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Baltimore startup Melalogic wins grant from Mozilla fund exploring the effects of AI on racial justice

Developer Avery Smith is working to make machine learning tools used in dermatology more inclusive. With Melalogic, he is creating an app for Black skin health information, with a database to help research.

Avery Smith is the founder of Melalogic. (Courtesy photo)
Updated to include additional details about the app's release. (10 a.m. 1/21/20)

Melalogic, a Baltimore startup building an app for Black skin health, won a grant from a fund created by software community Mozilla to support Black artists examining AI.

The app seeks to create a database of Black skin issues to combat racial bias in AI and medicine. It’s the solution Avery Smith designed with a Black dermatologist and a Black medical illustrator to the problem he warned of in a 2018 article published in the medical journal Jama Dermatology: Racial bias in machine learning tools that are being used to decide between malignant and benign moles when testing for melanoma. Dermatologists can use the database to become better educated on Black skin.

Users of the app will submit pictures of their skin and skin issues. The app will provide feedback about what the issue might be, and suggestions on how to should treat it. The idea is that the app is also slowly building a database of Black skin for use by clinicians and researchers.

“Take a photo of your elbow, knee or your calf, wherever you desire, and you can help make this dataset smarter,” said Smith, who is a developer at downtown Baltimore digital services agency Fearless. “Ultimately, that is creating a tool that’s going to be able to help the global population of Black people.”

An illustration from Melalogic provides education on the skin condition eczema. (Courtesy photo)

Smith is hoping that such database will allow skin cancer to be caught earlier, and curb high mortality rates for Black patients who get melanoma. The five year survival rate of Black people with skin cancer was 65%, compared with 92% for white people, according to a 2016 study in the Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention.

“Researchers can go and see: This amount of Black people tend to submit these kinds of photos with this kind of skin issue, and this is what it looks like based on somebody’s skin tone,” said Smith. “We want to cover the range of skin tones from darker to light — really crack the nut on something that probably should have been in existence a long time ago but [wasn’t] because people like to play race neutral.”

The web app, which will be accessible through an internet browser on the Melalogic site, will have a calendar for Black skin care tips feature available in April. Smith said the additional portions of the app that will use AI will take place over multiple stages. The goal is to begin receiving images for the skin health dataset by September.

Mozilla initially announced the $260K fund for its Creative Media Awards in August, specifically gearing funding for Black creators “who use art to spotlight how AI can reinforce — or disrupt — systems of oppression.” It recently announced eight recipients of grants ranging from $10K-$30K, including Melalogic. The winners were selected by a panel of 10 judges, which included artists, technologists and activists.

“With all that was going on in 2020, I was in the zeitgeist between race, artificial intelligence and cancer. It helped move the needle in my direction,” said Smith about what made his application attractive to Mozilla.

He also got key advice from a grant writer: Look up what the stakeholders and judges say their goals and missions are, then spell out in the grant how your work aligns with their goals.

Smith created the Melalgogic site in memory of his wife LaToya Smith, who passed away from skin cancer in 2011. Her memory has been the driving passion behind his health equity work.

“I’m coming in and doing what it is that I can to empower us to be our own health advocates,” said Smith. “So we can bridge that gap and know what we’re talking about when we are in the presence of a healthcare provider and get ourselves treated earlier and improve our quality of life.”

Donte Kirby is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation.

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