MIT Students Shine at Stanford Hackathon—Sitting Down with Akshatha Kamath and Jithin Sunny
Recently, Akshatha Kamath and Jithin Sunny, third-year students at MIT pursuing their bachelors in Computer Science and Electrical and Electronics Engineering respectively, participated at Stanford University’s Health++ Hackathon and won the first prize in the ‘Global Health’ domain of the event. Their application, ‘Pedi-Pod’, developed during the event, is capable of predicting an accurate dosage of the medication for an infant, by measuring his/her height through a smartphone camera. The MIT Post had the opportunity to sit down and speak with them about their experience.
Can you briefly explain what the app exactly does and how you came up with the idea?
Akshatha Kamath: Initially, what we did was, we went to the KMC Hospitals. We went to places such as Emergency Centers, the Pediatric Departments, the Neurology Departments etc. We were looking for problems faced by these people. We were looking for issues that are small scale and could be solved using a straightforward and elegant solution. Dr Jayaraj Kumar, Emergency Department HOD, said that when infants are brought into the Emergency Department, a Broselow tape is used to measure the baby—and it has scalings based on colour. So if a baby is, let’s say, thirty centimetres, for example, it lies in the red-zone, and you give it a specified dosage of medicine. Then we went to the Pediatric Department, and we asked a nurse what they use, and what I saw in her pocket was this standard tailor’s tape. They hadn’t even heard of a Broselow Tape. We then decided that this needs a solution.
What our app initially intended to do was measure the baby’s height, and give the corresponding dosage—we were trying to emulate the Broselow Tape, to begin with. We then met this researcher at Stanford, who had written a research paper on how Broselow tapes are not accurate because each baby is different. A thirty-centimetre Indian baby is vastly different from a Caucasian baby. So what we decided to do was go with measuring the weight as well. All in all, the app measures the height, it then measures the weight using the contour estimation of the baby, that is, we check how much surface area he has, and there are formulas that relate the calculated surface area and height to the weight. So we get the weight and then predict the dosage.
Was the entire app developed during the Hackathon itself? How was the Hackathon experience?
Jithin Sunny: Yes. We were looking for problems such as this one, because in a Hackathon what matters is not just the solution, but a valid problem that you aim to solve. Even at Stanford, they say, “A well-expressed problem is half solved”. So we were looking for problems. We were given a couple of weeks, and we actually spent it visiting places and meeting different people. Initially while brainstorming, we thought we would make something for blind people, but that was something very regular, and a lot of people have tried it. We finally decided on this pediatric problem, and again, this is something in which a lot of groundwork was done. Luckily we had a good team—one from the Stanford Business School, one was working at the Pediatric Department, and one was working as an MD. We established that the current methods had a lot of problems such as unhygienic infantometers and inaccurate tapes, so this was a promising idea. Then, when we pitched, we got a decent amount of support for the product, because there is a market for that.
Akshatha Kamath: Also, for people who aren’t aware of the Hackathon structure, or who want to know about it—participants are not expected to do much before they reach the event. You’re just supposed to either come there as a blank slate. That is, go there and say, “I don’t know anything, and I’m looking for people I can collaborate with.” But we went there with an idea. We pitched our idea to the group of around four-hundred plus participants, saying, “We are computer and electrical engineers. We have the engineer pool with us. We’re looking for business specialists, pharmacists, and physicians.” Our idea appeared very promising, so we had a lot of people coming up to us saying that they wanted to join us, and we were very clear from the start saying that we wanted a diverse team. In terms of not just the nationality, which we also had, because we were Indians, the business specialist was Danish, the physician was Brazilian, and the pharmacist was Vietnamese. In addition to this, we also had variety in terms of the profession and the background. That reflects well to the judges, seeing that the problem has been thought through in different kinds of aspects. That is why judges wouldn’t bother questioning us too much because they assume that most of the questions must have been discussed amongst ourselves already. Working together as a diverse team, we had a lot of intense brainstorming sessions. It almost felt like we were going to kill each other at some point! But that’s all a part of building the solution. Looking back at it, it was all fun. Maybe not so pleasant that time but now we know it’s all a part of that process.
Jithin Sunny: Our team’s coordination was good. It’s not like we didn’t argue, we did have a lot of heated arguments there, but in the end, we knew precisely what the requirement was. The target was clear, but the only challenge was getting things done overnight. Competing in a Hackathon of twenty-four or thirty-six hours, it is not that easy to develop a complete prototype in that time. We were primarily focusing on pitching, since usually in a Hackathon, the judging is twenty-to-thirty per cent based on the problem statement—how relevant the problem statement is. Next, around thirty per cent is based on your solution, and the other thirty would be for your team. Even before we went, we had decided one thing, that it wasn’t going to be just the two of us doing everything. When a third party comes in, at an international level, it’s always beneficial and better than just two Indians, sitting in a corner trying to do all the work. So the first thing we were looking for was a collaboration, and that too, of a diverse team—one from healthcare, one from business, so that every field was covered. Whatever was required to get the app into the market was included. The team as such was excellent, and the pitching went well. That’s one good thing. Overnight practice, early morning practice, and all the hard work has paid off. We did our homework correctly before we went there.
Did the college sponsor your participation? What was available to you in terms of opportunities?
Akshatha Kamath: Yes, the college did sponsor us. There is something called a TMA Pai Endowment scheme. It is meant to encourage students and professors from MAHE towards going abroad, learning specific skills there and then we have to come back and conduct workshops, which we will be doing in the next semester. Also, our ideas are innovative, so we could work on a research paper or a patent. The college is really promoting people to get diverse experiences.
Jithin Sunny: The college is providing us students with a lot of opportunities. One just has to stay on the right channel. MIT is ready to send people provided you can put in your efforts. They do have funding for that.
Image Credits: Akshatha Kamath and Jithin Sunny