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June 16, 2019
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Public health

Facebook releases a trio of maps to aid with fighting disease outbreaks

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Facebook this morning announced a new initiative focused on using its data and technologies to help nonprofit organizations and universities working in public health better map the spread of infectious diseases around the world. Specifically, the company is introducing three new maps: population density maps with demographic estimates, movement maps, and network coverage maps. These, says Facebook, will help the health partners to understand where people live, how they’re moving, and if they have connectivity — all factors that can aid in determining how to respond to outbreaks, and where supplies should be delivered.

As Facebook explained, health organizations rely on information like this when planning public health campaigns. But much of the information they rely on is outdated, like older census data. In addition, information from more remote communities can be scarce.

By combining the new maps with other public health data, Facebook believes organizations will be better equipped to address epidemics.

The new high-resolution population density maps will estimate the number of people living within 30-meter grid tiles, and provide insights on demographics, including the number of children under five, the number of women of reproductive age, as well as young and elderly populations. These maps aren’t built using Facebook data, but are instead built by using Facebook’s A.I. capabilities with satellite imagery and census information.

Movement maps, meanwhile, track aggregate data about Facebook users’ movements via their mobile phones (when location services are enabled). At scale, health partners can combine this with other data to predict where other outbreaks may occur next.

Above: movement maps of London and surrounding areas

And network coverage maps help to show where people can be reached with online messages — like those alerting to vaccination days or other health-related communications.

Of course, it’s hard to not overlook the irony involved of Facebook data and tech being used to help with outbreaks that, in some cases, Facebook had a hand in creating. The company for years allowed the spread of vaccine misinformation to spread across its network. Irresponsibly, it also allowed Facebook Pages and Groups that promoted vaccine skepticism or outright false claims to rank at the top of Facebook searches for related terms, like “vaccines.”

After time passed, it’s not surprising to find this spread of misinformation on Facebook and elsewhere resulted in measles outbreaks in the U.S. and abroad — a disease that had been eliminated as a major U.S. public health threat around 20 years ago. And despite repeated debunkings of false claims about the link between measles and autism by scientists, Facebook users — now feeling equipped by the internet to be experts on anything they can type into a search box — continued to spread misinformation at scale.

Once looped into the anti-vax communities, Facebook’s algorithms only further ensconced the skeptics into a world where only their opinions were correct, and they were surrounded by others who felt the same. This deepened their beliefs.

Today, the World Health Organization says vaccine hesitancy is now one of the biggest threats in global public health, citing the 30 percent increase in measles cases worldwide.

Above: network coverage map in Democratic Republic of Congo following the recent Ebola outbreak

Facebook only recently announced a plan to curb the spread of vaccine misinformation on its platforms, following government inquiries. But the health crisis it helped create by way of inattention is already well underway.

To be fair, Facebook is not the only platform corrupted by anti-vax misinformation — Pinterest, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook-owned Instagram have also just taken measures to address the problem. But Facebook is the largest social network, and a highly influential platform.

Of course, vaccine-preventable diseases are only one of many crises (and potential crises) in public health, along with threats such as Ebola, antimicrobial resistance, influenza, dengue, HIV and many others. Access to more data can help health organizations in many areas.

This is not the first time Facebook has tapped its large data stores or other technologies to aid nonprofits and other researchers. The company has also provided aid organizations with anonymized location data for users in areas affected by disasters — including where people were marking themselves as safe, and where they were fleeing. In another humanitarian-related effort, Facebook has been working with A.I. to create population density maps, including most recently one showing the population of Africa.

“Epidemics pose a growing threat to lives and livelihoods,” said Vanessa Candeias, Head of Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare at the World Economic Forum, in a Facebook announcement about the new maps. “Mitigating their risk and impact requires every tool in the toolbox.”

Twitter launches new search features to stop the spread of misinformation about vaccines

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As measles outbreaks in the United States and other countries continue to get worse, Twitter is introducing new search tools meant to help users find credible resources about vaccines. It will also stop auto-suggesting search terms that would lead users to misinformation about vaccines.

In a blog post, Twitter vice president of trust and safety Del Harvey wrote “at Twitter, we understand the importance of vaccines in preventing illness and disease and recognize the role that Twitter plays in disseminating important public health information. We think it’s important to help people find reliable information that enhances their health and well-being.”

When users search for keywords related to vaccines, they will see a prompt that directs them to resources from Twitter’s information partners. In the U.S., this is Vaccines.gov, a website by the Department of Health and Human Services. A pinned tweet from one of Twitter’s partners will also appear.

One of Twitter’s new tools to stop the spread of vaccine misinformation

In addition to the U.S., the vaccine information tools will also appear on Twitter’s iOS and Android apps and its mobile site in Canada, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore and Spanish-speaking Latin American countries.

Harvey wrote that Twitter’s vaccine information tools are similar to ones it launched for suicide and self-harm prevention last year. The company plans to launch similar features for other public health issues over the coming months, she added.

Earlier this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said measles cases in the U.S. had increased to 839. Cases have been reported in 23 states this year, with the majority—or almost 700—in New York.

Social media platforms have been criticized for not doing more to prevent the spread of misinformation about vaccines and, as measles cases began to rise, started taking measures. For example, YouTube announced earlier this year that it is demonetizing all anti-vaccine videos, while Facebook began downranking anti-vaccine content on its News Feed and hiding it on Instagram.

Kencko wants to help you eat more fruit and vegetables

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People don’t eat enough fruit and vegetables, that’s despite an embarrassment of options today that include fast grocery delivery and takeout services with a focus on health.

A study from the U.S-based Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released last November found that just one in ten adults in America “meet the federal fruit or vegetable recommendations” each day. The bar isn’t that high. The recommendation is just 1.5-2 cups of fruit and two to three cups of vegetables per day, but failing to meet it can put people at risk of chronic diseases, the CDC said.

The problem is universal the world over, but perhaps most acute in the U.S, where finding healthy food is easier than ever. Amazon’s same-day grocery deliveries, make-it-at-home services like Blue Apron and various healthy takeout services have helped some people, but no doubt there’s much more to be done for standards to be raised across the nation and beyond.

That’s where one early-stage startup, Kencko, is aiming to make a difference by making fruit and vegetable more accessible. Its thesis is that wholly organic diets are daunting to most, but packaging the good parts in new ways can make it easier for anyone to be more healthy.

The company’s first offering is a fruit drink that can be made in minutes using just a sachet, water and its mixer bottle.

Kencko currently offers five different organic fruit and vegetable mixes

Just add water

Unlike other ‘instant’ mixer options, Kencko uses freeze-drying to turn fruit and vegetable mixes into powder without compromising on health. That process — which is similar to how NASA develops food for astronauts — retains minerals, protein, vitamins and all the other good stuff typically lost in healthy drinks, the startup said. The fruit and vegetables used are organic and sourced from across the world — that’s broken down into more details on the Kencko website — while the mixes don’t contain sugar or other additives.

Kencko customers make their drink by mixing the sachet with water and shaking for one minute. Each sachet is 20g and, when combined with water, that gets you a 160g serving. That’s around two daily portions, and it  has a 180-day shelf live so it can keep. There are six different combinations, each one is a mixture of six fruit and vegetables.

Unlike others that pair with water, Kencko actually includes fruit pieces and seeds — I tested a batch. That’s pretty unique, although it is worth noting that some of the more berry fruit heavy combinations mix less efficiently than the plant-based ones, at least from my experience. As someone who lives in a city where fresh fruit and vegetables are easily found — thank you, Bangkok — I’m not the target customer. But I can readily recall living the busy 9-6 office life in London a decade ago, and back then I’d have been curious enough to at least take Kencko for a spin in my quest to be a little healthier.

Kencko is also affordable when compared to most health food options, which tend to be positioned as premium.

Packs are priced at $29.90 for ten sachets, $74.50 for 30 and $123.50 for 60. The startup offers a ‘Lifetime Founding Member’ package that gives 30 percent off those prices for an initial charge. That’s $32 for those wanting 10 servinggs, $79.90 for 30 and $129 for 60.

Two of my Kencko mixes

More than pressed juice

Kencko — which means health in Japanese — is the brainchild of Tomás Froes, a former tech worker who got into veganism after being diagnosed with acute gastritis.

Froes, who is from Portugal and once ran an artisanal hot dog brand in China, was told that his ailment was treatable but that it would require a cocktail of pills for the rest of his life. Seeking an alternative, he threw himself into the world of alternative health and, after settling on a 90 percent fruit and vegetable diet, found that his condition had cleared without medicine.

Keen to help others enjoy the benefits of his journey, he began talking to nutritionists and experts whilst trying to figure out possible business options. In an interview with TechCrunch, Froes said he settled on a new take on the existing ‘health drink’ space that he maintains is inadequate in a number of ways.

“The end goal is to help consumers reach the recommendation of five servings/portions of fruit a day,” he explained. “That would be impossible to do if we excluded the seeds and bits of fruits like cold-pressed juice companies do. They press the juice out of the fruits, leaving the most nutritional part from pulp and the seeds out.”

“We blast freeze fruit and vegetables at -40 degrees which allows us to maintain the same nutritional properties as fresh fruit for longer periods. We then use a slow heat process of 60 degrees to evaporate only take the water-based parts without damaging nutrition,” Froes added.

Added that, Froes said, Kencko helps cut down on the use of plastic by using the same mixer, return customers only require new sachets.

As proof of Kencko’s versatility, he brought his mixer and sachets along to the vegan cafe we met at earlier this year when I visited London, putting me to shame for buying the cold pressed option — which was no doubt more expensive, to boot.

Kencko is based in New York but with a processing facility in Lisbon, Portugal. It is heavily focused on the U.S. market where it offers delivery in 24-48 hours, but it also covers the UK and Canada. There are plans to increase support, particularly in Asia.

Kencko’s Apple Watch app is in beta with selected users

Building a health food brand

Kencko was formed in 2017 and, after landing undisclosed seed funding, it launched its product in March of this year. Already it has seen progress; the startup recently entered the TechStars accelerator program in London as one of a batch of ten companies.

“I’m excited to work with Tomas and the Kencko team,” Eamonn Carey, who leads TechStars in London, told TechCrunch. “I first read about them on ProductHunt and bought into their mission straight away. Once I tasted the product for the first time, I was sold — both as a subscriber and an investor.”

Froes told TechCrunch that drinks are just the first phase of what Kencko hopes to offer consumers. He explained that he wants to move into other types of food and consumables in the future to help give people more options to get their daily portion of fruit and vegetables.

Up next could be Apple-based snacks. Foes shared — quite literally — a new batch of snack that’s currently in development and is made from the fruit. He believes it could be marketed a healthier option than crisps and other nibbles people turn to between meals. Further down the pipeline, he said, will be other kinds of food that maintain the 100 percent organic approach.

Beyond food, Kencko wants to build a close bond with its customers. It is developing iOS and Apple Watch apps that help its users to track their fruit and vegetable consumption, and more generally make their diet and routine healthier.

With the membership package and apps, it becomes clear that Kencko aspires to build a brand and not just sell a product online. That’s double the challenge (at least), and that makes the company one to watch.

Already it has found some success within tech circles such as TechStar’s Carey — people who aspire to eat and drink better but are pushed for time — but if Froes is to even begin to deliver on his mission then Kencko will need to go beyond the tech industry niche and attract mainstream consumers. For now though, the product is worth close inspection if you think your lifestyle is in need of a fruit boost.

RideAlong is helping police officers de-escalate 911 calls with data designed for the field

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RideAlong keeps people in mind, and that’s a good thing. The company, founded by Meredith Hitchcock (COO) and Katherine Nammacher (CEO), aims to make streets safer, not with expansive surveillance systems or high-tech weaponry but with simple software focused on the people being policed. That distinction sounds small, but it’s surprisingly revelatory. Tech so oftens forgets the people that it’s ostensibly trying to serve, but with RideAlong they’re front and center.

“The thing about law enforcement is they are interacting with individuals who have been failed by the rest of society and social support networks,” Nammacher told TechCrunch in an interview. “We want to help create a dialogue toward a more perfect future for people who are having some really rough things happen to them. Police officers also want that future.”

Ridealong is specifically focused on serving populations that have frequent interactions with law enforcement. Those individuals are often affected by complex forces that require special care — particularly chemical dependence, mental illness and homelessness.

“I think it is universally understood if someone has a severe mental illness… putting them through the criminal justice system and housing them in a jail is not the right thing to do,” Nammacher said. For RideAlong, the question is how to help those individuals obtain long-term support from a system that isn’t really designed to adequately serve them.

Made for field work, RideAlong is a mobile responsive web app that presents relevant information on individuals who frequently use emergency services. It collects data that might otherwise only live in an officer’s personal notebook or a police report, presenting it on a call so that officers can use it to determine if an individual is in crisis and if they are, the best way to de-escalate their situation and provide support. With a simple interface and a no-frills design, RideAlong works everywhere from a precinct laptop to a smartphone in the field to a patrol car’s dash computer.

Nammacher explains that any police officer could easily think of the five people they interact with most often, recalling key details about them like their dog’s name and whether they are close to a known family member. That information is very valuable for responding to a crisis but it often isn’t accessible when it needs to be.

“They’ve come up with some really smart manual workarounds for how to deal with that,” Nammacher says, but it isn’t always enough. That real-time information gap is where RideAlong comes in.

How RideAlong works

RideAlong is designed so that police officers and other first responders can search its database by name and location but also by gender, height, weight, ethnicity and age. When a search hits a result in the system, RideAlong can help officers detect subtle shifts from a known baseline behavior. The hope is that even very basic contextual information can provide clues that mean a big difference in outcomes.

So far, it seems to be working. RideAlong has been live in Seattle for a year, with the Seattle Police Department’s 1,300 sworn officers using the software every day. Over the course of six months with RideAlong, Seattle and King County saw a 35% reduction in 911 calls. That decrease, interpreted as a sign of more efficient policing, translated into $407,000 in deferred costs for the city.

“It really assists with decision making, especially when it comes to crisis calls,” Seattle Police Sergeant Daniel Nelson told TechCrunch. Officers have a lot of discretion to do what they think is best based on the information available. “There is so much gray space.”

Ridealong has also partnered with the San Francisco Department of Public Health where a street medicine team is putting it to use in a pilot. West of Seattle, Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office is looking at RideAlong for its team of 300 officers.

What this looks like in practice: An officer responds to a call involving a person they known named Suzanne. They might remember that normally if they ask her about Suzanne’s dog it calms her down, but today it makes her upset. Rather than assuming that her agitated behavior is coming out of the blue, the responding officer could address concerns around Suzanne’s dog and help de-escalate the situation.

In another example, an officer responds to someone on the street who they perceive to be yelling and agitated. Checking contextual information in RideAlong could clarify that an individual just speaks loudly because they are hard of hearing, not in crisis. If someone is actually agitated and drawing helps them calm down, RideAlong will note that.

“RideAlong visualizes that data, so when somebody is using the app they can see, ‘okay this person has 50 contacts, they’ve been depressed, sad, crying,’” Nelson said. “Cops are really good at seeing behavior and describing behavior so that’s what we’re asking of them.”

The idea is that making personalized data like this easy to see can reduce the use of force in the field, calm someone down and open the door to connecting them social services and any existing support network.

“I’ve known all along that we’ve got incredible data, but it’s not getting out to the people on the streets,” said Maria X. Martinez, Director of Whole Person Care at San Francisco Department of Public Health. RideAlong worked directly with her department’s street medicine on a pilot program that gave clinicians access to key data while providing medical care in to the city’s homeless population.

Traditionally, street medicine workers go do their work in the field and return to look up the records for the people they interacted with. Now, those processes are combined and 15 different sets of relevant data gets pulled together and presented in the field, where workers can add to and annotate it. “It’s one thing to tell people to come back and enter their data… you sort of hope that that does happen,” Martinez said. With RideAlong, “You’ve already done both things: documented and given them the info.”

Forming RideAlong

The small team at RideAlong began when the co-founders met during a Code for America fellowship in 2016. They built the app in 2016 under the banner of a data-driven justice program during the Obama administration. Interest was immediate. The next year, Nammacher and Hitchcock spun the project out into its own company, became part of Y Combinator’s summer batch of startups and by July they launched a pilot program with the entire Seattle police department.

Neither co-founder planned on starting a company, but they were inspired by what they describe as a “real-time information gap” between people experiencing mental health crises and the people dispatched to help them and the level of interest from “agencies across the country, big and small” who wanted to buy their product.

“There’s been more of a push recently for quantitative data to be a more central force for decision making,” Nammacher said. The agencies RideAlong has worked with so far like how user friendly the software is and how it surfaces the data they already collect to make it more useful.

“At the end of the day, our users are both the city staff member and the person that they’re serving. We see them as equally valid and important.”

Vans Warped Tour bands back FEND, an app educating young adults about opioid dangers

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Can a mobile app help to address the opioid crisis in the U.S.? That’s the goal behind FEND, an app that’s taking advantage of technology solutions like machine learning and gamification to increase young people’s understanding of opioids and to change their behaviors. It’s the first large-scale attempt at running a public health campaign in the U.S. on a mobile device in this manner. And it’s already seeing some early success thanks to its sponsorship of Vans’ Warped Tour and the endorsement of several participating bands and  artists.

Unlike traditional public health campaigns which use mass media, like billboards or TV ads to reach users, FEND [Full Energy No Drugs] personalizes its material for each user.

The FEND app encourages downloads by promising users – young people who otherwise wouldn’t bother with an educational anti-drug app – free swag they actually care about. For example: Vans Warped tour tickets, a trip to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Vans shoes, access to acoustic sessions at the Warped Tour with bands like Waterparks and We the Kings; and in the future, if all goes well, a way to bring a concert produced by Warped Tour’s Kevin Lyman to their own hometown.

The idea for FEND comes from serial entrepreneur Steve Huff, a North Carolina native who has been living in Australia for the past eighteen years. During this time he has founded and headed a number of businesses, including automated publishing solution Typefi Systems; parenting information resource Sixty Second Parent; and sustainable energy non-profit, The Light Foundation, where he authored a report for the UN on the use of solar lighting in refugee camps, and ran a solar entrepreneurship program for teenage girls in Malawi.

“For me, it’s always important to combine innovation, entrepreneurship and some kind of social good,” Huff explained, as to his motivations around FEND.

The problem FEND aims to address is to make public health campaigns more effective by individualizing the conversation for each user, while also using the same sort of technology social apps leverage to addict their users.

The technology platform itself, iPug, uses gamification, rewards artificial intelligence, and personalization techniques to make the information shared in the app relevant to the end users, and retain them over time. It combines the evidence-based research it aims to share with technology, its own streetwear brand and – as the means of reaching the target audience – music.

While there are obviously a number of ways this platform could be used in public health education, the company is focused initially on an opioid educational campaign launched in partnership with the Preventum Initiative.

Above: Metalcore band Kublai Khan sporting FEND apparel at Vans Warped Tour, Tampa

A large part of FEND’s following comes from its sponsorship of the final run of the Vans Warped Tour, where it has a booth and the support of many artists who mention FEND on stage, send out messages to fans, wear FEND merchandise, or even perform special sets for FEND.

For example, Waterparks, The Maine, We The Kings, The Interrupters, and others have spoken for FEND.

So far, FEND has been downloaded 20,000 times, Huff said.

After the first 9,500 downloads, the company took a snapshot of user behavior and found its engagement rate was 80 percent. And 79 percent of the kids said they would be “very likely” to talk to a loved one or friend who might be using.

In the app, users are first presented with a baseline survey to get an understanding of how much they already know about opioids. Then across four modules, they learn more about the topic through videos, infographics, quizzes, motion graphics, and more, which combined address key topics like how to spot the signs of an opioid overdose, or how to talked to a loved one about their addiction, and other information about the drugs.

As users progress, the plan is to customize the app’s material to each person’s learning style – using the right material and approach, by taking advantage of machine learning to personalize the experience.

Even if FEND falls short of being a success as measured by traditional app store metrics, it’s a whopper for public health campaign. And its results can be life-saving.

“We’re getting a lot of feedback from the kids, who said ‘I just downloaded this app to get free stuff. But I went to a party last week, and there was a kid in the corner. I went over and their lips were blue and their fingers were blue, and I checked their breathing. I knew they were overdosing, and I called 911. I put them in the recovery position, and the paramedics came, gave them Narcan and said I saved their life,’” Huff told us over the weekend, in a backstage interview at Warped Tour.

“John Hopkins is freaking out because they’re going to have the largest sample size for an opioid study in history,” Huff enthused.

(A prior study of opioid deaths included over 13,000 overdose cases. But many studies range in the hundreds, in terms of participants.)

The company now wants to bring FEND to schools, through deals with state governments.

“We’ve been talking to state governments,” Huff said, noting the feedback has been positive, but talks are in early phases – no deals have been signed. “Alabama was like, look, we have morgues where we’re putting bodies out under the trees because we don’t have enough space,” he continued. “This is way bigger than anybody knows.”

“2016 was the last time the CDC reported statistics on the opioid epidemic. And at that point, we were losing 60,000 people a year to overdoses due to the use of opioids and heroin. And 80 percent of heroin users in the U.S. got their start on prescription pills,” Huff added. [He’s citing these numbers from the CDC.]

“The United States has 4.3 percent of the world’s population, but we consume 80 percent of the world’s opioid supply,” he said.

The goal is to bring FEND to states for a pilot in five states for a period of 14 months, to further prove out the concept outside the progress made with the Warped Tour sponsorship.

The tech platform behind FEND, founded in late 2015, has raised $2 million in angel funding from Huff’s network of connections. The long-term goal is to offer the platform on a SaaS [software as a service] basis or through enterprise sales. It has also researched and aims to implement its own token economy on the Ethereum blockchain. This would allow other non-profits, celebs and movements the opportunity to run their own public health campaigns using the platform. These could be offered in their own white-labeled version of FEND app, focused on their own supported initiative.

For the bands involved, it could also allow those with smaller followings a way to be reimbursed in tokens for bringing their followers to FEND.

The bigger picture here is about taking advantage techniques common to tech companies drug companies, and others, and leverage them for public health campaigns instead, Huff also noted.

“We use the same techniques Big Pharma and Big Tobacco used to engage their users, and we turn the tables on them. And now we’re using those techniques to engage kids not to use opioids,” Huff said. “I’m a tech guy, I’m not a public health guy. So this is how a tech guy would design a public health campaign,” he added.

FEND is available on iOS and Android.

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