most significant bits
newsletter of uw computer science & engineering
volume 24, number 2, winter 2015

university of washington
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Internet of Things Research highlights Age progression software Brain-to-brain communication Chair’s message Alumni profile: Captricity 2014 faculty additions Faculty awards and honors TR35 winners Anderson's USENIX awards Domingos' KDD Award Fox IEEE Fellow News and events Taskar Center launches Upcoming events Datagrams
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Editor: Kay Beck-Benton.
Contributors: Ed Lazowska, Hank Levy, Sandy Marvinney, Kristin Osborne, S. Morris Rose
Photo credits: Bruce Hemingway, Mary Levin, Jose Mandojana

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Kuang Chen and his Captricity vision:
Vanquish paper data clogs and make the world
a better place

Health workers in rural Africa had a problem -- no way to track and analyze child immunizations. The Federal Elections Commission had a problem -- campaign finance reports submitted by U.S. Senators on paper, most thousands of pages long, and impossible to analyze for public accounting until long after an election. The Food and Drug Administration had an even weightier, life-threatening problem -- a huge room with paper reports of adverse drug reactions, stacked two to three feet high atop filing cabinets. The inability to issue timely information on drug reactions was a serious public health issue.

Kuang Chen

Providing the solution for all is Kuang Chen (B.S. ’03), one of two UW CSE alumni recognized this year in the MIT Technology Review annual list of Innovators under 35 whose work shapes their fields. (Also honored this year was Kurtis Heimerl, B.S. ’07.) TR35 honored Chen in the humanitarian category for using technology to expand opportunities or inform public policy.

Captricity, a company Chen cofounded in 2011 in Berkeley, Calif., digitizes paper-bound information, including hand-written documents, for fast analysis and use by organizations, government agencies, and corporations that need accurate data for planning and decision making. The cloud-based, vastly scalable platform combines innovative machine learning algorithms with crowd-sourced training data creation and verification to achieve close to 99.9 percent accuracy and ironclad data security. Clients scan their data on any scanner or phone camera, and after a self-serve web upload of the files, can access the structured data in near real-time.

Captricity now has 34 staff members, nearly 100 clients, and $14 million in funding. Chen didn’t find the inspiration for Captricity while sitting at his computer, or within the walls of academia, or by networking in the corporate or venture capital sectors. That happened in a village in sub-Saharan Africa.

The power of CSE connections

While an undergrad, Chen discovered a love for working with databases while a research assistant to the grad students in Professor Alon Halevy’s lab. Degree in hand, he turned down job offers at Amazon and Google, as well as admission to UC Berkeley's law school, to join CSE faculty member Larry Arnstein at Teranode, a startup company that provided computational workflow solutions for pharmaceutical companies.

A few years later on a return flight from a business trip to Boston, his plane reading was the UW common book, Mountains Beyond Mountains, about Dr. Paul Farmer’s work among the poorest of the poor in Haiti. “It had me tearing up on the plane,“ Chen says. “His community health workers were basically gathering data about their communities and making lives better.“ Inspired, he decided to apply to the computer science doctoral program at UC Berkeley to work on projects for low-resource regions.

One problem: Berkeley CS faculty had no doctoral student funding for “crazy kids who want to go to sub- Saharan Africa.“ Chen had to scrounge up support on his own. A pitch to a Yahoo executive led to the creation of a Technology for Developing Regions Fellowship that funded his first year. More networking led to Dave Goldberg, CEO of SurveyMonkey, who agreed to fund Chen’s second year of doctoral work.

Fortunately, Tapan Parikh (Ph.D. ’07) had joined the Berkeley faculty around the same time. His UW doctoral work on use of cell phones as a business tool for the rural poor in India had earned him TR35 Humanitarian of the Year recognition in 2007. “I practically stalked him for advice,“ Chen laughs. “I also asked Tapan for advice on a research project for Africa, and he said, ’Look man, there are no solutions in the ivory tower. Go there and experience what it’s like.’“

Chen in rural Uganda
Kuang Chen making rounds with health care workers in rural Uganda
as a volunteer for the Millennium Villages Project.

Chen saw that a child’s vaccination record was a piece of paper in the family’s home. The health workers had no way to compile the data for planning and allocating resources. “I realized that paper wasn’t the problem. It was access to data. You have to pick your battles, and paper wasn’t going to go away,“ Chen says. “I imagined photographing vaccination forms with my cell phone, and like mobile check deposit, immediately getting the data.“

Chen describes sitting on a dirt floor writing code on a laptop hooked to a solar panel to set up data collection forms and reports for one particular village doctor, Emmanuel Atuhairwe (“Dr. Emma“). “I wanted to help Dr. Emma track simple trends, like health worker performance and how many women gave birth at the clinic versus at home.“ This project led Chen to see how arming a village doctor with data could make a significant difference.

During the last year of his Ph.D., Chen cofounded Captricity with another CS alum, Jeff Lin (B.S. ’05), who had gained fame with gold record rock band Harvey Danger in the 1990s. Lin also had diverse experience in journalism and the technology sector before returning to UW to focus on computer science for a second B.S. degree. Lin was an unlikely Asian-American role model for Chen. “When I was in high school, I saw Jeff’s name in the CD liner for their first album, and thought -- this guy is awesome: editor of The Daily, a rock star. He’s a big reason I enrolled at UW.“ Three years later, they met in Sieg Hall and spent a lot of time playing Halo on Xbox. “He's moved on from Captricity, but we’re lifelong friends,“ Chen says.

Although Chen gained considerable experience tackling startup challenges while working at Teranode, he inevitably encountered problems that stumped him as CEO of his own company. For advice, he called on yet another CS classmate and good friend, Christophe Bisciglia (B.S. ’03), who founded Cloudera in 2008 and WibiData in 2010. (See story in MSB Spring 2014.) “I could ask Christophe questions I’d be embarrassed to ask anyone else, and he’s still an advisor for Captricity,“ Chen says.

Boundless opportunity and vision

Captricity logo

Since Captricity’s success solving the FDA’s need to speed up reporting of adverse drug reactions, the company has grown steadily. High-profile clients include Chrysler and insurance giants Humana and New York Life, education institutions such as MIT and Yale, and the new work with the Federal Election Commission to digitize reams of Senate campaign finance records and boost government transparency.

Both traditional angel investors and venture capitalists (Atlas Venture, Reid Hoffmann, Dave Goldberg), and those also seeking social impact (The Social+Capital Partnership, Knight Foundation, Mitch Kapor) have invested in Captricity, providing a war chest for rapid growth and development of services for both the corporate and nonprofit sectors.

One of Chen’s favorite clients is the UW Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which compiles and makes publicly available vast quantities of health data for its Global Burden of Disease project. For that work, Chen collaborated with Yaw Anokwa and Carl Hartung (both Ph.D. ’12) to unite their work with mobile phones and Open Data Kit with Captricity's capabilities so health workers in the developing world can photograph paper data and enter electronic forms in tandem with their mobile phones and seamlessly merge the data for IHME’s analysis.

From day one, the company has offered its services and software for free and at a significant discount to an array of nonprofit organizations, especially those working in international health and development and that would otherwise be priced out of the market. “One of our values is ’Remember why you're here.’ I’m here to help the Dr. Emma’s of the world,“ Chen says.

Life and career are a global journey for Chen, who was born in southwest China, moved with his parents to the Midwest at age 9, and then to Redmond.

He has a message for UW CSE students and alumni: “Captricity is hiring mission-driven technologists to democratize data access. Please join us.“

Information about opportunities at Captricity may be viewed at:

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