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Personal Digital Assistants, and open source software, save lives in Africa

Page history last edited by Rosemary 11 years, 5 months ago

Public health revolution could improve lives of millions in the developing world

Masaiti District, Zambia, July 2007 -- The vaccination assessment team from the capital city of Lusaka listens intently as a village official describes local participation in the recent measles vaccination campaign. He believes that all eligible children in the village were taken to the vaccination posts, but urges the team to verify this for themselves.

In a nation where many households have no phone and no address, collecting health data is a daunting task. It means getting out into some of the most remote districts, like the Masaiti District, and going from house to house, asking "Did your children get vaccinated? May I see the vaccination card?" This kind of fieldwork can generate hundreds of pages of paperwork: multiple sheets of information for each household multiplied by the hundreds or even thousands of households that are visited.

But through a year-old pilot program, Zambia is replacing paper-based health surveys with those used on PDAs (personal digital assistants). This means no data entry, no cumbersome clipboards, and most importantly no waiting weeks or months for data entry clerks to enter stacks of paper into a computer for analysis.

Zambia today is helping to lead a public health revolution that has the potential to improve the lives of millions of people in the developing world. By switching from paper-based to mobile-enabled digital health systems, Zambian health workers are empowered with new 'eyes and ears' in the field-devices that increase the speed and accuracy with which vital health information can be collected and recorded. These PDAs, sometimes more powerful than laptops of the recent past, quickly are becoming a vital public health management tool.

DataDyne.org, the non-profit organization I co-founded, is helping to forge this promising new path. Through the course of my work as a Wall Street IT consultant, a pediatrician, and a medical officer at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, I developed an interest in applying computer science to the public health domain. The result is EpiSurveyor--a free, easy to use, open source software solution.

Prior to the use of EpiSurveyor, handheld data collection was gathered using commercial software that required expensive consultant programmers every time a new form was needed, or an old form needed to be modified. Now, with support from the United Nations Foundation and Vodafone Group Foundation, and in partnership with the UN World Health Organization and national governments, EpiSurveyor is putting effective health data-gathering tools in the hands of country health officials.

EpiSurveyor operates using a Java-based engine and a Windows-based Designer application that allows fast and easy creation of forms and data systems. It allows anyone with average computer skills--the ability to use a word processor or email, for example--to create and share mobile data collection systems in minutes, and without the need for consultant programmers.

In keeping with its mission to break down the barriers that block access to health data in developing countries, EpiSurveyor is free--anyone with internet access can download the program. EpiSurveyor is also open source, enabling those with higher-level programming skills to manipulate the program to respond to health needs as they arise. Finally, EpiSurveyor is built to run on mobile devices, providing maximum mobility and ease-of-use for health workers who spend most of their time in the field. Pilot project training is conducted using the Palm Zire.

So far, year-old pilot projects in Zambia and Kenya are showing that data received from the field has streamlined the inoculation of children against measles, collected information on HIV, and has even helped to contain a polio outbreak. For some, PDAs are mostly a convenient way to check email and keep up with schedules. In the developing world, these devices perform many of the same tasks--but when equipped with EpiSurveyor can help save lives.

This article, entitled How PDAs are saving lives in Africa, by Joel Selanikio, M.D., co-founder of DataDyne.org (UNF-Vodafone partnership), was written September 4, 2007, and published on the UN Dispatch website. The pilot projects in Zambia and Kenya concluded successfully in October, 2007, according to the UN Foundation and Vodafone, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control is now using EpiSurveyor software in Sierra Leone. Health officials were able to modify the open source software to meet other public health needs as they arose. In Kenya health officials modified EpiSurveyor to investigate and contain a polio outbreak, and in Zambia health officials modified the software to conduct a post-measles-immunization campaign coverage survey to identify which children had not been vaccinated.

The UN Foundation-Vodafone Group Foundation (VGF), created in October 2005 with a £10 million million commitment from VGF matched by £5 million from the UN Foundation, focuses on developing rapid response telecoms teams to aid disaster relief, developing health data systems that improve access to health data, and promoting research and innovative initiatives using technology as an agent and tool for international development. DataDyne was formed in 2003 by physician/epidemiologist Joel Selanikio, formerly of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and technologist Rose Donna, formerly of the American Red Cross, to increase the quantity and quality of data available for worldwide public health. DataDyne works with mobile information technologies including handheld computers, smartphones, the Internet, and GPS, to create sustainable data flows in developing countries


UPDATE: mHealth program expands to 22 sub-Saharan countries by end of 2008

The United Nations Foundation and Vodafone Foundation’s Technology Partnership (Technology Partnership) announced Sept. 9, 2008 that it is expanding its mobile health (mHealth) program in Africa. Working with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the non-profit DataDyne.org, the Technology Partnership will expand the use of EpiSurveyor, an open-source application that helps healthcare workers track health data, to 22 sub-Saharan countries by the end of 2008. Following successful pilot programs in Kenya and Zambia, trainings conducted by DataDyne.org, in collaboration with WHO and local Ministries of Health, have been conducted in nine additional countries since 2007: Benin, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Madagascar, Rwanda, Senegal, and Uganda. Before the end of 2008, trainings are planned in a further 11 countries.

See Mobile Health Initiative Expands to Over 20 Countries in Africa - Innovative technology deployed to help improve healthcare delivery and save lives


UPDATE: Innovator Joel Selanikio Wins
$100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability

Dr. Joel Selanikio has won a major award for his innovative technology that is changing the face of the public health system around the world as well as saving lives. Merging his expertise in the areas of computer science, medicine and public health with his business partner’s background in technology, spurred the development of a sustainable mobile software tool to aid in disease surveillance and the collection of public health data in developing nations. Officially established as an electronic data collection standard by the World Health Organization, Selanikio’s EpiSurveyor is now the world's most widely adopted open source mobile health software. The Lemelson-MIT Program named Dr. Selanikio as the recipient of the 2009 $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability in recognition of his accomplishments in public health and international development, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, April 28, 2009. Selanikio, co-founder of DataDyne and assistant professor of pediatrics at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington D.C., will accept the award during the Lemelson-MIT Program’s third-annual EurekaFest on June 24-27. “Joel’s inventiveness and ability to leverage his unique, multi-discipline background is impressive,” states Theresa Bradley, team leader of the World Bank’s Development Marketplace, whose organization nominated Selanikio for the award. “He is a thought leader in the area of mobile health for developing countries and is dedicated to improving global public health by creating sustainable technologies that are scalable, affordable and practical.”

This update is excerpted from a press release dated April 28, 2009 and entitled Open source mobile technology software reinventing health care in developing countries, 
Innovator Joel Selanikio Wins
 $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability

For other stories on how technology is being used in health care, see:

Recycled phones and free software revolutionize health care for Malawi hospital

Mobile phones bring access to health information in Bangladesh

Village Leap helps Cambodians join global village

Telemedicine brings improved health care to remote part of Canada

Recycled phones and free software revolutionize health care for Malawi hospital

Using mobile phones to monitor child malnutrition in Malawi wins award for UNICEF


For other stories about practical health care solutions in Africa, see:

Acupuncturists bring healing, relief, local training across the globe

Benin is an ongoing success story in eliminating endemic river blindness

Coping with the grief and loss of AIDS: memory projects bring hope to Africa

Ending slum deadlock to bring health to Mali slums

Grassroots public health initiatives eliminate dreaded guinea worm disease

Innovative South Africa pill reminder idea spreads globally

Motorbike ambulances save lives of mothers, babies, in remote areas of Africa

New therapeutic food is miracle for starving children

Successful Tanzanian trachoma treatment offers hope for nomadic communities


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