Five Ways To Solve The Diabetes Crisis With Data-Driven Design

The five semi-finalists of the Data Design Diabetes Challenge have made apps to help manage and curtail the United States’s growing epidemic.



A staggering one in four Americans suffer from diabetes or pre-diabetes, making the disease one of the biggest health epidemics in the U.S. There is no cure in sight, and the pace of innovation in both prevention and treatment has been slow. The Data Design Diabetes challenge competition asks entrants to develop a scalable, data-driven product (which uses open data sets available from the government) that can benefit anyone in the diabetes ecosystem–that is, patients, caregivers, health care providers, and family members.

This week, the Sanofi-aventis -sponsored challenge revealed the five semi-finalists (out of over 100 entries), all of whom will take home $20,000 and participate in a “virtual incubator,” receiving advice and mentorship from health care industry leaders on their concepts.

“The design principles are so key here because we don’t want to create another app that’s just going to be out there. We want to put something forward that’s going to be lasting from a patient perspective,” says Dennis Urbaniak, VP of U.S. Diabetes at Sanofi-aventis and one of the competition’s judges.

These are, according to Sanofi-aventis, some of the most creative, useful data-driven solutions for diabetes patients.


Designed by Trichan Panch, the founder of My Care Apps, this mobile app is designed to help diabetics identify health risk factors through challenges and rewards. The key to the app is a risk calculation engine that lets patients pinpoint behaviors that they want to change and use aggregated experiences from similar patients to see the potential outcome of that change (i.e. the impact of quitting smoking on heart attack risk, or the impact of weight loss on blood pressure reduction). The app also provides real-time calculations of the percentage of risk reduced, potential financial costs and benefits, and, of course, the ability to share achievements through social media channels.

This app, designed by Harvard Medical School student Karan Singh, turns patients’ cell phones into automatic self-monitoring tools. Instead of relying on patients to manually input everything from their glucose levels to eating habits, the app (pictured above) passively observes habits through movement patterns as well as SMS and phone use. This can theoretically allow patients and caregivers to see how the disease is affecting their quality of life. For example, the app could deduce that a patient is feeling particularly good if they send a lot of texts or travel frequently on a certain day. Conversely, a series of days without phone calls or texts may indicate a problem.



This photo app, created by Stephen
Racunas, isn’t quite as playful as the other entries, but it could save
lives. Diabetics simply upload photos of their foot wounds–a serious problem for diabetics–to a website,
where an expert remotely identifies and diagnoses the issue. If it
works, the app might just save some of the 15% of diabetics who develop
foot ulcers from losing a limb.


This website, which targets diabetics aged 8 to 14, allows kids (and caregivers) to keep track of their health. Data on glucose levels and physical activity is uploaded through QR codes embedded in exercise equipment (i.e tennis rackets and soccer balls) as well as daily website log-ins. There’s a game element, too: physical activity and glucose levels are linked to a digital pet-like creature whose health varies in response to the patients’ activities and behaviors. Patients can also “level up” their digital pet by hitting milestones–for example, playing 200 minutes of tennis. And, if the app really takes off, designer Jennifer Chong (a researcher at MIT Innovations in International Health) imagines that kids could exchange their in-game achievements for real-world prizes at local retailers.


Designed by Girish Gupta, the entrepreneur in residence at ENIAC ventures, the Chewable mobile gaming service uses game mechanics to show diabetics the impact of their food decisions–and to reward healthy choices. Each user is matched up with a “food persona” based on their average supermarket selections, and each persona has specific goals that can be achieved with real-world food choices. Users gain in-game achievements by adding new, healthy food selections to their lives.


These apps and websites are just concepts for now, but Sanofi-aventis is confident that all of them have the potential to blossom into much bigger products. “I’m excited about the quality and content of submissions that we have gotten,” says Urbaniak.

Next up for the semi-finalists: submitting to an open vote on the Data Design Diabetes website. Two finalists will be chosen in October and given $10,000 to test their submissions in a community of people with diabetes. The winner will be announced in December and given $100,000 to develop a prototype.

[Images: Flickr user momboleum,]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more