Where It All Began

The Food Oasis project was born out of a Health 2.0 code-a-thon in Washington, DC. A team from MAYA Design in Pittsburgh went down to see what they could do with OpenGov data sets in one day.

A code-a-thon?

MAYA hadn’t done anything like this in the past, and didn’t know what to expect driving down to DC for the day. Todd Park, CTO of HHS (and now the CTO of the USA), kicked off the day with an inspiring talk about the challenges and opportunities in the health care space, and specifically how he was trying to set HHS up to move the needle on the most pressing challenges. With a nod to NOAA, he expressed his desire to enable smart companies to make useful and usable products and services using health data.


This inspired and fired up the team from MAYA, eager to apply our human-centered design approach, and not just dig into data geek stuff. As such, MAYA staked out the room with the most whiteboards and started drawing based on real user challenges. Our goals was to make something that addressed childhood obesity and healthy eating, so we dug into the data with that in mind. The USDA’s Food Environment Atlas highlights the issue of food deserts in America, which are lower-income neighborhoods and communities where residents have limited access to healthy, affordable food.

Healthy eating represents a way to stem the epidemics of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. This is costing America billions in health care costs and even small changes in behavior could have a huge impact.

The big idea

MAYA set out to create a low-tech solution that would improve access to healthy food in food desert areas. We set the low-tech bar of text messaging as our limitation, as even now, half the country still has a feature phone (a.k.a., not a smart phone that runs apps).

We sketched out a text-based system that could accept SMS orders in a centralized “virtual market” that would aggregate the community’s orders so that suppliers could fulfill many at once. The orders would be delivered to community locations, like churches, schools, the Y, etc. This way, suppliers could reach new customers by delivering large orders to neighborhood locations where they have no outpost.


We also tossed around some ideas for the future, like users tracking achievements, subscribing to playlists from chefs and foodies, and even local entrepreneurs that could accept challenges to help build their catering businesses. But we also had to build this in a few hours! So before we got down to coding, we defined scenarios, story-boarded the work flow, and figured out some SMS syntax. Then we got down to sketching some user interfaces, connecting a little bit of data, and making sure a few text messages would get through. A few hours later, we had a proof-of-concept—and this little film that tells the story of what we envisioned.

So what happened?

In the end, our Food Oasis idea was the winner that day, and that earned us a trip to Health 2.0’s Spring Fling conference in San Diego to present to a national audience.

This was the beginning, and an incomplete one at that. Knowing that we need to put people first, and that this idea is nothing without testing out the details with real people,  we knew we’d have our work cut out for ourselves. And we were excited.