The hackathon (photo credit: Irina Nedelcu)

Perspectives: technology, mental health and children and young people

We’ve known for a while that the learning collaborative needs ways of accelerating the use of digital technology in children and young people’s mental health services. This has emerged over the years of working closely with young people, providers, and commissioners, and, more recently, written in lights in Future in Mind, Five Year Forward View for Mental Health, Personalised Care 2020, and the NHS England system-wide digital initiatives.

We also knew that the collaborative network afforded us a great opportunity to bring together young people involved in participation, with professionals from services, to co-produce open-source software focused on specific and discrete needs, and developed consistently with evidence-based practice. Our experience has shown that the best digital technology is built in collaboration with its users from the start, and that open-source would enable the software to be universally available, and be flexible enough to fit the idiosyncratic needs of local services.

In spring 2015 we brought together a small group to explore digital technology in children and young people’s mental health services, meeting at the Young Minds offices. We concluded that we needed to develop products ourselves, rather than procuring products off the shelf, that services needed to fit themselves too, or compromise on functionality. We wanted to put on a hackathon to do this, and needed to bring in developers, which became a major obstacle, in the context of a very full programme of work.

Then my colleague Mark Hemsley met Dan Sofer, founder of coding school Founders and Coders (FAC), who shared our vision for open-source digital technology, with high social value. We now had a way to bring software developers into the mix to create a hackathon that would embody the ethos of co-production and continuous learning at the heart of our programme.

We began surveying — in meetings and online — young people, providers and commissioners from across the country for their key challenges, and how they thought digital technology could assist. We identified five themes from the data we obtained to focus the work of the Hack:

  • feedback and outcome data collection, analysis, and distribution
  • effective, evidence-based self-management
  • service management
  • communication between young people and services
  • tools to support clinical work.

On 22 April 2016, more than 40 young people, professionals and software developers from FAC, and Mayden, gathered at the Kings Cross offices of the Anna Freud Centre for an event, setting the scene for a two day hackathon.

Young people and professionals (the newly minted product owners) brought their problems and ideas to the scene-setting event, from which five teams emerged, each with a kernel of an idea to be sketched out the next morning. User stories and journeys were developed, to understand what a hypothetical user might need, along with wireframes of the software/app to arrive at an outline for a Minimum Viable Product (translated as the maximum usefulness, from the minimum amount of work) from which working prototypes were developed by Sunday afternoon.

Early Sunday evening, the products were presented and applauded.

(Photo credit: Irina Nedelcu)

The hackathon also enabled the group of product owners to learn through practice, and the coders’ guidance, a handful of the essential techniques for developing digital technology that would enable the collaboration crucial to realizing their visions for the products. The learning will continue on both sides whilst the products are cultivated during the next phase of development, due to end in early June 2016.

Virginie, a coder from FAC, describes the hackathon from her perspective:

The goal of this hackathon was — for us as developers — to come up with a functional application, an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) for the product owner, our client.
In general, people with limited resources or programming knowledge join a hackathon to bring their ideas to life. They pitch their ideas, bring them into the light, join groups and meet and work with other people — some with much vaster knowledge. It is a fabulous opportunity to network, learn from and with others, discover new tricks of the (coding) trade, and develop ideas into full blown projects, to be judged at the end. All in all it is an awesome learning experience in a very low key and supportive environment, and competitive all the same.
As coders, we had a specific project brief for the weekend:
Our group goal was to work on a product for a client who is a non-technical/business person, and to overcome the difficulties of meeting the client’s need. These difficulties might stem from being unfamiliar with the business environment in which the client works.
Being able to identify the client’s problem and how we can solve it was the very first step.
Then we built user stories which are descriptions consisting of one or more sentences that capture the users’ needs. This helps the client get some sense of what we will build.
With clear bullet points of what the app will do, we entered into the screen-design process of wire-framing so that we had a visual guide representing the skeletal framework of the app. An essential step of the project!
After framing the core idea of the project, we frantically started to code to create a working app. Time was of the essence, as we had only a short amount to build a functional product.
Taking part in the Hackathon provides real experience of working in the coding world. I and most of my colleagues try to participate in as many hackathons as we can to enhance and sharpen our coding skills.
This weekend, at the Anna Freud Centre was one of the best. Thank you for hosting it.
Photo credit: Irina Nedelcu

The five working prototypes produced during the Hackathon are:

  • MindAid: a first aid mental health app for teachers. Designed for teachers with little knowledge of mental health, MindAid helps screen pupils at the point of being seen, provides teachers with relevant, up-to-date mental health information and signposts to the best local resources for each child.
  • N-Dolphins: a self-management smartphone app for all young people experiencing a mental health problem. Designed so that it can be used even by those on waiting lists, this app is a mood tracker and event manager which allows the user to create personalised greetings to promote and monitor well-being, input emergency contacts on speed dial to provide safeguarding measures and reassurance, setup a rewards system and have access to personal metrics data to view and monitor progress.
  • How Am I doing?: making data useful. Designed to collect RCADS data in real-time, this app helps users avoid double entry and failing to keep on top of data input. It provides clear, intelligent feedback for users in the form of bar charts and other visuals so that change is easily viewed and tracked.
  • Hub Site: a safeguarded event organiser for young people and CAMHS users. This app will use postcode mapping to show the users a list of relevant upcoming events in their local area. As with other event management tools such as Eventbrite, users can set filters to demarcate specific interests so that push notifications send when an event is on, alerting the users and ensuring they don’t miss out, even if they haven’t signed in to the app. Organisers are able to use this tool to run events and manage attendees.
  • Share Plan: assessment tracking system. Designed to keep clinicians to task when completing an assessment, and to enable people using services to track progress and status of information, this app will form part of the process of managing applications. Once the clinician has drafted the assessment, people using services will have access to view and edit the letter.

Each of these products was awarded a voucher for further development work so that by June, we will have five products ready to be trialed. These are due to be presented at a Delivery Party on 10 June. Do get in touch if you are interested in joining us.

I had high expectations, but the levels of commitment and passion, excitement and innovation took me by surprise. Thank for all who took part and made it possible, and especially to the Anna Freud Centre. We are already planning the next hackathon for late August 2016!”

Thanks to Natasha Byrne, Assistant Psychologist for CYP IAPT, for making the video

Virginie Trubiano is a Belgian computer coder with a working knowledge of multiple languages (Front End & Back End). She trained in USA at Portland Code School and Epicodus after which she had a series of internships mostly Front End related. She is presently enrolled in London’s Founders and Coders to deepen her knowledge of some of the stacks she uses and to be in a creative team with like-minded programmers to learn in collaborative ways.


Alex Goforth is Project Lead for the London & South East CYP IAPT Learning Collaborative. He has worked and volunteered in NHS CAMHS, AMHS, and the voluntary sector for over 10 years, and found his current role after detouring from a trajectory leading to Child & Adolescent Psychotherapy. He is a qualified Project and Programme Manager, an avid cyclist, an advocate of harnessing digital technology and passionate about change for good and quality improvement.