October 19, 2018
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New mobile app can ID harmful ticks with photo recognition

Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN
Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN
Ryan Bilodeau of Sidney and his uncle Dan Ladd of Belfast created the "What's My Tick" mobile app to identify ticks with image recognition, released on the Apple App Store in late August. The app also provides location-specific information about tick-borne diseases, as well as tips for tick removal and avoidance.

A new mobile app that identifies ticks using photo recognition software is now available for iPhones, developed by an uncle-and-nephew team from midcoast Maine.

Just released, the app “What’s My Tick” analyzes photos using a complex code to arrive at a species of tick based on certain physical characteristics. It also offers information about tick-borne diseases and their prevalence in the app user’s location.

The app was created by Dann Ladd of Belfast and his nephew, Ryan Bilodeau, who is pursuing studies in computer science at Thomas College in Waterville.

“We’re hoping it will help people,” Ladd said. “You know, if you have a dog tick on you, the chance of getting a disease is minimal [in Maine]. But if you have a deer tick on you, you have a very high probability of being exposed to a disease.”

Ladd, who grew up in Belfast, has watched the tick population climb in midcoast Maine in the past 20 years — along with tick-borne illnesses. But it was one particularly scary experience that inspired him to create the app.

Last October, Ladd was hiking with a friend near Rockland on a trail that led them through some tall grass — prime tick habitat. It wasn’t long before dozens of ticks were crawling up their pant legs. Some even found skin and latched on. The alarming experience prompted Ladd to do research on Maine ticks and the diseases they can carry and transmit.

Maine is home to 14 different species, according to the University of Maine Tick Identification Lab. But out in the woods, Ladd and his friend didn’t have the tools or knowledge to figure out what species of ticks they were dealing with.

“I thought a mobile app would be a great tool, but I didn’t know how to make it,” Ladd said.

Ladd turned to his nephew, Ryan Bilodeau, who at the age of 21 had already created several mobile apps from scratch.

Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN
Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN
Ryan Bilodeau of Sidney and his uncle Dan Ladd of Belfast created the "What's My Tick" mobile app to identify ticks with image recognition, released on the Apple App Store in late August. The app also provides location-specific information about tick-borne diseases, as well as tips for tick removal and avoidance.

“I agreed to the project because I enjoy making apps but also because I know [tick-borne diseases] are a big problem,” Bilodeau said. “One of my mom’s friends has Lyme disease and has been treating it with medication since I was in middle school.”

Bilodeau, who grew up in Sidney, Maine, built the mobile app using Python, a high-level programming language often used by data analysts. Using image recognition — specifically convolutional neural network — he made it so that the app detects certain characteristics in tick photos and uses algorithms to “guess” which species of tick it’s most likely to be. But accounting for a degree of error, the app also provides a second guess, third guess and so on, depending on how many ticks species (that can transmit diseases that are harmful to humans) exist in the state where the app user is located.

“It presents the ones that are around you and then ranks them based on what it thinks is most likely,” Bilodeau said.

These options come up in a slideshow of detailed tick photos that the app user can then scroll through and decide for themselves what species they’ve found. They then click “select” and are provided with information about the species, the diseases they can carry and transmit to humans, and the prevalence of that disease in their area.

To do this, Bilodeau and Ladd used data from the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention to create a database of what ticks (that have proved harmful to humans) are found in all 50 states, and statistics on the diseases that have been reported in each state.

“We’re starting with just the United States, and if the app does well, our plan is to expand to Europe,” Bilodeau said.

Also, because tick species are continuing to spread throughout the country, the app will be updated on a regular basis. And the pair plan to improve and add to the app based on feedback they receive from customers through the app store and the app’s Facebook page.

“I think when people realize what it is, there will be a lot of interest in it,” Ladd said.

Currently, the app has no direct competition. Nothing like it has been created, though there is “The Tick App,” a free app developed to function as a survey to be used in a study being conducted by researchers from Columbia University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The study was designed to help researchers understand more about how people’s practices and activities impact their exposure to ticks, and the app features a tick diary where users log their tick encounters.

“My Tick App,” on the other hand, does not collect the app user’s observations for a study. However, the app does save all tick photos that the user identifies, including the date they identified it, in the app’s “My Ticks” section for future reference.

Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN
Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN
Ryan Bilodeau of Sidney and his uncle Dan Ladd of Belfast created the "What's My Tick" mobile app to identify ticks with image recognition, released on the Apple App Store in late August. The app also provides location-specific information about tick-borne diseases, as well as tips for tick removal and avoidance.

Although Bidoleu enjoys working with photo recognition, he admits it’s not 100 percent accurate. Many aspects of a tick’s appearance makes them tricky to identify. For one, ticks are tiny, with nymph deer ticks about the size of a poppy seed. Also, ticks change in appearance throughout their lives. But perhaps most importantly, when engorged (from drinking blood), a tick can be too distorted for the app to properly identify.

“We always suggest people collect a tick that has bit them in a bag and put it in the freezer with the date on it, just in case you become sick and need to send it in,” Ladd said, referring to the University of Maine Tick ID Lab, where people can send ticks for positive identification.

In addition to being a tick identification tool, “What’s My Tick” also features a “Learn” section where users can read up on interesting tick-related facts, instructions on proper tick removal and tips for how to avoid ticks altogether.

Available at the Apple App Store, “What’s My Tick” costs $1.99. Because of the complexity of the code, it only works on iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches with iOS 11.4 or later.

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