For 18-year-old Olenka Polak, the eureka moment came in a Harvard bathroom.
While at the college’s innovation lab attending a recent “start-up scramble” aimed at helping young entrepreneurs develop new ideas, Olenka, a sopohmore, went to the women’s restroom and was pleasantly surprised by a basket full of free tampons. How cool, she thought. But then she wondered: What if there were no free tampons and the vending machine was out of order and you were just plain stuck in “a periodic emergency?”
That’s when Olenka had the flash: “Wouldn’t it be cool to have this community of women on a mobile platform and have this kind of tampon hand-off where you could earn points for donating a tampon to a fellow sister in need?”
With this vision of girl-power camraderie dancing in her head, Olenka returned to the event, raised her hand and pitched her idea: There, Code Red, the mobile tampon app, was born.
A Code Red team including Olenka and two other women — Isha Agarwal and Yogeeta Manglani, both 24-year-old graduate students in global health at Harvard’s School of Public Health — quickly coalesced and started brainstorming. They came up with a simple prototype: a mobile app that would allow women in need to send out a “red alert” that would ping other nearby users who could rush over and delivery a tampon or sanitary pad or share information on where the nearest working tampon vending machine might be. (The machines are usually out of order and in some buildings simply non-existent, said Agarwal, who is also a student at Harvard Medical School.)
The interface the team has developed asks whether a pad or tampon is preferred; respondents can send back a yes or no answer about whether help is on the way. They can also initiate a chat, to say, for example, “class is just wrapping up, I’ll be there in 10 minutes.” The mockup also includes “health bytes,” a running ticker of women’s health stories to read while you’re waiting. The mapping system would track and update users’ GPS locations with each ping.
Security is clearly an issue and the team has proposed an initial launch within the Harvard community to enable a verification system using Harvard ID numbers.
But beyond tampon distribution, the Code Red team hopes to broaden its reach and become a platform for other types of women’s health needs.
For example, the app might include an automatic phone reminder for women to change their tampons in order to cut their risk of toxic shock syndrome. Continue reading