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August 10, 09

NEWS / Innovative Mobile Phone Project Saves Childrens Lives in Africa


USAID funds RapidSMS malnutrition surveillance in Malawi
By Jim Fisher-Thompson
Staff Writer

Washington — African children now have a better chance of survival thanks to an innovative health program begun by American university students and health care workers in Malawi who use mobile phones to gather timely information on child growth and malnutrition.

The Child Malnutrition Surveillance and Famine Response project in Malawi, a joint venture of Columbia University in New York City and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), allows local health care workers to send height, weight and other information through an SMS (short message service) text message. A computer receives the predefined data points and automatically analyzes the information for indications of child malnutrition.

The technology behind the program, Columbia University’s RapidSMS, was the winner of a recent technology-development contest sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and called the Development 2.0 Innovation Challenge.

Kirsten Bokenkamp, a Columbia student who helped originate the project, told America.gov that the new mobile phone technology “demonstrated its ability to improve child nutrition monitoring and has shown that it is an effective way of sharing information among all stakeholders.”

The project has proven so successful in rapidly identifying problem groups for malnutrition that the government of Malawi is “eager to scale RapidSMS for nutritional surveillance up to a national level,” Bokenkamp said.

People worldwide increasingly use information communications technology (ICT) in a way that is “revolutionizing the concept of development,” says Karen Turner, director of USAID’s Office of Development Partners.

Turner, whose office sponsored the Development 2.0 Innovation Challenge, said the Malawi project led to a three-month reduction in the time it took to generate the data for child nutrition, which is “significant because it means Malawi’s Ministry of Health now has a better idea of how to combat the problem.”

Roughly half the world’s population now uses mobile phones, compared to just 10 percent with access to personal computers, according to USAID’s Global Development Commons, the unit in Turner’s office that conducted the Development 2.0 competition.

Turner said the goal of the contest was to identify and support technology-based organizations that “promote a local-community approach to development employing mobile phone technology.”

By harnessing the power of ICT and social networking, the USAID official said, “we have engaged and connected with a new nontraditional community, sometimes called ‘crowdsourcing,’ that can now remain part of the development conversation and may come up with other ideas.”

Turner’s remarks reinforced what Henrietta Fore, USAID administrator at the time, said at the Development 2.0 award ceremony in January: “We often find that the international development space is more closed and siloed than open and accessible. At USAID, we are taking steps to make our development knowledge as widely accessible as possible, and we are encouraging others who are involved in development to do so as well. This includes partner governments, other donors, foundations, private companies, and [nongovernmental organizations].”

According to Bokenkamp, RapidSMS Malawi is part of that new community.

“Winning the development challenge was helpful to us on many levels,” she said. “We have been able to shift a student effort into a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization called Mobile Development Solutions. The prize money was also helpful in contributing to more in-depth work in Malawi, while it also provided us with recognition from potential partners.”

As for the future, Bokenkamp said, “we are planning on continuing our work in Malawi while also reaching out to other potential clients and partners. We are confident that mobile technology has a central role to play in the future of development projects, not only in the field of nutrition and health, but also in many other areas, including education, supply chain monitoring and agricultural practices.

“We look forward to playing a leading role in facilitating the use of RapidSMS throughout the field of international development,” she said

http://www.america.gov/st/democracyhr-english/2009/August/200908100956271EJrehsiF0.4024774.html?CP.rss=true

 




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