mHealth, eh?

One of the cooler things I’m working on at IDI is an mHealth project. Pilot, of course. The running joke in Uganda is everything is a pilot, nothing is a program…we can unpack the implications of this joke on the entire development paradigm, but leave that for another post.  mHealth is the idea of using mobile devices, phones, smart phones, laptops, iPads, those things we use to call Palm Pilots, in order to send out information about health, encourage adherence, and survey populations.

Monday night, August 29th, I attended an event called Mobile Mondays, hosted at the UNICEF office in Nakasero.  Ducking out of work to arrive by 5:15pm, when the event is scheduled to start, I grab a less hectic boda, ride around a bit, realize my boda driver does not know exactly where he is going, and eventually arrive, on time, to go through security.  The presentations did not begin for another hour.  I have learned a valuable lesson.  Arriving on time is unnecessary.

Nevertheless, I found some new friends from the Women of Uganda Network and settled in for the presentations.  One of the great things about the ICT4D community here in Kampala is that it’s relatively small, so I was quickly introduced to a Text to Change staff member.  Text to Change is one of those select organizations that I find myself visiting online on a fairly regular basis.  I recently learned that Text to Change and IDI had a joint project whose results have yet to be published (will post them when they are, it’s an interesting study).

The presentations began with a Ministry of Health speaker.  My short attention span, nurtured by years of television, internet, and cell phones, kicked in.  The man talked in a deep soothing voice.  He had no powerpoint.  No facts other than his own conviction.  And I found myself on twitter with the less than stellar internet on my phone tweeting my excitement to be sitting at UNICEF, all the while nodding off.

Political punditry aside, the UNICEF representative who talked in acronyms about the Integrated Community-based Case Management program (ICCM, of course) and how best to communicate with VHTs (Village Health Teams? I’m still not sure) with mHealth tools, brought me back to reality.  Low resource settings, no time to try new systems, when the fight is to keep people alive, not to keep them healthy or well informed…Those are secondary.

The UNICEF representative, however, didn’t know much about mHealth, and so the D-Tree representative who presented after her was a welcoming solutions-based breath of fresh air.  D-Tree, some sort of open source ness to it, has luckily made some mistakes that the rest of us don’t have to duplicate, like creating a unique application for each project.  It’s great to be just behind the curve sometimes.

Following D-Tree was an organization called eMOCHA who makes android apps that are really cool and highly functional.  But I kept thinking of that resource constrained environment.  eMOCHA reminded me that most of sub-Saharan Africa leapfrogged technologies.  For example, instead of everyone getting a landline in the 1990’s there were just less people with private phones, but once cell phones exploded, everyone had one.   The developing world, global south or whatever we want to call it, skipped a step.  Why not skip on to android/blackberry/mobile internet technology?  The network is built for telecommunications, use that for internet instead of sitting at a sketchy internet cafe. Eh, it’s just an idea. I’m no engineer.

Grameen’s AppLab and MoTech program focused on mobile midwifery with the use of vocal informational calls.  Neat. Solves the problem of illiteracy in  the target population.

I’ll leave you with some questions that I have yet to answer:  How do you measure the impact of mlearning, surveys, etc on health?  How would we visualize the mdata?  Can SMS be used as an impact evaluation tool?  And, despite my interests, are mobile technologies really a useful tool?  (Besides SMS, those have been proven to be useful, can talk about studies on some other post).

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