Mobile technology: Small wonder

February 26, 2011


Mobile phones have served as a catalyst in the process of global integration of communities. Handsets—even simple ones with SMS and voice capability—are used to collect information from, and disseminate it to areas which are hard to reach by traditional methods.

As governments and NGOs across the globe strive to eradicate poverty, disease and hunger in line with Millennium Development Goals, communications remains one of the most staggering barriers to overcome. This is where mobile phones have provided unique opportunity to narrow the communication gap and pave way for social change like, running mobile campaigns, social advertising and mobile-based consulting services.

The basic requirement of such a social project that a government or non-government agencies undertake is to collect data from the field of intended operation. This could be demographic information, medical and health related data or any other piece of information that helps prioritise actions and take decisions impacting the community in question. Substantial work has already been done to turn mobile cellular network into an effective data collection platform using open source applications such as Open Data Kit (ODK)—winner of Antonio Pizzigati Prize acknowledging developers who create software for public interest.

The ODK is an application that runs on mobile phones and empowers grassroots activists to capture photos, video, audio, text and location coordinates. There are several modules available in the ODK system such as Collect module for uploading information, Aggregate and Visual modules to store and analyse the collected data on a central server and a Build module to create data-capturing forms using simple drag-and-drop designing that can be displayed and used over phone easily. There's even a Voice module allowing robot calls to be made and respondents' answers captured through phone's keypad—an extremely useful technique to reach out to people directly who might not be well-versed in using SMS.

Other than data collection, the ODK also has a Clinic module which is a complete phone-based medical record system allowing physicians to view a patient list along with the patient's entire medical record sitting in their rural makeshift clinics without any laptop, computer or internet connectivity. This record system adheres to industry standard of mobile phone data collection called Open Rosa which defines specifications for applications running on Java Mobile Edition (J2ME) and supporting a variety of devices—everything from low-end Java phones to high-end PDAs.

Other mobile applications active for social change and adopting industry standards for cross-talk between each other include Cell Life, Dimagi, Epi Surveyor, AED Gather and OpenXData. Let's a take a brief look how these organisations are bringing about social awareness using nothing but the existing mobile phones network particularly in the developing countries.

Cell Life works in the realm of HIV prevention and Aids treatment in South Africa by extending mass messaging targeting the country's 36 million active cell phone users. It not only links patients with clinics sending reminders of appointments, promotes peer-to-peer counselling and performs monitoring and evaluation, but also induces risk-reducing behaviour by constantly reminding people how the infection spread.

Dimagi, on the other hand, is a technology company developing solutions primarily for community health workers tasked to promote preventive care, induce care-seeking behaviour and detection of those at risk of specific diseases in rural areas. Dimagi's mobile health platform serves as a surveillance system bridging the gap between health workers and their supervisors, and enabling the workers to collect and report data such as visiting families where a newborn has arrived to assess condition of the infant and mother for any possible key danger signs. The company has partnered with organisations working to strengthen community health programmes in countries like Tanzania, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

A similar real-time data collection and sharing platform is Gather used by a non-profit organisation AED. This open source system is designed to be used in remote regions. For example, in a Uganda-based pilot programme health workers upload data from clinics across the country using mobile phones to create a national level disease surveillance information system. This has a potential to save lives by prompting timely government action against identified trends and outbreaks reported in part of a country. AED has worked with Dimagi and Open Rosa Consortium to ensure that their system is industry standard-based.

Then, there are implementations of data upload facility from Epi Surveyor which can be used to design data collection forms online, view the uploaded data online with analysis facility right on phone and data export facility. This can be used by any organisation looking for a simple readymade solution.

These projects have won generous funding from international donor agencies, proving that there's a lot of potential in utilising the wireless carriers to uplift societies which are hard to reach otherwise. Mobile phones have already penetrated remote areas of the world, and can be used very effectively for advocacy, citizen-empowered journalism, democratic participation, humanitarian relief, education, environment and health to bring about positive changes in lifestyle and promote economic development. This is possible simply by imparting best practices—such as basic hygiene—which can go a long way in improving health indicators, and on similar lines, other social indicators.