Mental health app set to sail says ex-yachting champion

LONDON: Many of us now wear devices that track our physical wellbeing, but could similar tech protect our mental health and fitness, too?

This is the question that began to gnaw away at Geoff Ross, an artificial intelligence entrepreneur whose main claim to fame is being a winner of, and former record holder in, the Sydney to Hobart yacht race.

He spent much of his career until recently in Hong Kong and China, working in tech but also fascinated by traditional Chinese medicine. He and a couple of fellow expats from Macquarie started an app-based business, WeTherapy, that used the principles of Chinese medicine to monitor people’s vital signs and flag any health concerns they might develop.

But the COVID-19 pandemic shut borders and stifled business.

“Because we’d done all this analysis of physical characteristics, it occurred to us, maybe we could do the same for mental health,” Ross recalls.

The result, which goes into pilot testing in Australia and Britain later this year, is a tracker app measuring what they call a person’s “behavioural pulse”.

Companies will also be able to use it, at an anonymised enterprise level, to gather data on their workforce’s mental wellbeing.

“It’s like a cardiovascular pulse, except that it’s a composite measure of your behaviour, based on an AI analysis, and some pretty sophisticated mathematics, of the data on your mobile phone,” Ross explains.

Drawing on 50 datasets that a person has on their phone, the app first works out what your normal range of activity is, and then starts keeping an eye on any deviations from it.

Just as a change in your cardiovascular pulse might signal that you need to get yourself checked out, so too should a change in your behavioural pulse.

“We’re preventative,” says Ross. “We’re not diagnostic, we’re not offering treatments. We’re just trying to give it as early warning.”

He reckons this model avoids the pitfalls of many health apps that require constant input and engagement from the user, leading to users giving up.

The flow of data, in dashboard form, could also help managers identify teams, business units, or types of worker that were struggling in some way.

Ross admits that not every employee is going to warm to the idea of a company monitoring their mental health.

He is adamant, though, that only the algorithm sees the raw data. “We will get our software independently checked to make sure it can’t be reverse engineered to get into people’s data,” he says.