IUPUI students pioneering technology to help emergency responders

Five recent IUPUI graduates and two faculty members think they have a unique solution that allows police, fire and emergency medical services officials to relay information to dispatchers, hospitals and central information units faster and safer.

The seven members of the Indiana-based group were recently awarded $112,500 for developing an artificial intelligence technology platform—called Zenext—that works similarly to Alexa and Siri but understands emergency responder lingo. It can be customized to work within specific departments but can also relay information across departments in different jurisdictions.

The yet-to-be-named startup’s initial funding came from the National Institutes of Standards and Technology’s Tech to Protect Challenge, a national competition that draws hundreds of competitors from across the country.

“This is an important problem. These emergency responders need to be able to relay information hands-free,” said Sonny Kirkley, an adjunct assistant professor in the School of Informatics and Computing and an affiliate of the IU Crisis Technologies Lab. “This is critical technology for first responders to do their jobs.”

The team from IUPUI has collaborated closely with the Carmel Police Department in developing its technology, and the department will continue to be involved in early beta testing, Kirkley told IBJ. All five student team members went on ride-alongs with Carmel police officers so they could better tailor their software to the needs of emergency responders.

The effort to commercialize the technology came together after the students—all of which have master’s degrees from IUPUI—attended an AT&T Hackathon event last September in Speedway.

While there, the five students met a federal government official who recommended they enter the Tech to Protect Challenge.

Kirkley had taught all five students at IUPUI and was asked to join the effort along with Lou Lenzi, a professor of practice in the School of Informatics and Computing.

“Just like that, they went to Chicago [in September] for a regional competition, and they won,” Kirkley said. “Then they went to another regional competition in November in Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon and the won there too. It’s really been amazing.”

Those two victories earned the team $42,500.

In May, the team learned that their software was the top winner in the Voice AI category at the Tech to Protect’s national competition, which earned the group $70,000, for its technical aspects and business focus.

While the team’s quick progression has amazed Kirkley, the embrace of the technology has not.

“This work contributes to the growing need for crisis-response technology,” Kirkley said. “As technologies like artificial intelligence and voice automation mature, it’s important to tailor their capabilities to specific tasks and professions. This technology uses voice technology to bridge the gap between police officers and dispatchers and provides connectivity to important emergency agencies like fire departments and EMS.”

Kirkley said the IUPUI team’s work stood out against competitors due to the strength of the technology and the students’ close partnership with local law enforcement.

“A police car is really a small mobile office, with a laptop, a printer, a camera—all of which are required for officers to do their job,” said team member Aamir Khan, a 2020 master’s degree graduate in human-computer interaction. “Officers need to enter license plates, type and communicate with their colleagues—often at the same time they’re conducting other tasks.”

Zenext reduces the risk of distracted driving because, for example, officers can look up license plate numbers through voice command while pursuing drivers, he said. The technology also automates the process of entering the same information into multiple forms and gives police the power to quickly share critical information using hands-free email or radio communications, which is not possible with current equipment.

The improvement of officer safety and “just-in-time assistance that reduces time-on-task through natural language processing was a clear win-win for Zenext,” said Swarnamouli Majumdar, a member of the team who graduated in 2018 with a master’s degree in data science. Her earlier work merging text-to-speech and speech-to-text technology within an Android software-development platform sparked the initial concept for the project.

“I think our collaboration with law enforcement enhanced the authenticity of our project,” she added. “You need to talk to real people about real problems if you want to add value. Along with technology, I think the biggest part of our success in the competition was the human-centered design.”

As winners in the national contest, the IUPUI team is eligible to compete for another $70,000 during the Progress Round in November. Over the next six months, the team aims to advance their prototype to the beta test stage, including working with a hardware manufacturer to integrate voice-command software and cloud technology into a custom device and with the Carmel Police Department to employ the technology in field tests.

Kirkley said the team is working through legal issues to officially form their company, and will likely headquarter the enterprise in Indianapolis or Bloomington.

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