Mobile phones handheld global development devices

Tuesday, April 13, 2010 @ 03:04 PM gHale


It is hard to imagine anyone these days going anywhere without their mobile phone. These devices may soon, however, have the capability to go beyond just being a phone; they are now on the verge of becoming powerful tools to collect data on quite a few different issues, ranging from global health to the environment.

Android, the open-source mobile operating system championed by Google, can convert a cell phone into a versatile data-collection device, said computer scientists at the University of Washington (UW). Organizations that want to snap pictures of a deforested area, add the location coordinates and instantly submit that information to a global environmental database now have a flexible and free way to do it.

UW computer scientists were already working on mobile tools for the developing world when Android, the first comprehensive open-source platform for mobile devices, came to their attention two years ago by the Open Handset Alliance, a group of companies of which Google is a member. For the past year UW computer science and engineering doctoral students Carl Hartung, Yaw Anokwa and Waylon Brunette have worked at Google’s Seattle office using Android to create a data-collection platform for use in developing regions.

Their free suite of tools, named Open Data Kit, is already used by organizations around the world that need inexpensive ways to gather information in areas with little infrastructure. Seattle’s Grameen Foundation Technology Center is using it to evaluate its Ugandan text-messaging information hotline; D-Tree International, a Boston-based nonprofit, is using it in Tanzania to guide health workers treating children under 5 years old; the University of California, Berkeley’s Human Rights Center is using it to record human rights violations in the Central African Republic. This fall the Jane Goodall Foundation in Tanzania and the Brazilian Forest Service signed up to use it to monitor deforestation.

“Many organizations need to be able to make evidence-based decisions, and to do that they need data,” Anokwa said. “We hope our toolkit enables organizations to gather the data quickly so they can analyze it quickly and make the best decisions for the communities they serve.”

In the past, researchers have harnessed individual cell phone models to collect data in the field. But when the phone gets outdated, so does the software. Instead of creating a tool for a single phone, or even a single purpose, the UW team built something that would provide a reusable platform to collect all types of mobile data.

“We found a lot of organizations were building a lot of one-off tools that were very similar,” Hartung said. “We’re trying to make ours as compatible and flexible as possible.”

Open Data Kit’s versatile suite of tools can collect data; store, view and export data on remote servers; and manage devices in the field from a central office. The output is compatible with emerging data standards such as the Open Medical Records System, which aims to coordinate health records in the developing world.

Organizations are using Open Data Kit, but the biggest project so far is a major effort to track and treat HIV patients in Kenya. Led by the Academic Model Providing Access to Healthcare, a U.S. Agency for International Development-funded partnership between Indiana University and Kenya’s Moi University, it is one of the most comprehensive HIV treatment programs in sub-Saharan Africa. AMPATH trains Kenyan community health workers who conduct door-to-door testing in rural areas for HIV, tuberculosis and malaria, and offer ongoing personalized health counseling.

Phones running Open Data Kit can record location in seconds, scan a barcode rather than requiring the numbers to be entered by hand, and upload the data automatically using a cellular network. AMPATH plans to deploy 100 Google-powered phones by the end of this year. Ultimately, it aims to use 300 phones powered with Open Data Kit to reach 2 million people.

“Adopting this technology was kind of a win-win-win in terms of direction for our organization,” said Dr. Burke Mamlin, an assistant professor of medicine at the Indiana University School of Medicine and research scientist with the nonprofit Regenstrief Institute, which supports AMPATH. “This opens doors by allowing us to bring data collected in the field directly into our medical records system. And now we have a phone, all the personal digital assistant capability, the ability to read barcodes, and the ability to capture images or video, all in one unit.”



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