What happens when you bring together 30 developers, designers, health care professionals and students; 3 APIs; practical workshops; savvy mentors; a sprawling workspace and plenty of snacks? ProPublica sought to find out this past weekend at the Vital Signs Hackathon (our very first)!

The event took place at 1871, a digital startup working space in Chicago, in partnership with business review site Yelp and MATTER, a health care startup incubator. We welcomed a passionate group of developers, health care workers, college students and budding tech entrepreneurs to tackle one challenge: How can we help patients access health care from high-quality, affordable providers?

1871/Gregory Rothstein

Over two days, participants split up into teams to think about what consumers care about when selecting a provider and prototype the kind of tools they need. We provided access to ProPublica’s Vital Signs API, the Yelp Fusion API and BetterDoctor API, all of which harness different data about U.S. health care providers. Participants also had assistance from speakers and mentors from ProPublica, MATTER, Yelp, BetterDoctor and Healthbox, who helped them refine their ideas and integrate various technologies and data sets.

1871/Gregory Rothstein

In the end, eight teams pitched innovative projects that made it hard for our four judges — Pauliina Alanen, platform manager at BetterDoctor; Chuck Feerick, innovation consulting manager at Healthbox; Quy Le, partnerships product manager at Yelp; and Celeste LeCompte, director of business development at ProPublica — to select just a few winners.

1871/Gregory Rothstein
Celeste LeCompte/ProPublica

Grand Prize Winner: Mental Health SMS

This tool provides location-based mental health care information via text message and targets lower-income communities in seek of such help. Centered around the Chicago public bus system, users can send a bus stop ID number via text message. MentalHealthSMS used the stop as a proxy for their location and, using data from the Vital Signs and BetterDoctor APIs, sent back a text message with the contact information and location of mental health professionals within a one-mile radius who accept Medicaid and Medicare.

For their thoughtful approach to reaching a specific audience in an accessible way, the winning team of Michael Ericksen, Charudut Shetty and Kayne Neigherbauer won $1,000 and three-month memberships to MATTER.

Celeste LeCompte/ProPublica

Best Use of the Yelp Fusion API: Carebot

Developed by Northwestern University juniors Eunice Lee and Matthew Zhang, Carebot helps college students find mental health specialists near them using the familiar technology of Facebook Messenger. The $1,000 prize-winning prototype was based around issues that college students struggle with when seeking mental health care, such as knowing what questions to ask, how to find providers available under their health plan coverage, and wanting certainty that parents won’t be notified if students are on a parent’s insurance plan.

In what was actually one of their first forays into hackathons, Lee and Zhang also won t-shirts in a third surprise category: best use of the BetterDoctor API. Judges noted their inventive use of doctor bios from BetterDoctor to make their Facebook Messenger bot seem more human.

Other projects included:

  • DocBot, a bot that users can chat with to easily find the right doctor for their needs

  • FairHealth, a tablet that gives recommendations to people at health fairs for free screening

  • Nyota Health, aka “Fitbit for Providers,” which allows health care providers to see how they’re ranked among various metrics

Special thanks to our sponsors, API partners and mentors who joined the Vital Signs Hackathon to inspire participants — both professional and amateur — to push for interesting solutions that give patients better access to care. To learn more about ProPublica’s API, check out “Introducing the Vital Signs API.”