Innovation in public health is often bottom up: new processes and technologies are often identified by grassroots and non-governmental organizations and deployed locally before achieving broader use. Mobile technologies have a vast potential to strengthen health systems for under-served populations, but innovation is hindered by the difficulty and expertise required to create robust and deployable solutions. This work seeks to change this state of affairs by providing a set of tools based on commonly available mobile devices that will permit these organizations to easily deploy new health services, supervise their delivery, improve logistics, evaluate their programs' effectiveness, and disseminate their learning and tools to others around the world. The approach is based on cost-realism, namely, the appropriate mix of technology elements to tackle a problem based on a realistic assessment of the solution's sustainability in the community where it will be deployed. Thus, the focus is on using a mix of communication devices that are already likely to be in the possession of a large percentage of the target population such as mobile phones. There will also be experimentation with adding new sensor devices to mobile phones for physiological measurements. This collaborative work includes PATH, an organization uniquely suited to realizing scalable technology solutions in the public health space.

The goal of the research is to understand how mobile and cloud software can be constructed to make it easier to deploy modular applications that take advantage of components designed by a large community rather than a monolithic solution that is difficult to extend. In this way, a flourishing ecosystem will be created, much like application markets today, with the added capability of composing modules into larger systems. Evaluation will include both the use of the tools in a public health context as well as the ease with which new information services and systems are built and deployed. Given the wide range of potential applications students will be recruited from a wide variety of disciplines including the University of Washington Medical School, School of Public Health, and Information School and inter-disciplinary projects will be introduced into undergraduate capstone courses.

As the work is multi-disciplinary, research results will be as well. The focus is on human-computer interaction, mobile systems, communication, and software engineering. The primary technical challenges are in management of mobile data collection, expanding the sensing/perception capabilities of mobile phones for health, and architecting distributed information services. Improved methods for organizing data collection campaigns and their sustainable management in terms of both the deployment of instruments on mobile devices and tools to supervise the data collectors themselves will be foremost. Connecting mobile phones and their sensors in a structured arrangement that will allow use of everything from paper and cheap voice/SMS phones on one end of the spectrum to smartphones and tablets on the other will be a significant contribution to data collection methods. Exploiting standard interfaces and internet protocols between cloud-based modules will formalize the development of data architectures (above basic databases) that embody work processes and sustain management feedback loops.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Information and Intelligent Systems (IIS)
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Sylvia J. Spengler
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University of Washington
United States
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