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Economist Articles Examine Use Of Mobile Phones For Global Health

The Economist examines how mobile phones could be used to detect the spread of diseases worldwide. According to the Economist, “[t]he world’s 4 billion mobile phones could be turned into sensors on a global data-collection network” and aid workers, engineers and several other professionals “are now building systems that use handsets to sense, monitor and even predict population movements, environmental hazards and public-health threats.”

One of the innovations profiled in the article is a “suite of open-source software to share, aggregate and analyse data from mobile phones,” which was launched by the nonprofit group Innovative Support to Emergencies, Diseases and Disasters (InSTEDD), the Economist reports. InSTEDD focuses on using mobile phones to improve disaster response in developing countries. In Cambodia, it is testing a system where health workers can send text messages, containing observations and diagnoses, to a central number. According to InSTEDD, the service enables “geospatial ground-truthing, as your mobile team works to confirm, refute, or update data.” The group is trying to “stitch together a global network, tentatively dubbed Archangel, to combine all manner of data sources, from satellite imagery and seismic sensors to field-workers texting from refugee camps,” according to the Economist.

The magazine writes, “Some computer scientists look forward to the day when mobile phones and sensors can provide a central nervous system for the entire planet.” This could allow scientists to build more realistic models, and when it comes to “tracking and predicting the spread of diseases… scientists can never get enough data,” and it could also provide a way to “broaden public involvement in scientific activities,” according to the Economist (Economist, 6/4).

A second Economist article describes how MIT researchers are using a system called XoutTB to give people an incentive to stick with tuberculosis treatment, which takes six months. The system uses “stamp-sized patches… that change colour when exposed to the urine of people with traces of medicine in their systems,” according to the magazine. The color change “reveals a code that a patient can send by text-message to a number which rewards him with free airtime minutes on his mobile phone,” the Economist reports. A first trial including 30 people living with TB in Nicaragua was a “success,” and a second trial in Pakistan is planned, according to the Economist (Economist [2], 6/4).

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