A conversation with Joel Selanikio about cellphones and SMS in developing countries

For this week’s ITConversations show I interviewed Joel Selanikio — a pediatrician, former CDC epidemiologist, and co-founder of DataDyne, a non-profit consultancy dedicated to improving the quantity and quality of public health data. DataDyne’s EpiSurveyor is:

…a free, open source tool enabling anyone to very easily create a handheld data entry form, collect data on a mobile device, and then transfer the data back to a desktop or laptop for analysis.

I’ve actually interviewed Joel once before, but an audio glitch torpedoed the podcast. I did, however, rescue chunks of that interview which I published as a transcript on my blog.

The launching point for this interview was an article Joel published, at the BBC News site, entitled The invisible computer revolution. Joel wrote:

The question we should be asking ourselves, then, is not “how can we buy, and support, and supply electricity for, a laptop for every schoolteacher” (much less every schoolchild), but rather “what mobile software can we write that would really add value for a schoolteacher (or student, or health worker, or businessperson) and that could run on the computer they already have in their pocket?”

Joel’s point, which was also a central theme of my conversation with Ken Banks, is that SMS is the only pervasive data network in places like sub-Saharan Africa. It can, and should, be pressed into service in ways that don’t occur to those of us swimming in an ocean of high-speed Internet connectivity.

You wouldn’t think that 140-character messages would be a useful way to deliver, say, medical information — at least, I wouldn’t. But then, even for those of us with bandwidth to burn, Twitter is demonstrating all kinds of unexpected uses for SMS.

A publishing system optimized to deliver documents to SMS readers wouldn’t be of interest to those of us who can easily browse the web. But it would be a big deal to billions who can’t.

8 thoughts on “A conversation with Joel Selanikio about cellphones and SMS in developing countries

  1. cthrall

    “what mobile software can we write that would really add value for a schoolteacher (or student, or health worker, or businessperson) and that could run on the computer they already have in their pocket?”

    The best application of technology in education that I have ever seen ran on a small palmtop at UMass. After the physic professor covered a topic, he would ask the class a single multiple choice question. We would all answer via the palmtop.

    He would graph the results on the screen. If there was a bell curve, he would ask the students who got it wrong why they answered how they did, and ask them to see him after class. Then he would continue. If there was a random distribution, he would stop and revisit the topic for the entire class.

    I think sometimes you get technology for technology’s sake, when upon closer inspection a better application of more modest computing power can achieve better results.

    Reply
  2. Jon Udell Post author

    “I think sometimes you get technology for technology’s sake, when upon closer inspection a better application of more modest computing power can achieve better results.”

    Absolutely. Of course the perspective that Joel Selanikio is bringing, along with Ken Banks and Barbara Aronson…

    http://blog.jonudell.net/2007/07/23/a-conversation-with-ken-banks-about-computer-controlled-text-messaging-in-africa/

    http://blog.jonudell.net/2007/08/31/a-conversation-with-barbara-aronson-about-global-access-to-medical-journals/

    …is that modest computing and networking capability is the rule, not the exception, for many folks, and will be for a long time to come. Designing for those constraints won’t float anybody’s boat on Sand Hill, but it could make a huge difference to the world.

    Reply
  3. Tim

    We need a standard for an SMS message to invoke an application on a phone, too.. like a transaction over the air. Perhaps ]Aapp-id[ followed by application data. The OS on phones of course needs to manage it, and we have to have some sort of registration effort (similar to the * codes or the 5-digit text addresses)

    Reply
  4. Tarmo Toikkanen

    Hi! Just listened to this interview. Some comments I just have to make: Even the original spec of SMS allows for concatenated messages (segmented SMS). The handset just needs to support this (if it doesn’t, the messages appear as individual messages). All Nokia phones (and Treos, and many more) have supported this feature in GSM networks for nearly a decade already. So the concern you had in the interview about people seeing individual messages, and the wish for a standard, is moot. But as you said, SMS isn’t a big thing in the US. Here in Finland our Red Cross blood supply sends out reminder SMSs to regular donors. :)

    Secondly, Selanikio had some nice application ideas on using SMS in Africa and other developing areas. I’d like to point out the research project we’ve been involved in, called MobilED, which is technically a PC with POTS/VoiP connections and a GSM modem. Users send in text messages, which will cause the server to process the request (like loading the appropriate wikipedia article and transforming into speech using text-to-speech), call the user, and play the message to him (the idea being that individual users would not have to pay excessive phone call charges). The user can navigate the content using touch-tone dialing, and even record his own voice annotations that the server can then include into the database. In our test platform we used Mediawiki as the database, Kannel for SMS handling, and Asterisk for VoiP (or POTS) calls. All 100% open source, and all doable with very cheap hardware. We started this project on an educational setting, but found out that it makes much more sense in scenarios much like what Selanikio was mentioning in his interview, like connecting HIV health workers in the field.

    Reply
  5. Jon Udell Post author

    “Even the original spec of SMS allows for concatenated messages (segmented SMS).”

    Have you seen this feature used in an application that receives/navigates large/complex documents? Are there document authoring systems that target that kind of delivery mechanism?

    “MobilEd”

    Thanks, I’ll pass that along.

    (http://mobiled.uiah.fi/)

    Reply
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  7. Dave

    The more we work on similar systems at Intrahealth, the more I keep thinking that the real power in mobile technologies for Africa is within the mobile network – not necessarily the handhelds themselves. SMS is incredibly powerful – and can be greatly useful – but I will say that there are some boundaries in terms of entering data on very small phones. Working to use the “air-card” method on a larger device is something that is attractive to me and hopefully something we can soon explore.

    Nice to see Joel’s work being talked about!

    Reply
  8. Firkloever Mobiler

    On the down side however the cell phone is an irritant as it gives all the wrong people access to you and they then have the capacity to interfere with your peace of mind as they so desire. On the up side however the cell phone can be switched off.

    Reply

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