These startups’ bright ideas for fighting COVID-19 show tech at its bestApril 23, 2020 | By Vicki Hyman
In the tech world, disruption is not just the norm — it’s the goal. Perhaps that’s why so many tech companies have leaped to tackle the challenges posed by COVID-19, which has so rapidly and radically changed the way we live our lives.
Startup company Voca.ai, which harnesses artificial intelligence to create natural-sounding and empathetic automated customer service conversations for customers across the globe, is collecting sound samples from COVID-19 patients, hoping to use its speech neural models to detect signatures of the infection in the human voice. Zencity provides an AI-based citizen feedback analytics platform for cities. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the company has used its solution to transform data into actionable insights for more than 150 local governments across the world. These days, that means using the tens of millions of social data points it collects to help American cities better prioritize what their residents need, and how best to deliver it.
In India, BharatPe is enabling consumers to connect to their local physical stores to access goods in lockdown. In Brazil, idwall is extending its ID verification solution to enable telemedicine and verify registered medical practitioners. In Indonesia, Eureka is working with telcos to provide real-time location data to enable case tracking, social distancing, population management and targeted communications. And in Los Angeles, GoodWorld, which partners with charities to enable hashtag donations through social media, helped raise $10,000 in the first 20 minutes of a new campaign to aid COVID-affected families in need by simply texting LALOVE to the number 21000.
These companies are all part of Mastercard’s award-winning startup engagement program Start Path, which collaborates with later-stage technology startups from across the globe and uses its powerful network of partners to bring meaningful scale to their solutions in payments and beyond, helping more people benefit from them.
With COVID-19’s unprecedented impact, the response needs scale too, so it’s no wonder that AI, powered by the scale of data, has emerged as a fertile field for exploration, both in diagnosis and identifying needs in the financial fallout.
Seeking COVID’s Signature Sound
Working with researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, Voca.ai is currently collecting thousands of voice samples from COVID-19 patients, from healthy people and from people affected by other ailments. (You can participate here.)
Partnering with Carnegie Mellon University, researchers from Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford and others, and hospitals committed to easy access medical tests, Voca.ai is collecting data from healthy people and those who have been diagnosed with COVID-19. With this data, Voca will be able to identify and develop technologies to determine the probability of being infected with the virus from voice analysis. (If you are interested in providing a voice sample, please click here.)
Regardless of language, the sounds we make when we breathe or cough change when our respiratory system is affected, creating minute micro signatures that can be captured and analyzed. "We are combining recently developed AI and voice forensic technologies, finding specific patterns in voice, tone and other sounds that we produce as we speak, that relate to unique illnesses and other human factors,” says Voca.ai’s co-founder and chief technology officer Dr. Alan Bekker.
Providing a Pulse Check
While nations can mobilize great resources, it is often the decisions made at the local level that have the greatest impact on our lives. That’s why Zencity, founded by urban planners, has released a series of free reports analyzing the aggregated key COVID-related concerns of communities in over 100 cities across the U.S. using millions of online data points in real time to help local officials better understand the needs of their citizens.
“Everything that makes up our quality of life in our day-to-day lives, from infrastructure to trash pickup to culture and communications, is local and this becomes truer in the current crisis,” says Eyal Feder-Levy, co-founder and CEO of Zencity. “Local governments, they’re at the front lines of managing this horrible crisis, taking care of the most vulnerable people in our communities, providing the right information.”
By using machine learning to monitor digital channels such as social media and local news outlets in the communities they serve — 30 million people in total, Zencity is publicly sharing overall trends on a week-to-week basis. They reveal an evolution of concerns as the crisis deepens, from school closures in the first week of isolation orders to takeout and delivery options as the cupboard grew bare in the second week.
More recently, Eyal says, the findings are reflecting rifts in the very fabric of society — concerns about the rise of COVID-related scams and crimes — as well as attempts to mend them. There is a rise in discussion about volunteering efforts and community resiliency including how to show support for first responders and health care workers. The most recent reports show that concerns may be stabilizing, indicating that people are accepting this as our new normal.
That may be what we need to do right now, but that’s not what anyone wants moving forward.
“These companies are putting their technology, expertise and relationships to work to protect people at their most vulnerable and to help reshape businesses and services for the recovery ahead,” says Mastercard’s Amy Neale, who leads Start Path. “Innovation is really the process of imagining a different but viable future and that’s why we need to foster innovation more than ever. If ever a time called for new approaches, this is it. We’re excited to showcase our startups’ innovations and find ways to support them to scale.”
About STart Path
Start Path is Mastercard’s award-winning startup engagement program that brings together a network of innovators from across the globe to shape the future of commerce together. Startups benefit from the knowledge of a global network of Mastercard experts, technologies and channels. Banks and merchants gain access to a global portfolio of elite startups to accelerate commercial products and solutions through collaboration. Launched in 2014, startups that started with Start Path have gone on to raise over $1.8B in capital investment.