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The Daily Need

Using cell phones to deliver health care to African children

Matthew Berg speaking at PopTech 2010. Photo: Kris Krüg

CAMDEN, Maine — Much of the Do-It-Yourself foreign aid movement taking shape these days is focused on how to make new technologies applicable to old problems. In Africa, for example, there is one simple yet seemingly intractable obstacle preventing the successful delivery of health services to poor women and children: Not everyone gets counted.

“If you’re born at home in a rural village, you’re not born in a health facility, and you die of pneumonia, other than your family, there’s a real chance that no one ever knew who you were,” Matthew Berg, a programmer and social innovation fellow at PopTech, said in an address to the annual conference here.

This anonymity stands in stark contrast to the ubiquity of mobile phones across even the most impoverished regions of Africa. As Berg put it, “more people have access to mobile phones now than fever treatment, diarrhea treatment.”

So Berg developed a simple platform that leverages the popularity and ease of use of mobile phones to widen access to basic health services. Called ChildCount+, the program allows community health workers in countries like Kenya to register their patients in a central database, by sending a simple text message. “They’re in a system, they’re counted, and with that we can track their health,” Berg said.

So far, the program has registered more than 10,000 children and 5,000 mothers in Kenya alone, and fundamentally transformed the way health workers there address health problems and deliver services. Now, at least, health professionals know where everyone is. ”This is wonderful,” one Kenyan doctor said of the program, according to Berg. “We no longer have to chase chickens.”

ChildCount+ is supported by the Millennium Villages Project, an African organization run by on-the-ground workers in the communities they serve, and the Rural Technology Lab, a training program for local African programmers founded by Berg and funded in part by partners like Microsoft.

As Berg put it, the idea behind the lab is that, in order for innovative solutions to social problems to be sustainable, and for the local community to take ownership in those solutions, the designers behind them must be local as well. A top-down approach engineered by well-intentioned advocates who parachute into impoverished, rural villages in Africa may do some good, but it won’t be sustainable, and it won’t be widely replicable throughout the rest of the developing world.

This represents something of a sea change in the foreign aid movement: Rather than developing new programs and tools at the UN headquarters in New York to solve social problems like poverty, social innovators are teaching local activists — who know the conditions and the people the best — the knowledge to develop the tools themselves. Students come to the Rural Technology Lab not even knowing HTML, Berg said. When they leave, they have an advanced knowledge of the most cutting-edge computing tools, including RapidSMS, a mobile programming platform.

“It’s just like food — you want it to be local, to be sustainable,” Berg said.

Of the Rural Technology Lab, he added: “It’ll be them that comes up with the next big idea.”

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