Very few college students can say they have developed a phone application for a government program, but 2016 Lakeland Union High School graduate Mack Fitzpatrick is not one of them.
As a freshman at Harvard, Fitzpatrick began developing an Android app for the South African government Emergency First Aid Responder (EFAR) Programme.
EFAR works to reduce pre-hospital deaths due to prolonged ambulance response times in low resource communities. EFAR trains community members in basic, life-saving interventions.
While EFAR is a useful program, it is difficult to connect the trained community members with emergency scenes, which is where Fitzpatrick's app comes into play.
Computer science background
Fitzpatrick said he first became interested in computer science when he was in middle school and began teaching himself.
Although LUHS did not offer AP computer science classes, the school allowed him to sign up for an online course.
"I just asked the administration if they'd allow me to take it online and they did. I actually didn't end up taking the AP test for that or finishing the entire course," Fitzpatrick explained. "I only did one semester of it because I had too much other stuff going on but I really enjoyed it. So, when I got to college - well, throughout the rest of high school I just continued messing around, teaching myself how to code, that sort of stuff. When I got to college I took some more formal classes, like computer science."
When Fitzpatrick entered Harvard he had an idea that he wanted to major in computer science but did not declare his major until this year, his sophomore year, as is standard at Harvard.
Fitzpatrick was only a freshman at the time his Nordic Ski teammate Haakon Sigurslid asked him to help develop the app.
While Sigurslid was in South Africa, EFAR's creator Jared Sun was detailing the struggles of finding someone to develop an app and asked if he knew anyone interested in computer science at Harvard who would be willing to help.
"Basically, the story is that (Sigurslid) was in South Africa two summers ago and he worked for the group EFAR," Fitzpatrick explained. "He's trying to go to medical school, so he was helping them train the actual community members in the first aid and EMS type stuff. When he came back he kind of told me, 'Hey, I went and was working with this group during the summer and they really need an app to communicate with one another and I know you're interested in computer science. Would you want to help out with this?' And me, being the freshman I was, was like, 'yeah, sure I'll help out!'"
Originally, Sigurslid put together a group of three students to help develop the app, but Fitzpatrick was the only one to stay.
"Originally we had three team members here at Harvard," Fitzpatrick said. "Haakon had gotten two other guys to come on and help out and they were with us for like two weeks, maybe, and they both decided they were too busy."
Although Fitzpatrick was only a freshman and busy getting used to college classes and being a collegiate athlete, he knew it was an opportunity he could not pass up.
"I thought it was a good opportunity to develop something commercially, full scale and for them it was like here's a person who's willing to do it pro bono, who's willing to give it a try," Fitzpatrick expressed. "After talking to Jared (Sun), for awhile he told me he had asked a lot of other people to develop this app and they had told him they would, but a lot of times they fell through or they stopped being in contact with him or they didn't produce the product they promised. I kind of set out to not do that and actually follow through. There was definitely a lot of times when I was like, 'wow this would be nice to not do this anymore' but I think now I'm really glad that I have followed through, because it is becoming a real thing and we are going to South Africa this summer."
Prior to creating the EFAR app, Fitzpatrick had minimal experience creating unfinished Apple apps.
"I had a little experience coding, doing some Apple app developments, but it's just completely different from Android so I had never done anything with Android. But I thought, you know I'll give it a try," Fitzpatrick explained. "Basically, the entire fall throughout the spring of freshman year I spent teaching myself coding for Android, what their interface was, how all those things worked, kind of just getting the basics down."
While the Android and Apple interfaces are completely different, Fitzpatrick said his previous experience making unreleased Apple apps ultimately helped him create the EFAR app.
The decision to make an Android app over an Apple app was due to the fact that most people in South Africa have Android phones.
After teaching himself how to code for Android, Fitzpatrick received a list detailing what the EFAR program was looking for within an app.
"We made an actual list of things we needed done," Fitzpatrick stated. "This was spring-ish of last year. Once that was all figured out I actually started working on the app itself, which was kind of hard because being at school there's not a lot of free time between classes and sports. I was really fitting in a little time here and there over the weekends or over break or whenever to get stuff in. The overall time developing the app probably wouldn't have taken as long had I been doing it full time, but what really slowed me down was everything else happening in my life."
Initially, Fitzpatrick and Sigurslid were planning on going to South Africa the summer of 2017; however, by that time, Fitzpatrick was just beginning to develop the app after learning how to program with Android.
Now, the app is nearly complete and Fitzpatrick is comfortable testing it with the heads of EFAR.
EFAR is an incredibly useful tool in South Africa, but connecting the trained community members with citizens who need emergency assistance has always been an inefficient system.
"They have all of these EFARs now that are trained and all of these community members that are ready to go but the chance of them actually helping anyone is slim because they kind of just have to stumble upon an accident," Fitzpatrick explained.
The app is designed to connect those experiencing an emergency with EFARs near their location.
"Essentially, the app, how I kind of pitch it to people is it works like Uber but for emergencies," Fitzpatrick said.
Within the app there are two sides. The first is the EFAR side where EFARs can see emergencies in their area and the second is the patient side where they can request an EFAR to their location.
"When you're on the app it's really simple, there's just a button that allows you to press it and it sends out a message to all of the EFARs that are close to you telling them that you need help and you can put in additional information like your phone number, any message you want to send," Fitzpatrick described.
From the initial send for help, the app grabs the location of the user and sends it to the nearest EFARs, who then get notifications on their phones alerting them of a nearby emergency.
If the EFAR chooses to respond to the emergency the app will give a map to the user's location and directions to get to that location.
Once an EFAR accepts the request, the app sends a notification to the user alerting them an EFAR is on their way.
"Basically, it just keeps a good line of communication between the EFAR and the people in the emergency," Fitzpatrick expressed. "That's the main system, people can contact EFARs and EFARs can come and help people."
The second system within the app connects dispatchers and EFARs.
"We got data from the past couple months saying the actual emergency system in South Africa, the actual EMS ambulance system has also been contacting EFARs on the side," Fitzpatrick said. "Basically what would happen is a dispatcher in one of these systems would get a 911 call and then they would realize the ambulance would take too long and they would run over to a phone book and look up all the EFARs in the area and try to call one of them.
"So, not only will patients be able to contact them but also the actual emergency EMS system in South Africa will have access to EFARs," Fitzpatrick continued.
Trip to South Africa
Fitzpatrick and Sigurslid leave for Cape Town, South Africa on May 26 for about two weeks before Fitzpatrick has to fly to Brazil to work on an archeological dig with his professor.
The trip is to allow the EFAR program to test out the app while Fitzpatrick is physically there.
"The reason why we're going to South Africa is to actually meet with the people who are running the program and the people who are actually on the ground in South Africa so they can try to demo the app in a few small communities, see how they like it, see what they want changed, sort of do that all there instead of just sending it overseas and hoping that it works," Fitzpatrick explained.
While Fitzpatrick is confident in his creation, he said he is nervous to present the app and test it.
"I have a lot of confidence in it, but also you never know, things could go wrong," Fitzpatrick expressed. "I know when we go there there's definitely going to be things they want changed and that we're going to have to fix. But, hopefully, in the end we will have a viable, working product and I think if it were to become something bigger and it were to spread to all of South Africa - I know there's even been talk about spreading it to all of Africa itself, the whole EFAR program - if I was a part of that I think that would just be absolutely amazing and mind-blowing."
Fitzpatrick fully expects to have to change the app once in South Africa, but knows that if, at minimum, he created a foundation for a lifesaving app, it would be worth it.
"If I make this app and I go to South Africa and if I can save one person with it and then they decide to scrap the app and shut it all down, that's fine. I just want to help somebody," Fitzpatrick assured.
Once in South Africa, Fitzpatrick will work directly with EFAR's directors and creator and give them the code he wrote so if any problems with the app arise in the future they have all of the material they need.
"Again, I am just a sophomore in college, it's designed by a sophomore in college," Fitzpatrick said. "So if they start using this app and realizing it's working but they need to scale larger I think at that point they would show the data they've collected to the government and hopefully the government would actually give them funds to maybe create a better app or build on top of my app."
While the app is completed and Fitzpatrick and Sigurslid are ready to fly to South Africa, they still need additional funds.
"We got some money from Harvard but they didn't give us enough to actually - basically we got $1,500 from Harvard and we need a minimum of $2,500 just to get to South Africa," Fitzpatrick said.
The students are looking to raise an additional $1,000 and have nearly reached that goal. While $1,000 will help them get to South Africa, it is likely they will still need to dip into personal funds.
While their fundraising page's goal is $1,000, they will accept any additional funds donated.
Donate to Fitzpatrick's "Improve the South African Emergency Response System" fundraiser at www.youcaring.com/emergencyfirstaidresponderprogram-1140973 or share the fundraising link on Facebook.
After working on this app, Fitzpatrick hopes to continue working to connect global health and computer science.
"I think it's worth my time because of the experience, but also I think whatever I do end up doing after college I hope it's something that will help people. I think connecting global health to computer science is something I never really imagined but it's an amazing opportunity and I think there's a lot of places around the world and opportunities that involve computer science like this where people can be helped," Fitzpatrick concluded.
Abbey McEnroe may be reached via email at email@example.com.