Bill Thies, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research India, has been awarded the MacArthur Fellowship, popularly known a “genius grant”, from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, one of the largest private philanthropies based in the US.
The award includes a $625,000 no-strings-attached grant, awarded over five years. Thies is among 23 winners this year.
The award recognizes the 38-year-old Thies for his contributions to the socio-economic development of under-served communities. A computer scientist, Thies, creates communication and digital technologies to advance the social and economic well-being of low-income communities in the developing world. According to the MacArthur Foundation, the fellowships are awarded to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction”.
Thies exemplifies this through his recent work that includes the 99DOTS (99dots.org) initiative—a new model of delivering tuberculosis medications and ensuring adherence to the full treatment regimen, which is crucial for preventing the spread of drug-resistant strains of the disease. Patients make a free phone call to an unpredictable number that is revealed when a dose is dispensed from the customized blister package of medication, allowing care providers to monitor patients’ treatment in real time. After a successful pilot with 2,500 patients, 99DOTS is being scaled up across all states of India.
In addition to his contributions to the field of healthcare, Thies has been instrumental in driving CGNet Swara, a voice portal for citizen journalism across physically and socially isolated tribal communities in India. In collaboration with Indian journalists, Thies and his team developed an interactive voice response (IVR) system that allows users to report or record events of notice via mobile phones. As part of the initiative, a team of moderators review the audio messages received via the IVR and, if warranted, bring the recorded concerns to the attention of government officials. Indian officials have responded to several problems reported by CGNet Swara, including cases of unpaid wages and an outbreak of cholera in a village abandoned by its appointed medical officers.
Further, Thies expanded this work into IVR Junction, a cloud-based, open-source tool that enables mobile phone users to record, post and listen to content on popular social media platforms simply by making a phone call. He is also co-inventor of several low-cost technologies for education, including a mobile application that automatically detects and aggregates student responses using computer vision, as well as an interactive tool that helps translate educational videos into local languages. Through his research projects, Thies is able to provide innovative and appropriate solutions to global social, health and economic challenges.
Thies received two BS degrees (2001 and 2002), an M.Eng (2002) and a Ph.D (2009) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2008, he joined Microsoft Research India, where he is currently a senior researcher.