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How PDAs Are Saving Lives In Africa

kdawson posted more than 7 years ago | from the port-it-to-the-olpc dept.

Handhelds 53

Mark Goldberg writes "UN Dispatch, the United Nations affairs blog I write, just posted an item that may interest this community. Joel Selanikio, a medical doctor and technologist, writes to us from Zambia to relay how PDA devices are quietly revolutionizing public health services in sub-Saharan Africa. Selanikio runs a non-profit called that trains local health officials to use PDAs equipped with an open source software tool to track outbreaks, coordinate vaccination efforts, and perform other vital public health tasks. So far, says Selanikio, the pilot program in Zambia has been a resounding success.

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Unfortunate naming (3, Interesting)

PresidentEnder (849024) | more than 7 years ago | (#20480987)

Datadyne is the name of the evil corporation in Perfect Dark [] .

Re:Unfortunate naming (1)

Filbertish (1086451) | more than 7 years ago | (#20481113)

I was just thinking about that when I read this. Oh well.

Re:Unfortunate naming (5, Funny)

Rob T Firefly (844560) | more than 7 years ago | (#20481277)

Thank you for informing us of this. We at DataDyne had no idea, and we do not wish to be compared to or invite comparison to the evil corporation from "Perfect Dark." To this end we have officially changed our name, and we shall begin large-scale rebranding efforts right away.

The Umbrella Corporation

Re:Unfortunate naming (1, Insightful)

fm6 (162816) | more than 7 years ago | (#20481377)

Africans spend very little time playing first person shooters. Too much like real life.

Re:Unfortunate naming (1)

zomper514 (235646) | more than 7 years ago | (#20482947)


  A. I'm not the only person to play Perfect dark


  B. I'm not the only one that had that useless nugget of info stored in their long term memory

OK I feel better now.

Re:Unfortunate naming (1)

Dragon By Proxy (1063904) | more than 7 years ago | (#20486799)

You aren't alone. I saw the company's name, and I had an instant "lolwut" reaction. Seriously. As if the laptop gun wasn't enough, now they have PDA guns?

Re:Unfortunate naming (1)

PresidentEnder (849024) | more than 7 years ago | (#20490197)

Get this- I don't and didn't ever play Perfect Dark. My little brother did, and I remember that from watching him. You've got nothing to feel bad about, my friend.

Re:Unfortunate naming (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#20491161)

All evil corporations starts out "doing no evil";

Re:Unfortunate naming (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#20491905)

...and all chronic trolls starts* out by posting anonymously.

*Quick, grammar nazies, here's your chance!

Fantastic (4, Interesting)

COMON$ (806135) | more than 7 years ago | (#20481057)

This is great news, I have been peeking into ways to centralize information from third world countries mission projects. Our church here currently has a medical team that they send to haiti but there is an issue with creating a database to track individuals. Initially I was hoping to hook them up with access via a cell card in a laptop to a website running mySQL so that they could track prescriptions and individuals when they are back in the states.

This solution seems a bit more elegant with PDAs. Has anyone else worked on a project like this?

Fantastic observations (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#20481339)

"This is great news, I have been peeking into ways to centralize information from third world countries mission projects. Our church here currently has a medical team that they send to Haiti but there is an issue with creating a database to track individuals."

Uh oh! Religious people and a centralized database to track people. Seriously I wish you the best.

"This solution seems a bit more elegant with PDAs. Has anyone else worked on a project like this?"

Well a PDA can present a more friendly and in depth front-end, but the back-end is going to remain pretty much the same. Now if you want to make this a two-way the possibilities are much greater. But I'm not certain what the quality of cell service is in third-world countries.

PDA application (2, Informative)

mysterious_mark (577643) | more than 7 years ago | (#20481647)

I actually built a PDA application that is used for snow science, the data is collected in the field from various locations world wide on the PDA's and sent to our central DB (MySQL), see [] . Mark

Re:Fantastic (2, Interesting)

James McP (3700) | more than 7 years ago | (#20483635)

About six years ago the engineering firm I work for had a public outreach program where high school students were given PDAs (Palm IIIx) to collect data on the storm and sanitary sewers along creeks. The kids would note which manholes were in the streams, where there were roof downspouts directly attached to the storm sewers, etc. Each manhole has their ID number stamped into the rim and the kids had paper maps as backup.

The data quality was spotty and the teenagers were pretty hard on the equipment but hey, they were teenagers. However the process as a whole was successful. There were virtually no complaints about the difficulty of data entry. Which is pretty encouraging since a non-programmer used a low-cost off-the-shelf PDA database to put it together. It would sync up with Access, which was good enough at the time. The kicker for most PDA data collectors is the sync process. It's worth it to pay someone for a decent data sync plug-in.

Today you should be able to do as well just as easily, if not better.

Re:Fantastic (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#20511949)

It is very unfortunate that we are spending resources to develop technology that is misused to *save* lives of these African creatures, who give us nothing but misery, crime and TNB when they come over to US.

We should be spending resources to develop biological agents to eliminate these sub-human chimps, not save their lives in some mistaken act of zealotry. Please visit [] [] for further discussion.

Until... (-1, Flamebait)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#20481059)

Until the corrupt governments in Africa change their ways, little will change there. Yet we send over BILLIONS of dollars every year.

Re:Until... (1)

Creepy Crawler (680178) | more than 7 years ago | (#20481299)

And do you think trite phrases like "corrupt governments" does anything?

We send billions of $ to the peoples of Africa, and some to the governments in which we have either befriended or threatened with being "blowd up". I havent heard much of Kadafi recently.. Wonder why.

And frankly, we need the peoples of Africa to unite and overthrow the governments we dont like. So, we help the peoples.

And lastly... diseases dont just stay in one place.

Re:Until... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#20481513)

And frankly, we need the peoples of Africa to unite and overthrow the governments we dont like. So, we help the peoples.
actually, by giving people a better quality of life we can make their futures seem a bit less dismal. it's largely the desperation of the poor and downtrodden, both at home and abroad, that leads them to stuff like petty crime and upto evil-doing such as suicide bombing and spree killings.
if you take the time to look over the recruits that are being brought into street gangs and extreme fundamentalist groups it's normally the poor and uneducated. of course, you will always have exceptions but they're just that. the norm for jihadists aren't the bin ladens of the world but the poor village kids who don't really want another 50 or 60 years of desert farming while they watch their peers and families die of diseases that we take as easily curable.

Fi\8st post (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#20481097)

don't do no thang QUIETLY nat' all!!!! (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#20481227)

Don't do no revolutionizing quietly...make some noise!!!! WHACOOOOOOO!!!!!

Where is it coming from. (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#20481341)

While it is good that things are being done about Africa. Who is providing this hardware to these people? if it is an American company/Government would the money not be better spent at home? The only way Africa is going to be saved is if someone starts businesses and gets these people off the streets and gets them some money and a way of life. Just handing someone something gets them nowhere. But time after time we send money to places like this and it just gets worse, or they end up spending it on guns and bombs and hating us 20 years later. Please quit sending aid, send jobs. You can mod me a troll if you want but you know I am right.

Re:Where is it coming from. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#20481547)

Read the fucking article. They are not giving PDAs to people in Africa, they are using them to track people so they can track vaccinations, etc. You are a troll, and either naive or just very stupid regarding how bad the situation is in many parts of Africa.

Re:Where is it coming from. (1)

fru1tcake (1152595) | more than 7 years ago | (#20490591)

Creating jobs does not help the people who have already died from a preventable disease. Improving the efficiency of their health programs means a greater proportion of the population are healthy (read: employable), which is also good for the economy (sick people are expensive to care for, both in terms of time and money). A holistic approach is required.

what, (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#20481479)

are PDAs made out of cheeseburgers now?

ICT4D, handheld solutions (4, Informative)

JosefAssad (1138611) | more than 7 years ago | (#20481497)

Shiny handheld frontends look nice on a project proposal, but in the field there's often very good reasons why they just don't work out the way they were expected to. In microfinance, handheld frontends are much talked about as a means of lowering transaction costs but in a research paper (probably from the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor [] , but I forget), the majority of such solutions failed to have any discernible impact on operations or on efficiency other than the disruption of rolling them out. I had made a comment on the sahana mailing list which summarizes my feelings:
  • PDAs are not cheap
  • PDAs are therefore (and for other reasons such as demand, or the lack of in developing nations) very far from ubiquitous.
  • Break a PDA and it's an issue (replacement, management making a fuss and having to replace, yadda yadda; you know how it goes)
  • PDAs require a certain level of sophistication to operate (yes, I know everything requires some training. But if you mishandle a PDA, you replace it. PAper is more redundant, and commodity PCs too)
  • PDAs require an extra little bit of logistics; charging, synchronization facilities and schedules, etc.

I don't like pointing out problems without solutions. It might be a good idea to replicate the functionality of the PDAs as far as possible in paper, and then to have bulk entry facilities in Sahana. I know that PDAs are the optimal solution in terms of using technology the way it was supposed to, but situational realities can dictate otherwise.

I think it's dangerous to assume that the people who will be in control of the conduits through which the system acquires information are sophisticated to the extent that they can successfully handle a PDA, yet it is good design to have facilities for people who can.

And since we're looking at F/LOSS ICT4D projects, I can think of no more worthy a project than Mifos [] (disclaimer, I was involved in this project): a shared open source microfinance platform in Java. Worth a look if you're a Java coder and would like to pitch in!

Re:ICT4D, handheld solutions (3, Informative)

mysterious_mark (577643) | more than 7 years ago | (#20481743)

I'd disagree with your assertion that PDA's aren't cheap, the Palm Zire retails for around $70. these days. These are robust and durable units, and we have deployed them extensively in the field, the BW screens are perfect for use outdoors. Also with the right software these units are easy to use and synch. We've had good luck on widely deploying the Palm Zire's for data collection, even on a non-profit budget, see [] Just my 2 cents. Mark

Re:ICT4D, handheld solutions (1)

reed (19777) | more than 7 years ago | (#20497469)

True. But a few pencils and a deck of index cards is only a few bucks. If the Palm is worth that difference, then great. But if not, then go with the simple solution.

Re:ICT4D, handheld solutions (5, Informative)

jselani (985582) | more than 7 years ago | (#20482389)

Hi Josef,

I'm the developer of EpiSurveyor. While we've had excellent results in the field with PDAs for almost ten years now, working with the American Red Cross, UNICEF, WHO, and many other organizations, we're now shifting from PDAs (ie, unconnected pocket computers) to cell phones (ie, connected pocket computers). Cell phones, as you may know, are rapidly spreading across the developing world: just about every health worker we come across already has one. I believe that before the end of the year we'll have a version of EpiSurveyor that runs on J2ME platforms. Keep an eye out for updates at


Joel Selanikio

Re:ICT4D, handheld solutions (2, Informative)

evilviper (135110) | more than 7 years ago | (#20482831)

PDAs are not cheap

High-end iPaqs aren't cheap... You could put together a low-end PDA for $30, and it would have more than enough power to handle data entry, networking, etc. I still use my B&W 26MHz Psion5mx, and haven't felt the need to get anything higher-end. The dirt cheap "Osaris" works equally well.

Break a PDA and it's an issue (replacement, management making a fuss and having to replace, yadda yadda; you know how it goes)

I'd be more worried about the durability of paper than a PDA.

PDAs require an extra little bit of logistics; charging, synchronization facilities and schedules, etc.

Hardly an issue. Paper needs to be hauled into a central office... Much bigger logistics issues there.

There goes my name! (1)

madhatter256 (443326) | more than 7 years ago | (#20481613)

Damnit! I was going to register that company name over here in the states! Looks like I'll have to figure something out then....

On a lower-tech plane... (1)

Belacgod (1103921) | more than 7 years ago | (#20482167)

Organizations now exist that do the same for bicycles [] . It's the same idea--health care workers can reach more people more efficiently (plus, they're a bonus for anyone doing any sort of job that involves moving stuff).

Unpossible!! (1)

timeOday (582209) | more than 7 years ago | (#20482317)

How can this be? Slashdot slams every proposal for technology in Africa as impractical and irrelevant; technological development is somehow supposed to wait until after economic and political development have taken place. I guess not.

Re:Unpossible!! (1)

socz (1057222) | more than 7 years ago | (#20482503)

Well, I see this as bad ass. The reason is because they are using technology to help them do their job, instead of doing it for them. I think when it falls into replacing humans, that is where it must be a developed country. But in developing countries, technology can be best utilized. After all, who really wants a factory of robots where no humans can be employed? NM...

OK, here it is (3, Insightful)

swb (14022) | more than 7 years ago | (#20483803)

Here's your expected comment:

Until Africa stabilizes itself politically, improving public health feels good and makes everyone look humanitarian, but it really just creates a much larger problem involving overpopulation and ecological disaster.

I read this again just the other day in the Times -- all the feel-good Western "help" programs that "improve" the lives of Africans have largely just increased the population to the extent that there is no longer farmland that can be meaningfully subdivided in Africa, forcing people into urban areas where they live in poverty and join in whatever military coup that comes down the pike (free drugs, an AK-47 and a chance to kill your rivals).

And this is when the programs *work* -- when they don't work, all we end up doing is lining the pockets of thugs like Robert Mugabe, Daniel Arap Moi, and enabling proto-thugs like Thabo "AIDS is a conspiracy, take this folk remedy" Mbeki.

Repeat After Me: Westerns Cannot Save Africans. Only Africans can Save Africans. When Africans have a stable political system they can (easily!) solve many of these basic problems like clean water, healthcare, etc. Until then, "solving" these problems by Africans means dying by machete/mortar/7.62x39 round in political infighting instead of malaria.

And while I'm on my soap box, where are all the Westerners (generally leftists) who were so behind all the African "freedom fighters" in the 1960s and 70s? Shouldn't they be accepting some of the blame for putting into power some of these unbelievably corrupt African regimes?

(Thanks, I'll gladly repost for the next Western-geek-tech-saves-Africa article).

Re:OK, here it is (1)

Speedracer1870 (1041248) | more than 7 years ago | (#20485209)

Yes, and this thinking is why we are now fighting Al Qaida in places like Somalia. We just blew the crap out of one Somali town with naval gunfire back in June. Also, didn't AIDS come from Africa? I guess it really stayed an African problem. No sign of it anywhere else, eh?

Re:OK, here it is (1)

swb (14022) | more than 7 years ago | (#20488649)

WTF does that have to do with feel-good Western paternalism creating more havoc than it causes? Am I supposed to be baited into supporting US military adventures? Or some weird AIDS-isn't-our-problem response?

Re:OK, here it is (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#20497473)

Actually, overpopulation becomes LESS of a problem once you improve the health, and particularly reduce the infant mortality, in a country: within a generation people begin to have fewer children once those children are less likely to die. It's happened in America and it's happening in Africa. One reason overpopulation is such a problem in developing countries is exactly that there is such a high child mortality that there is no incentive to have smaller families: you don't have only two children if you expect that at least two of your children will die before age five. I agree that "saving" Africa is up to Africans -- and will require the US and others to stop supporting corrupt African governments -- but I certainly don't think there is anything wrong with developing open-source software that Africans can run on PDAs OR on cell phones that helps their health system. One final point: the US is spending about 11 MILLION DOLLARS AN HOUR in Iraq (that's according to the Pentagon, and does not include any money for reconstruction, just for military occupation). What do you think the budget of this program is? My guess is it's the equivalent of about 20 seconds of Iraq spending.

Re:OK, here it is (1)

swb (14022) | more than 7 years ago | (#20498361)

I'm having a really hard time with the idea that you can change the cultural behavior (large families) of an entire continent in a single generation, not to mention larger basic problem of "solving" infant mortality or any other large-scale problem within the context of Africa's broken political environment.

Just today the Times had an article about Zimbabwe's largest baker running out flour because there's no foreign reserves to buy it -- Zimbabwe used to be a net exporter of food before Mugabe's disastrous campaign to redistribute farmland (ie, prop up his corrupt government by bribing idle thugs who might otherwise riot). You're going to "fix" infant mortality in a country whose LOCAL leadership is basically destroying the economy and risking famine?

And then just look at the U.S. as an example -- we've been POURING money into social welfare programs since the 1960s without *any* of the problems that Africa has and we can't "fix" our own problems with poverty, infant mortality, etc among our own poor.

And what's with all the "Iraq" comments? Africa was in trouble WAY BEFORE Iraq was even an issue; its fantasy to believe that one red cent of money spent in Iraq would have been spent on Africa anyway. It's the biggest straw man ever or just an attempt to troll someone into an unwinnable argument on Iraq policy.

History repeats... (4, Insightful)

Brickwall (985910) | more than 7 years ago | (#20482591)

Over a quarter century ago, I worked with a telecom firm that was developing a low powered satellite PBX that would provide a mini-telephone exchange for use in remote parts of Africa. One of the unintended consequences of providing this technology was an almost immediate rise in prices received for the community's goods. Previously, not knowing what the goods were worth at market in the coastal cities, these communities sold their produce/livestock at bargain prices. After, armed with current coastal market prices, they did a better job of getting near-market prices for their produce.

This story seems to me to be another page from the same book; the more information the community has about itself, and can share with others, the better the quality of life for the community. With so much horror in Africa these days, it's heartening to hear a good news story.

OLPC (1)

necro81 (917438) | more than 7 years ago | (#20482669)

I wonder if this sort of thing could be developed for (or ported over to) the One-Laptop-Per-Child? OLPC is an open platform, so there should be possible. Data entry would be even easier with a larger screen and full-sized keyboard. The construction of the OLPC is certainly rugged, and it has power consumption almost as low as a PDA (rechargeable in the field, too). The wireless capabilities (when available) allow it to beam the data back in near-realtime to the health database. The costs are comparable, too. A stumbling block may be that OLPC isn't targeted to government officials, but rather students.

Re:OLPC (1)

Goaway (82658) | more than 7 years ago | (#20484955)

But everybody knows the OLPC is totally useless and also you're not allowed to develop any information technology in developing countries before you solve all other problems first!

OK pal, what's your angle? (1, Funny)

GodfatherofSoul (174979) | more than 7 years ago | (#20482727)

So, I suppose you have $10 million in illicit PDA sales to funnel into the US, and you're willing to give me $2 million to help with the transaction? And, I suppose I just have to pay the $2K retainer for the big payoff...We won't be fooled again!

Wouldn't it be the opposite? (1)

Debug0x2a (1015001) | more than 7 years ago | (#20483205)

It seems that with their AIDS epidemic public displays of effection would do more to harm lives then to save li- oh...wait...wrong PDA. Never mind... nothing to see here, move along.

tangentally related here... (1)

jollyreaper (513215) | more than 7 years ago | (#20483273)

I know they say it's been the Information Age for a few decades but for me it really seemed to arrive with wide-scale access to the internet. I remember having a disagreement with a coworker about something that was a verifiable fact. Hit the net, boom, there's the answer. Ok, so what's so impressive about that? The information was already recorded in a book somewhere. We've had books and libraries for thousands of years. True, but it's access to that information that's the key. Information that I don't have that's just sitting in a book somewhere is useless to me, especially if I don't even know I should be looking for it.

The internet was already plenty cool when we still needed bulky desktops and phone lines. With wireless and handhelds, we're talking about raising it to a new level. I've got the whole frickin' wikipedia available on my cell phone, not to mention anything else I'd care to look at online. This is total scifi territory right now. Extrapolating out a few decades, how much longer until we don't even need a phone to access it?

Just because the information is there, not everyone will avail themselves of it. But the greater the exposure, the more likely you'll you'll find people who will recognize the advantage and run with it. Ignorance ain't much of an excuse anymore, not when you can just fucking google it.

YoU Fail IT (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#20484179)

More g)randiose []

Heh, heh. (1)

ian_mackereth (889101) | more than 7 years ago | (#20488705)

"Pilot program"


The reality of the situation (1)

FromTheHorizon (1008223) | more than 7 years ago | (#20489425)

I currently work in Banda Aceh, Indonesia and have an Indonesian friend is working for the UN. He works on a similar project where he is collecting data from villages using a smart phone. However he doesn't actually enter it directly into a smart phone - he writes the information down on paper because it is easier and faster and then goes to the local coffee shop to enter it into smart phone. From personal experience I know that it's not that easy to quickly enter information into a PDA/smart phone.

This may still be a better solution than having the paper surveys taken back to a data entry person who enters them in a computer. At least in this example he is entering the data into electronic format while it is still fresh in his head.

The difficulty of entering data also depends on the type of survey. Quantitative information (numbers, check boxes and lists) is easier than qualitative information (words). However technology also allows for some information to be collected very easily (photos, GPS).

I also think that it is important to consider the barrier that a PDA will create between the interviewer and the interviewee. "Fancy Technology" like a PDA can be distracting, it can emphasize the power imbalance between the people and it could make people less honest with the the information they give. If you only earned $1 a day would you feel more comfortable telling that to someone with a clipboard or a PDA?

Re:The reality of the situation (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#20525453)

Slow data entry on phones you say?

If it's one of those smart phones with a camera, he can simply take a photo of the written page. That would be even quicker than talking or typing on a fold-out bluetooth keyboard. The only issue then is the bandwidth cost of uploading the jpeg.

Just blatant self-promotion (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#20489665)

This article is written by the guy that invented the system. He's just tooting his own horn--who knows if it is really doing any good? Odds are, probably not. --AR

Why is the answer always tech (1)

algoa456 (716417) | more than 7 years ago | (#20490251)

Puzzling why they don't simply use a good old pencil and paper. The cost of one hand held can provide lots of paper and pencils and/or medicine. Years ago I worked in a hospital in Swaziland and rule lined exercise books for recording medicial situations did quite well. But things and understanding moves on so can the poster please explain the benfits of the hand held approach.

Misuse of Technologies (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#20497045)

It is very unfortunate that we are spending resources to develop technology that is misused to *save* lives of these African creatures, who give us nothing but misery, crime and TNB when they come over to US.

We should be spending resources to develop biological agents to eliminate these sub-human chimps, not save their lives in some mistaken act of zealotry. Please visit [] for further discussion.

Needs AfricanPotato v2.1 (1)

spxZA (996757) | more than 7 years ago | (#20504043)

So it can be used in South Africa to cure AIDS.
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