Norma Padron, PhD, is a Research Scientist in the Academy’s Center for Health Innovation and Assistant Professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

On a typical weekday, Mariama Jaiteh powers through her day as a senior at Manhattan Hunter Science High School. After regular classes, she dives into four college-level Hunter courses, before arriving home to help out her mom around the house (she’s the oldest of three siblings). After taking an online coding class (she’s self-taught), she falls in to bed, excited about doing it all again the next day.

Her packed schedule is exactly what you’d expect from a member of YWCA-NYC’s Geek Girls Club who intends to take the app world by storm. “What we want to do is bring awareness to issues going on in a [New York City] resident’s building, things they need to look out for and steps they need to take if they have problems,” says Mariama, who is African American, of the safer, healthier affordable housing app she’s working on with fellow Geek Girl Ariadne Billy. Geek Girls engages 14-to-18 year olds in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) exploration.

Ari, a senior at Convent of the Sacred Heart NYC and a first generation Colombian/Venezuelan/American, is tackling college applications and extracurricular activities, while working toward her dreams. "I am looking into programs that will allow me to learn about environmental policy design," she says.

I met them when Lisa and Lawrence Abeyta asked me to become their co-mentor for APPCityLife’s NYC Big Apps competition team. Big Apps is the largest contest focused on civic engagement technology in the country. The Abeyta’s also devote considerable resources to diversifying the STEM field by supporting the work of young people such as Ari and Mariama.

As a health economist at The New York Academy of Medicine’s Center for Health Innovation, I constantly interact with city officials, medical doctors, and computer scientists, but the prospect of mentoring high school students designing a mobile app was more than a little intimidating.

All my doubts dissipated the day I met Mariama and Ari for the first time. As our group worked together to improve the quality of affordable housing in the city, these two amazing young women led the team.

“With searches, applications, and rating tools proliferating in the private market, it is important that New Yorkers living in subsidized housing and public housing have the same resources to better their living conditions,” said Mariama, in her description of the project.

With that goal in mind, Ari and Mariama guided the creation of an app that they described as “providing New Yorkers with a rating tool for their homes along with access to data about any past issues in their buildings.” The app, Expose.NYC, is also social because it is set up to help community members publicly report violations.

Health in All Things

Even at their young age, Ari and Mariama realize that housing and health are inextricably linked. While volunteering as their mentor, I could not help but see the connection between the Academy’s approach to improving the city’s health—emphasizing the importance of seeing opportunities to protect health in many aspects of life.

The design, affordability and upkeep of housing all play an important role in keeping people healthy. Access to safe, affordable housing is imperative to ensuring that people of all ages live in communities that promote both social and health equity. Typical housing violations such as mold contamination, lack of heat, and vermin infestations pose significant health risks. These issues could easily be tracked and reported through the Expose NYC app.

A current Academy initiative, carried out in partnership with the Little Sisters of the Assumption, tackles this type of issue by providing education, skills building, and home remediation services to improve at-home air quality for children with severe or persistent asthma living in East Harlem public housing.

As I watched Mariama and Ari confidently advance to the APPCityLife competition semi-finals, I realized that while we struggle with affordable housing issues today, the next generation has got this—they are the future of healthy housing in New York city.