Kristen Gallagher, left, and Joe Rowley, Center // photo by Adi Dahiya

Team Profile: Trachoma Tracker

A hack that could literally save lives

Kristen Gallagher doesn’t have an engineering background. In fact, she has a background as a social worker. “I was working mostly with people experiencing homelessness,” she says. “It’s an intense job, and I was looking for something to get my mind off work at the end of a day.”

That was when a friend suggested she try coding. “It’s very logical. It can just be correct,” Gallagher explains. So, just eight months ago, she joined Code for Philly, a local group of hackers who use technology to attack civic issues. Although she was nervous about joining as a complete novice, she was encouraged by community members who pointed out that her background as a social worker helped give her valuable insight into civic problems.

Currently a graduate student at Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice, Gallagher signed up for PennApps but didn’t have a team. That changed after she added her name to a list of people looking for teammates.

“She wrote something like, ‘One man wolfpack, but also a woman,’” recalls Joe Rowley, who is now her teammate. Gallagher looks a little sheepish, but Rowley smiles and explains that her line, along with her professed interest in hacking-for-good, caught his eye.

Rowley doesn’t have Gallagher’s background with civic issues—he’s a computer engineering student at the University of California, Santa Cruz. But he is keenly interested in global health: He spent three weeks this summer in Ethiopia, studying the ways that technology can improve healthcare in a developing country.

Their hack, Trachoma Tracker, reflects their interests perfectly.

Trachoma isn’t exactly a household name. “When I mention trachoma to people, no one says, ‘Oh, that’s a really terrible disease,’” Rowley says. And yet it affects 80 million people in developing countries, and is the second most-common cause of blindness. Rowley is quick to point out that, for many people, losing your sight means losing your livelihood.

“Not to mention that it’s incredibly painful,” Gallagher adds. “Your eyelids turn out and your eyelashes actually rub against your eyeballs.” She adds some hand-motions, and it’s hard not to cringe.

Fortunately, Rowley says, there are drug companies which are willing to donate medication—but only if they have records of where trachoma is and how it’s spreading.

Trachoma Tracker is going to make that process easier.

The app is simple, but it works beautifully on both desktop and mobile web, providing a form for people to input exactly the right data to record an instance of trachoma. There are options to upload pictures of each eye, as well as a dropdown to “rate” the progress of the disease.

The form doesn’t have an option for birthdays.

“In Ethiopia,” Rowley explains, “people don’t really use birthdays.”

“Our app could be used mostly by NGO’s,” Joe says, before adding, “I would prefer to build something that has a more sustainable impact, but for someone to have vision for the rest of their life—well, that’s a lasting impact.”

Photos by Adi Dahiya, words by Tess Rinearson.