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.