People of PathCheck: Imane Chafi

Project Management, Software Engineering, and Architecture - How they all came together at PathCheck for Imane Chafi


Although PathCheck Foundation began in response to a global pandemic, the foundation itself has been fortunate to work alongside some of the most talented and brilliant scholars and volunteers.  

One of those individuals is Imane Chafi, Karuna Project Manager. Chafi was earning her bachelor's in software engineering when she saw a post by Dr. Ramesh Raskar asking for engineers to reach out if they had an interest in helping to build an application that would support public health outcomes during the second wave of Covid-19 in India. A long-time fan of Dr. Raskar’s work, Chafi immediately reached out and asked how she could be of help. 

“I wanted to use my expertise to help people in India and knowing that PathCheck was already a community of like-minded researchers, developers, and engineers who were trying to solve really big problems, and make change - I was onboard from the start,” said Chafi. “The great thing about PathCheck is that once you first reach out - you immediately get a response and a warm welcome. You make connections and then all of these ideas start to open and you begin working on amazing projects that directly impact lives.” 

What did you begin working on when you started at PathCheck?
Once I joined it was off to the races! I have a background in project management, and I began to realize that all of the great ideas that were being passed around in PathCheck’s Slack were not being recorded. I felt like someone had to take the reigns and point us in the right direction. I would set deadline dates, and structures so that the team could begin to work towards those deadlines. It was pretty great that I could immediately start to make an impact. 

Not long after that, the former president of the PathCheck Foundation who worked very similarly to me asked if I would be willing to head the project management for the Karuna App, the crowdsourcing app that would be launched in India and used to locate hospital beds and other resources throughout the second wave of Covid-19. I immediately jumped at the chance and began looking into how to launch the app.

So you began leading a project right away! Tell us about your experience being the project lead on Karuna. 
Breaking down the needs of the communities in India is how we began. For instance, we knew that the app had to be accessible in all forms so we wanted to make sure that those who did not have phones could also access it. This meant making sure a web platform existed for individuals to get the help that they needed.

My main job as the project manager was to connect the team and look at what was going well and what wasn’t. What problems needed to be solved and how strong was the user experience. I would look at the code from the design phase and then how it was coming through in the application to make sure people could use it easily. 

Whenever a new volunteer joined the team, I onboarded them and matched them to the project that made the most sense based on their skills and passions. I met so many hardworking and caring people, and what everyone brought to the team was amazing. 

What happened when you launched the Karuna app? 
It helped people immediately! Karuna used data and quickly communicated it to people who needed certain information, such as hospital access. Humans can’t be everywhere at once, so having a machine to do the thinking sometimes helps humans respond more efficiently, which is so key to keeping people safe. Citizens in India used the app and got help when they couldn’t find it in other places.

Did you ever think you would be working on apps to support public health?
No - high school Imane would not have thought that at all! Software engineering is focused on creating applications that have a very significant purpose - you want to pay your electric bill, sign into the app and pay. It is really focused on the services field. You don’t see that in public health or health in general. But it makes so much sense that they should and can act as a service to support public health. Although, if the pandemic hadn’t happened - I am not sure I would have seen it either. 

Are you currently in school?
Yes, right now I am working towards a Ph.D. in Computer Engineering at Polytechnique Montréal and a Masters in Architecture at the Boston Architectural College. It may seem like these two programs don’t fit - but software engineering is architecture and vice versa, because both are inherently human. Experience in these two worlds is also what brought me closer to PathCheck. To solve tough problems, you have to bring multiple disciplines into one. PathCheck has that incubator feeling - there are no wrong ideas - you can discuss and bring everything to light in order to solve problems. It is focused on public health but PathCheck covers so much more than that, vaccine info, vaccine credentials - it is helping people in so many ways.  

What do you hope you will be working on in 5 years?
My biggest dream is to design and build schools. In addition to that, I want to help other people get interested in science. Because both are important when we build spaces that foster new ideas. I want to ask the questions: What is a school and how do you create a school? What feeling does this space create? How will people move and engage in the space? More importantly, how will they learn and come up with new ideas? I am originally from Morocco and schools are needed in rural regions there. I hope to go back and do what I can.

What is the next phase for Karuna?
The next phase is to make it into a larger centralized system for humanitarian health. People need help in different kinds of crises situations. The app is built, and now we can use it to help individuals contact each other about humanitarian relief supplies. During a crisis, everything shuts down. What helps NGOs like the Red Cross is having access to information. Where the hardest-hit communities are, where the most help is needed. Then they can take that information and make sure that they are in the right places. Karuna bridges that gap. It's a concise and structured media platform with a purpose. Karuna helps people gain power back in crisis - because during a crisis you feel like you have no control. 

How has PathCheck helped in our professional and personal development?
It has helped me so much! And I can say this because working with people across different industries and countries has helped in my graduate studies. I can reach out to my community at PathCheck and have conversations that help work out problems and find solutions to them. 

It was also a great way to have exposure to what it is like working within an NGO. I was able to learn more about public health, use my skills and create an impact that crossed borders. Generally, in software engineering, you see how an app will be used and what it supports, but with PathCheck you saw how it impacted lives. That was very different and very humbling. It is a tool at the end of the day - but a tool with a human purpose. 

This experience showed me the power of when individuals come together and how great ideas can be generated when researchers and designers work towards a shared purpose. Research is the place where I am supposed to be - I want to keep finding ways to create more progress. Being around PathCheck, and working on Karuna solidified that for me.