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HHS Issues Call for Tech Solutions to Childhood Obesity in Low-Income Communities


HHS has challenged mobile app developers and other technology innovators to create an intervention to promote nutrition, health, and fitness among low-income children and families.

HHS has challenged mobile app developers and other technology innovators to create an intervention to promote nutrition, health, and fitness among low-income children and families. The competition promises a $150,000 prize to the winner.

The competition, as described in a Federal Register notice, is sponsored by the Health Resources and Services Administration within HHS. It will consist of 3 phases: design, development and small-scale testing, and scaling. The interventions could include mobile apps or other technology-based innovations, and they must address childhood obesity from a population-based perspective that can be applied in low-income communities.

HHS has identified childhood obesity as a priority target, considering that childhood obesity rates have tripled since 1980, and the announcement recognizes the broad public health factors like food availability, neighborhood safety, and social and cultural norms that contribute to obesity in addition to the main drivers, diet and exercise.

“While existing apps and tools address individual behaviors, such as exercise and nutrition, their uptake in underserved communities is limited because they are not tailored to the needs, challenges, and barriers to healthy weight in these communities,” the announcement states. “The goal of this challenge is to make technology work for the family as a unit within the reality of their larger community environment.”

It suggests some areas that developers may focus on, but also reminds them of the barriers that exist in many underserved communities. For instance, incentivizing physical activity through games and rewards may be effective, but only if it accounts for the environmental barriers to exercise that exist in some communities, like lack of open spaces or risk of crime. Interventions may want to provide families with the education and skills to make healthier nutrition choices, while also keeping in mind that some communities have limited access to fresh and affordable foods.

A judging panel of HHS staff and experts will assess submissions based on several criteria, including accessibility, impact, sustainability, implementation, and scalability. Different questions about these criteria will be asked during the 3 phases of the contest. In phase 1, the design phase, impact is judged based on the applicant’s explanation of the intervention’s potential mechanisms to promote healthy behaviors or nutrition access, while in phase 3, scaling, the judges will evaluate impact based on the intervention’s efficacy when implemented at scale.

A list of “key design features” indicates that developers may want to incorporate a 2-generation focus on children and their parents, to base their intervention on behavioral science principles, and potentially to use the technology to connect families in food deserts with healthy foods.

The phase 1 submission period ends January 31, 2018. The panel will select 7 to 10 winners, who will present their intervention to the judges in Washington, DC. Phase 2 will have 3 to 5 winners, and phase 3 will have a final winner, who is to receive a prize of $150,000.

“Addressing childhood obesity from a population-based, public health perspective as a complement to the individual clinical perspective requires innovative, community-based solutions and partnerships,” the announcement explained. “A challenge will maximize competition and spur innovation for communities in a cost-effective and accelerated timeframe.”

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