We showcase a few of the cutting edge ’AI for social good’ projects that have been given a leg up by Microsoft, and explain how charities can get involved in the AI for Good grant scheme
Last week saw the graduation of 11 organisations from the Microsoft AI for Good accelerator– a four month project led by Microsoft UK and Social Tech Trust to help develop the most inspiring ideas that use AI to improve society. The global AI for Good programme from Microsoft is their $115 million commitment to empower those working around the world to solve humanitarian issues, advance global sustainability, and amplify human capability.
It’s made up of three programmes — AI for Earth, AI for Accessibility, and AI for Humanitarian Action — and is part of their overarching effort to ensure that AI is used to advance society. AI for Good puts the Microsoft cloud and AI technologies in the hands of those working to address some of society’s biggest challenges. A variety of social enterprises, startups and research projects took part in the UK Cohort, all at different stages and levels of technical sophistication. The one thing they all have in common is that they have great ideas about using AI and machine learning to increase accessibility and benefit environmental sustainability.
Through the programme, cohort members have had support from Microsoft’s technology team to both work through their AI ideas and take their existing AI and machine learning applications to the next level.
As well as the technical and infrastructure support, participants took part in workshops guiding them on business strategy and digital product development to take their ideas to market, scale their impact and reach as many people as possible.
Anne Radl, Social Investment Manager at the Social Tech Trust explains: “While we have largely worked with social enterprises and startups, there isn’t anything that Social Tech Trust delivers that isn’t completely applicable to a charity." “We see ourselves as part of a movement where social transformation drives the trajectory of tech, and so we’re supporting the charity sector to develop a range of core skills they’ll need to achieve their missions for the future.
For some that means working on tech product management skills so that they’re able to work with developers better and understand that relationship between charity and tech agency, making sure they have aligned goals and that they feel confident and capable to manage taking that forward.” We showcase five of the impressive projects below. At the time of writing, Microsoft could not confirm if there will be another Cohort in the UK - however, you can still apply for a global grant. If you are working on a project which is utilising AI, you might be eligible for a grant in these areas: AI for Accessibility – for those leveraging the power of AI to amplify human capability AI for Earth – for those working to solve global climate issues AI for Humanitarian Action – for those seeking to solve global humanitarian issues
Thermafy is a mobile app that uses imaging software to analyse heat patterns, taking the data from thermal cameras and analysing it for accurate predictive results. Its applications range from helping improve the heat efficiency of buildings to identifying infections in animals, with the potential to revolutionise the jobs of heating engineers, property owners, electricians, farmers and veterinarians.
The software can analyse changes in temperature and provide a detailed report to share with landlords or decision makers which can be shared with tenants to show what work needs to be done and where. The app can also give animal owners new insight into problems with their herds, their horses and their pets, identifying exactly where an infection starts.
Founder and entrepreneur Amanda Pickford says: “Thermal image cameras are now an affordable tool that can be used by anyone. There is heat all around us and being able to recognise patterns and changes within these heat pattern, can help us make quicker decisions on a whole number of issues. So we have developed software that can measure these changes and we want people to say they’ll ‘ThermaFY’ it and for us to be the go-to app. Ultimately we want to help people manage their property, the environment and their animals health better by being able to turn the invisible (heat) into visible and measurable data.”
About to launch with its first customers, the team have used Microsoft’s AI workshops to enhance the machine learning behind the tool and integrate it with Microsoft Azure, so more datasets can be incorporated, improving the decisions it can make. Of the Cohort, Pickford adds: “The quality of people, the quality of expertise we’ve been exposed to, the support and encouragement and connection with Social Tech Trust - all of this has had a major impact.”
An estimated 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, which often runs in the family, making school life challenging and throwing up many barriers. Brendan Morrissey, who also has dyslexia and ADHD, built iDyslexic to help his son with the same conditions to feel more positive about school, less isolated from others and more self assured. The app gives children with dyslexia and ADHD a social media platform just for them where they can meet new friends, create and share content, and gain advice from mentors.
It also connects students with their teachers, parents and case workers through a secure classroom portal through which they can communicate, create homework and meeting schedules, uploads reports and a lot more, allowing all relevant parties to keep up to date and ensure each child is receiving the help they need. Morrissey says the platform is already transforming school life for his son, and would otherwise be in the dark about his progress.
The app already has users from all over the world, and Morrissey has signed up to bring the platform into 19,000 schools from across the UK and Australia onto the platform. “AI is future-proofing what we do and keeping us ahead of the competition in the Dyslexic and ADHD social network space,” says Morrissey. “In our secure classroom we are building in AI to measure the relationships between the case worker, teacher, parent and the student.
This data will eventually lead to better education practices across dyslexia & ADHD.” “We received tremendous support over the 17-week AI for Good cohort. Microsoft’s invaluable advice and deep dives on our social impact has made our team more aware on where to focus our business moving forward.”
Nine years ago, bio-engineer Isabel Van De Keere was in an accident which left her with head and neck injuries and a long stint in rehabilitation. “My own experience of rehab was very boring, very isolating, and very demotivational,” she says. “Having worked with medical devices and healthcare tech before, I wanted to create something to help people recover more efficiently and reduce the strain on NHS services, while making it more engaging and improve outcomes for people in terms of mobility gain.”
The Immersive Rehab app uses virtual reality to train fine motor skills, mobility and balance in a way that ‘gamifies’ the often repetitive tasks that patients need to carry out. In her TED talk on YouTube, Van De Keere explains just how it works, taking advantage of the capacity of brain to adapt and relearn. The system is undergoing long-term clinical studies with patients to fully validate the solution and become a medically certified product.
Thanks to the AI for Good programme, it’s also been able to incorporate AI and the cloud to collect and analyse data from patients and personalise the programme for each user, so it in turn can adapt to the them according to their unique condition.
For people with limited mobility, it can be frustrating and difficult to navigate a world built for the able-bodied, without the information they need on transport and if it will be appropriately accessible for them. CityMaas Assist is a personalised digital and travel experience designed to make getting out and about as frictionless as possible through crowd-sourcing information on other travellers’ experiences.
Customers receive personalised travel information thanks to their own profile with their specific requirements - they simply select where they want to go and get recommendations on transport from accessible bike hire to minicabs, trains, buses and tubes. Machine learning constantly analyses recommended routes to look for better options to make sure they travel efficiently.
The company’s other product, Codie, helps people navigate the online world with similar ease by giving them personalised adaptions and advice to allow them to access the digital services and products they need. Both concepts were demoed at the Microsoft AI for Good Cohort graduation last week. Founder Rene Perkins’ ultimate aim is to use the data to work with governments and local councils to improve facilities and aid city planning strategically for people with disabilities. “AI has always been in my strategy,” says Perkins, “But working with Microsoft has helped hone the technical spec in a little bit more depth.” “The Social Tech Trust also brings that really important aspect of social business with the social change framework, providing practical steps as to how to go forward as a social business, define our objectives and really create positive social impact.”
WeWalk seeks to be the perfect companion for visually impaired users, helping them to travel from A to B safety and independently. As Jean Marc Feghali, Doctor of Philosophy at Imperial College London and UK R&D Lead at WeWalk explains: “From our extensive work in the visually impaired community and from myself and one of our co-founders being visually impaired, we’ve found that white canes for visually impaired people are a stone age technology that have been around for centuries – literally it doesn’t do anything but tell you what’s directly in front of you on the ground. The concept of a ‘smart cane’ is so simple, why has nobody done that before?”
After a successful IndieGoGo campaign towards manufacturing a thousand units, the concept is finally real. The device works as an unobtrusive attachment that fits onto any cane, allowing the visually impaired version to effectively ‘see’ what’s in front of them. Packed within this attachment are an ultrasound sensor that vibrates when objects come into view, a gyroscope, microphone, speaker, compass, accelerometer and reliable navigation through Google Maps that connects via Bluetooth to a mobile companion app.
Voice assistants like Alexa and ride-sharing apps like Uber are just a few of the potential apps that could be integrated with the WeWalk, allowing for tailored experiences for users that can let them do everything that they might use these apps to do, through the use of their cane while on the move. By implementing AI into the cane with help from Microsoft, the potential, says Feghali, is ‘insane’: “We can learn how the user moves, how they use the cane, and provide a truly customised experience for them with a feedback loop that can give them customised advice. We will also be able to leverage this data for medical and engineering use. We’ve really laid down the foundations for that. Moving forward, it’s about working with NHS and developing the cane – the only way is up. To learn more about Rene, Isabel and Amanda as the female founders taking part in this cohort, you can read more in the Microsoft blog series.