‘Hacking’ solutions: Teams in Cooper competition are working on ways to help different communities through technology

From the driver’s seat of an Uber ride, Oscar Obochi is situated better than anyone could hope to be — or want to be, for that matter — when it comes to lending an ear to the frustrations of New Jerseyans.

The 36-year-old from Nigeria hears plenty of it chauffeuring elderly passengers, often to doctor’s appointments. The Newark resident, who drives for Uber between attending college classes, has gleaned that the state’s aging population is fed up with having to navigate technology they’re completely unfamiliar with.

And it’s not just about vexed experiences on rideshare apps. As he hears from friends in the health care and senior care industry, it’s also booking appointments, messaging doctors or learning about medications online. So, he and those friends thought to do something about it.

Oscar Obochi.

“There’s a challenge we share in common: We’ve all seen that most seniors don’t know how to navigate any of the apps they need for their daily activities, as well as health care needs,” he said. “So, we came together to see what we can do to assist them by enhancing digital literacy, which is really becoming a problem in the senior community.”

Theirs is one of the perspectives that’s getting a new platform through the New Jersey Social Determinants of Health Hackathon, hosted by Cooper University Health Care. The idea? To find ways to better engage at-risk populations in New Jersey — and, in turn, improve health care access and outcomes.

Obochi and his team were among the four finalists of the first-ever “hackathon” this fall, orchestrated through a partnership between Cooper, the New Jersey Innovation Institute and other groups. Their team and others made presentations to judges at the Cooper Medical School of Rowan University before going on to present their ideas in a “Shark Tank”-style national pitch competition in Washington, D.C., this month.

“This was the culmination of over a year of planning on our part and a month and a half of training the participants (on using platforms such as Microsoft Azure to analyze data to be presented in pitches),” said Neal Lemon, director of the Cooper Innovation Center.

In providing training sessions to teams ahead of their presentations, Lemon said the hope was to refine solutions that could be “turned into engines for change.”

Cooper Innovation Center, like outfits such as NJII, handles the technology transfer between commercial endeavors and Cooper’s health system. Its roots are laid down in Camden, where Lemon said conversations about the social determinants that affect health outcomes hold significant weight.

“In this space, there are providers who care deeply about helping patients that are impacted by issues associated with homelessness, food insecurity and substance use or abuse,” Lemon said. “It’s in that nexus that we wanted to assist our primary goal of working with the community to improve health outcomes, but we also to approach it from tech-focused angle, given the goal of our office.”

The introduction of a regional “hackathon” that invited individuals from different viewpoints and levels of technical ability is the realization of a several-year-old dream, Lemon added. Cooper is looking to build it out with additional corporate sponsors and partner sites.

“You have groups like NJII active in the northern part of the state, but we’re really hoping to see a balance of participants in programs such as this all over the state,” he said.

One of the teams selected as finalists during the recent event featured Cooper’s own information technology director. The longtime resident of Camden — deemed the state’s worst food desert in a New Jersey Economic Development Authority survey for its dearth of accessible and affordable healthy food — developed a plan for vertical, hydroponic farming education programs in his community.

Another group was composed of students who were encountering transportation issues in getting to and from class. They’re sketching out plans for a community carpool service.

“So, these teams were coming up with solutions that were really important and personal for them,” Lemon said.

For their ideas involving digital literacy for seniors, Obochi and his team found an overwhelmingly positive reception at Cooper’s event in Camden and the later summit in the nation’s capital city.

“We believe we’ve got something here, and we’re looking for sponsors and companies to work with on this program,” Obochi said. “Our goal is to, in a place like Essex County, go into senior living facilities and teach seniors how to navigate basic electronic devices, and create peer groups for seniors to teach other seniors.”

The part-time Uber driver and big-time thinker drives the point home this way:

The beauty of education is that there’s no age limit to it.

“Seniors, as much as anyone, still have new things they can learn every day,” he said.