The UN Foundation and the charitable arm of mobile operator Vodafone recently carried out some research into the impact mobile phones are having on developing countries.
The report revealed a lot of anecdotal information about how mobile and wireless technology can improve everything from healthcare to commerce. Specific projects highlighted in the report included a text-messaging service, provided by Oxfam and the Kenyan organisation PeaceNet, to alert NGOs to any violent incidents surrounding recent election-related civil unrest in Kenya.
As well as making use of the connectivity mobile technology offers, in countries where access to PCs is rare the limited computing power of mobile handsets can be put to good use. Set up in 2003 by epidemiologist Joel Selanikio and technologist Rose Donna (formerly of the American Red Cross), the not-for-profit consultancy DataDyne has developed software to enable health workers in developing countries collect data more easily.
DataDyne claims its EpiSurveyor suite, an open-source mobile and PC client that can be used on handheld computers and smartphones, allows health workers to speed up the collection of health data, as they no longer have to rely on paper-based methods. Better data hopefully means an improved chance of tackling health issues more efficiently, potentially saving lives.
EpiSurveyor has now been officially adopted by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a standard for data collection in sub-Saharan Africa and Datadyne is working to make it compatible with an increasing number of more low-end mobile handsets.
ZDNet.co.uk caught up with Selanikio to learn more about the origins of EpiSurveyor and find out his hopes for the long-term potential of the technology to save lives.
Q: It makes a lot of sense to use mobile phones for data collection given the huge numbers of them in circulation, even in developing countries. But how did the idea for EpiSurveyor come about?
A: The genesis of this project goes back about 10 years. I was an epidemiologist working for the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and collecting data in the field, including the middle of nowhere like rural Borneo and Haiti. I began thinking about a way to improve the process of collecting information, and [the fact] that there was so much information we needed but didn't have.
At the time I was aware of some data-collection or data-analysis programmes that had been created by public health authorities, all of which I thought were hampered by the fact they were not open source. Although they were created by public entities, their development was essentially monopolised by single organisations for reasons that continue not to be clear to me.
I felt we had some good ideas and those ideas became EpiSurveyor, but it was clear to me then, and it's clear to me now, that we don't have a monopoly when it comes to good ideas for the future of EpiSurveyor. It seems to me the open-source model is really the best way to let people have a vote in the development of the software, and also a way to be able to accept other people's offers of assistance in an easier way than if we were working behind some kind of screen of closed source.
How are you getting the open-source community involved in developing EpiSurveyor?
We are just getting the community involved now, I would say.
My training in college was in sociology with a minor in computer science, so I had a programming background and worked as a programmer and database consultant on Wall Street before I left and decided to go to medical school. I made some tentative steps towards programming Episurveyor myself before I quickly realised that, in the 10 years that I had left programming to pursue my medical training, I was in way over my head. I tried to get some funding from my employer at the time, but I couldn't do it, so the project lay dormant for quite a while.
This was back in 1994/5 and it wasn't really till about 2002 that I began thinking about it again. I applied for a grant from the World Bank...