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This week, the New York Times published an article about how a disinfectant company uses Kinsa’s illness signal on where illness is spreading to target digital advertising. The online “click-baity” headline (This Thermometer Tells Your Temperature, Then Tells Firms Where to Advertise) makes it sound like we are doing something nefarious. We aren’t.

In an environment where people are learning that major technology companies are using personal information to target us individually, the message of what Kinsa is doing is lost. That message should be:

We need to find ways to democratize information that is helpful for society without sacrificing privacy.

That is what we are doing, successfully, at Kinsa.

Let’s establish a principle for using data, ethically:

Personally identifiable information
should never be used
without the user’s explicit permission and ongoing awareness.
Aggregate and fully anonymized data
can and should be democratized for societal benefit.

The CDC recommends disinfecting to fight illness. We think it’s important to share this message in the areas that need it most. We do not consider it to be advertising; to us, it’s part of our mission – to stop illness from spreading. This is why:

At Kinsa, we believe that the spread of infectious illness is one of the biggest problems the world faces, with scarier and scarier flu, zika, ebola, and other pandemic threats. We also believe that in order to stop it, we MUST know where and when it is starting. Early detection and early response is the answer. When I started Kinsa, this was the whole idea: aggregate data from people who have just fallen ill to know where and when illness is spreading — in a way that protects personal information so people will want to participate. Our illness signal shows the levels of illness by zip code or county, i.e., it is aggregated and fully anonymous.

Here’s what we will continue to do with our illness signal:

  • We will arm pharmacies with information on where and when illness is rising and peaking so they can avoid running out of medicines, antivirals and other products people need in these moments.
  • We will work with vaccine distributors to ensure that supply is not underestimated so people can get the vaccine when they need it, nor overestimated leading to unnecessary waste (since all unused vaccines must be properly destroyed).
  • And yes, we will work with companies to direct their digital marketing to sicker geographies if and only if the products those companies sell advance a public health agenda, such as disinfectants that the CDC says are helpful in stopping illness from spreading, and medicines or other products that can alleviate symptoms.

Here is what we will NEVER do:

  • Sell our signal to companies with questionable or unproven health benefits, who plan to direct digital advertising to sick areas.
  • Share personally identifiable or individual data, rather than aggregated signals. We’ve been approached to do this many times. We have specifically designed our business model and products not to do it.

Here are a couple other things we do with our illness signal:

  • Give it to elementary schools to help them stop illness from spreading. Last year, 90% of school nurses in our free school health program, called FLUency, agreed that the program kept them more informed about illnesses circulating in their schools, while 75% of parents said the program made their life easier during flu season. This year, we’re working with academics to study just how effective this school health program can be in reducing illness-related absences.
  • Offer it to local news stations when illness levels spike, so they can inform their audiences to take extra precaution. Last year more than a hundred local news stations used our illness data to warn local populations of spikes.

This past flu season, 80,000 Americans and another 500,000 or more globally, died from flu — we believe needlessly. When I founded Kinsa, my intent was to know where people were falling sick so we could stop an outbreak before it became an epidemic. Kinsa’s approach allows us to collect medically accurate data (temperature and associated symptoms) from someone as soon as they fall ill, before they even enter the healthcare system.

This real-time information is powerful, and while the world argues about the blurry lines around data (and there certainly are blurry lines), Kinsa will remain heads down, fiercely, unapologetically and ethically on a mission to keep people healthier.

Kinsa’s mission has always been to curb the spread of infectious illness, and keep people healthy, by knowing where and when it is spreading.