Tracking Disease One Text at a Time

Belinda Luscombe | | August 15, 2012

How cheap cell phones — and quick thumbs — are saving lives in Uganda

...For all the apps and gee-whiz features of phones, their ultimate transformative power is the ability of one person, no matter where he or she is, to communicate with another. In developing nations, the simple text message represents a quantum leap in connectivity.
In a new initiative called mTrac, supported by UNICEF and the World Health Organization, health workers using these phones to text details of drug supplies and disease outbreaks that they had previously put on paper. This information is amassed and coded into a kind of online dashboard so that public-health officials can see in real time what’s going on. “It’s easy to track who has a lot of medicine and who has none and to move the stock from one clinic to the next,” says Nabukalu Hasipher, a records assistant at the Mpigi district health office. “Before, I had to call each and every one.”

Of course, the texts are useless if they’re not accurate. And local health clinics aren’t eager to report gaps in service. So the system has an alternate stream of data: crowdsourcing. “It’s a toll-free SMS complaints hotline,” explains Sean Blaschke, who leads UNICEF’s health-innovation work in Uganda. “Anyone who wants to report a problem about health care delivery can anonymously send information to a call center.” These complaints are collated, checked out and added to the region’s dashboard.

And finally, UNICEF has recruited about 140,000 members to a kind of SMS social-networking group called U-report. Communicating entirely by text, U-reporters, who join the group much as people join Facebook, send and receive information about development issues, including health. These texts can be targeted; mothers can be alerted to free vaccinations in their area, for example. One of the tripartite system’s key strengths is that for an innovation so digital, it’s actually low tech. This means the ongoing cost of mTrac to the Ugandan Ministry of Health appears to be negligible. The U.K.’s Department for International Development provided the initial capital, including money for building the software, training workers and setting up the Internet, but the workers use their own phones. UNICEF estimates the Health Ministry’s outlay to be about $14 per district per month...