UC San Diego Researcher Takes Home Top Prize at AT&T App Hackathon

San Diego, Calif., March 30, 2012 — Dave Deriso, a neuroscience researcher at the University of California, San Diego, led the winning team at last weekend’s ATT Mobile App Hackathon in downtown San Diego.

The Hackathon, which focused on apps for health and healthcare, was part of the larger $50,000 AT&T San Diego Apps Challenge, an effort of the City of San Diego, AT&T and Apigee to use city and partner data to create apps that improve the quality of life for San Diegans. 

The team’s app, dubbed “StayFit,” uses the accelerometer embedded in most mobile smartphones to help physical therapists remotely monitor their patients as they perform exercises prescribed for physical recovery. 

Deriso is a researcher a the UC San Diego Institute for Neural Computation’s Machine Perception Laboratory, which is based at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2). He designed the portal physical therapists would use to view the displacement (movement) and acceleration data tracked by the accelerometer.

Deriso pitched the idea for the app to the other Hackathon participants during the ‘team-building’ phase last Friday night and was immediately approached by two engineers from Qualcomm — including Prince Gupta -- who were interested in collaborating with him for the 24-hour duration of the competition. Rounding out the rest of Deriso’s team were Victoria Young, a senior marketing strategist at Digitaria, and Peter Thung, a local web developer. 

“I knew from an internship I did with the neurosurgery department at UCSD that muscular dynamics following neural injury are an important indicator of recovery,” Deriso explained. “Measuring this requires a lot of time and energy, not just on behalf of the patient but also the physical therapist, who works with the patient to make sure they are following a treatment protocol and improving as expected. Right now, there’s no way of tracking that information outside of the physical therapist’s office, but we can use the accelerometers in cell phones to determine the trajectory of someone’s arm or see if there’s any ‘drift’ or ‘jitter,’ which can tell us about the recovery process.” 

Deriso explained that many patients recovering from physical trauma such as a stroke have interneuron issues that cause their muscles to shake or wobble while doing bicep curls, for example. He said he knew from working in the Machine Perception Lab -- where he spends half his time developing software for social robots and the other half pursuing research in neural computation — that it’s possible to use machine learning algorithms to classify such errors in movement to track their changes over time. 

Gupta and his team used the Android mobile development architecture to design the mobile app, which requires the user to strap the phone to the part of the body being exercised, be it an arm or a leg. Taking advantage of the AT&T mHealth API app that was provided to the contestants, Deriso developed the doctor’s portal in the Ruby on Rails application framework to mine the mHealth database for patients’ data and then aggregate it into a single plot view, allowing a physical therapist to track his or her patients’ progress over time. Meanwhile Young designed the user interface while providing expertise in marketing and presenting their work, and Thung was there to help wherever needed.

“San Diego has this huge equity of brainpower, but there aren’t a lot of events to bring it all together in one place,” Deriso remarked. “The coolest thing about this hackathon was that it was an opportunity to collaborate with people — like the really awesome developers from Qualcomm — that I’d ordinarily never be able to collaborate with.”

When it came time to select a winner, the judges weighed three criteria: originality of idea, the ability to articulate the purpose of the app and the use certain technologies, such as Node.JS, Sencha, cloud9ide.com and Heroku. 

Deriso credits the diversity of his team and their willingness to work together for ultimately securing the win — and five brand-new Macbook Airs. But he also noted that, in contrast to many of the other 30 competing teams, who stayed up all night consuming the traditional coder diet of Pop Tarts and Mountain Dew, he and his teammates made a point of sleeping a full eight hours the night the competition began and sitting down to three leisurely meals in between bouts of coding. 

“Medical technology has really lagged behind other sectors which have benefited from the Internet revolution,” said Deriso. “It’s really great to find opportunities to combine science with web technology, like mobile apps, and try to close that gap.”

Media Contacts

 Tiffany Fox, (858) 246-0353, tfox@ucsd.edu