Two UMBC students win award for opioid prevention app

Two UMBC students, Agatha Turyahikayo and Gabrielle Watson, won the “Opioid Epidemic Challenge” Award for creating an opioid prevention app for teens at the second annual America East Hackathon that took place from Nov. 4 – 5.

The America East Hackathon is an annual “24-hour civic marathon” where over 200 students from America East universities compete to work toward developing technological solutions to issues in the areas of cyber-security, education, environmental sustainability and health and wellness at the O’Leary Library at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell.

The award, which fell under the health and wellness category, tasked participants with “developing an innovative opioid prevention platform” to connect teens in need and teen allies with the proper tools and resources for help. Entries were ultimately based on four broad criteria: originality, technical difficulty, polish and usefulness & impact, with technical difficulty and usefulness & impact being weighed the most.

Like several of the other awards presented at the hackathon, the Opioid Epidemic Challenge Award was initiated in large part as a response to the current issues facing society and its youth today. As it currently stands, the number of Americans diagnosed with opioid addiction has continued to skyrocket over the past two decades. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of overdose deaths involving opioids has quadrupled since 1999, with teen overdose rates more than doubling within that same period.

Winners Turyahikayo and Watson said that they knew of the crisis prior to the competition, but like many people, had little idea of its magnitude on the lives of millions of Americans today.

“You hear about it in the news … [but] it’s such a hidden statistic.” Turyahikayo said.

The unsettling impact of the epidemic was also in part what contributed to their decision to try out that challenge over all the other categories.

“We chose it because it had the most impact on us … and [we] didn’t know it was that bad in the U.S.,” Turyahikayo added.  “Teenagers 12-18 are most targeted for opioid abuse … and there are a lot of resources for adults [but] not many for teens.”

From there, Turyahikayo, a computer science major, and Watson, an information systems major, were able to combine their skills in Java and Android Studio to code and develop an app that would help teens struggling with opioid addiction find the resources they need while also educating their loved ones on the signs and symptoms of those at risk.

Juliette Kenny, the Executive Director of the America East Academic Consortium for the America East Conference, said that despite it being “an unfortunate award” to give out, the award  “speaks to how grave an issue this is” by allowing students like Turyahikayo and Watson to use technology to address similar problems facing the world.

“We as a conference are very committed to service and having a positive impact on the world around us,” Kenny said. “Educating young people to make a difference in the world is important [to us] … and a great example of the potential and power of young people.”

Though the hackathon was admittedly challenging for Turyahikayo and Watson, they advised students interested in next year’s Hackathon to participate regardless.

“Try something new. Go for it.You never know what’s going to happen. And have a lot of caffeine. “

Kenny also encouraged them to sign up, even for those who only wished to ‘dabble’ in the computer sciences.

“Give it a try,” she said. “You might meet some great people, and you might just learn a thing or two about the world around you.”