27 March 2017

Hacking for youth health

The atmosphere crackles with excitement as more than 140 young people cram into one room, ready to spend the next two days designing websites and mobile apps. They are taking part in Hacking for Youth Health, a hackathon set up and run by UNICEF with the help of Canada’s University of Waterloo.

19 teams participate in Hackathon
© UNICEF Mongolia/2017/Mungunkhishig B.
These young creative minds have come together from different parts of Mongolia with one goal: to find innovative technological solutions to address mental health problems and prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV among adolescents and young people.

“The biggest problem for us is lack of information”, says one of the participants, and others agree. “There’s not enough information on these subjects for us. Even if the information’s there, it’s usually very boring.”

Nineteen teams have 48 hours to create, develop, and then pitch their idea to the panel of experts. Three winning teams will receive cash prizes and the chance to have their ideas developed and put on the market by potential investors.

Events like hackathon are very important for networking and making friends”, says Mergen, a 12th grader from school No. 11. He is a member of team Serious and is, in his own words, a tech geek who is into designing software. “My team and I have competed in several tech events before”, he says. “But this one is quite big!”

Members of "Serious" team
© UNICEF Mongolia/2017/Ariunzaya D.
Most of the ideas are for mobile apps. One app, ‘I am home’, encourages family members to spend more quality time together. Another, ‘Phoenix’, gives parents tips on how to communicate with their children, information on how teenagers like to spend their time, and suggestions for fun things they can do together as a family.

Many ideas were born out of participants’ own experiences, with mentors and organizers just there to help. One app that can send a distress signal was prompted by a teenager’s experience of being chased by a drunk down a dark alley.

Though these concerns may seem small, they can have a profound effect on adolescents at a time when they are experiencing rapid physical, emotional and cognitive changes, as well as moving into different roles at home and in their communities, and transitioning from school to work. These changes present risks and opportunities that have far-reaching consequences, not only for adolescents themselves but also for generations to come.

Adolescent health – a growing concern

Mongolia is a young country where more than 45 per cent of the population is under the age of 24, 15 per cent of whom are adolescents. But according to a recent study, the Adolescent Situation Analysis 2016, teenagers’ mental and sexual health issues are not being sufficiently addressed.

The data is alarming. In the last year, more than 21 per cent of young people between the ages of 13 and 15 have seriously considered killing themselves and 9 per cent have actually attempted suicide at least once. And worryingly, more than 44 per cent of STI cases in 2014 in Mongolia were young people between the ages of 15 and 24. 

There are several possible reasons for this. Mongolia is a sparsely populated country, where two-thirds of the population live in a small number of towns and the rest are nomadic, moving from one place to another as the seasons change. Challenging geographic conditions along with high unit costs make it difficult to deliver services to marginalized and vulnerable adolescents. To compound the problem, mental, sexual and reproductive health issues are plagued by stigma and misconception, particularly for young people.

The Minister of Health Mrs Tsogtsetseg Ayush commits to address adolescent health issues
© UNICEF Mongolia/2017/Mungunkhishig B.
Though alcoholism, poverty, violence within the family and bullying at school continue to cause mental health problems, sources indicate that online bullying, grooming, sexual abuse,  gaming-related mental disorders and drug abuse are now on the rise among adolescents.

Despite the seriousness of the situation, adolescent mental health services are under-funded by the Government, with few services and trained staff and insufficient monitoring. In addition, young people and their parents know very little about where to get support when they need it.

Taking the first steps

With UNICEF’s help, the Government of Mongolia is now working to provide adolescent-friendly mental health services, drawing support from across government departments. UNICEF has also launched a new project, ‘Youth Innovation Challenge for Adolescents’ Health in Mongolia’, in collaboration with the private sector. Designed to offer new avenues to engage and empower young people as the drivers of social change, it aims to nurture local innovation and talent, raise awareness of key social issues, and generate new ideas and approaches to specific problems, as well as bringing together stakeholders and resources to tackle key challenges for children.

An early part of the project was the Youth Forum, where more than 50 adolescents and young people from both the city and the countryside got together to identify the challenges they face and come up with some solutions. Animated discussions about mental and sexual health, problems at home and school, with peers and in the cyber environment quickly revealed that they all face similar concerns, such as bullying, peer pressure, parents’ neglect, lack of confidence, and physical violence. Even facilitators were taken aback at the long and daunting list of issues they came up with, as well as at how little parents, caregivers and teachers know about them.

A dearth of information, little support from parents and teachers, bullying and discrimination at school, and a lack of psychological counselling were among the most frequently mentioned challenges.  “It’s not easy to get information from parents. Either they don’t know themselves, or they don’t have time for us. So we turn to our friends. We wish our parents could be just like our friends”, said one participant, a view echoed by many others.

Hacking for solutions

Against this background, the Hacking for Youth Health hackathon was designed to encourage adolescents and young people to come up with their own innovative technological solutions. It has drawn bigger crowds than any other event of its kind. Though these eager and creative young people are here to compete against each other, most participants appreciate that their concerns are being addressed, and particularly that young people themselves are part of the solution. 

Teams pitch ideas in 2 minutes
© UNICEF Mongolia/2017/Mungunkhishig B.
After a nail-biting pitching session, a team that includes professional psychologists from the National Psychology Center is awarded first place. Their idea is to reach teenagers using a chatbot, a computer program that mimics human conversation. The app asks basic questions prepared by a psychologist, the team analyzes the responses and then sends back relevant chatbots to help children deal with whatever issues they might have. For example, if a teenager responds that he or she feels lonely or does not have friends, they will receive a chatbot encouraging them to go out, make friends and have fun.

Members of winning National Psychology Center team
© UNICEF Mongolia/2017/Mungunkhishig B.
“We’re just so overwhelmed with the win”, says Batjargal Battsengel, software engineer and the team leader. “The fact that we’re professionals helped. We’ll develop the app further and do our best to put it on the market for everyone to use.” 

Second place goes to Baymax. This app is a digital teenage ‘friend’ who has same tastes, interests and problems as the user. It asks for advice, and the user guides their digital friend through various problems, enabling teenagers to learn through a virtual character.

An app called Berry comes third. It enables a child who feels in danger to send an alert for help within five seconds by just tapping three times on his or her phone. The pre-written text message gives the child’s exact location. It works offline and can be activated by a button on the user’s earphones while listening to music.

Though some are naturally disappointed not to have won, participants leave with high expectations that the winning ideas will soon be available. “We all came here to find solutions, and it’s fair that the best idea wins. I hope the apps will user-friendly and help us with our challenges”, says Mergen.

UNICEF recognizes adolescence as a priority area and will continue to help the Government of Mongolia address key adolescent health issues, for example through encouraging more evidence-based policymaking and financing, improving health services, and supporting data capture and evidence generation.

“Today is not about winning or losing”, says UNICEF Mongolia Representative Roberto Benes in his closing remarks at the hackathon. “It is about you. It is about using your creativity and knowledge for the good of the society. So keep on pushing. Because it is young people like you who make this country great.”

Written by Ariunzaya Davaa, Communication Specialist, UNICEF Mongolia

Watch video here.

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