The African Loft has an intriguing article about using open source software on PDAs to collect health data and monitor community health. Titled How PDAs are Saving Lives in Africa, Dr. Joel Selanikio writes:
… through a year-old pilot program, Zambia is replacing paper-based health surveys with those used on PDAs (personal digital assistants). This means no data entry, no cumbersome clipboards, and most importantly no waiting weeks or months for data entry clerks to enter stacks of paper into a computer for analysis.
Zambia today is helping to lead a public health revolution that has the potential to improve the lives of millions of people in the developing world. By switching from paper-based to mobile-enabled digital health systems, Zambian health workers are empowered with new ‘eyes and ears’ in the field-devices that increase the speed and accuracy with which vital health information can be collected and recorded. These PDAs, sometimes more powerful than laptops of the recent past, quickly are becoming a vital public health management tool.
EpiSurveyor operates using a Java-based engine and a Windows-based Designer application that allows fast and easy creation of forms and data systems. It allows anyone with average computer skills–the ability to use a word processor or email, for example–to create and share mobile data collection systems in minutes, and without the need for consultant programmers.
In keeping with its mission to break down the barriers that block access to health data in developing countries, EpiSurveyor is free–anyone with internet access can download the program. EpiSurveyor is also open source, enabling those with higher-level programming skills to manipulate the program to respond to health needs as they arise. Finally, EpiSurveyor is built to run on mobile devices, providing maximum mobility and ease-of-use for health workers who spend most of their time in the field. Pilot project training is conducted using the Palm Zire.
So far, year-old pilot projects in Zambia and Kenya are showing that data received from the field has streamlined the inoculation of children against measles, collected information on HIV, and has even helped to contain a polio outbreak.
This sounds like a powerful, cheap and practical way to manage a lot of public health information functions. It looks well worth further exploration. You can read the entire article here.