Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Using Cellphones To Change The World

MIT project leads to programs that help health workers, farmers in developing countries

D.C. Denison /  Boston Globe  / October 14, 2009

It’s an unlikely medical device: a sleek smartphone more suited to a nightclub than a rural health clinic. But it’s loaded with software that allows health workers in the remote northernmost Philippines province of Batanes to dramatically reduce the time it takes to get X-rays to a radiologist - and to get a diagnosis for a patient being tested for tuberculosis.

The software, created by a nonprofit organization called Moca, is one of nearly two dozen cellphone-based projects that have sprung from NextLab, a course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It’s taught by Jhonatan Rotberg, who was sent to MIT by Telmex, one of Latin America’s largest telecommunications companies, to bring cellular technology to the “90 percent of people’’ who fall outside of the marketing plans of most phone companies.


And when Rotberg settled into his research and teaching position at the Media Lab, he made a discovery: The same device that powers teenage texting in the United States can be adapted to help farmers in Mexico and illiterate women in India.


In NextLab, Rotberg challenged students by asking, “Can you make a cellphone change the world?’’ And students have responded, creating nearly two dozen projects and three start-up ventures that have been working with communities in developing countries like India, Vietnam, and Mexico.

“It really kind of jumps out at you, the positive impact you can have with cellphone technology,’’ said Zack Anderson, a recent MIT graduate who was on a team that started Moca, a nonprofit that is developing mobile software to improve health care access in less wealthy countries.


Using Rotberg’s course as a sounding board, the Moca team decided to focus on facilitating cellphone communication between health workers in rural areas and doctors, who tend to be in cities.


“The Philippines actually adopted cellphone texting way ahead of the US, so there’s already a platform in place that we can leverage,’’ he said. “We started with X-rays, but there’s no reason we can’t also transmit ultrasound videos, echocardiograms, and other medical imagery.’’


Dinube, a NextLab spinoff that was tested in Mexico last summer, provides payment services to people who don’t have access to traditional banks.


Two other NextLab projects show the mobile phone’s range: CelEdu offers cellphone-based games and quizzes that have been used in India to teach basic literacy skills. Zaca - developed by students at MIT, Harvard, and Tufts - helps farmers make deals with buyers using their cellphones, bypassing expensive middlemen. The cellphones also provide current crop prices and advice on growing practices.

MIT’s Legatum Center, which supports a variety of entrepreneurial programs to bring innovation to developing countries, has four cellphone-related projects in the works. That’s not surprising, given that the center’s director, Iqbal Quadir, founded Grameenphone, a company that introduced low-cost cellphone service to Bangladesh in the 1990s.


To stay ahead of this rapidly evolving technology, Rotberg recently launched what he refers to as version 2.0 of NextLab. The spring semester course, hosted by the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics, will be focused on creating a mobile phone-based platform for a broad range of projects.


“There’s no question that the cellphone footprint will expand, and that phones will get cheaper, and that computing power will grow,’’ he said. “The only question is, will we recognize that this is an opportunity for social good?’’



!!! Thanks To Garrett Eastman / Librarian / Rowland Institute at Harvard / For The HeadsUp !!!

EXTRA > Today, October 15, 2009, Bill Gates Delivered A Major Speech At The World Food Prize Symposium In Which He Committed $120 Million Toward Projects That Focus, In Part, On Small Farmers, Including Getting "Information To Farmers By Radio And Cell Phone."

Links To The Full Text Of The Speech, An Associated Slide Presentation, And Video Of The Presentation Available At  


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