© Frederic NOY/COSMOS
22 Jan 19 23 Jan 19

TCD students and MSF collaborate in hackathlon to solve complex real-life humanitarian challenges

On 23rd January the international medical organisation Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and Trinity College Dublin (TCD) will begin a 12-week hackathon where students will work on providing innovative solutions to some of the problems MSF faces in delivering healthcare to patients around the world. 

The Trinity Synergy Challenge is a new initiative that brings together researchers and students from the E3 schools of Engineering, Computer Science and Natural Science to develop solutions to global challenges in providing humanitarian aid.

Over the next three months 50 students studying Bioengineering, Computer Science and Development Practice will spend 12 weeks working in multi-disciplinary teams to develop innovative solutions to real life challenges that MSF encounters in some of the countries in which it provides medical care.

The students' project work will be assessed as part of their respective courses and the teams will compete with one another during the programme which will end on Friday 12th of April. This is the first year of the Trinity Synergy Challenge and in future years it will involve students from other disciplines and new NGO partners.

At an event on Wednesday 23rd January, hosted by Tangent, Trinity’s Ideas Workspace, students will be presented with five challenges set by MSF:

  • Devising ways for non-medical staff to identify and triage patients with respiratory conditions to allow doctors to spend more time with patients. 
  • Methods for MSF staff working in locations outside of mobile or internet coverage to log problems they encounter during their daily work. 
  • Designing technological solutions to quickly analyse water quality to improve the quality and efficiency of water and sanitation services.  
  • Creating a system to optimise healthcare delivery and improve staff retention levels by capturing workforce data on nursing workload, care context and other metrics. 
  • Increase the amount of time that MSF doctors can spend on clinical work by devising ways that technology can be used to ensure that patients adhere to their medical treatment regimes. 

The final challenge concerns treatment for tuberculosis (TB), the world’s deadliest infectious disease. In some countries where MSF works, people suffering from TB had previously spent months, and sometimes years, in hospital whilst separated from friends and family, but newer models of care allow them to continue their treatment at home with innovations in drug regimens offering vastly reduced treatment duration.

Standard treatment for patients suffering from drug-resistant tuberculosis (DR-TB) can in some cases take up to two years and require people to take more than 14,000 pills. Whilst MSF is making significant investments, through initiatives such as the TB Practecal Clinical Trial which seeks to reduce the length and side effects of treatment, adherence is still vital. If patients don’t stick to their treatment, their chance of recovery is reduced and the risk of drug resistance developing in their communities increases.

To increase adherence to treatment regimes, patients or medical teams from MSF often have to travel vast distances to meet so that health workers can observe patients taking their medication properly, a process known as DOTS (Directly Observed Treatment, Short course). In places where MSF works, patients may find it difficult to travel to seek treatment due to the security situation, poor infrastructure or being unable to afford travel costs. In Eswatini for example, attending a clinic may mean five hours of travelling each way.

Participants in the hackathon will investigate how a combination of a new methodology called VOT (Video Observed Treatment) and automated machine analysis, could be used to massively scale adherence support, without patients needing to leave their homes and travel vast distances.

Dr Lacey Associate Professor in Graphics and Vision at the School of Computer Science and Statistics, Trinity said: “The challenges from MSF will inspire our students to develop creative solutions that can make a positive impact in difficult environments. This type of problem based learning helps our students develop independent thinking, effective communication and how to apply technology responsibly”.


Sam Taylor Director of MSF Ireland said by MSF engaging with students and the scientific and technology community in Ireland, it is hoped that the project will serve as a proof of concept for further collaboration in the future: “Innovation is integral to MSF’s desire to constantly improve our medical care and our ability to reach millions of patients each year in our projects across the globe. We hope this hackathon will demonstrate the potential for students, professors and the Irish tech community at large to help solve some of the challenges that MSF encounters in our day to day medical work”.

“At MSF we are constantly innovating and adapting our humanitarian and medical responses, to best meet the needs of our patients and the people who we assist. We hope this hackathon may deliver some viable ideas that MSF can investigate further that can be used to help us provide better, more efficient, medical care to our patients around the world.”


Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is an international, independent medical humanitarian organisation that operates in over 70 countries around the world, providing medical assistance to people affected by conflict, epidemics, disasters, or exclusion from healthcare.

Synergy is a new initiative in Trinity College that brings together researchers and students from the E3 schools of Engineering, Computer Science and Natural Science to address global challenges in humanitarian aid via appropriate technology design, development and delivery. The students work in teams over 12 weeks to develop a prototype solution in response to the chal-lenges posed by our 2019 partner Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF).

The teams are made up of students from the MSc in BioEngineering ME7B18 Design/Innovation, the 4th year Computer Science CS4098 Group Computer Science Project and the MSc in Develop-ment Practice. The student’s project work will be assessed as part of their respective courses and the teams also compete for prizes to be awarded at the end of the course on Friday 12th of April.

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