EpiSurveyor: Saving Lives with Open Source

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A couple of weeks ago, I had a sit down conversation with Dr. Joel Selanikio, creator of the extraordinarily compelling EpiSurveyor project, which provides software that can be run on PDAs and phones as an entry point to collect data in areas where laptops are impractical but paper records are rarely indexed. Selanikio and his project made a strongly positive impression on me—too much so, I think, because I’ve been hesitant to write about EpiSurveyor, feeling like I’d like to do more than simply write about the project in a short post, but unable to figure out something more productive.

So I asked Selanikio what EpiSurveyor could use to grow and he gave me some answers. We’ll get to those, but let’s talk about EpiSurveyor itself.

EpiSurveyor is free, open-source software used to collect data—primarily medical survey data right now, although there’s no reason other types of data couldn’t be gathered—in areas where medical data is often out-of-date or incomplete, when it’s even collected at all.

Because EpiSurveyor is aimed primarily at developing economies, it’s designed to run on PDAs and mobile phones. The latest version is designed to run on mobile phone— not necessarily even smartphones, but the standard GSM handsets that are used all over, and to transmit collected data back to a central repository via SMS.

“I go to all these conferences where they talk about Web 2.0,” Selanikio said, “And they don’t understand that I’m trying to build SMS 2.0.” In the countries where EpiSurveyor is being put to use, like recent pilot programs in Kenya and Zambia, there is usually no web access in the first place.

Let me pass on two stories Selanikio told me that greatly helped my understand of the environment in which EpiSurveyor operates and why the data it gathers can be so important.

Imagine you’re the health ministry of a developing nation. Thousands of your citizens live in remote villages with no power. It’s your job to monitor their health and to address trends as they happen, so you send out a team of people across the country to survey the populace.

The team heads out into the country, collects the data on paper, and brings it all back to the capitol to be aggregated. Because your surveyors have to lug all their forms with them, they’re often carrying huge stacks of papers on their backs as they travel. It’s tedious. Sometimes the data gets what Selanikio calls the “under the tree problem,” where surveyors choose to sit in the shade rather than lug around all the forms.

And even when all the data is brought back, it takes a long time for it to be scanned in and assembled. It’s not uncommon for reports to take as long as six months to be processed in some countries, which is a tragically long time when it comes to monitor health and disease.

Now imagine a team equipped with EpiSurveyor equipment, powered by solar-powered bags from Voltaic Systems, making enough excess power to barter and sell to villagers to finance the trip. This isn’t something that EpiSurveyor (and its creator company DataDyne) intend to do—this has already happened in Kenya.

In Zambia, EpiSurveyor was used not to improve surveys about malarial supplies in village clinics, but to conduct a systematic one for the first time. People were dying from malaria not because the government could not provide medicine, but simply because it didn’t know where supplies were low. The Zambian health ministry, using data gathered by teams with EpiSurveyor, discovered that 60% of their stockpiles in remote areas were missing and were able to mobilize a response within three weeks.

There’s a lot more that could be talked about, like how EpiSurveyor team members used Basecamp to evolve data collection forms from country to country, a normally top-down process that can take years; or how continuing medical education programs can be transmitted across the EpiSurveyor system to keep medical workers’ skills up to date. But I’d like to instead make a small appeal for conversation for DataDyne and EpiSurveyor.

Right now the project has been primarily funded through grants and donations. Selanikio would like to figure out a way to make EpiSurveyor a sustainable business, unreliant on outside cash infusions as its only way to continue to grow and improve. There are other, commercial equivalents to EpiSurveyor on the market, but they don’t tend towards free, open-source software designed to run on inexpensive, widely-available hardware.

I asked Selanikio what EpiSurveyor could use most right now—besides money, which is always welcome.

“We really need people who could help us develop a sustainable business model for EpiSurveyor. Ad-supported? Subscription fees? Two tiers of features? That sort of advice, from people who are truly qualified to give it, would be very helpful.”

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