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How PDAs Are Saving Lives In Africa 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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How PDAs Are Saving Lives In Africa

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  • Unfortunate naming (Score:3, Interesting)

    by PresidentEnder ( 849024 ) <> on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @12:21PM (#20480987) Journal
    Datadyne is the name of the evil corporation in Perfect Dark [].
  • Fantastic (Score:5, Interesting)

    by COMON$ ( 806135 ) * on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @12:25PM (#20481057) Journal
    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?

    • 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: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by James McP ( 3700 )
      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 h
  • by Anonymous Coward
    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
    • Yes, we do that, but only if it serves our interests. [] The only way that would work is if the companies payed a living wage, which by and large they do not.
    • 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.
  • by JosefAssad ( 1138611 ) on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @12:57PM (#20481497) Homepage
    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!

    • by mysterious_mark ( 577643 ) on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @01:13PM (#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
      • by reed ( 19777 )
        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.
    • by jselani ( 985582 ) on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @01:52PM (#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: (Score:3, Informative)

      by evilviper ( 135110 )

      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 requir

  • Damnit! I was going to register that company name over here in the states! Looks like I'll have to figure something out then....
  • 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).
  • 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.
    • by socz ( 1057222 )
      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 (Score:4, Insightful)

      by swb ( 14022 ) on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @03:21PM (#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).
      • 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?
        • by swb ( 14022 )
          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?
  • History repeats... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Brickwall ( 985910 ) on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @02:05PM (#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.

  • 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 comparabl
    • by Goaway ( 82658 )
      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!
  • 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!
  • 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.
  • 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 hav
  • "Pilot program"


  • 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 ma

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

The best defense against logic is ignorance.