Tag Archive: Health-Technology

A Game Plan For Technology Companies To Actually Help Save The World

Smartphones, computers and social media platforms have become indispensable parts of modern life, but the technology companies that make them and write their software are under siege. In any given week, Facebook or Google or Amazon does something to erode public trust in them. Now could be a moment for the industry to make good on Bill Gates’s promise of technology to do good, by “unlocking the innate compassion we have for our fellow human beings” and improving the world – or Mark Zuckerberg’s dream of building a “new social infrastructure to create the world we want for generations to come.”

Around the globe, countries and societies are falling behind on reducing social inequalities and meeting goals for economic development and environmental sustainability. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is issuing increasingly dire warnings about the effects climate change will have on human life on Earth – the beginnings of which are already unfolding.

I lead a major research initiative called The Digital Planet at the Fletcher School at Tufts where we study how technology is changing lives and livelihoods around the world. Here is an outline of how technology giants or nimble startups could help make Gates’s and Zuckerberg’s promises a reality.

Identify a big hairy problem

There is a long list of global problems to combat, including hunger, drought, poverty, bad health, polluted water and poor sanitation. One that’s connected to all the others is the recent bombshell news that climate change is accelerating: Over the next 20 years, Earth’s atmosphere will reach average temperatures as much as 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial levels. Consequently, extreme weather and natural disasters, food shortages, inundated coastlines and the near-elimination of coral reefs will likely happen even sooner than previously anticipated.

The scope of climate change gives companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon excellent opportunities to find specific approaches that would have meaningful effects.

Trace the root causes

There are, of course, many elements driving climate change. Consider the agriculture sector, which produces one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions. Farms emit the largest share and could benefit from a range of technologies, such as data analytics and artificial intelligence. As a bonus, innovating in agriculture could help feed more people.

Identify how technology can make a big difference

Technological tools could help farmers collect and use data to manage their crops more precisely in ways that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions – such as using less fertilizer and plowing and planting fields more efficiently. Specifically, better data on soil and plant health could help farmers know where they need to increase or decrease irrigation or pesticide and fertilizer use. These practices save farmers money and increase farms’ productivity, generating more food with less waste.

Recognize how you can make money from it

If companies are to get involved, there needs to be an opportunity to earn money – and the more, the better.

One estimate suggests that making changes in farming and food practices that enhance productivity, promote sustainable methods and reduce waste could produce commercial opportunities and new savings worth US$2.3 trillion overall worldwide annually.

Our research team, in work that is ongoing, has estimated that of that $2.3 trillion a year, $250 billion could come from the application of artificial intelligence and other analytics for precision farming alone – $195 billion of which would be in the developing world, with $45.6 billion in South Asia and $13.4 billion in East Africa. Other estimates for the effects of AI and analytics are less specific, but still within the same range – between $164 billion and $486 billion annually. There is indeed money to be made by technology companies interested in developing climate-friendly, productivity-improving interventions in agriculture.

Innovate to overcome the many barriers to change

Before the commercial value can be unlocked, however, there are many barriers to consider. Many rural areas, even in the developed world, don’t have affordable high-speed internet connections and, particularly in the developing world, the farming community is not as technology savvy as other professions. Further, farming practices have been handed down through generations and the idea of using data to make modifications to such long-held beliefs and methods can be countercultural.

In addition, there are many practical realities: 83 percent of the world’s cultivated land is fed only by rain, with no irrigation systems to make use of better data. Beyond that, in most parts of the world, seeds and fertilizer are not high-quality, lowering crop efficiency. Further, a lot of farms’ output is wasted because of lack of refrigeration and slow transportation from fields to consumers.

With all those obstacles, it is understandable that investments in data-driven agriculture dropped 39 percent from 2015 to 2016.

There are groups still working, though. FarmBeats is a Microsoft project that combines low-cost sensors in the ground with drones that both create aerial maps and act as wireless data relay points. Nigeria’s Zenvus and India’s Aibono analyze soil data. Kenya’s FarmDrive develops credit scores for people without formal bank accounts or standard borrowing histories by using alternative data, like mobile phone and social media activity, together with local agricultural and economic information. Ghana’s Farmerline tells farmers about weather forecasts, market information and financial tips.

These are creative efforts to solve deep and complex problems, but clearly there is room for large, well-resourced technology companies to step in, make a difference with big ideas, deep pockets and global support.

Invest in partnerships

Technology entrepreneurs will need to develop business models and organizational structures that are better at collaborating with local agricultural communities and businesses, to navigate personal and political relationships as well as regulations and government programs. Technology will not, on its own, be some sort of silver bullet that will unlock prosperity.

Changing technology companies into agents for widespread global good will not be easy – and it can be done in areas beyond agricultural innovation, too.

There has been no shortage of talk about these ideas: 50 CEOs met with French President Emmanuel Macron to discuss socially positive technologies; World Economic Forum events around the world discuss societal benefits of a Fourth Industrial Revolution; and some companies, such as Ericsson and SAP, are already committed to fulfilling United Nations goals for global sustainability.

We still have a long way to go. There is still a chance for technology companies to move fast and fix things by truly helping save the world – but sea levels are rising, so the time is now.The Conversation

Bhaskar Chakravorti, Dean of Global Business, The Fletcher School, Tufts University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 

How To Pick The Good From The Bad Smartphone Health Apps

With an estimated 100,000 health and fitness apps available on the two leading smartphone platforms, iOS and Android, it seems there is an app for everything – from tracking your bowel movements, to practising your pimple-popping technique.

However, a number of apps are starting to raise the ire of government regulators. Brain-training juggernaut Lumosity was recently fined US$2 million (A$2.7 million) for making unfounded claims that its app could improve work performance and delay the onset of Alzheimer’s.

“Ultimeyes”, a vision-training app touted to “turn back the clock on your vision” and reduce the need for glasses and contact lenses, was fined US$150,000 for misrepresenting scientific research and ordered to stop making deceptive marketing claims.

“MelApp” claimed to be able to assess melanoma on the basis of a photograph of the mole and some other inputted information, analysed using “patent protect, highly sophisticated mathematical algorithms and image pattern recognition technology”. The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) found its claims lacked scientific evidence, leading to a hefty fine and strict instructions regarding future marketing.

To date, authorities have primarily pursued rogue health apps from a consumer rights perspective, on the basis of misleading advertising – that is, the apps claiming to do something when, in fact, they may be ineffective – rather than from a medical-safety perspective.

In the US, the Food and Drug Authority (FDA) is traditionally responsible for approving medical devices. However, apps that essentially allow a smartphone to become a medical device present a grey area. The FDA has issued guidelines, but compliance is primarily voluntary. Only a minuscule percentage of apps available in the Apple and Google Play stores have FDA approval.

Most apps that present themselves as substitute medical devices offer fine-print disclaimers, such as “not FDA cleared” and “for entertainment purposes”. This information is buried in the expandable description of the app on the app store, which most users will never read.

An interesting case in point is the hugely popular “Instant Blood Pressure” app, which has sold an estimated 148,000 copies. This app and others like it claim to read blood pressure – “no cuff required” (instead, the app supposedly uses the phone’s microphone pressed against the chest and a finger over the camera).

Independent testing published in March’s JAMA Internal Medicine found the app failed to identify high blood pressure in around 80% of true cases.

This is disturbing, considering such apps are likely to appeal to people with high blood pressure. It is conceivable that users could delay seeking medical attention on the basis of false normal-range readings, with potentially dire consequences.

So in this ever-expanding and largely unregulated app landscape, how can you go about distinguishing the good health apps from the bad?

1. Does the app use the phone’s built-in hardware to perform medical diagnoses?

Medical diagnostic equipment is highly specialised and specific, stringently tested and usually interpreted by skilled professionals. It’s therefore highly dubious that a smartphone app can match these diagnostic capabilities, based on the in-built microphone and camera, and interpretation by a commercial algorithm (which is typically unpublished and unproven).

2. Does the app use the phone’s in-built hardware to treat a medical condition?

While apps exist that claim to treat conditions such as pain, acne and seasonal affective disorder using smartphones’ vibrations and/or screen light (yes, really, and they’ve had thousands of paying downloads), such outputs lack scientific evidence and are extremely unlikely to be of therapeutic quality or intensity.

3. Is the app from a reputable source?

Affiliation with a reputable peak body, university or government department suggests the app is likely to be trustworthy. Beware, though, sneaky developers have been caught out inaccurately associating their app with leading universities (when, in fact, they simply studied there years earlier). Also, endorsement from obscure bodies shouldn’t convey confidence.

4. Does the app use self-help methods?

Self-monitoring, goal-setting and feedback are well-established techniques for boosting motivation and facilitating behaviour change. Such techniques are commonly offered in health apps and are likely to be useful for both people working on health goals that they wouldn’t normally see a doctor for (such as increasing fitness) and people self-managing a health condition in consultation with their doctor.

5. Does the app have bad reviews?

If reviews are bad, the app probably doesn’t work well, so give it a miss. However, good reviews aren’t necessarily a sign that an app is fundamentally trustworthy.

6. Might you put off seeing a doctor based on advice from the app?

Simply, don’t. While many apps contain sound medical information, they are no substitute for a consultation with a doctor. If you have a health concern, you should see a GP.

The landscape of smartphone health apps is quickly evolving, and regulators are struggling to keep pace. There are many outstanding apps to help people improve their health. My advice? Have fun experimenting with health and fitness apps – just be sure to bring along a healthy dose of common sense and scepticism.

And remember, an app does not put a doctor and specialist medical lab in your pocket.

The Conversation

Carol Maher, National Heart Foundation Senior Research Fellow in Physical Activity, Sedentary Behaviour and Sleep, University of South Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.