Non-profit uses technology to save lives

March 25, 2009 7:19:46 PM PDT
A team of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs is developing and deploying technologies to better detect emerging health threats and to deal with the aftermath of disaster.

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A Silicon Valley start-up has people scattered from around the globe and their vision is just as big.

"What we do is really clear. We save lives and we reduce suffering through the intelligent use of technology," said InSTEDD CEO Dr. Eric Rasmussen.

The start-up is not a company but a non-profit called InSTEDD.

The acronym stands for Innovative Support to Emergencies, Diseases and Disasters.

"There are corporations out there that do this on the side in a little way, but we're doing this as our entire focus," said InSTEDD Vice President Judy Kleinberg.

InSTEDD is creating software solutions that allow for better tracking of outbreaks especially in third world countries.

From bird flu to Ebola, InSTEDD's new program called 'Evolve' is helping with the early detection of a health threat.

"A team of human experts and a team of intelligent software agents interacting with each other to tag and rate and comment and link and map and visualize the patterns that start to emerge," said InSTEDD Chief Technology Officer Robert Kirkpatrick.

The initial funding for InSTEDD came from Google. The company's philanthropic arm,, put up $5 million in seed money.

InSTEDD launched in October 2007 and already its applications are being tested or adopted by the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control.

Google says it has reason to celebrate its investment.

"There are very few organizations, maybe no other ones that really combine such excellence in software engineering skills with a deep understanding of humanitarian organizations," said Frank Rijsberman from

IN Cambodia for instance, InSTEDD is fostering collaboration at its first innovation lab.

Even where computers are scarce, the widespread use of cell phones makes it easy to share information using text messaging. Locals are helping to develop tools that work best for them.

"In a way we hope to be outsmarted and out run by teams that understand problems locally and can execute them stead of trying to impose technologies from an outside," said InSTEDD engineer Eduardo Jezierski

When a health threat or natural disaster does strike, InSTEDD says the communication models it's developing will revolutionize the way various teams are able to respond. The non-profit envisions fast and effective collaboration and coordination.

"We think about everybody being able to communicate effectively just what matters, extracting information from noise and saving lives as a consequence," said Rasmussen.

As part of its humanitarian mission, all of InSTEADD'S software is open source -- meaning it's free for anyone to use or modify.

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