There are 5.3 billion mobile subscribers across the globe and almost 90% of the world’s population is covered by a wireless signal. What’s more, the use of mobile technology is increasing at an alarming rate. More people in India have access to mobile phones than to proper sanitation.
I can imagine that many of you would be disgusted at this and, perhaps, rightly so. However, while you may be lamenting the loss of face-to-face communication and resisting the trend with all your might, mobile phones are proving to be an unstoppable force and one that has potential to permit unprecedented access to rural, remote and underserved communities.
Prompted by my love affair with my phone, I signed up for a course in mHealth – mobile health – in a bid to expand my horizons in improving health through the use of mobile technologies. The course was run by TechChange and the mHealth Alliance over four weeks during June. These organisations are based in the US, and students came from all over the world so, needless to say, I relied heavily on my mobile technology just to participate.
Perhaps the most engaging element of the course was the first video we were directed to, which was a Tedx talk from Josh Nesbit (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OenRNFsV6TY). The value of this video was not in its information – indeed there were far more informative discussions throughout the course – but because right from the outset it got the mind thinking about the possibilities. Not possibilities for the future, but possibilities for the now.
From there, the course consisted of a series of videos, readings, discussions, simulations, exercises and the chance to become better acquainted with some of the leading open-source mHealth software currently available – ODK, Magpi, CommCare, and FrontlineSMS to name a few. Coming from a position where I play with apps and not create them, it this practical side that proved the most instructive.
Among the content was some great live presentations from the likes of Erica Kochi at UNICEF who set out guiding principles for mHealth design (including the need to fail to succeed), and a service design workshop by Isaac Holman at MedicMobile, which has seen me sketching every single project plan since. The course also made it clear through a number of discussions that mHealth is still plagued by pilot-itis and a lack of big scale evidence. In the end, it was a presentation from Robert Fabricant at Frog Designs that helped me to realise that developing a community-driven and sustainable mHealth program is not so different from developing any community development program. Trust me, that came as a relief!
Perhaps the biggest downside of the program was the lack of time to cover all the content, exercises and additional readings (because I’m a nerd and I like those things). Furthermore, my confidence to build an mHealth app is still somewhere in the realm of my confidence to build a time machine.
So, this begs the question: Was the course useful? Well, before the course, I had a vague idea of setting up a revolutionary data collection and behaviour change communication system for our Peer Educator, Kutimela and mobile clinic programs. After the course, I realised that this beautiful, glossy image of efficiency was merely Isabel getting ahead of herself, and that the reality requires a lot more thought, money, policy, and interoperability than is immediately apparent, and is probably outside the scope of what’s currently feasible for our rural grandmothers in Swaziland. So, yes, it was useful.
While my grand-scale mHealth dream is now on hold, that’s not to say the future won’t be different. In the meantime, I have the perfect excuse to bury my head further into my mobile phone and hone my skills, with no criticism allowed.