I am in no way a programmer, but the lure of being around people who could create innovative products that could change how we interact with the world lured me into the start up world. And this past weekend, I participated in my first Codeathon. My coworker, Ariel, asked if anyone was interested in joining her and a friend, and all girls on our tech team joined in (including our intern!). The topic being Women's Health was intriguing. What can we make in three days that would help women?
We batted around some ideas the day before prior to getting the full brief and a lot of us were interested in the idea of making WIC more efficient. WIC is a federal assistance program for healthcare and nutrition of low-income pregnant women, breastfeeding women, and infants and children under the age of five. While it's a highly effective program, there are definite draw backs. Governmental programs for low-income people are highly disruptive to their lives. It takes time to go to the office to signup and check in regularly. And on supplemental assistance programs like WIC, it's unclear as to what can be bought once your in the store. What catalyzed our idea was this blog post about a family's first experience using their WIC benefits. About a third of what they were thinking of purchasing wasn't available on WIC and they weren't entirely clear as to why since the feedback on the register just says something like "not approved/not a WIC item."
On Friday, when we got to the Ace Hotel and learned that we would specifically be addressing women's nutrition, our WIC idea seemed to be a really valid topic and technology could make the experience smoother. We decided to take what we learned about WIC and create a database of WIC-approved items that users could scan the UPC and find out if that item would be accepted. We were worried that if we made a smart phone app that we would miss a large portion of the population that is on or would qualify for WIC. We also learned that while 90% of Americans had cell phones, only about 58% had a smart phone. (source) So instead of creating a really swishy app, we created a text based app, Plum, that a woman could take a photo of the UPC and send it to the system and the system would respond if it was WIC approved. To support it, there would be a URL included in the message so if she did have access to internet, nutritional facts would be available. We also created Plum to allow the user to ask for something more generic, like "juice" or "milk" and the system would respond with a few available items that are available with WIC along with a URL of a full listing.
In three days, we made Plum functional (duct-taped and glued) and along the way realized that it was very scalable. It could incorporate SNAP (Food Stamps) information as well as allow for user preferences such as gluten-free or allergies or even food to reduce blood pressure. If people were to use it, it would hopefully reduce stigma associated with government aid and increase participation for those who do need it.
I thought our idea was super solid with great tech, but having never been to a Codeathon before, I was ready to be impressed by the other teams. Some presentations were funny, some didn't do their research, some were flashy.
During the demo time after the presentations were over, the judges and other members of the audience were super positive about our product. Specifically, Sarah Holoubek, CEO of Luminary Labs and Lexie Komisar, Strategic Advisor, Clinton Health Matters Initiative. They both encouraged us to contact them even if we didn't win the Codeathon to discuss possibilities of our product.