Sunday, June 25, 2017

NEWS POST: The Prize-Winning Tech Helping Ghana's Farmers To Grow

In 2013, 27 year old Alloysius invented a Ghanaian software company and social enterprise called Farmerline.
Agyei Douglas is a farmer who grows vegetables near Kumasi in Ghana's central Ashanti region. He used to struggle to access markets and capital.

The information he needed was broadcast on the radio but often it wasn't specific enough to improve his yield of lettuce, spring onions, cabbage and chilli pepper.

Two years ago, the 43-year-old began using Farmerline, which delivers weather updates, the latest market prices and other details to his second generation mobile phone.

"It has helped us improve on our productions through the information we get from them, it has made things easier for us as compared to our previous system," he told AFP.

The Ghanaian tech company behind Farmerline is one of a number of start-ups in the West African country working to bolster food security through better access to information.

The initiative was established in 2012 and has so far helped connect some 200,000 farmers in 10 countries using the mobile technology.

- Farming industry -
According to 2014 Ghana government figures, almost half of the working population are involved in agriculture, and just over half of Ghana's land is used for farming.

World Bank figures indicate some 80 per cent of agricultural output came from smallholders on family-operated farms with average landholdings of less than two hectares (4.9 acres).

A lack of more in-depth and accurate data have been seen as a stumbling block for Ghana's farmers, preventing them from better production or accessing financial loans.

Farmerline offers a range of services for both farmers and those who want to connect to them, including non-government organisations, global food companies and local businesses.

Businesses can access data and farm auditing services as well as farmer profiling, and farm mapping.

For farmers, there are also weather forecasts, market prices and agricultural tips all offered as voice messages in local languages such as the Akan dialect Twi.

- Award winner -
A point of pride for Farmerline's chief executive and co-founder Alloysius Attah is its business model.

It puts people in direct touch with farmers, breaking the cycle of poverty and dependency on aid.

"The business of agriculture has always been about aid, a feel-good project," said Attah.

"But we are working really hard to show you can create a business around it that provides value to farmers and... you can get paid for those values you create."

Farmerline this week won the King Baudouin African Development Prize, which rewards "exceptional contributions to development work in Africa".

The two other winners were an online legal services firm from Uganda, BarefootLaw, and Kytabu, which provides school reading content for students across Kenya.

All three received €75,000 (US$83,750) each.

The prize, announced on June 20 in Brussels, aims to highlight work in driving social change across the continent -- and with funds attached, to help them advance.

Organizers say the prize is based on the idea that "entrepreneurship and local leadership, rather than traditional aid, is the key to sustainable change".

- Tech boom -
Attah isn't alone in his quest to use technology to make agriculture more sustainable and productive in Ghana.

The country's government says it wants to modernize agriculture, including mapping cocoa farms and collecting data on them.

In the private sector, agri-tech firm Ghalani, set up in late 2016, also has data-collection as a key focus, digitizing any manual records farmers may have.

It also gives farmers access to software to keep better records, and make reports that could put them in a better position to get financing.

CowTribe uses mobile technology to connect livestock farmers in northern Ghana with vets, while the start-up Hovver uses drones to help farmers map out their land.

Attah says the prize has been "life-changing" for him but also the farmers he wants to help with the harvest and especially the farmers he wants to help with the funds.

His next project is an app that helps connect banks to farmers in need of loans, and is able to use data to predict how much can be borrowed and when it will be paid back, without having to put up collateral.
According to 2014 Ghana government figures, almost half of the working population are involved in agriculture, and just over half of Ghana's land is used for farming. Image: Farmerline
The Mobile Phone-Powered Lifeline For Farmers In Ghana
The earth is projected to be home to more than nine billion people by mid-century, and up to 12 billion by 2100… that’s a lot of mouths to feed. Farmers, as a result, are facing a reality that may be tough to swallow. 

"They must produce 70% more food by 2050 to feed a growing, more urbanized population. And they must do so, facing the likelihood that arable land in developing countries will increase by no more than 12%,” according to a report by the International Fund for Agricultural Development.

The obvious question is: How?

Alloysius Attah is turning his attention to smallholder farmers, half a billion strong worldwide, who currently feed one-third of humanity. In his home country of Ghana, smallholder farmers account for 80% of domestic food production. 

Having grown up on a two-acre farm run by his aunt, Attah sees great potential in these small-scale food producers.

It’s no ordinary nostalgia: with existing technology, the gap between achievable yields and actual yields in Ghana can be over 50%, taking into account post-harvest losses.

At Farmerline, we help smallholder farmers produce and sell more food so that they can make more money for themselves to invest into their farms and also to support their families. That’s our basic and core mission," said Attah.

"Currently how we’re doing that is by using mobile technology to create a communication platform for small-scale farmers and the organisations and stakeholders that work with them."

Farmerline, which launched in 2013, works with more than 5,000 farmers across seven regions in Ghana. Every week, farmers in the network receive technical advice on topics such as how much fertilizer to apply to their fields or how much feed to drop into their fish ponds, as well as location-specific weather forecasts, directly to their mobile phones.

According to World Bank data, Ghana has higher rates of mobile cellular telephone subscriptions than Spain, Australia, France, and many other countries – 108 for every 100 people. 

Coverage is available across most of the country: as many as two-thirds of Ghana’s rural residents have access to mobile phones.

But what sets Farmerline apart from competitors is that its tips and instructions are delivered not by SMS, but by voice.

"SMS has done a lot of work on the continent – look at Ushahidi and M-Psea – but when it comes to rural Africa, to rural farming communities, its abilities are really limited," said Attah, explaining that the majority of farmers he works with can neither read nor write.

The latest figures from the government’s statistical service show that more than 75% of adults in Ghana’s food production centre, the rural savannah, are illiterate. Illiteracy rates are nearly 50% in areas like the rural forest and rural coast, where three-quarters of households participate in agricultural activities.

Image: Farmerline
In Ghana, government agricultural extension agents are tasked with training smallholders and helping them sell their harvest, but the challenge is that each agent is responsible for 2,000 farmers. "They are not able to reach farmers on a continuous basis, but farmers need them every single day to exchange ideas, to ask them questions," said Attah. 

Farmerline, available in 12 local languages, essentially digitizes the work of extension agents.

The programme is effective because, while powered by mobile phones, the information is always relevant to a farmer’s specific situation.

The Farmerline team, with direct support from agriculture extension agents, hosts in-person workshops in farming communities each season to establish trust; answer questions about the technology, market conditions and distribution channels; and offer financial training. 

"We train them to keep records, encourage them separate farm and household expenses, and put a value on their time on the farm so they can pay themselves a salary and know whether they’re making a profit," Attah said.

Follow-up visits are scheduled every six to eight weeks.

Smallholders in the Farmerline network, most of whom are women, increase their income by an average of 55.6%, according to the most recent impact assessment.

Attah and his co-founder, Emmanuel Owusu Addai, hope to reach more than two million farmers in the next 10 years by scaling up across Africa and Asia.

"We were trying to build the next Facebook, or the next big technology, and make money for ourselves. But it’s actually more honorable – and possible – to build services and solutions for people who live on less than US$2 per day and help them take the next steps in their lives," Attah said.

"Becoming social entrepreneurs just happened by trying to make a little change in our corners."

Originally published (STORY 1) on AFP and (STORY 2) on VIRGIN.COM 

Monday, June 19, 2017

NEWS POST: Artificial Intelligence And The Coming Health Revolution

Artificial intelligence can improve health care by analyzing data from apps, smartphones and wearable technology
Your next doctor could very well be a bot. And bots, or automated programs, are likely to play a key role in finding cures for some of the most difficult-to-treat diseases and conditions.

Artificial intelligence is rapidly moving into health care, led by some of the biggest technology companies and emerging startups using it to diagnose and respond to a raft of conditions.

Consider these examples:

-- California researchers detected cardiac arrhythmia with 97% accuracy on wearers of an Apple Watch with the AI-based Cariogram application, opening up early treatment options to avert strokes.

-- Scientists from Harvard and the University of Vermont developed a machine learning tool -- a type of AI that enables computers to learn without being explicitly programmed -- to better identify depression by studying Instagram posts, suggesting "new avenues for early screening and detection of mental illness."

-- Researchers from Britain's University of Nottingham created an algorithm that predicted heart attacks better than doctors using conventional guidelines.

While technology has always played a role in medical care, a wave of investment from Silicon Valley and a flood of data from connected devices appear to be spurring innovation.
"I think a tipping point was when Apple released its Research Kit," said Forrester Research analyst Kate McCarthy, referring to a program letting Apple users enable data from their daily activities to be used in medical studies.

McCarthy said advances in artificial intelligence has opened up new possibilities for "personalized medicine" adapted to individual genetics.

"We now have an environment where people can weave through clinical research at a speed you could never do before," she said.

- Predictive analytics -
Some the same artificial intelligence techniques used in the Google DeepMind Challenge to defeat a grandmaster in the board game Go can be adapted for medical uses
AI is better known in the tech field for uses such as autonomous driving, or defeating experts in the board game Go.

But it can also be used to glean new insights from existing data such as electronic health records and lab tests, says Narges Razavian, a professor at New York University's Langone School of Medicine who led a research project on predictive analytics for more than 100 medical conditions.

"Our work is looking at trends and trying to predict (disease) six months into the future, to be able to act before things get worse," Razavian said.

-- NYU researchers analyzed medical and lab records to accurately predict the onset of dozens of diseases and conditions including type 2 diabetes, heart or kidney failure and stroke. The project developed software now used at NYU which may be deployed at other medical facilities.

-- Google's DeepMind division is using artificial intelligence to help doctors analyze tissue samples to determine the likelihood that breast and other cancers will spread, and develop the best radiotherapy treatments.

-- Microsoft, Intel and other tech giants are also working with researchers to sort through data with AI to better understand and treat lung, breast and other types of cancer.

-- Google parent Alphabet's life sciences unit Verily has joined Apple in releasing a smartwatch for studies including one to identify patterns in the progression of Parkinson's disease. Amazon meanwhile offers medical advice through applications on its voice-activated artificial assistant Alexa.

Watson Health, whose Cambridge, Massachusetts office is shown in this photo, is also part of the artificial intelligence health movement
IBM has been focusing on these issues with its Watson Health unit, which uses "cognitive computing" to help understand cancer and other diseases.

When IBM's Watson computing system won the TV game show Jeopardy in 2011, "there were a lot of folks in health care who said that is the same process doctors use when they try to understand health care," said Anil Jain, chief medical officer of Watson Health.

Systems like Watson, he said, "are able to connect all the disparate pieces of information" from medical journals and other sources "in a much more accelerated way."

"Cognitive computing may not find a cure on day one, but it can help understand people's behavior and habits" and their impact on disease, Jain said.

It's not just major tech companies moving into health.

Research firm CB Insights this year identified 106 digital health startups applying machine learning and predictive analytics "to reduce drug discovery times, provide virtual assistance to patients, and diagnose ailments by processing medical images."

Maryland-based startup Insilico Medicine uses so-called "deep learning" to shorten drug testing and approval times, down from the current 10 to 15 years.

"We can take 10,000 compounds and narrow that down to 10 to find the most promising ones," said Insilico's Qingsong Zhu.

Insilico is working on drugs for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), cancer and age-related diseases, aiming to develop personalized treatments.

- Finding depression –
IBM is using its Watson supercomputer, seen in this file picture, as part of a broad effort to help medical research and health care through its Watson Health division
Artificial intelligence is also increasingly seen as a means for detecting depression and other mental illnesses, by spotting patterns that may not be obvious, even to professionals.
A research paper by Florida State University's Jessica Ribeiro found it can predict with 80 to 90% accuracy whether someone will attempt suicide as far off as two years into the future.

Facebook uses AI as part of a test project to prevent suicides by analyzing social network posts.

And San Francisco's Woebot Labs this month debuted on Facebook Messenger what it dubs the first chatbot offering "cognitive behavioral therapy" online -- partly as a way to reach people wary of the social stigma of seeking mental health care.

New technologies are also offering hope for rare diseases.

Boston-based startup FDNA uses facial recognition technology matched against a database associated with over 8,000 rare diseases and genetic disorders, sharing data and insights with medical centers in 129 countries via its Face2Gene application.

- Cautious optimism -
Lynda Chin, vice chancellor and chief innovation officer at the University of Texas System, said she sees "a lot of excitement around these tools" but that technology alone is unlikely to translate into wide-scale health benefits.

One problem, Chin said, is that data from sources as disparate as medical records and Fitbits is difficult to access due to privacy and other regulations.

More important, she said, is integrating data in health care delivery where doctors may be unaware of what's available or how to use new tools.

"Just having the analytics and data get you to step one," said Chin. "It's not just about putting an app on the app store."

Thursday, June 01, 2017

GUEST BLOG POST: 4 Principles That Will Make You More Innovative — Eric Barker

Hot Air Balloons in 2017 Canowindra International Balloon Challenge Image source: http://www.canowindrachallenge.org.au/
Combing through the research, what are the overarching principles that we need to know to be more innovative thinkers in everyday life? Here they are, with links to the research backing them up.

1) Relax
What is most likely your daily creative peak? Your morning shower. For many of us it’s the most relaxing part of our day — and the most creative.

Just being happy can make you more creative for days; seriously, just smile. Watching comedy clips helps, trying too hard hurts. If you tend to be hard on yourself, being less critical can make you more creative. Anger can boost originality in the short term — but it doesn’t last.

It’s probably no surprise that boring work is better done at the office and creative work is better accomplished at home. Hopeful employees are more original. Trust can even make your hairstylist more creative. On the other hand, rudeness from superiors craters original thinking as does time pressure. Thoughts of money often bring pressure and the best art is created when there’s no cash involved.

Being in nature relaxes us and even a mere potted plant in the office can increase creativity. Or just the colour green for that matter.

Sleep is goodTaking breaks aids your idea-generating. Daydreamers are more original thinkers.

2) Expose Yourself To New Ideas And New Perspectives
Unusual or unexpected events increase creativity. A proven way to stimulate this effect is travel. Living in a foreign culture can make you more creative. Countries with more international business travelers patent more. Merely having friends from other cultures can get the muse going.

Imagining you’re a child again or that you’re solving a problem for someone else was enough to increase creativity. Even frowning when you’re happy — creating dissonance between your mind and body spurred original thinking. Doing everyday things in unconventional ways can do the trick.

Being exhausted or drunk increases creativity because they make you look at the world differently. Bilinguals are more creative, probably as a result of their dual perspective. Even sarcasm is enough of a perspective shift to help.

3) Get Ideas Crashing Into Each Other
Overlapping different projects allows new connections to burgeon at the margins, helping to create innovative ideas. Bill Gates reads all his books for the year in two weeks because this allows new information to be better juxtaposed and contrasted. Just being curious offers a boost.

A disorganized brain is often a more creative brain — and this may be why those with ADD and wandering minds are gifted idea generators. Larger cities are disproportionately innovative as are people with bigger networks.

You want a mix of fresh and classic. The most creative teams are a mix of old friends and new blood as well as experienced and inexperienced workers. The most creative ideas are fresh but also fit into a recognized formula. Originality requires both freedom and constraints. Make little bets and iterate, iterate, iterate.

And brainstorming’s mantra of refraining from judging or negating ideas is wrong. Let ideas duke it out.

4) Work Hard
As Chuck Close said, “Inspiration is for amateurs.”

You don’t need fancy degrees to be a creative genius. Some of the most brilliant artists of all time had the equivalent of a college-dropout level of education — but you do need to work hard at your craft. Studying your field extensively doesn’t reduce creativity, it increases it. Future geniuses are often unpopular in high school because they spend so much time working on their projects.

Chris Rock relentlessly tests and tweaks new comedy acts onstage over aperiod of months to get them right. “Some historical studies of patent records have in fact shown that overall productivity correlates with radical breakthroughs in science and technology, that sheerquantity ultimately leads to quality.”

Artists are more likely to have mood disorders. What’s the connection? Depression makes you obsess about things — which is a benefit when you’re trying to make breakthroughs. Dwelling on your problems makes you more creative.

The most original thinkers work very hard and know the secrets to becoming an expert. Literally being forced to write made writers more productive and more creative.

Sum Up
Four principles:
Relax
Expose Yourself To New Ideas And New Perspectives
Get Ideas Crashing Into Each Other
Work Hard

Challenge yourself to use them today. :)

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

NEWS POST: New Invention Helps People With Parkinson’s

Neha Shahid Chaudhry
Witnessing her late grandfather struggle with the disease compelled one student to invent a ‘smart’ walking stick

A student entrepreneur whose grandfather was debilitated by Parkinson's disease has created a mobility aid to improve the lives of other patients with the condition.

Neha Shahid Chaudhry was inspired to invent a “smart” walking stick after witnessing her late grandfather struggle with the disease for seven years, repeatedly suffering falls when his joints seized up.

The device detects when a user's limbs have frozen and they cannot continue walking. Recognizing a pause in motion, the stick vibrates to help the patient regain their rhythm and get moving again.

Product design technology graduate Neha, of the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol), hopes her invention can benefit half the 127,000 Parkinson's patients in Britain who regularly experience joint freezing and abnormal gait symptoms.

It has already been successfully tested among dozens of Parkinson's patients, and the NHS and Parkinson's UK charity have expressed an interest in her product.

Neha, 23, founder of start-up company Walk to Beat, has been overwhelmed by the response to the technology.

She said: “When I gave the product to patients to be tested, there were smiles on their faces and they were saying 'This could really work'. It seems unbelievable that I have made something which could help people, even if it is to a small extent. It's a great feeling for me and the patients are happy somebody is thinking of them.

“I wanted to design something that was aesthetically pleasing and discreet, so I could solve a problem in an almost secret way
Neha, founder of Walk to Beat
Neha Shahid Chaudhry with her smart walking stick
There isn't a cure for Parkinson's – medication just prolongs the condition and helps you stay alive for longer. My aim is to make their lives a bit better while they are dealing with it.”
International student Neha, born in Pakistan, came up with the idea in 2014 as part of an end-of-course project in which she was challenged to devise a product that could solve a “real world” problem.

Her mobility aid resembles a conventional walking stick, but has sophisticated technology integrated into the plastic handle, including a sensor that can detect when the user has stopped taking steps. Once it has identified a pause, the stick emits a pulsating beat to help the patient resume walking.

Neha said: “People with Parkinson's get jammed in one place and can't step forward - it can cause falls. They need any kind of rhythm or sequence to get them started again, because it acts as a reminder. The beat is inside the handle – it senses when you stop and turns off automatically when you start walking again. Patients say it encourages them to walk and they learn to pace with it.”

The mobility aid was designed to look like a conventional walking stick to ensure it did not draw attention to the patient and their condition.

Neha said: “I spent three to four months doing research, talking to patients, going to care homes and attending Parkinson's UK drop-in sessions.

“More than the disease itself, a big problem is the impact on social lives. Some other products for people with Parkinson's have a stigma attached to them – they look like products for disabled people. Because one of the symptoms is tremors, patients drink from sippy cups and use children's cutlery because it is easier to grip, but that seemed undignified to me.

“I wanted to design something that was aesthetically pleasing and discreet, so I could solve a problem in an almost secret way. The beat can only be felt by the user - it cannot be heard or seen.”

Inspiration for the product was drawn from Neha's grandfather Zia-U-Din, who passed away two years ago.

Neha, who is now studying for a Masters degree in marketing at UWE Bristol, said: “My granddad had this disease for seven years so I knew a bit about it - that was my starting point. He used to freeze a lot and had a lot of injuries because of falling.

“He used to get really happy when he had good days, when he was able to walk without a stick. But we wouldn't let him out alone. He once fell in the road and had a major injury.”

Social enterprise Walk to Beat is based in the technology incubator at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory on UWE Bristol's Frenchay campus, where she received support in developing her walking stick's sensor and producing a final prototype device from the Robotics Innovation Facility (RIF).

Farid Dailami, an Associate Professor for Knowledge Exchange in Manufacturing based in the RIF, said: “We are delighted to have helped Neha take her idea from a very brief outline to a fully functioning prototype that she has used to show off the feasibility of her original concepts. The Walk to Beat walking stick can make a real difference to the lives of people suffering from Parkinson's, and we are looking forward to providing further support and helping realise its potential.”

Neha has also received assistance from UWE Enterprise, which helps students and recent graduates set up and run businesses. She was awarded a £15,000 grant from UWE Bristol's Better Together Fund to take her idea from concept to reality.

Mhairi Threlfall, Enterprise Development Manager at UWE Bristol, said: “Neha's passion driven by personal experience to tackling problems associated with Parkinson's is astounding. She has worked tirelessly to produce her product and develop her business plan. We are supporting her now to look at how this fantastic creation can be commercialized.”

Originally published on THE INDEPENDENT UK