Lessons Learned: A Story of Collaboration

Aditya Brahmabhatt is the co-founder of a social innovation startup named Ycenter and an alumni of the NYU School of Engineering. He has been involved in many projects with the Design Tinkering Club & the Greenhouse, such as the Bindi Project and SMSante, Aditya believes students can make a big impact in the world of social innovation.

Two weeks ago, our team started, in partnership with OpenIDEO, an Indiegogo campaign for SMSanté, a text-based tool that aims to provide access to information for healthcare workers and individuals in communities affected by Ebola (and further down the road, any epidemic).


How did we get here?

Back in November the Greenhouse co-sponsored a hackathon, #HackEbola@NYU, with Design Tinkering. The goal of the hackthon was to invite the NYU and greater NYC community to participate in the USAID sponsored OpenIdeo challenge on Ebola. Because a thorough understanding of the problem, context, and implementation support is crucial for success at hackathons, SMSanté partnered with an NGO working in Guinea, ‘There is No Limit Foundation’. In fact, their co-founder Aissata Camara has become an integral part of our team.


Boy meets girl

Our team started with two NYU students, Arnav Sood (a math major) and Pamela Wu (a Ph.D student in Biomedicine), who “bumped into” each other at the hackathon. They walked in with nothing, and by the end of the two day competition had successfully built an online textmessage based Ebola database in time for their live demo. Arnav and Pamela were then selected by the Greenhouse team to receive a prototyping grant to move their idea forward.


And a team grows in NY… and hopefully soon in Guinea

After the Hackathon, we pulled our team together -- drawing in Anne-Laure Fayard, faculty Advisor for the NYU Greenhouse Innovation Space, Aditya Brahmabhatt, and Bertha Jimenez, an alum and a Ph.D. student at NYU who brought a business perspective on board. Currently we are moving towards deployment, with Aissata Camara’s help, and raising money on Indieigogo so that the system remains free. Our plan is to start the pilot in Guinea with the help of the 'There is No Limit Foundation'.


What is the problem we are trying to solve: Ebola data is everywhere except Africa. That's a problem. The people who know the least about Ebola are precisely the people who are the most vulnerable. We built SMSanté to fix that problem. With SMSanté anyone, anywhere in the world, can use text to access current data about Ebola. Here is how it works: A user sends a message with the name of the city she wants information about and she receives a text telling her if the city she typed in has Ebola cases. She can also get information about where there are hospital beds available, which is a major hurdle for people on the ground.

The beauty of our system is that it is flexible and easily adaptable. Even after the Ebola outbreak passes, this infrastructure can be used to manage future epidemics.


So what are the next steps?

Deployment! We are beginning with pilots in the capital city of Guinea, Conakry. In an effort to keep the service free of cost for locals, and to ensure that we don’t draw away any resources from the ongoing Ebola effort, we are raising money on Indiegogo to make this project happen. If you think this is an awesome example of international collaboration and social innovation, you can find us on Indiegogo and DONATE!


Lessons Learned

We learned that no problem is 'too big' to solve: with the right help, a few students at NYU are able to fight Ebola and help save lives. We learned the power of human networks: through various connections and linkages we now have an implementation partner in Guinea; this partner is key to allowing us to test our idea and build trust with various local organizations. We learned the importance of context and human-centered design: the idea emerged from real users' needs and a deep understanding of the problem.

Last but not least, we learned the value of collaboration. A hackathon is a collaborative problem solving process, where people from different backgrounds bring varied perspectives to solve problems. This is where our idea was born; and it grew through constant collaborative efforts. The unbounded enthusiasm of students coupled with partnerships on the ground that can help implement ideas creates a perfect recipe for creative collaboration that can solve any problem, big or small!


The SMSante team - Arnav, Pam, Anne-laure, Bertha & Aditya