Android Cellphones Dial Up African Health in University Project

Carl Hartung was surprised by the cellphone reception in East Africa this summer. “We were working in villages miles from electricity or running water, but we still had cell coverage,” wrote Mr. Hartung, a graduate student at the University of Washington, in an e-mail to The Chronicle.

That was good, because Mr. Hartung was in rural Kenya using cellphones to help test and counsel people about HIV. He and other university researchers have developed an application based on Google’s open-source mobile operating system, Android, that turns phones into vital data-recording devices: They record locations in seconds using GPS, take video and audio of patients, let counselors and patients fill out questionnaires, scan bar codes that serve as patient identifiers, and then send all these data to a confidential medical-records center in seconds.

Other devices have been tried for these tasks in the past, Mr. Hartung and several co-authors note in a paper in the October issue of Computer magazine. (A free abstract is available, but the full article has to be purchased.) But they have been primarily text-based, and lack cellular connections and processing power, and the flexibility to adapt to different tasks. So the researchers used Android as the basis for an application called Open Data Kit. This summer they took 10 phones that use it to Kenya to work with counselors for the Academic Model Providing Access to Healthcare (Ampath), the largest HIV treatment and counseling program in sub-Saharan Africa. They were using it in a home-based treatment program, and it worked well enough that Ampath intends to use 300 of the phones.

It was remarkable, Mr. Hartung recalls, to be sitting in a mud hut watching all these data being collected and sent out to be analyzed instantly. If a patient needed further counseling or to visit a clinic, that appointment could be scheduled on a calendar right away. And in the future, as new needs arise, the device can be reconfigured since Android, and Open Data Kit, are open source.

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