How Canadian AI start-up BlueDot spotted Coronavirus before anyone else had a clue

An AI-based infectious disease surveillance system that searches the world around-the-clock for possible pandemics should have your attention.

How Canadian AI start-up BlueDot spotted Coronavirus before anyone else had a clue

On December 30, 2019, BlueDot, a Toronto-based startup that uses a platform built around artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data to track and predict the outbreak and spread of infectious diseases, alerted its private sector and government clients about a cluster of “unusual pneumonia” cases happening around a market in Wuhan, China.

BlueDot published the first scientific paper on COVID-19, accurately predicting its global spread using our proprietary models. BlueDot disseminated bespoke, near-real-time insights to clients including governments, hospitals, and airlines, revealing COVID-19’s movements. Our intelligence is based on over 40 pathogen-specific datasets reflecting disease mobility and outbreak potential.

BlueDot delivers regular reporting to answer the most pressing questions, including which countries reported local cases, how severely cities outside of China were affected, and which cities risked transmitting COVID-19 despite having no official cases.

How it Works
BlueDot quantifies the risk of exposure to infectious diseases globally, enabling you to protect human health.

We detect outbreaks of over 150 different pathogens, toxins, and syndromes in near-real-time. Our platform scan over 100,000 official and mass media sources in 65 languages per day.

We anticipate dispersion of disease, locally and globally, using anonymous, aggregated data on billions of flight itineraries and hundreds of millions of mobile devices.

We anticipate the impact of disease spread globally and globally using diverse datasets:

Billions of flight itineraries
Real-time climate conditions
Health system capacity
Animal & insect populations
We empower you to mobilize timely, effective, efficient, coordinated, and measured responses to epidemic threats

How does Bluedot work?
BlueDot is proprietary software-as-a-service designed to locate, track and predict infectious disease spread. The BlueDot engine gathers data on over 150 diseases and syndromes around the world searching every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day. This includes official data from organizations like the Center for Disease Control or the World Health Organization. But, the system also counts on less structured information.

Much of BlueDot's predictive ability comes from data it collects outside official health care sources including, for example, the worldwide movements of more than four billion travelers on commercial flights every year; human, animal and insect population data; climate data from satellites; and local information from journalists and healthcare workers, pouring through 100,000 online articles each day spanning 65 languages.

BlueDot’s specialists manually classified the data, developed a taxonomy so relevant keywords could be scanned efficiently, and then applied machine learning and natural language processing to train the system. As a result, it says, only a handful of cases are flagged for human experts to analyze.

BlueDot sends out regular alerts to health care, government, business, and public health clients. The alerts provide brief synopses of anomalous disease outbreaks that its AI engine has discovered and the risks they may pose.

In the case of COVID-19, the system flagged articles in Chinese that reported 27 pneumonia cases associated with a market that had seafood and live animals in Wuhan. In addition to the alert, BlueDot correctly identified the cities that were highly connected to Wuhan using things like global airline ticketing data to help anticipate where the infected might be traveling. The international destinations that BlueDot anticipated would have the highest volume of travelers from Wuhan were: Bangkok, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Taipei, Phuket, Seoul, and Singapore. In the end, 11 of the cities at the top of their list were the first places to see COVID-19 cases.

COVID-19 was not BlueDot’s first hit. The engine has been used to successfully predict that the Zika virus would spread to Florida in 2016, six months before it happened. The software also determined that the 2014 Ebola outbreak would leave West Africa.

The company received a total of $9.4 million in funding in 2019 (including seed funding from Horizons Ventures and a $7 million Series A financing round led by The Co-operators and BDC Capital’s Women in Technology Venture Fund) and now employs a diverse team of 44 people including veterinarians, doctors, epidemiologists, engineers, data scientists and software developers.

Khan is careful not to claim that AI is the total solution to the problem of infectious disease transmission:

By no means would we claim that AI has got this problem solved. It’s just one of the tools in the toolbox. We don’t use artificial intelligence to replace human intelligence, we basically use it to find the needles in the haystack and present them to our team for further investigation and analysis.

But, as the COVID-19 and the Zika discoveries illustrate, finding that needle is no easy or ordinary feat. BlueDot’s automated infectious disease surveillance platform is an invaluable early warning system that can provide a time-critical heads-up to health professionals around the world and potentially save thousands of lives. That, IMHO, is a very good use of AI’s disruptive power.

Image credit - via BlueDot website

How Canadian AI start-up BlueDot spotted Coronavirus before anyone else had a clue: