You can’t manage what you can’t measure, said Sickweather CEO Graham Dodge, describing the need for cough detection sensors that are slated to be rolled out in public places across Kansas City in 2019.
Illness forecaster Sickweather is teaming up with fellow Kansas City startup Mycroft, a leader in artificial intelligence-infused tech, to develop the devices in conjunction with the Kansas City Health Department’s smart city initiatives, Dodge said.
The cough sensors are expected to record the number of coughs picked up on city streetcars and buses, collecting data on illnesses relating to respiratory issues in the city, he said.
“This will be our first step in trying to measure that activity in real time so that the health department can deploy resources as needed to communities,” Dodge added.
The collaborators are also exploring the possibility of installing air quality sensors in schools, said Dodge, noting the prime directive of the projects is to study childhood asthma.
Like all Mycroft products, the cough detection sensor keeps privacy in mind, said Joshua Montgomery, CEO of Mycroft, noting the only data collected is the number of coughs heard in each location. The data cannot be attributed to a specific individual.
“The idea is very similar to a traffic counter that sits in an intersection,” he said. “It can’t tell you which cars go through that intersection; all it can do is give you a count and a location and a time. Cities use that information to make decisions about traffic lights and other things.”
“We can do the same with the sounds of human illness in order to make decisions about, and get better information about things like vaccinations, public health efforts and other items of that nature,” he added.
Privacy and security considerations are a key differentiator between what Mycroft and Sickweather are building in Kansas City and what big tech firms on the West Coast have built in Silicon Valley, Montgomery said.
“I think what we’re seeing in the media and what we’re seeing from regulators in Europe for example, is people becoming sensitive to exactly how invasive some of the Silicon Valley models are, and being willing to explore new technologies that do provide privacy, and that’s a great opportunity for us and a great opportunity for Kansas City,” he said.
Technologies like Mycroft products, the cough sensors, and the Sickweather app are steps in the right direction in terms of how active listening technology and public information from social media can be used, said Dodge.
“In our case, with [Sickweather’s] technology, we’re only listening to your public reports, so we aren’t invading anyone’s privacy when it comes to our social listening technology,” he added. “Anyone who’s using our app and volunteering this information, knows that this is going toward the maps and the forecast, and is contributing to the entire Sickweather community.”