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Emily Springfield and team win top award at U-M 'hacking' event

Emily Springfield with the first-place trophy.

TriggerFigureOuter team members, from left, Jamie Estill, Levi Powis, Emily Springfield, Swetha Kulkarni and Robin Welshans.

Ann Arbor, Mich., March 8, 2017 -– An idea from a School of Dentistry staff member for improving the health of people with food allergies led a team of developers to the top prize at the university’s annual information technology “hacking” competition Friday.

The “Hacks With Friends” event, sponsored by the office of the Vice President for Information Technology, brings together IT employees from across campus to brainstorm ideas for technology-related projects. A slate of best ideas is selected and teams then use their various types of IT expertise to design software, often an app or program that saves time or improves an existing product or process.

Emily Springfield, Academic Projects Manager in Dental Informatics, proposed development of a cloud-based server application that can gather data about food ingredients from many existing databases. It would help people with food allergies to closely monitor what they eat.  Sometimes they are aware of what triggers their problem; often they are trying to figure it out.  Thus, the name for Springfield’s app – the TriggerFigureOuter.

Springfield came up with her technology idea after she suffered migraine headaches over several months last year, and her doctor advised her to track what foods she ate. The experience prompted her to wonder how people can better match their food intake against their migraine flare-ups or other health problems that might be connected to food.  That was the project she suggested at “Hacks With Friends.”  Signing on to help develop Springfield’s idea were Jamie Estill, Medical School; Levi Powis, College of Engineering; Swetha Kulkarni, Information and Technology Services; and Robin Welshans, Information Quest.

Food-induced health problems include conditions with varying degrees of seriousness such as migraines, asthma and gastrointestinal distress. Some can be life-threatening: for example, a person with a serious nut allergy can go into anaphylactic shock and die after eating even a small amount of nuts. But the problem with food allergies is twofold:  A person may know they are allergic to a certain ingredient, but is it in the food they are about to eat?  The other problem is when people have symptoms, like a migraine, and suspect it might be food-based and want to determine what foods they should avoid. Is there a way to correlate their symptom outbreaks with what they’ve eaten in the day or two leading up to the attack?

The team gathered as many food ingredient databases as time allowed, then designed a user interface that would cross reference the imported data with the user’s log of days when their symptoms flared up.  Data could come from many sources, from personal fitness trackers like MyFitnessPal and Fitbit to huge databases from food manufacturers and the Food and Drug Administration. Want to know if that certain spice that causes you gastrointestinal regret is in gourmet bread at your favorite restaurant?  Chances are good the FDA or another existing database can tell you.

With only two days for the team to work on the idea, it’s a project that needs considerably more development before it would be ready for consumer use. The contest judges, however, liked the team’s progress and gave it the first-place trophy.  The judges cited the way the group worked together to bring far-reaching and disparate data to a user’s fingertips to help with a significant public health issue.

As for what’s next, Springfield says that’s one downfall with the hacking competition – everyone has to return to their day job.  She said the fact that the team could make significant progress in just a couple of days shows what’s possible if IT experts can put their heads together and focus on a great idea.  TriggerFigureOuter needs someone, perhaps an investor or a public health researcher, who is interested in moving promising ideas from the drawing board to applications in the real world, she said.  One way to finance the project might be for researchers to fund and develop the app in exchange for users agreeing to anonymously share their data for scientific research purposes.

For now, Springfield continues to think about the seemingly limitless “What if?” ways her idea could be expanded.  For example, using a phone’s automatic location-tracking feature, a person’s smartphone would know they’ve just entered a Ralph’s Big Boy Restaurant and might offer both safe food suggestions and food to avoid.  Its voice-activated personal assistant might say in its pleasantly helpful voice, “I thought you might like to be reminded that the last time you were here the spicy chicken sandwich caused heartburn.”

“This isn’t going to take much money to put together, but very busy people need to be able to put other things down and work on this,” Springfield said. “If anybody wants to help me work on this problem, give me a call.”

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The University of Michigan School of Dentistry is one of the nation’s leading dental schools engaged in oral health care education, research, patient care and community service.  General dental care clinics and specialty clinics providing advanced treatment enable the school to offer dental services and programs to patients throughout Michigan.  Classroom and clinic instruction prepare future dentists, dental specialists, and dental hygienists for practice in private offices, hospitals, academia and public agencies.  Research seeks to discover and apply new knowledge that can help patients worldwide.  For more information about the School of Dentistry, visit us on the Web at: www.dent.umich.edu.
 
Contact:
School of Dentistry writer Lynn Monson at dentistry.communications@umich.edu, or (734) 615-1971.