Healthcare workers in Yukon wanted to find a better way to raise awareness about the resources available for pregnancy and newborn care, especially for communities in remote areas.
YukonBaby developed a mobile app that gives new parents easy access to the latest information and resources both online and offline, based on scalable IBM® Cloud Data Services technology.
Anytimeanywhere access to information helps new parents find the resources they need
Offlinecapabilities let users in remote areas look up information without a data connection
Flexibledatabase architecture enables rapid development of new features
Business challenge story
Raising awareness of public services
As the smallest of Canada’s northern territories, with a population of just over 30,000 people scattered across more than 470,000 square kilometers of subarctic landscape and tundra, you might assume that Yukon is not a hospitable place for families who are expecting a new baby. But you would be wrong.
Chris Naylor, a family physician in Yukon’s capital, Whitehorse, and the Chief Medical Officer and Co-founder of YukonBaby, explains: “Yukon actually has a lot of great resources available for pregnancy and early child care. The problem is that people often don’t know that they exist.
“As a doctor, I often work with families who are struggling to find reliable, unbiased information—and especially information that is applicable to our local situation. I wanted to find a better way to get the word out about the antenatal and neonatal resources and services that are available for Yukon citizens.”
When Naylor attended a local Hacking Health hackathon in 2013, he pitched his idea for an app that would provide Yukon-specific information and resources directly to expecting parents’ smartphones.
By the end of the three-day hackathon, he had formed a team with Wes Wilson, a medical engineer and cancer researcher, Shannon Ryan, a genetic counselor, Kate Swales, an early childhood educator, and Kathleen Cranfield, a midwife and prenatal educator, and they had developed and presented a successful prototype. This team would become the co-founders of the organization now known as YukonBaby.
Naylor comments: “There was obvious excitement in the healthcare and education communities about the idea, so we began to consider how to deliver the app in practice. We didn’t have any commercial aims, we just wanted to provide a service that our community needed. And the Yukon Health and Social Services department and Yukon Research Centre’s Technology Innovation program were willing to provide funding to cover the costs of marketing, development and IT infrastructure.”
While the organization and funding was coming together, the YukonBaby team was also working on the technical challenges of delivering the app: how could it build a scalable platform that could deliver valuable, up-to-date information to hundreds of expecting parents, while limiting the data costs for low-income families and minimizing the connectivity requirements for those who live in remote, poorly connected areas?
Building a scalable, cost-effective cloud platform
Wes Wilson, CTO and Co-founder of YukonBaby, comments: “From a technical perspective, the top priority was to build an app that could be used both online and offline. The Yukon doesn’t have great mobile data coverage, especially in remote areas, so we didn’t want users to have to be connected to access information—particularly since a lot of the information we provide doesn’t change much from day-to-day.”
The traditional relational database that YukonBaby had used for its prototype app was not a good choice from this perspective.
“SQL databases aren’t good at synchronizing data, which made us think about a NoSQL approach,” says Wilson. “IBM Cloudant® offers Cloudant Sync, which gave us exactly what we needed—an ‘offline first’ approach which lets our users work offline and just sync data when a connection is available.”
The Cloudant Sync capability also helps to keep costs low for users—instead of constantly re-downloading the same information, it only updates data that has changed. This minimizes the app’s consumption of mobile data, saving on phone bills.
“Low-income families are one of the groups that we particularly want to reach out to,” says Naylor. “We don’t want people to be discouraged from using the app because they’re worried about the cost of the data. With Cloudant, we’re able to significantly mitigate that risk.”
Cloudant also makes the app easy to manage, develop and extend—a key consideration given YukonBaby’s limited resources.
Naylor comments: “Our team has grown a little bit recently, but for most of the two years that we’ve been working on the app, Wes has been our only programmer—and it wasn’t his full-time job. To deliver a viable product with these resource constraints, we couldn’t afford to have Wes spending his time on database administration—we needed a platform that would look after itself. The fact that IBM offers Cloudant as a fully managed service was key.”
Wilson adds: “From my perspective as a developer, the fact that Cloudant doesn’t have a complex relational data model to manage is a big benefit. If you make a bad design decision, you’re not stuck with it—you can reorganize your data very easily and adapt your data structures as your needs change.
“Also, since the rest of our architecture is built on AngularJS and Node.js, it’s very natural to handle data in Cloudant’s JSON format—the whole stack is easy to understand, develop and debug. As an example, we had a situation where users were experiencing a lot of lag in part of the interface. I was able to fix the problem over the course of a weekend, without even touching the database—whereas with a SQL database, if you’ve got lag, you’re almost certainly going to end up spending hours optimizing and indexing.”
The JSON data format also allows other members of the team to contribute to the app, without any need for programming skills.
Naylor says: “We can compile new content for the app in spreadsheets, then simply save it in JSON format and upload it to Cloudant. That’s incredibly useful because once again, it allows Wes to focus on application development while other people handle content creation and management.”
Supporting communities in Yukon and beyond
With the app now launched on Android and iOS, YukonBaby is bringing information, resources and tools to a new generation of parents across Yukon.
Users can read about how their baby is developing over the course of their pregnancy, learn what to expect in the coming weeks, and consult detailed FAQs about every aspect of antenatal and neonatal health. They can also easily locate relevant resources in their local community, such as doctors, clinics and hospitals, and view local events such as classes and workshops where they can learn and socialize with other expecting parents.
Wilson comments: “We’re adding new features all the time to make this the best possible app for expecting parents in our communities. And as user adoption increases, we can be confident that Cloudant will scale up to handle the demand.”
Naylor concludes: “The flexibility of Cloudant also means that the app could have benefits beyond Yukon. We’re seeing a lot of interest from health organizations in other cities and territories, and we could easily re-skin the app to deliver similar services for different places, or even different clinical topics, such as diabetes or cardiovascular health.”
Founded at a hackathon in 2014, YukonBaby is a project funded by the Technology Innovation program of the Yukon Research Centre, and the Yukon government’s Health and Social Services department. The YukonBaby team consists of healthcare professionals, educators and developers who are volunteering their time to develop innovative iPhone and Android apps that put pregnancy resources and tools in expecting parents’ pockets.
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