Smartphones help collect data on malaria cases in remote Uganda

A new research system helps track real-time information

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With land lines, satellite phones and generic cell phones exhausted as possibilities, Mailman began to wonder if more specialized smartphones with integrated MicroSD cards for data transfer might solve the problem. And that's when he thought about a product he already uses for remote access to his home and work computers -- LogMeIn Rescue -- which works with Windows Mobile, Symbian and BlackBerry smartphones.

The software is sold as a secure application that corporate IT staffs or managed service providers can use to support remote users anywhere in the world. But UMSP is putting the application to a different use -- with LogMeIn Rescue, staff members in the Kampala headquarters can instantly and securely retrieve the collected data from the smartphones in the field.

By installing the LogMeIn application on smartphones and deploying a single phone to each of the nine remote data collection sites, data entry workers in each facility are able to copy their collected malaria database file information onto a MicroSD card and insert it into the phone. Once the phones are turned on, the devices can transmit the data wirelessly to the central Dell server in Kampala.

And since the files are small, the transfers amount to only about 320KB for each clinic per month, which costs less than $5 monthly for service at each location. That means data-transfer costs of about $45 a month for the entire program, which is far less than the almost $2,200 monthly required by the slow and inefficient courier system.

They were spending $25,000 a year to collect the data and now it's costing about $540 a year, "and they are getting the data while it is still vital," Mailman says.

Bringing it all together

After returning to the U.S. from Uganda, Mailman contacted Woburn, Mass.-based LogMeIn for help and the company agreed to provide free LogMeIn Rescue software and services for the malaria project workers. Palm Inc. donated five Treo 750W smartphones and Mailman was able to buy four more in online auctions.

In April, the nine LogMeIn-equipped Treo phones were taken to Uganda for distribution by Dr. Grant Dorsey, an associate professor in the division of infectious diseases at the University of California in San Francisco. After some training, the remote workers began successfully using the Treos to transmit their malaria data in May.

In an e-mail reply, Ruth Kigozi, the monitoring and evaluation coordinator for the malaria tracking program in Kampala, said the use of smartphones has transformed the way malaria case data is collected and analyzed. "Data is received within the first week of the current month, providing for timely analysis and dissemination," she wrote.

Malaria contributes up to 40% of hospital outpatient visits, 20% of hospital admissions and 14% of hospital deaths in Uganda, Kigozi says.

Dr. Erica Weirich, founder and director of the GHRF, says the improvements brought about by the technology additions are critical to the malaria tracking project.

"Originally, when the UMSP program started, there was little reliable data on patients, on the disease or on the effects of interventions," Weirich says. "Doctors and researchers can now see what is happening quickly, and spend more time preventing and healing the disease. Having the data back so rapidly allows you to try new things and see if they are working, which is very powerful."

Todd R. Weiss is an award-winning technology journalist and freelance writer who worked as a staff reporter for Computerworld from 2000 to 2008. He spends his spare time working on a book about an unheralded member of the 1957 Milwaukee Braves and watching classic Humphrey Bogart movies. Follow him on Twitter @TechManTalking.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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