Featured image credit: Andy Miah Creative Commons License

Today we had the opportunity to chat with Steve Ollis of D-tree International, who will be a guest expert for our Mobile Phones for Public Health course. Below, he discusses his experience working in the mHealth field!

Can you tell us about your background and experience in mHealth?

I came into mHealth and global health in a somewhat non-traditional way. I actually started off as an accountant and management consultant with BearingPoint, working with various US government military branches on their accounting systems. I moved into IT consulting with a focus on program management for the next six years, working at progressively smaller companies, bringing web applications to state and federal agencies and addressing issues like help desk, user training and support, and change management needed to introduce and sustain new applications in large organizations.

My career in mHealth and global health started with a few short volunteers stints in Kenya and South Africa followed by a position with the Clinton HIV/AIDS Initiative (now Clinton Health Access Initiative) for two years in Tanzania, working in pediatric HIV, commodities, lab systems and Prevention of Mother to Child (PMTCT) programs.

With this exposure to the global health world and my background in information technology, I was intrigued by the possibility of working in the mHealth space and joined D-tree International in Tanzania six years ago. I have been fortunate to work on cutting edge mobile decision support tools focusing on design, development, deployment and support. I have seen projects grow from 1-2 facility to over a hundred facilities, and 5-10 community health workers to thousands of health workers. Over the years I have also seen a dramatic price drop for Android phones from $650 t0 $80. I have worked in Tanzania, Benin, Malawi, Kenya, Sri Lanka and India as part of small and large teams, and have worked at both the community health worker and Ministry of Health levels.

How is mHealth incorporated to your work currently?

D-tree International is a health NGO that uses mobile technology to improve the care provided by frontline health workers. We are working at the government, donor, implementing partner and ground levels to develop applications and systems that support decision makers at all levels, from the community health worker and nurse level to health systems supervisors. We focus on providing mobile decision support tools to health workers, and creating health systems to provide them adequate support. We use mobile technology to improve health outcomes by developing supervisory applications, dashboards, mobile money integration for transport, vital events tracking, and point of care diagnostics.

Why do you think mHealth is important / what impact can learning about the use of mobile phones for public health have on development projects?

It is amazing to think about how we can do things more effectively and efficiently using mobile devices, including data collection, applications, closed user groups and telemedicine. At a higher level it is useful to think about how these innovations can be introduced, scaled and supported in order to create significant impact and change.

What are your thoughts on the future of mHealth, and where you think this field is heading?

We’ll see continuing availability of smartphones at all levels of society and the prices will come down further. The price of data and sms will also be reduced and connectivity will increase at greater bandwidth. These forces will allow for increasingly complex mHealth systems to be developed where data, images and video may be able to be shared even in the most remote areas. Point of care diagnostics will continue to evolve, where the prices and power requirements for certain tests will drop to a point that they become more feasible to deploy at the community level. Mobile money, vouchers and mobile insurance will also play a role as the health workers and clients become more familiar with their use in their day to day lives. Power and lack of unique identifiers will remain significant challenges, but innovative solutions should be available soon in areas where we work.

We believe mHealth skills have the potential to make a huge impact in your work. Why do you think taking this class is important, and who would you recommend it to (public health professionals, field workers, etc etc).

This course provides a great overview of different types of mobile technologies and mHealth projects in addition to providing a unique opportunity to connect with a community of implementers and experts in the field. It will also provide some guidance around processes and structures required to include a successful mHealth component to a project. I am a firm believer in the potential of mHealth to radically transform the current state of healthcare. Everyone from policy makers to healthcare workers need to think about how we can use these tools to save lives and help people live healthier, happier lives.

Any advice for someone who wants to make a career in mHealth?

There are many opportunities available for people from all backgrounds. There is a need for people not only with health and technology skills, but also with sociology, anthropology, finance and business, project management and analytics skills. I think it’s important to be conversant in the technology, but to keep exploring these other areas which are critical to the work we are all doing to introduce and support game changing innovation in health systems for the good of the communities we serve.

About Steve
Steve is D-tree’s Chief Operating Officer with over 20 years experience in management consulting, information technology and public health. Steve holds a Bachelor’s degree in Finance from The American University and a Master’s in Business Administration in Information Systems and Finance from the University of Maryland. He is also a certified Project Management Professional. Prior to joining D-tree, Steve worked for the Clinton HIV/AIDS Initiative in Tanzania directing programs in Pediatrics, Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission of HIV, and Rural Care and Treatment.


Mobile Health: How Far We’ve Come

When I first started in the field of technology for development back in around 2010, I was working specifically in global health tech, and there weren’t too many of us around. The idea of using technology in places besides the developed world was just starting to gain traction, and even then, it was limited to mostly technologists and a few health experts. Pilotitis was infecting everyone, and every project I worked on for the first few years was a pilot of some sort, with no solid plan to move beyond that stage. The focus was on finding tools and concepts that showed evidence of working, although that ended up being a more difficult task than everyone expected!

Recognizing this, the mHealth Alliance (formerly part of the United Nations Foundation) created programs to incentivize all the many organizations out there to move past the pilot stage and begin exploring how to scale their projects, and eventually other organizations followed suit. Even then, though, the health field at large was still a bit unsure about how to treat digital interventions, especially in terms of evaluation. Do you measure the success of an SMS stock monitoring tool by just counting how many times it was used, or do you count the many patients who were treated using those very drugs kept in stock? Is there even one right way to measure it?

Additionally, nobody could really agree on what terms like “scale” and “sustainability” meant for mobile health tools. It wasn’t until more recent years that the space has truly started to embrace that the definition of “scale” and “success” varies for each project, and that planning for sustainability is paramount for a mobile health product to truly make an impact.

These days, among many lessons learned, it’s widely recognized that like any technology, mobile health tools are great for targeted usages, but at the end of the day, they are just tools that cannot solve problems on their own. Even the sleekest vaccination reminder system, for instance, must be accompanied by an equally well-run vaccination program for it to really benefit a community.

The mobile health community, additionally, has expanded significantly to include a wide variety of experts and crossover roles, from doctors to designers and software developers to supply chain experts. This has contributed to an increasingly holistic view of mobile health, rather than the siloed space that it once was – which is a good thing! The more perspectives you incorporate into projects, the more likely you are to come up with a truly innovative and engaging product.

Looking Forward in Mobile Health

It’s hard to say what the next big breakthrough in mobile health will be, but we’re already starting to see a rise in the number of projects that incorporate more advanced technologies like sensors and wearables alongside mobile phones. These types of additions have the potential to reduce the amount of time and resources needed to activities that currently serve as barriers to access and utilization of health services. We’re still figuring out how these sorts of tools can be best incorporated into healthcare, even in the western world, but we’re making progress. The UNICEF Innovation team even just began testing the usage of drones to speed up the process of testing infants for HIV, which brings a whole new meaning to the concept of “mobile” health tools!

Personally, I think that the biggest changes coming ahead in the near future will not be so much in the tools themselves, but rather in how we use existing tools. With the rise of patient records and other consolidated data sources around the world, I think we’ll soon be seeing a bit more of personalized medicine in the developing world, which will help bring customized care to places where it otherwise would have been difficult to provide. Similarly, better data analytics will lead to smarter interventions – for instance, we’ll have a much better sense of exactly what types of diagnoses are prevalent in specific areas, and thus be able to better support clinicians with their precise needs. And it may sound crazy, but if you want to really look ahead, I do think we’re much closer than you’d imagine to our futuristic vision of robots supporting clinics in hard-to-reach areas. The technology for that exists; it’ll just be a matter of finding ways to make it affordable, accepted, and safe enough to use! That would open up all kinds of new doors to allowing patients with mobile phones to directly connect to their healthcare.

Regardless of what the future holds, one way that you can be prepared to participate in it is by learning more about the space at large, which is why the TechChange Mobile Phones for Public Health course is such an exciting resource! I look forward to meeting the students taking it and seeing the kind of impact they’re able to create.

About the Author
Priyanka Pathak is a technologist and digital designer whose work focuses on co-designing and co-creating technologies for social impact, especially in global health and STEM education for women. Currently, she is a Senior Designer at the Design Impact Group at Dalberg. Previously, Priyanka worked as an ICT and Innovation Specialist at the World Bank, in addition to having taught courses around design, technology, and social good at Parsons the New School and the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design. Priyanka holds a masters degree in informatics from Columbia University and bachelors degrees in information systems and business from the University of Texas at Austin, and is currently based in Washington, DC.

pathak_profile B&W

Live guest expert sessions are a key, and favorite, aspect of any of TechChange’s four-week, facilitated courses. Held 2-3 times per week, these events give our students the chance to engage with experts in the field and have active discussions. Our guest experts hail from diverse backgrounds and organizations.

Today, we had the opportunity to chat with Melissa Persaud, Director of Partnerships – North America at VOTO Mobile, who will be one of our guest experts for our upcoming mHealth: Mobile Phones for Public Health course. Melissa will be speaking during the second week of the course doing a demo of VOTO Mobile’s tools, before diving into a Q&A session with participants. Check out what she has to say about the field of mHealth!

Can you tell us about your background and experience in mHealth?

As a generalist and M4D enthusiast, I’ve been observing mHealth projects over the past 10 years. Personally, I’m excited by the possibilities technology provides in this space. From the household all the way to major hospitals, there is a role for tech. During my time with VOTO, I’ve been able to explore how pairing mobile phones and information can change and save lives.

How is mHealth incorporated to your work currently?

The beauty of VOTO is its ability to share information and promote behavior change at scale almost instantly. I get to spend my days collaborating with leading health organizations to adapt existing or design new approaches across all health needs. From finding ways to better support, train, and retain frontline and community health workers to thinking about how to disseminate critical and urgent outbreak information directly to households in real time, we are pushing the limits on what you can achieve with a basic mobile phone. I also benefit from learning from other sectors as we co-design projects across all sectors with international and local organizations around the world. For example, we’ve learned that calling Brazilians between 5-7 pm has a 4x higher response rate than 8-10 am. Sharing context-specific information like this helps us all be better development practitioners who provide even better services.

Why do you think mHealth is important / what impact can learning about the use of mobile phones for public health have on development projects?

In my mind, the health sector is one of the most diverse and complex ones out there and there is no silver bullet. With that said, tech does offer some significant enhancements to traditional health projects. You are able to reach more people directly, frequently, and cheaply. This can be incredibly useful ensuring adherence to life-saving drugs or vaccines and it was nearly impossible 15 years ago. Technology also allows us to map the spread of diseases, better understand high need areas, and allocate resources as necessary. Doctors can treat more patients and save lives through telemedicine services. Community health workers can instantly access treatment information for new diseases or rare cases they haven’t been trained on. The list goes on and on. What an opportunity!

What are your thoughts on the future of mHealth, and where you think this field is heading?

I’m particularly interested in demand driven content, where individuals can self-diagnose or learn more about health topics through their mobile phones. Think WebMD on your basic phone. A way people can learn more about their bodies and their health on their own time and without internet connectivity. I’m not sure if this is the future of mHealth, but I will be keeping an eye on it!

We believe mHealth skills have the potential to make a huge impact in your work. Why do you think taking this class is important, and who would you recommend it to (public health professionals, field workers, etc etc)?

One of the biggest challenges in mHealth is that practitioners don’t know where to start. The endless opportunities are often overwhelming and human nature is to stick with the things we know. One thing I hope the mHealth students takeaway from this course is how to think about the problem you are trying to solve and be able to make an informed decision on which mHealth tool will be most appropriate and successful. This skill will prove to be incredibly useful as students advance in their career, in health or otherwise.

Sound interesting and/or valuable to your work? Sign up for our mHealth: Mobile Phones for Public Health class here. Next session begins March 28, 2016!

About Melissa
Melissa Persaud is Director of Partnerships – North America at VOTO Mobile, a Ghana and US-based mobile engagement social enterprise. In her role, she builds and maintains partnerships with impact-oriented organizations in order to provide better choices for more voices around the globe. Personally, Melissa has a passion for program design and implementation, mobile for development (M4D), and financial inclusion. She holds a MPA in development practice from the SIPA at Columbia University and a BA from Lafayette College. Melissa is also a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (Cameroon ’11-’13) and is currently based in Washington, D.C.

Melissa_Bio Photo

Featured image: water filling a metal pot, taken March 26, 2009

This article was written as part of the course “Mobiles for International Development” offered through George Washington University, taught by TechChange’s CEO and founder Nick Martin.

Over 650 million people in the world do not have access to safe water. In many cities in India, the water supply is intermittent and water utility customers only receive main-line water supply once every 2-10 days for roughly 2 hours at a time. In many cases, the customers have no advance notice prior to the valve being shut off. For some, this could be a minor annoyance but for many, this interruption can prove life threatening. NextDrop, a mobile application that works through text messaging, seeks to address these critical gaps in water provision by using locally sourced data to improve water supply networks and access to information.

How Does NextDrop Work?
After paying a fee of between 5 to 10 rupees, the resident of a locality registers for the service by calling NextDrop. NextDrop will log the caller’s location and identify his or her closest water valve. When an engineer next examines the valve, he can send an interactive voice response (IVR) message to NextDrop. The message is then forwarded to both the local residents and to the water utility, allowing residents real real-time updates regarding when they will be receiving water and for how long. The valve-man can also record where there may be a water supply cancelation on a particular day so that residents can prepare accordingly.

Although NextDrop had its fair share of challenges, such as working with existing private contractors and the government providers, and training poorly paid and undereducated valvemen, the product has been endorsed by the Gates Foundation, the Clinton Global Initiative, and Google. First launched in Bangalore, NextDrop now has about 70,000 users across India, with the majority in Hubli, Dharwad, Mysore and Bangalore, all of which now boast nearly 90% coverage.

The Implications of NextDrop on Development Efforts
NextDrop has significant implications for the development field. In a country that is still plagued by corruption, NextDrop signifies a move toward crowd-sourced service delivery, eliminating the typical asymmetric information that often defines utilities in India. With NextDrop, residents don’t have to rely solely on the word of utility employees who may or may not have the community’s best interests in mind. Residents are involved from the ground up, empowering and enabling them to force transparency in service delivery.

One limitation to these mobile-based services is access to cell phones for the poorest citizens in a community. While programs like NextDrop base their services on their consumers having cell phones, this does not necessarily alienate citizens without phones. In future applications of mobile-based programs, organizations can partner with mobile phone providers to try and source used phones from wealthier citizens, creating an integrated community of providers and beneficiaries, potentially fostering a spirit of inclusion.

As part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) passed during the U.N. General Assembly in 2015, Goal 6 specifically addresses the need to ensure clean water and adequate sanitation for everyone, everywhere. As individuals and organizations alike work to address this goal, innovations such as NextDrop will get us one step closer to equitable access to this life-sustaining resource.

Featured image credit: Wonderlane Creative Commons License 


About Sreya


Sreya Panuganti has an MA in International Politics and Human Rights from City University London. She is currently pursuing her MA in International Development Studies at the George Washington University where she concentrates on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). Ms. Panuganti has a background in a variety of capacities in both the private and public sectors, leveraging skills in research, analysis and cross-cultural communication – most recently, with the U.S. Department of State and the NGO WaterAid. She continues to pursue opportunities that allow her to further her understanding of the development field.

Technology has been known to facilitate anonymous harassment online, but in India a non-profit organization is using mobile apps to fight harassment on the streets. I came across Safecity in my Mobile Phones for International Development course, and since I plan to return to India and pursue my career in promoting gender equality, the case study of Safecity reducing gender-based violence (GBV) caught my attention.

How Safecity Works
Safecity is a non-profit organization in India that offers a platform for individuals to anonymously share their stories of sexual violence or abuse. This crowdsourced self-reported data is then displayed on a map of India to show hot spots and patterns of violence in various parts of the country. Safecity collects this data through its website, social media platforms, and via email, text or phone to increases awareness of the various kinds of GBV, ranging from catcalling to groping to rape. It also allows Indian individuals, law enforcement agencies, neighborhoods, businesses, and the society at large to access this data and to use it to take precautions and devise solutions.

Safecity reports
Safecity reports

Why Safecity Works
As one of the founders of Safecity put it, the three main reasons that rape and other sexual harassments are underreported in India is because people are afraid to report it, the police manipulate the data, or because victims are deterred by the delayed justice system. This, along with the cultural stigma attached to talking about sexual harassments, makes anonymity for victims very important. Allowing for anonymous reporting, Safecity has collected over 4000 stories from over 50 cities in India and Nepal since it launched in December 2012.

How Safecity is Using Mobile Apps
Along with collecting and visualizing data, Safecity promotes a variety of phone applications to help sexual minorities feel safe in public spaces:

GeoSure (provides personalized travel safety content via mobile)
Nirbhaya: Be Fearless (emergency app that sends a distress call or emergency message to a specified contact or group)
SafeTrac (allows automatic monitoring and tracking of your journey)

Safecity also promotes services like Taxshe, a safe all-female driver service, and KravMaga Chennai, a self-defense teaching service.

Challenges and Looking Ahead
As with many ICT4D solutions, access to the technology remains an important barrier. Safecity and its advertised applications, products and services seem to only reach a very specific target audience (urban populations with access to modern technology), leaving behind illiterate populations from rural areas with no access to technology. With their missed dial facility, Safecity is hoping to reach out to women with limited access to technology by recording their reports of abuse and harassment over the phone and suggesting appropriate interventions.

I look forward to seeing how Safecity uses this form of community engagement and crowdsourced data to not just report, but reduce GBV in India. This course introduced me to a new and unique way to address the pervasive issue of GBV in India and I look forward to utilizing the tools and lessons learned in making India a gender equitable country one step at a time.

Interested in learning about other ways mobile tools are helping communities address different problems? Join us in our upcoming Mobiles for International Development online course that begins on May 11.

Author Bio

Nikita Setia Headshot

Nikita Setia is a M.A. candidate at the Elliott School of International Affairs in the International Affairs Program, concentrating in development. She previously earned her B.B.A in Economics, International Business, and Management at Northwood University in Midland, Michigan.

Photo credit: myAgro

The current financial model of banks cannot address what development experts call the “triple whammy” of poor peoples’ lives – they struggle with low savings, uncertainty of cash flows, and the inability to access formal financial instruments. Small farm holders in the developing world face similar struggles as they often have to purchase seeds and fertilizers in one large payment to improve their harvest. MyAgro, provides an innovative alternative to farmers, eliminating the need for banks and placing financial decision-making in the hands of small farm holders.

MyAgro helps farmers purchase agricultural tools on layaway via an SMS platform and a network of local vendors. Anushka Ratnayake started myAgro in 2011 as a pilot program in Mali and soon expanded it to Senegal. MyAgro’s success can be attributed to their approach of using a mobile phone platform to adapt current pro-poor financial methods to addressing the financing problem in the agricultural sector.

How does myAgro work?
MyAgro works much like someone going to top up their phone for additional talk time at their local store. Participating farmers purchase scratch-off cards (ranging from $.50 to $10) with a unique pin number. This pin number is sent to myAgro and is recorded in their database under the farmer’s profile. An SMS is sent back to the farmer notifying them of how much they have saved towards their goal (to purchase fertilizer, seeds, or agricultural training). Once this amount is reached, the farmer receives the tools or service they have purchased from myAgro.

Why does myAgro’s model work?
MyAgro’s model gives rural farmers access to key financial services including cash-flow management and savings, through this approach:

  1. Reliability
    Without the credit and collateral that banks require when opening a savings account, poor people have responded by forming rotating savings and credit funds (ROSCAs) within their communities. This has been replicated worldwide, helping families manage scarcities. However, this informal tool does not provide the accountability, reliability and privacy that banks would offer. MyAgro builds on the success of ROSCAs, where people save through small incremental amounts over the long-term, but with the security and reliability of a formal mobile platform.
  2. Convenience
    MyAgro clients don’t have to travel long distances to access banks, which is especially useful for rural farmers living in remote areas where bank branches do not exist. MyAgro also increases inclusion by making the system easy to use, especially for those who are illiterate. Getting the basic use out of myAgro only requires the farmer to SMS the numbers located on the card they purchased. In addition, no physical cash is involved. In mobile cash transfer platforms such as the successful M-PESA program, some local vendors run out of cash when a customer wants to conduct a transaction, myAgro only relies on digital transactions – a successful approach within cash-strapped countries.
  3. Flexibility
    By allowing farmers to choose how much to save on a given day, myAgro takes into account the variety of shocks that vulnerable populations experience, such as illness in the family or natural disasters. The mobile platform allows them to use their small-scale savings for large-scale purchases.

In just three years, myAgro has managed to address a debilitating financial problem in farming communities in the developing world by providing a reliable and accessible savings tool and allowing farmers to managing their cash flows on their own terms. I look forward to seeing how myAgro expands its current 6,000 farmer membership while also collaborating with other mobile technology platforms to continue providing information and financial services to the benefit of the poor.

Interested in learning more about other ways mobile phones are empowering people in the developing world? Join us in our upcoming course, Mobile for International Development that begins on May 11.

About author 

Ana Tamargo

Ana Tamargo is a development professional and recent graduate from the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University. She recently received a master’s degree in International Development Studies. During this time, Ana completed TechChange’s “Mobile Phones for International Development” course in order to advance her knowledge in using innovative information and communication technologies to facilitate programming and data collection within the local context. She has worked at international NGOs such as Pact, World Cocoa Foundation, and the Rainforest Alliance and has expertise in program advancement, evaluation and research in the fields of sustainable natural resource management, rural poverty alleviation, and bottom-up development. Ana is eager to continue findings ways to incorporate mobile phone technology in helpingempower and provide services to vulnerable populations.

According to a recent report by Grand View Research, Inc., the global market for the mHealth (mobile health) industry will reach $42.12 billion dollars by year 2020. That same year, GSMA estimates that smartphone connections will reach 6 billion, fuelled by growth in the developing world and mobile broadband expansion. The mobile phone market, the largest and most profitable segment of the global device market, is expected to total 1.9 billion units in 2015 alone.

With these high expectations for mHealth and smartphone adoption, what are the biggest opportunities for this $42.12 billion market?

We discussed this topic when we held a panel discussion in partnership with General Assembly DC at their office in Washington, DC in November 2014. In a rare opportunity to combine both “healthies” and “techies” in one room, we gathered a panel including Arthur Sabintsev, lead mobile architect at ID.me and instructor of General Assembly DC’s Mobile Development classes and workshops; Jessica Taaffe, global health and science consultant and writer at the World Bank; and our own Kendra Keith, mobile health specialist; and TechChange CEO Nick Martin – both of whom have facilitated our popular online course on mHealth. During this hour-long panel, we discussed a wide variety of topics on the mobile applications for public health.

Here are some of the highlights of “Mobile Development for Public Health” panel where the panelists shared insights that still ring true across the $42.12 billion dollar mHealth space.

1. mHealth can strengthen health systems

The need to strengthen health systems are the biggest challenges for public health, according to Jessica and Kendra, both of whom hold graduate degrees in microbiology and public health, respectively.

“The greatest opportunities for mHealth field and mobile developers focused on public health are in the public health sector, said Jessica. “The biggest public health issues are governance and figuring out the roles needed to fight infectious diseases and non-communicable diseases that are on the rise, especially as people are living longer.”

There are already several great examples of mHealth apps and programs that are strengthening health systems, including MAMA, MedAfrica, Dimagi, CommCare, and others.

2. mHealth can allow healthcare services to reach more people across the world

The ubiquity and diversity of mobile phones and their global usage will be a key driver of the mHealth industry reaching up to tens of billions of dollars, especially as GSMA estimates that there will be one billion unique mobile subscribers by 2020.

In their experience teaching the one of TechChange’s most popular online courses on mHealth, Nick and Kendra discussed the unique challenges of mHealth outside developed countries.

“Pay-as-you-go mobile phones are the most prominent form of mobiles in developing countries,” said Nick. “This model makes it more affordable for people to get internet access, and it will only get cheaper especially as players like Facebook and Google are ambitiously trying to get the entire world online.”

Clockwise from the top-left: TechChange CEO Nick Martin, mobile developer and General Assembly instructor Arthur Sabintsev, global health expert Jessica Taafe, and TechChange mobile specialist Kendra Keith.

Clockwise from the top-left: TechChange CEO Nick Martin, mobile developer and General Assembly instructor Arthur Sabintsev, global health expert Jessica Taafe, and TechChange mobile specialist Kendra Keith.

3. Mobile development for health will become a hotter space for mobile developers through 2020

As a former nuclear scientist turned mobile developer himself, Arthur stressed how there are never enough mobile developers to meet demand in the current global market, much less the global mHealth market. Across the panel, everyone agreed that is it not easy to become a mobile developer, and to keep up with the quickly-evolving skill set demanded for building modern apps.

“Why aren’t there more developers building mHealth apps? Because it’s hard and time-consuming,” said Arthur. “There’s simply not enough time in a day to keep up with all the different standards for different operating systems, as well as all of their respective constant software updates. Although Android phones are used more in the developing world than iOS in western societies, there is a huge problem of Android fragmentation. What you tend to see more of now is that jobs in mobile development are mostly in the finance and advertising industries. If mHealth is truly going to grow to be worth $42.12 billion dollars, I’m excited to see more mobile dev jobs and incentives for this space to grow.”

So how do you incentivize mobile developers to build more mHealth apps for public health?

Nick mentioned that doing so will not be easy, given that mHealth/public health initiatives are often funded by governments or foundations that have procurement cycles. Though there are some initiatives such as the IBM Watson Venture Fund that has contributed to companies such as WellTok, funding long-term mHealth development has proven tough to sustain so far.

Another opportunity for mHealth will be in protecting the data collected in mHealth apps and programs. mHealth is fraught with mobile data security concerns in places where privacy policies are both well-established or barely existent.

What opportunities do you see for the growing mHealth global market? Let us know in the comments below, or tweet us @TechChange.

If you’re interested in learning more about the opportunities for mHealth, sign up now for our mHealth online course! The next round begins this Monday, 30 March 2015.

Kendra first connected with us almost a year ago while taking our mHealth online course. She was interning with the USAID Bureau of Global Health, mentored by the eHealth Coordinator of the Office of Health Systems. Having recently returned from Zambia, where she collaborated with ZCHARD and the Zambian Ministry of Health to scale Programme Mwana, an SMS test result delivery system to support early infant diagnosis, Kendra was interested in exploring how integration of mobile devices with public health programs could increase impact.

As a TechChange Alumna now team member, she has led facilitation of TC105: Mobiles for International Development and TC309: Mobile Phones for Public Health, coordinating live events, developing content, case studies and activities, and moderating discussion forum. With a background in global public health and project coordination, she provides content support and management for a variety of TechChange projects, while also supporting overall TechChange operations. Passionate about user centered design, she studies development and design in her free time, aspiring to ultimately improving mobile health and online learning user experience.

Prior to joining the team, Kendra completed an MPH with Boston University, as well as a Bachelor of Science from the University of Florida. She also worked in the non-profit sector, supporting the mPowering Frontline Healthworker and mHealth Working Group initiatives with Jhpiego.

Welcome, Kendra!

Image source: ReadyMarin

During an emergency, it is important to have ample information. Specifically, emergency management teams and affected populations need details surrounding the what, where, when, and how – as well as instructions for how – to respond, and communicate with coworkers and/or loved ones. While it is best to have a plan in place that includes how to receive this information with emergency kits and communication plans, it can be easy to forget to keep these plans up to date, practice them, or finalize them once started. On top of this challenge, the rapid lifestyle of professionals and the over-sharing of information through technology can lead to a very reactive and possibly dangerous outcome during a crisis.

The United States, like many societies, has become increasingly attached and sometimes dependent upon mobile technology and smartphones. Knowing this, how can we use this technology to stay better informed, to communicate better, establish better emergency planning, and stay calmer during times of crisis? Along with information on the importance of having and practicing emergency plans and building emergency kits, the Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have used mobile technology by creating a number of mobile apps to help civilians administer First Aid, find shelter, and donate blood.

American Red Cross mobile app

American Red Cross natural disaster apps

The Red Cross labels most of their apps under “Natural Disaster,” to provide emergency information and alerts through reliable sources including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the United States Geological Survey, which provide instructions before/during/after the event, locate warnings based upon your area, and a number of other life saving and calming features. The Red Cross has separate apps for each disaster:

  • Tornado
  • Wildfire
  • Earthquake
  • Hurricane
  • Flood
  • Shelter Finder

The purpose of these separate apps is most likely to ensure users are getting the most up-to-date information as well as maintain accurate warnings and communication. However, managing these distinct apps might be irritating for users that live in an area that usually experiences more than one of the listed disasters. After installation, users are able to set up alerts to have their phone directly notify them of any warnings in their area. Two of the most helpful apps allow users to find shelters in their area and an “I’m Safe” alert. Shelter Finder allows users to locate open shelters, and view capacity, all using data from the American Red Cross National Shelter System, which often assists FEMA. Shelter Finder also contains information on 60,000 potential disaster facilities, and is updated every 30 minutes. “I’m Safe” is a customizable alert that connects to social media, and notifies friends and family on location and status. The Red Cross also suggests using their Safe and Well website or call 1.800.RED.CROSS, where individuals can register their status and location, and search for loved ones.

One of the key components to the Red Cross Emergency Apps is the dependence on phones lines and connectivity, which are often down or slow during times of crisis. Therefore it is suggested that family members have other plans in place including designated shelter locations.

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American Red Cross everyday app

Alongside the emergency apps, the Red Cross has also developed a number of everyday apps:

  • Blood: The first of its kind, makes giving blood convenient and allows users to find local blood drives and book appointments through the app, in addition to sending out blood
  • shortage alert messages during emergencies.
  • First Aid: Provides pre-loading offline instructions to guide you through first aid scenes
  • anywhere, integration and ability to call 911 from the app, safety tips, and educational
  • games.
  • Pet First Aid
  • Team Red Cross Volunteer
  • Swim
FEMA mobile app

FEMA mobile app

If users are looking for a more centralized emergency app, then definitely download FEMA’s mobile app; providing disaster safety tips, emergency meeting locations, information on open shelters and FEMA Disaster Recovery Centers, and the ability to use GPS to report and photograph disasters that are displayed on a public map. For non-smartphone users, FEMA also has a text message feature where users can receive safety tips for disasters and search for open shelters by texting 4FEMA.

Both organizations make it easy to streamline warnings, access vital information, and other
important alerts during an emergency. Mobile tools and apps allow even the busiest and
underprepared to have information readily available to them, and is definitely something that is recommended for everyone to have on his or her phone.

All Red Cross apps are available for download through the Apple Store and Google Play, in both English and Spanish. For more information on the Red Cross Plan & Prepare apps and more emergency planning materials visit: http://www.redcross.org/prepare/mobile-apps

For more information on FEMA’s Mobile App, Text Message Alerts, and more visit:

Interested in learning more about technology tools for emergency management and disaster response? Register now for our Technology for Disaster Response online course which begins next week on June 22, 2015.

Alumni bio:

Megan Penn

Megan Penn is completing her second year in the MA Security Policy Studies program at the George Washington University, Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington, DC. There, she is concentrating on Transnational Security Issues and Cyber Security Policy, with focus on human security, organized criminal activity, human trafficking, international institutions, and cyber security and information operations. While in classes, Megan has interned at a private aviation company, and currently works for a business development firm and writes for Freedom Observatory. Before DC, Megan completed a Bilingual Honours BA in International Studies at York University – Glendon College, in Toronto, Ontario. You can connect with Megan on LinkedIn.

Photo source: Amnesty International

In the latest session of TechChange’s “Tech for International Crisis Response and Good Governance” class, I learned about the Panic Button, the emergency Android app recently launched by Amnesty International. The app is a step in the right direction for emergency alert applications, and may prove to be useful in other types of emergency situations. It was initially designed for activists working abroad, and essentially turns a cell phone into an alarm. While the app is running, the user can send pre-programmed SMS and GPS coordinates to three trusted contacts by hitting the phone’s power button multiple times. This simple process can be executed while the phone is located in the activist’s hand or pocket, and with minimal effort. With beta testing in 17 countries, this open source app was developed through an iterative process by networks of developers and activists, with two critical factors in mind: security and speed.

Pros. The speed of sounding an alarm is a major benefit of Panic Button, triggered by the power button on a user-friendly interface. This trigger allows users to be discreet in sending out an S.O.S. before their phone may be taken away by an adversary. Also, the GPS functionality provides trusted contacts with detailed information of where the person (or at least the phone) is located. This notification assumes that the activist has prepared ahead of time to both discuss with their contacts what to do in the event that an S.O.S. is received, and that they have turned the app on.

Cons. Security – particularly the interception of texts – remains a major concern. The app may reveal information about one’s location and contacts that could put all parties at increased risk. One of the major benefits of the app is sharing GPS coordinates, which need to be manually enabled. In an insecure environment, these may typically be switched off. The app needs to be switched on to work, which also means that the user needs to anticipate that they may be in a dangerous scenario – something very hard to do. These stipulations, as well as its learning curve, are potential stumbling blocks that need to be addressed.

Implications for sexual violence prevention. Despite these kinks, the Panic Button is a powerful tool. In its current state, Panic Button is specifically designed for activists, but its technology has the potential for use in other emergency situations, notably for women and girls at risk for sexual violence. Panic Button is similar to the award-winning and widely-used Circle of 6 app, but appears to be easier to use in an emergency situation. The ability to trigger Panic Button’s alarm without having to open the app itself is a critical differentiator and timesaver when an abduction or act of sexual aggression is occurring (similar to a scenario a Panic Button user would face). Circle of 6 is already being used in India, where not only sexual violence occurs on a far-too-frequent basis, but also where users are already comfortable using smart phones, and thus could also easily use Panic Button.

Panic Button is useful in environments that are dangerous and highly variable. With the open source nature of the app, one can only hope that the app will be adapted further to better address more specific challenges presented by additional contexts, and save both activists’ and women’s lives worldwide.

About Jessica Soklow

Jessica Soklow

Jessica Soklow is working toward her Masters in International Affairs at George Washington University’s Elliott School and is alumna of TechChange’s “Tech for International Crisis Response and Good Governance” course. Her concentration at the Elliott School is on international development, with an emphasis on developing and implementing programming with a gender-specific lens. Jessica has conducted extensive research on gender-based violence in international contexts, with a specific focus on prevention mechanisms in both India and the United States. She is optimistic about how technology can be used in the future to help prevent violence on a global scale.

Learn about tools like Panic Button and other technology in our upcoming online course on Tech Tools & Skills for Emergency Management, which has an early bird discount that ends Oct 31!