There’s an app for that! Incubation Hub uses technology to solve public health issues

| Academic & Student Affairs, Featured News, Monday Letter, Our People, Public Health Practice, Students

What do USF College of Public Health (COPH) students feel they need to help them make more of an impact in public health? It’s a question that was addressed to members of the COPH’s Incubation Hub, a group of students, staff and faculty working together to find solutions to today’s public health problems.

Director of the Incubation Hub, Dr. Anthony Masys, associate professor and director of global disaster management, humanitarian assistance and homeland security, got together with codirector Deidre Orriola, MPH, and others in the group at the beginning of the semester to brainstorm ideas about what skills they thought needed to be explored.

“Almost everyone said technology was a weakness that they wanted to improve upon over the course of the next five weeks,” said Orriola, a COPH alumna and an adjunct faculty member.

Technology has certainly become important in every field of work, including public health, so with that in mind, students and faculty in the Incubation Hub made it a goal to learn how to develop their own web-based applications during the five-week span. To help with that process, Orriola brought in Charles Burgess, a friend and local software engineer. Burgess volunteered to teach everyone involved how to go about creating apps.

“We literally started from scratch,” said Orriola. “We began with the very basics of coding and worked our way though more complicated processes throughout the five-week course.”

Led by software engineer Charles Burgess (front), participants in this fall’s Incubation Hub created their own apps focused on solving public health issues in the local area. (Photo courtesy of Deidre Orriola)

While it was certainly a challenge for students and teacher alike, Burgess saw firsthand how quickly they learned and how valuable his insight was.

“In a total of just eight lecture hours and two lab hours per group, the students emerged with a solid understanding of how software is conceptualized, planned, built and delivered in a modern context,” said Burgess.

Eventually, participants broke into three groups and were each tasked with creating their own apps. The ideas varied, but all addressed public health dilemmas in the local Tampa Bay area.

App #1: Locating Cooling Centers and Homeless Shelters

Purpose: to help the homeless find shelter and resources and to locate cooling centers for the elderly and others in need. These sort of shelters can help people avoid sunburn, dehydration and heat stroke.

Problem addressed: It’s not easy to locate homeless shelters or cooling centers accurately on the internet, and it’s also difficult to see what services or preferences are offered. For instance, are the shelters gender specific? Do they allow children, people with special needs and/or pets? Is food available?

App # 2: Latched 24/7

Purpose: to connect breastfeeding moms to lactation experts/physicians

Problem addressed: It’s recommended that babies be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of life and continue to be nursed for the first year (along with complimentary foods), but these guidelines are often difficult to adhere to because of lack of support and resources and societal expectations. The app connects parents via phone or video call to credentialed lactation professionals who can counsel them on any breastfeeding-related issues, day or night.

App # 3: Pet Emergency Services

Purpose: to provide location and contact information for local emergency veterinarians—similar to calling 911, but for animals. The app can be used for dogs or cats, but also stray or injured animals.

Problem addressed: The app allows users to access emergency care for animals in need. It works by displaying the nearest animal hospitals and contact information based on their listed office hours.

The app-building process gave students a greater appreciation of the usefulness that technology can play in helping to solve the many public health issues faced by our community. It also demonstrated how the COPH and community can work together to solve problems of mutual concern.

“By bringing tech skills to the students, we open opportunities for creativity and collaboration between different disciplines,” said Masys.

Students learned how this type of collaboration and innovation can assist them as they move forward in their public health careers.

“I loved how the Incubation Hub gave COPH students, faculty and staff a common space to discuss and create innovative ways to address public health issues,” said Patricia Useche Santana, a second-year MPH student with a concentration in global disaster management, humanitarian relief and homeland security.

Brian Richardson, a second-year MPH student with a concentration in epidemiology, said much of the decisions on what apps to develop revolved around increasing access to services and care that are vital to our local population’s well-being.

“It’s no secret that modern web and mobile apps can aid us in achieving a healthy life for everyone,” said Richardson. “Access to care is of paramount importance and having the ability to quickly acquire health information and connect to [health care providers] is crucial, so that’s exactly what our app set out to accomplish.”

All involved saw the benefits provided by technology when working to solve some of the most complex public health issues within communities.

“I looked forward to the workshop at the beginning of each week,” said Arshiya Patel, a second-year MPH student with a concentration in epidemiology. “Charles [Burgess] did a phenomenal job of keeping us engaged, and I’d have never thought app-building would be so fun, exciting and doable!”

Story by Cody Brown, USF College of Public Health