Want to Make Your Own App? Go to a -Thon

Building a nutrition app isn't something anyone can do alone. Computer programming and app creation is a complex and costly business. Most of the time, you need a team that includes a coding programmer, a graphic artist, a business manager and a subject matter expert.

If you've got an idea for an app and are interested in taking the next step, I recommend attending a tech meet-up in your area. These are known by many names: hack-a-thons, game-a-thons, code-a-thons or challenges, to name a few. Look for an event sponsored by a college or university, a digital health group, a government institution or non-governmental organization.

I got my start making apps at a USDA game-a-thon in 2010. Members of the International Game Developer's Association gathered in cities around the country to volunteer their time in creating computer nutrition games. Later, a student helped me code my food game into a smartphone app.

Hack-a-thon Tips for Beginners

Before the event, read the fine print. Do you maintain rights to your work? Also, be aware that without signed non-disclosure agreements, you may be letting other participants learn about your projects — even if you want your ideas kept private.

In addition to your computer and app content materials, bring plenty of paper, pens and business cards. A hack-a-thon is not the time to be shy. After checking in, there is usually a welcome and introduction by the organizer and sponsors. Then, attendees are encouraged to approach the microphone and, in a minute or two, introduce themselves and their projects and explain what type of team they're looking for. After the introductions, sponsors answer questions about their product application program interfaces. Then, attendees circulate and start forming groups. This is your chance to assemble your team of experts, too.

Roles of a Hack-a-thon Team

Some teams and coders already have ideas and products that they want to develop on their own. Others are looking to join another team, or create a brand new team. The two main roles on a hack-a-thon team are the content experts and the coders. Here is what each member is responsible for:

  • Content Expert
    On a nutrition app, this is the registered dietitian nutritionist or other health expert. The team is depending on your nutrition expertise. You might even be on two or more teams at the hack-a-thon. Health experts are not expected to code, but may be asked to work with software that generates HTML code that can be easily shared with the programmer for the app.
  • The Programmer
    This individual typically needs to be able to incorporate one or more sponsor APIs into the app to meet contest requirements.

After your team is assembled you'll have anywhere from one to three days to complete your project. Then, you'll be judged based on specific criteria established by the event sponsors.

Be aware of the established deadline. Don't forget to reserve plenty of time to prepare a demo and slide presentation of your work. Assign team members to present on their expertise and answer questions from the judging panel.

Competition can be stiff, but even if you don’t take home top honors or prize money, you will be rewarded with meeting wonderful, talented, helpful, interesting people, with the chance of continuing your collaboration to perfect your project. Hack-a-thons are fun, win-win activities that can start you on a new business path.

Catherine Frederico
Catherine Frederico, MS, RDN, LDN, is a noted author, speaker and health app developer specializing in nutrition technology. She is chair of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' Consumer Health Informatics Work Group for the Nutrition Informatics Committee.