UW students create Spira app to gather COVID-19 data

The app was created to screen for respiratory diseases but the teen creators shifted their focus once the COVID-19 outbreak began.

By Julia Leonard

UW News Lab

Having both left high school after 10th grade, 16-year-old Sage Khanuja of Bellevue and 17-year-old Nikolas Ioannou of Seattle bonded over their mutual interest in artificial intelligence.

Now University of Washington (UW) freshmen, the two teens founded Spira, an app that sends daily updates of COVID-19 statistics and collects data on symptoms of respiratory diseases using artificial intelligence.

Khanuja was focused on creating a tool to screen patients for respiratory diseases after seeing intense air pollution affecting dense urban populations in India.

“Respiratory diseases are a huge problem,” he said. “I’m not coming from a medical space so I was really surprised to learn that they’re almost very similar numbers to cancer. [Respiratory diseases] are the third-leading cause of death in the world. They’re very preventable if you identify them at the right time.”

Khanuja and Ioannou are both studying computer science and were early entry students at UW through the Robinson Center for Young Scholars.

“We started working on the inherent technology behind Spira several months ago…because initially, we were developing screening for asthma, pneumonia, all the COPD, etc.,” Khanuja said.

Spira’s initial concept was as a 3-D printed device with an attached stethoscope to provide insight on a person’s respiratory function, according to Khanuja.

With the onset of COVID-19 just more than a month ago and its relation to respiratory diseases, Khanuja and Ioannou shifted their focus toward the virus and released an online screening test and text message service that provides daily statistics.

Spira’s daily texting service updates users with local, national and global COVID-19 statistics from a variety of sources. Image courtesy of Spira

Spira’s daily texting service updates users with local, national and global COVID-19 statistics from a variety of sources. Image courtesy of Spira

By inputting a cell phone number to receive text messages, Spira uses area codes to determine which statistics are most relevant to a user’s location.

“We chose to integrate with texting because it’s a seamless integration into people’s lifestyles,” Ioannou said. “They don’t have to go look for the right news. They don’t have to go look for the right website that shows statistics.”

Spira includes a screening test that collects anonymous data from a person’s responses to the questions about their symptoms and circumstances.

“We’ve been able to create these machine-learning models that simulate the process that a doctor would undergo in screening someone who has COVID,” Ioannou said.

According to Ioannou, the app provides basic health recommendations based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on what an individual should do next.

“Several thousand people have taken the screening test and through that, we’re able to see the trends of what symptoms are most common,” Khanuja said. “Something that we’re going to be doing over the next couple of weeks, is trying to geographically map and trace those symptoms.”

Khanuja and Ioannou’s work on Spira has impressed Matt Whitehill, a doctoral student who works in the UW Ubiquitous Computing Lab. Whitehill met Khanuja and Ioannou in January at the WE-Reach Biomedical Innovation Bootcamp.

“It’s hard not to speak with them and be like, ‘Oh you guys are really young,’” Whitehill said. “But the truth is, they don’t act young in terms of the way that they execute or their insight into technology or how these things come together.”

Since Khanuja and Ioannou met a year ago, they have developed a strong friendship.

“I think having such a close relationship with Sage makes all of our work a lot more fun for me,” Ioannou said. “At the surface level, you see that we’ve made these two products, but in the back end, there’s a ton of work that goes into it…We’re taking all the same classes together, we spend several hours together, now obviously virtually during quarantine, just to ensure that we can really do what we want to do.”

Khanuja echoed the statement.

“Nik is my best friend by far and I’m really glad to have formed a really strong bond with him,” he said. “I’ve never had anyone that was just similar on so many levels.”

Khanuja and Ioannou’s shared interests of computer science, technology and innovation are paired with their drive to create products that aim to provide a social good.

“The thing that’s been very clear in both of our minds is the fact where we can use our technology skill set and the products that we build to really meaningfully impact other people, as cliche as it sounds, because that’s what’s meaningful for us,” Khanuja said.

Julia Leonard is a journalism student currently enrolled in the University of Washington’s News Laboratory.