Mobile phones and the power of data collection

As modern communication technologies become more ubiquitous in the developing world, increasingly working their way into once disconnected rural communities, opportunities to use mobile phones to collect and share valuable (and often critical) information grow.

In this edition of Digital Diversity, Joel Selanikio – a practicing pediatrician, former Wall Street computer consultant and former Center for Disease Control epidemiologist – explains why mobile and Internet technologies are transforming health, conservation, and research around the world.

Digital Diversity is a series of blog posts about how mobile phones are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.

By Joel Selanikio

In 1995, I was working as a health officer for the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). One evening found me kneeling on the concrete floor of a small hostel in rural Western Kenya, pocket knife in hand, laptop on the floor in front of me. With the hostel manager’s permission, I was hand-splicing the one telephone landline embedded in the wall to the port on my laptop – in order to connect to the Internet via a phone number in Nairobi.

The hostel had electricity a few hours a day, that one landline phone, and water for bathing provided by an older man leaving a large bucket of steaming water outside my door every morning sometime between 6 AM and 8 AM.

After I had twisted the four colored wires sprouting from the wall cable, and connected them with the corresponding port in my laptop, I hit the return key and heard a sweet sound: the raucous squawks of the dial-up model. That meant that I was connected to the Internet, even in this little hostel, even in rural East Africa.

Moments later, I was checking my email and my bank accounts, submitting a report to my supervisor back in Atlanta, reading the front page of the New York Times – and in the back of my mind I knew that this would change everything, and that the information famine in large parts of the world was about to become an information glut.

Of course, this was just the first sound of thunder. In 1995 few Kenyans could afford a desktop or laptop computer to connect to the Internet, much less the exorbitant charges for Internet access. In 1995, Internet access was reserved for foreigners and the rich.

In the last five to ten years, though, lightning has truly struck as the mobile phone companies, like Nokia, and the mobile providers, like Vodafone, have figured out a way to be commercially successful selling handheld computers – which we call mobile phones – at very low prices. And these devices are increasingly capable of connecting to the Internet.

Today in Kenya, mobile phone penetration is about 50% (50 mobile phones for each 100 people in the population), and 100% in the cities. Twenty-dollar mobile phones are commonplace, and it is increasingly assumed that any adult can use these little computers to do everything from talking with family back in the home village, to transferring money, to sharing photos. Distance communications and access to the Internet increasingly lets ordinary Kenyans coordinate everything they do more efficiently than ever before.


Henry SInkala of the Zambia Anglican Council, teaches village "malaria control agents" to track malaria test results on mobile phones. Photo: Joel Selanikio


In global health, we, too, are using mobile phones to do a lot of things more efficiently that ever before. At DataDyne, our own EpiSurveyor software lets people collect data on mobile phones that they might previously have collected using paper forms on clipboards. On a phone it’s faster and easier, and once collected the information can be automatically processed and analyzed – that lets organizations respond faster to changing circumstances.

In Kenya, where EpiSurveyor has been developed, ministry of health workers like Titus Kolongei and Yusuf Ibrahim use it for all sorts of life-saving data. In a polio outbreak, they understand if you can find out who may be exposed to the crippling virus in three days instead of seven days you have a much better chance of vaccinating those at risk. Or if you can manage vaccine supplies electronically instead of on paper that means that when a mother brings her child to the clinic to be vaccinated, the clinic is more likely to have the vaccine ready for her.


Kenya ministry of health workers interview a mother, recording the information on a mobile phone. Photo: Joel Selanikio


Wonderfully, use of this simple data gathering tool has spread by word of mouth. In Kenya, famous for its wildlife, it wasn’t long before groups like the African Conservation Centre learned about EpiSurveyor and began using it to track endangered animal populations. When I first learned of this, I went to the ACC’s Nairobi office to learn more. I understood what a doctor might need to collect, but didn’t imagine what conservationists could do with such a tool. The good people at the ACC assured me that “we collect the same information about animals that you collect about people! We track their births and deaths, and the outbreaks of disease. It’s just the same thing”.

Point well taken. Everyone has information they need to manage, or could manage better. And because of the Internet word of mouth doesn’t just mean in the same town or country any more – now it means that useful ideas and technologies can jump from country to country, all over the globe:

  • America’s Smithsonian Institution learns from conservation colleagues in Kenya, and uses EpiSurveyor for monitoring mountain gorillas in neighboring Uganda
  • The World Bank, based like the Smithsonian in Washington DC, learns about EpiSurveyor and uses it to collect information about the effects of the economic recession on poor families in Central America
  • TulaSalud, a Guatemalan organization working to keep mothers and children healthy, uses the same tool to monitor their programs better
  • Camfed learns about EpiSurveyor use by these other organizations and, back in Africa, harnesses common mobile phones with this simple software to make sure children stay in school, and are well-supplied with books, pencils, and other low tech but still essential tools for learning

And this isn’t just something for poorer countries. Children’s National Medical Center in Washington DC is now planning to use EpiSurveyor for community-based surveys. Kenya to Washington, Guatemala to Zambia – the cycle of communication and sharing and collaboration crosses borders, oceans and mountain ranges.


Researchers in Peru using EpiSurveyor to interview indigenous women about their health. Photo: Joel Selanikio


For too long, the world’s information (and the world’s tools for collecting and understanding and using that information) was limited to the richer countries. Now the world has changed so much that a tool created in Kenya can benefit gorillas in Uganda, mothers in Central America, school children in Zambia, and a hospital in Washington DC. And all because of these common miracles – the Internet and the mobile phone that are binding us together as never before.

A practicing pediatrician, former Wall Street computer consultant, and former CDC epidemiologist with a passion for combining technology and public health to address inequities in developing countries, Dr. Selanikio leads DataDyne’s pioneering efforts to develop and promote new technologies for health and international development, including the award-winning EpiSurveyor mobile data collection project, and is also a leader in developing social business models for international development. Recently chosen as an Ashoka Affiliate, Dr. Selanikio was named by Forbes magazine as one of the most powerful innovators of 2009, and is a winner of both the Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability and the Wall Street Journal Technology Innovation Award for Healthcare IT. He continues to practice pediatrics as an Assistant Professor at Georgetown University near his home in Washington, DC.

Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of / FrontlineSMS. He shares exciting stories in Mobile Message about how mobile phones – and technology more broadly – is being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. You can read all the posts in this series, visit his website, or follow him on Twitter.

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Ken Banks is an innovator, mentor, anthropologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer. Founder of and now Head of Social Impact at Yoti, he spends his time applying Yoti's digital identity solutions to humanitarian problems around the world. His earlier research resulted in the development of FrontlineSMS, an award-winning text messaging-based field communication system designed to empower grassroots non-profit organisations. He shares exciting stories in "Digital Diversity" about how mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used around the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.