BreakInequality Hackathon: SMS technology and API integration bringing health information to developing nations

Today we're catching up with NatalNet — a team of University of Waterloo students who won Google's Grand Prize at the Devs without Borders-led BreakInequality Hackathon, which encouraged women through technology to build scaling solutions for Plan International Canada's maternal health programming in Bangladesh. (Spoiler alert: they built an app that bridges the communication gap between expectant mothers and community healthcare workers in rural areas of Bangladesh). We invited the NatalNet crew to Google Waterloo to share their hackathon story and fill us in on how the future of their app is shaping up in partnership with Plan International Canada.

University of Waterloo students pictured from left to right, Victoria (a third year student in Systems Design Engineering), Namrata (a second year Biomedical Engineering student), Ashley (a third year Financial Analysis and Risk Management student minoring in Computer Science), Isabelle (a second year Software Engineering student), Mack (a second year Biomedical Engineering student).

Why did you apply to the BreakInequality Hackathon?
Our experience with hackathons is incredibly varied; a few members of our team had never been to a hackathon before, while others had competed in several. Despite our range of experience, we were all motivated to attend BreakInequality for the opportunity to make social impact. The chance to create a solution that could impact the lives of women on a global scale was an opportunity that we simply could not pass up.

How did you decide to build the NatalNet app?
We loved the idea of being able to connect women in rural areas of developing countries to health information and care through SMS technology. We narrowed our scope to pregnancy and newborn care information after learning that Bangladesh has a 50% mobile phone proliferation rate and that 98% of these cell phones are 2G devices - meaning that many soon-to-be mothers have access to a  SMS-enabled cell phone. We built NatalNet as an SMS and web-based application to provide pregnant women with access to information and trained community health care workers. It’s incredibly important to us to support a solution that empowers expectant and new mothers to take charge of their own personal healthcare.

What challenges did you run into with your build?
We were working with a lot of technologies that many of us didn’t have experience with. Integrating SMS into a solution was something we hadn't tackled before. After digging through documentation on Firebase and different APIs that helped us sort out the syntax that would bring our functions to life, we ended up with a solution that was “fully functional” (meaning it did exactly what we envisioned it to do!). Overcoming the different API integration challenges that arose during the project was a huge source of learning and pride for us.

What's the most important lesson you learned during the experience?
We all gained an immense appreciation for sleep after marathoning through 24+ hours of hacking! We also learned that having a shared passion for a specific goal, and working hard towards that goal as a team, leads to amazing innovations. It’s easy to see how this lesson can be applied to the work world. Most positions, especially in the tech industry, require you to work as a member of a focused team. The teamwork skills we developed during BreakInequality are skills we will take with us into our professional careers.

What's next for NatalNet and your partnership Plan International Canada?
We've been working very closely with both the Plan International Canada and the Devs without Borders teams to research, budget and ensure logistics are in place to allow NatalNet to be realistically implemented in Bangladesh. From there, our database is built to scale. We plan to use Google Analytics and Cloud Natural Language API to send personalized, automated responses written by community health care workers to women in need of information, making access for them more efficient and accurate.

What advice do you have for other women pursuing careers in STEM who are drawn to solving complex real-world problems?
Always make time for things you find important. This experience proved to us how important it is to go out and get as much experience as you can. Don’t know how to code? Get out there and learn! Want to solve a complex problem? Get out there and start solving complex problems! It may seem as if you’re going at it alone, but you’ll find so many other brilliant female minds surrounding you — we did! By making a space for yourself in the industry, you're using your superwoman powers to open the door wider for future generations to enter STEM roles, so don't be afraid to get out there and start learning!

With Google's Grand Prize support behind them, these UWaterloo students are working closely with Plan International Canada and Devs Without Borders to bring tangible social impact to women in Bangladesh through their app. Go team NatalNet!