Disease tracking and monitoring in Africa has been difficult in the past, but a boom in cell phone adoption has created an opportunity to crowd source a massive new healthcare database and revolutionize healthcare in the region. 30 years ago, a public health official in Africa faced a woeful situation; with its massive rural population and poor transportation systems, millions of Africans faced life without access to healthcare. Accurate census data was hard to generate in the region, information about healthcare was difficult to disseminate to the general population, and disease tracking by epidemiologists was impossible.
Today urbanization and improvements in transportation infrastructure have eased these difficulties somewhat, but the widespread adoption of cell phones, with more than 630 million subscribers to service in Africa, has created a new ease-of-access to information and services for a massive segment of the population.
The benefits of this technology are being felt in a number of ways. Parents can now easily register births and deaths using mobile websites, facilitating accurate census record keeping for the first time in Africa’s history. “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. This quote encapsulates the problem faced by many of Africa’s rural population in the past. Information about health care clinics and vaccinations is now being disseminated to these previously uninformed populations, and healthcare workers are able to quickly schedule appointments and look up health care records in the field.
New companies are also being created to take advantage of the market. Ushahidi is a company that used crowd sourcing and data aggregation to generate death tolls in Syria, and its techniques are applicable to data collected by phone users in Africa. Organizations like millennium villages are also backing efforts to train programmers in Africa to utilize cutting edge computing tools like RapidSMS, a mobile programming platform.
All these developments are creating a healthcare revolution in the region.
In Africa, cell phones are saving lives.