Using apps to improve emotional wellbeing: Alex Goforth reflects on recent hackathons

We’ve known for a while that the CYP IAPT Learning Collaborative needs ways of accelerating the use of digital technology in children and young people’s mental health services. This has emerged over the years of working closely with young people, providers, and commissioners, and, more recently, written in lights in Future in Mind, Five Year Forward View for Mental Health, Personalised Care 2020, and the NHS England system-wide digital initiatives.

We also knew that the collaborative network afforded us a great opportunity to bring together young people involved in participation, with professionals from services, to co-produce open-source software focused on specific and discrete needs, and developed consistently with evidence-based practice. Our experience has shown that the best digital technology is built in collaboration with its users from the start, and that open-source would enable the software to be universally available, and be adaptable enough to fit the idiosyncratic needs of local services.

In spring 2015 we brought together a small group to explore digital technology in children and young people’s mental health services, meeting at the Young Minds offices. We concluded that we needed a platform to enable the community to develop its own products, rather than procuring from off the shelf, that services needed to fit themselves too, or compromise on functionality. We wanted to put on a hackathon to do this, and needed to bring in developers, which became a major obstacle, in the context of a very full programme of work.

Fast forward two years, and we’ve now had four hackathons, that have generated a diverse range of products to improve emotional wellbeing and service operation, including Breathe with Me, an avatar guided diaphragmatic breathing exercise for anxious young people, and Grow, a simple app to track their goals, which could be during clinical work. In total, 18 app ideas have been rapidly prototyped, led by young people and clinicians as product owners, with dozens more learning digital design principles, meeting peers with similar interests, and eating pizza.

We’ve worked closely with east London coding school Founders and Coders (FAC), who share our vision for open-source digital technology, with high social value, to iterate a model that is inclusive, supportive and creative. We guide participants through a series of design exercises during a design day, choose 4-6 ideas to be rapidly prototyped over 4-5 days, and then gather UX feedback. The ideas, the prototype, the feedback and plans for next steps are pitched to an audience and panel, that chooses which products will be developed into Minimum Viable Products. The model embodies the ethos of co-production and continuous learning at the heart of our CYP IAPT programme.

Our fourth, and current Hackathon began on Saturday 20th May, with six ideas currently being prototyped, including Happy, an app for storing things that you make you smile, for when you need a boost. The pitch event is on Friday 2nd June from 5:15 - 7pm at Anna Freud Centre, 12 Maresfield Gardens, NW3 5SU. All are welcome.

Alex Goforth is programme lead at London and South East Collaborative, CYP IAPT, Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families