Why we will #HackforHealth in Laos

Bringing together health experts, community leaders and technologists to develop sustainable solutions that will prevent the outbreak and spread of deadly diseases.

4 min readJun 12, 2014


Why are we hacking for health?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “an estimated 500,000 people with severe dengue fever require hospitalization each year, a large proportion of whom are children. About 2.5% of those affected die”. WHO also adds that “In Asia, Singapore has reported an increase in cases after a lapse of several years and outbreaks have also been reported in Laos.”

To address this critical issue of dengue fever and other serious disease outbreaks in the Southeast Asia region and beyond, the Skoll Global Threats Fund is sponsoring a unique gathering of technical and health experts to prototype new, community driven solutions to track, respond and prevent the spread of dangerous diseases. “Our priority for EpiHack Laos is to make sure we have a two-way communication connection to every person in the country in a wide scale implementation of participatory surveillance,” said Mark Smolinski, Director at Skoll Global Threats Fund and a lead facilitator at the event.

The Laos EpiHack, being facilitated by Skoll Global Threats, Ministry of Health Laos, Mekong Basin Disease Surveillance Network, Opendream and InSTEDD is the third of its kind. The first hack for health event was held in 2013 at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, Cambodia and the second later that year in Chang Mai, Thailand. At the EpiHacks, teams were ignited to design and create new systems that will address technical needs in their health related work, often times in low bandwidth, and low resource settings. For example, four participants at the Epihack Chang Mai used a foundational InSTEDD technology called Verboice to generate their own unique voice-based participatory surveillance systems to monitor a diverse set of health related issues. The health related issues ranged from the monitoring of livestock health in Kenya & Tanzania by Masai pastoralists, to early disease outbreak detection in South Sudan via voice and SMS, to supporting anti-child trafficking efforts with a community volunteer and reporting hotline in Cambodia.

Innovation at the cross section of diverse backgrounds

At the core of the EpiHack event is a focus on creating new critical connections and knowledge transfers between the diverse international participants. As disease outbreaks do not recognize political affiliations or geographic borders, the partnerships to prepare for and prevent them must also transcend borders and backgrounds. At the end of the hacking event the project owners have not only solutions but the skills and connections needed to take their systems back to their home communities and develop implementation and sustainability plans. Mark Smolinski of Skoll Global Threats explained “the tools that come out of our event should allow the Minister of Health, Laos to send alerts and control and measure recommendations to the public during any public health emergency.” The technologists also come away with a better understanding of how their tools can have impact, “I can learn how technology evolves, especially how I can apply it to the real situation”, stated Kakada Chheang, a senior developer and EpiHack participant from the InSTEDD iLab Southeast Asia.

InSTEDD brings to the EpiHack its wealth of tech talent, including technical developers from its iLab Southeast Asia, Nicolas Di Tada, senior director of platform engineering, and InSTEDD iLab Southeast Asia’s Regional Lead Channe Suy who has led at the past Epihacks. The InSTEDD group will join with the other event organizers to work with a unique cross section of health experts, policy makers and disease responders from around the world. Together, with diverse knowledge and experience, they will be able to develop unique new solutions to the most pressing challenges in monitoring and tracking disease outbreaks.

What is the long term impact?

After EpiHack Laos, participants will be walking away with the knowledge and tools needed to build and deploy scalable and sustainable digital disease surveillance tools utilizing a human-centered design and development approach, an approach intimately understood by the InSTEDD and Opendream teams. The Skoll Global Threats team, with its expertise in safeguarding humanity from global threats, will provide participants with their knowledge of tackling pandemics effectively through good science, good business, international cooperation, and public awareness. In return, Skoll will get a read on the pulse of grassroots innovation by collaborating with local health stakeholders battling at the front line of disease outbreaks.

While new and exciting technical innovation will be a direct result of the event, the main impact will be the increased technical capacity of local and international health stakeholders, empowering them to leave the event able to build and support robust and responsive community surveillance systems. Together, local and global participants will hack for health and move towards the most important outcome, establishing a powerful front line of defense against the future outbreaks and pandemics that may threaten our world.

EpiHack Laos, running June 17-20, will bring together more than 40 developers and health experts to collectively brainstorm, explore, and prototype digital tools to track and monitor disease outbreaks. This regional, participatory surveillance tech event has been made possible thanks to the generous support of Skoll Gobal Threat Fund. For news and day to day updates from the event please follow us on Twitter, @instedd and @ilabsea. Official Twitter hashtag for the events are #epihack and #hackforhealth.




At InSTEDD, we envision a world where communities everywhere design and use technology to continuously improve their health, safety and development.