If it’s been a few years since you took a bio or chem class and you’re not a researcher yourself, you may not think you have much to contribute to the world of science. But we all contain a wealth of valuable data—or, more accurately, a wealth of data comes out of all of us. All you have to do to make a scientific contribution is take a picture of your poop.
Aptly dubbed #GiveAShit For Science, the call for feces photos came from Seed Health, a microbial sciences company that is developing ways to use bacteria to impact human health, and Auggi, an artificial intelligence-based gut health platform to help those who suffer from chronic gastrointestinal conditions better track their diet, symptoms, and stool. The project, the winner of the creativity category of Fast Company’s 2020 World Changing Ideas Awards, asks the public to snap a pic of their poop and send it in as part of a citizen science initiative to build the world’s first and largest crowdsourced database of excrement images.
Those photos train artificial intelligence to recognize healthy versus unhealthy stool, and make it easier for those with chronic gut conditions to better track their own health. Since launching #GiveAShit in October 2019, users from 75 different countries have contributed tens of thousands of poop pictures. A few months ago, researchers took the first 10,000 of those images and handed them off to a group of physicians, asking them to analyze them as if they came directly from a patient.
Stool analysis tests by physicians look at color, shape, and texture to reveal certain health issues; hard, small pieces of poop that look like pebbles are a sign of constipation, “greasy” looking stools may be a sign your body isn’t properly digesting fat, which could point to celiac disease or pancreatitis. (Stool analyses can go further, accounting for odor, pH, and a culture of the bacteria, but there’s still a lot of important information you can gather from a photo.) “We give the images to not one doctor but several of them to make sure that they’re not biased, and all of them look at all the images and they make annotations on them,” says David Hachuel, Auggie cofounder and CEO. “Essentially, we train the AI to potentially predict what the doctor will say.”
Equipped with that information, Auggi can then provide direct feedback to its users, who can try different diets and get quick feedback on how that impacts their GI symptoms. More than 70% of Americans have some sort of GI disorder or discomfort, from diarrhea and constipation to Crohn’s and irritable bowel syndrome. For many of those patients, doctors ask them to self-report their symptoms during check-ups, since these diseases are often chronic or at their worst when they’re not around a doctor, and it can be incredibly subjective. “It really relies on your own observation, not a trained physician,” Hachuel says. With Auggi, everyone can have their own AI physician analyze their stool at any time.
#GiveAShit was a natural collaboration for Auggi and Seed. Auggi uses self-inputed data about someone’s diet and their symptoms, so they can experiment with changes and better see patterns, like how they feel after drinking coffee, for example, without the guidance of a doctor along every step. People can enter what they consume, and images of what they expel, and Auggi will provide an artificial intelligence-powered analysis of their stool—before #GiveAShit, this AI was trained on models of poop made of Play-Doh; the real poop pictures will better train the tech—to inform people of their gut health. Seed is developing applications of bacteria for health, including new probiotic supplements, and it made sense to bring the public into that effort, too, not just to source as many reference photos as possible, but to foster a broad conversation about something that we all do, and about health issues that affect a majority of the population.
“From a pure physiological and health perspective, it’s an important set of data that has literally been flushed down the toilet for a long time and has been also kind of dismissed, and even beyond being dismissed has, of course, been stigmatized, ” says Ara Katz, CEO and cofounder of Seed Health. The project aims to educate people about the fact that bowel movements can be an important source of data as well as a biomarker of our health, introduced people to the Auggi’s AI stool analyzing technology, and, thanks to its somewhat subversive nature, sparked a global conversation about an important health issue.
Though it may seem silly to ask people to take pictures of their poop, the #GiveAShit initiative has had serious benefits. Along with fostering public participation in science, which is specifically important in an age where scientific distrust, especially for topics like climate change, has been rampant, the effort has helped normalize discussions about defecation for those with gut health issues. “We’ve talked to dozens and dozens of patients who suffer from these conditions,” Hachuel says. “Just the fact that there is a platform to talk about it, and that makes it okay, is so impactful.”
Seed and Auggi are still collecting stool images, since the AI algorithms require a lot of data to be adequately trained. If you want to contribute a snapshot for science, all you have to do is visit seed.com/poop from your phone, click on the #GiveAShit button, fill in your email and what time of day you typically go number two, and upload a photo. Your contribution will be completely anonymous—all the metadata will be separated from the photos before they go to the scientists—and you’ll have done your duty to advance science, one poop picture at a time.