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App could improve reproductive health in developing countries

Red Tracker developed by Guelph woman at recent hackathon

Guelph’s Erin MacIndoe Sproule and her team won an award at the recent Break Inequality Hackathon competition at the Google headquarters in Kitchener. The aim of the event, organized by Developers without Borders, was to find innovative ways to use digital/mobile technology to address social or health problems in the developing world.  

The MacIndoe Sproule team won the Innovation Award at the event, and a $500 prize, for their Red Tracker, a cell phone app that could help women in a developing country better understand their fertility.

The simple app allows women to keep track of their menstrual cycle and ovulation, and sent that information to a health care provider, so that community health workers can better serve communities, specifically in Bangladesh.  

“Basically a hackathon,” said MacIndoe Sproule, a local film-maker, “is a bunch of people come together and over the course of a weekend they are coding and creating apps with a shared goal.”

She said often established companies or start-ups will sponsor the events, seeing them as a way to create new tech that could help their business. Participants work creatively together to find solutions to problems using technology.

Communications technologies can be utilized to improve economic, social and health challenges in developing countries, MacIndoe Sproule said.

She said the Break Inequality Hackathon was focused on women’s issues in Bangladesh, but also on breaking down inequality in the tech sector in Canada, which is male dominated. Sixty per cent of the events participants were female.

“The challenge that we were given was to find solutions to maternal and newborn deaths in Bangladesh, with the information that most women will have access to a cell phone in their household, but the cell phone is usually controlled by the man of the house,” she explained.  

MacIndoe Sproule said her group took a step back to look at the root of the problem. A lot of women in Bangladesh are trying to get pregnant, but are not following family planning methods common in Canada, where many women use apps to track menstrual cycles.

“Our technology that we created was basically a text message service where a woman will send a text and it will be inputted to a central web portal which community health workers will have access to,” she said. “All that they do is send a text when they’ve started their period. When they are supposed to start their next period, there will be a follow up text from the web portal asking if the period has started again.”

If the period hasn’t started on schedule, a community health worker will pay a visit to administer a pregnancy test and provide appropriate care.  

“I think this process of doing hackathons is a great way to get a group of people to think creatively about a problem in a controlled environment, over a short period of time,” she added. “Sometimes you just need to think creatively about solutions. This was a great opportunity to do that.”