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Crowdsourcing the fight against mosquitos

That smartphone in your pocket could hold the cure for malaria, dengue and the Zika virus, a noted Stanford University scientist says.

Manu Prakash has a history of using oddball materials for medical research. His latest project, Abuzz, uses sound. Specifically, he asks regular citizens to capture and record mosquitoes. There are 30 unique species, and each has a different wingbeat pattern.

The big idea is to use algorithms to match sample recordings with disease-carrying species, and then recommend strategies to control the population.

Weird science, sure, but don’t knock it. In this age of massive amounts of compute and abundant sensors, dreamers are doing what should be impossible. They are replicating expensive research tools with inexpensive, makeshift solutions. Solutions that can, in many cases, save lives.

In this case, citizen-scientists capture a mosquito in a plastic bottle, poke a hole in the cap and record the buzzing with their phone. Then they send the digital file off to Prakash and his team.

It’s not the first time the Indian-born professor of bioengineering has made something from almost nothing.

In 2013, he saw a centrifuge being used as a doorstop at a Ugandan clinic. The expensive medical device had been donated by well-meaning researchers. But the village had no electricity.

So, Prakash put on his problem-solving hat. He later developed the Paperfuge.

Inspired by a toy whirligig, the paper-and-string device can separate blood cells from plasma. At a cost of 20 cents, the instrument is perfect for “diagnosis in the field,” Prakash told a TED conference audience.

And that’s just one example of how a little innovation can go a long way, for not a lot of money.

While visiting remote clinics in India and Thailand, he noticed expensive microscopes were collecting dust on shelves. They were too bulky to carry into the field. In 2014, his team showed off Foldscope, an inexpensive, lightweight microscope inspired by origami.

This year, they hope to donate 1 million Foldscope devices. And Wired reports the gizmos have already been used to detect diseased crops, spot fake drugs and diagnose malaria.

The World Health Organization reports 3 billion people are at risk to contract an infectious disease like malaria from mosquitoes. In 2015, 212 million people were diagnosed, with an estimated 429,000 deaths.

For the sake of comparison, 2015 was a record year for worldwide shark attacks, with 98. There were 6 human fatalities.

What Prakash is proposing – inviting the public to help the fight against mosquito-borne illnesses – seems preposterous. However, crowdsourcing science and using algorithms to do the modelling is basic procedure in this data-driven age.

Google does it every day with its mobile traffic app, Waze. The stakes are simply higher for Abuzz.

The fact that this is possible is a testament to this era. And it is indicative of the opportunity.

Right now, dreamers like Prakash are out there, building new things and transforming business models. They are going to change what we think is possible. They are also going to build some terrific businesses. Stay tuned.

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