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Developers created a digital simulation that shows emergency workers who are treating Ebola patients around the world how their masks may fog up while at a treatment center.

Hackathons typically produce some pretty cool ideas and innovations, yet only in rare cases do you find a 48-hour project that turns into a full-fledged product used by real people.

But that’s exactly what happened at the Living Computer Museum this past weekend in Seattle, where game developers and medical professionals came together to create a digital simulation prototype that may end up helping prepare front line emergency workers who are treating patients with Ebola around the world.

IMG_1823The hackathon was organized by Shift Labs, a four-person Seattle-based startup that makes medical devices for developing countries. The company was approached by the IMAI-IMCI Alliance, which creates training content for the World Health Organization (WHO), and was asked for help in building a simulator that could supplement new training material designed for healthcare employees working with Ebola patients — particularly those at treatment centers in West Africa.

However, the alliance could not provide any initial money for the work. That’s when Beth Kolko, CEO of Shift Labs, decided to reach out to the Seattle community and organize a hackathon.

“From the people asking for this type of tool, I could hear it in their voices how much they needed it,” Kolko said. “It was impossible to say no.”

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Developers had the chance to try on the PPE suits that meidcal workers must wear while working at Ebola treatment centers. Photo by Linda Bookey.

The response was encouraging. On Friday evening, a handful of game developers experienced in building 3D games using Unity and tools like 3DS Max or Maya showed up. There were also people with UX chops, in addition to a few artists and others from the tech industry that came to help build the simulations.

Perhaps most important, though, were two clinicians from Montana that worked at an Ebola treatment center in Sierra Leone just a few months ago. They flew to Seattle this weekend to contribute their expertise.

“We thought our perspective from the ground would help,” said Dr. George Risi, an infectious disease specialist from Missoula, MT.

The IMAI-IMCI Alliance provided the hackers with a bevy of helpful content, from architectural plans of the U.S.-sponsored hospitals being built in Liberia to photos from the ground. There were also real Personal Protective Equipment suits, which developers tried on to get a feeling for what it’s like to provide care while dealing with a fogged up mask or muffled hearing.

“There are certain aspects of the environment not on a checklist that you want to incorporate into simulations to prepare people emotionally to treat patients,” said Shift Labs co-founder Koji Intlekofer.

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Hackathon participants studied a real architectural plan of the U.S.-sponsored hospitals being built in Liberia to develop the simulation.

Fast forward to Sunday afternoon, and the group of 40 — who worked together as a unit, rather than against each other — came up with a series of impressive prototype simulations that mimicked the experience at a treatment center. One was a “fly-by” simulation that gave workers a visual interpretation of how a treatment center is set up, while another was a more interactive version that included intricate details like the foggy mask, fellow healthcare workers, and patients.

IMG_1833The software also incorporated Microsoft’s Kinect sensor. My personal favorite feature was a warning message that popped up whenever a user would bring their hands to their face. “Safety Violation!” it read. “Don’t touch your face!”

The simulations aren’t meant to be a replacement for the vast amount of reading and slide presentations that healthcare workers are required to study before helping treat patients with Ebola. Rather, they are important to help mentally prepare workers who are planning to work in an undoubtedly difficult and unusual environment — a bridge between reading about the experience and actually being there.

“Someone can be on the plane or in their hotel before they go out to work and go through this to just familiarize themselves,” said Choong Ng, a mobile developer.

Dr. Brian Ross, a director at the University of Washington medical simulation center, also lent his expertise during the weekend. He said that this particular simulation is extremely important for Ebola treatment preparation — “these workers really have skin in the game,” he noted —  and gives clinicians an effective way to practice.

“The simulation allows you to slow down in a safe environment and do it right so you get perfect practice,” Ross said.

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So what’s next? Shift Labs will continue to work with the IMAI-IMCI Alliance and WHO and hopefully find resources that will provide a way for the simulations to be completely built out.

“There is so much more to be done,” Kolko said. “We want to help make this available to people going to West Africa, and also people in the U.S. who might be facing a patient here.”

Aside from the neat aspect of technology helping better prepare healthcare workers, there’s also something to be said for developers using their skills with tools like Unity to create apps and software that can fix a serious world problem. Ethan Abeles, a senior game producer at Microsoft, said that his wife — a public health professor — always encourages him to make a game that relates to the health space in some way.

“It’s always been hard to think about how to gamify a serious topic,” said Abeles, who served as a project manager for the weekend. “But once I thought of this as much more of an interactive tutorial, I realized that there are some really beneficial aspects to what interactive training and a simulator can offer.”

It’s still unclear if the work done in just 48 hours this weekend will make a direct impact, but those involved — including the doctors — certainly hope so.

“This really helps provide what that experience of providing healthcare is like to this group of people in this environment,” said Kate Hurley, a clinical nurse manager from Missoula. “We know the clinical skills and how to deal with the symptoms of the disease, for the most part. But what we don’t have any experience with is how to wear this gear, and the obstacles it presents in terms of delivering patient care.”

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