was organized by seven current SFU and UBC students: Grace Lam, Benta Cheng, Wendy Zhang, Cindy Zheng, Camille Estrada, Marinah Zhao, and Andy Zeng.

Lam, the event director, came up with the idea for lumohacks when a friend of hers underwent cancer treatment. Lam did small things like meal planning to make her friend’s life easier.

“I thought, what if I got 300 people to think of ideas, to make things? What could we come up with to improve a cancer patient’s life?” she said.

The event kicked off on September 17, with time for planning, workshops, and dinner. Teams then worked through the night, coding and designing, to present their projects to the judges.

Over 300 people registered for the event, and 24 teams submitted a project for judging. The projects included mobile apps for mood tracking and journaling, social media platforms for cancer patients and cancer survivors, and range-of-motion detectors for rural patients without access to a physiotherapist.

Dawn Chandler, a third-year computing science student and first-time “hacker,” signed up for lumohacks to get more hands-on experience in her field.

“In computing science, we take a lot of courses that are theory-heavy. But for most of us, the goal is to work in industry eventually, and it’s very hard to bridge that gap,” she explained. “It’s a real push to be thrown into it and to create a product in 24 hours.”

Chandler’s teammate Bhavya Shah is a first-year applied science student. He came to lumohacks to learn new skills and work with his friends. Their team tried to design a forum for cancer patients with improved user experience.

Lam said that new ideas like these are crucial for improving the more traditional medical industry. She stressed the need for interdisciplinary solutions to modern health issues.

Marinah Zhao, the event’s logistics coordinator and an engineering student, said, “I personally believe technology can really change the world. And other people on our team, they study health sciences, and they really believe health sciences will change the health of people.”

The collaborative event featured industry professionals in medicine, technology, and entrepreneurship to guide participants and offer advice.

On Sunday evening, after spending just 24 hours to plan, create, and perfect their designs, the winning teams were announced.

Nilou Asemani, Winnie Chan, Bruce Lui, Elvis Eshikena, and Terris Onyema won first place with their product “Flourish”: an interactive game to help children cope with the psychological effects of cancer.

The members of the winning team were all first-time hackers and current SFU and UBC students, with one recent SFU alum. They decided to attend lumohacks for the learning experience, with no real expectation of placing in — let alone winning — the competition.

Onyema had recently finished a co-op in cancer research and wanted to continue working in that field. He told Asemani about the hackathon and the two signed up, not meeting the rest of their teammates until lumohacks started.

“This is great for SFU students,” said Onyema. “Not even just computing science students, but anyone who wants to solve a problem and doesn’t know how.”

First prize included tickets, booth space, and the chance to present at the sociaLIGHT entrepreneurship conference this November.  

The organizing team was exhausted, but happy, come the end of the weekend. They have plans for future tech events and will continue working to encourage innovative solutions to cancer patients’ problems.