How tech is changing international development

By Andy Prinsen and Alexis Barnes - 4 December 2015 at 8:03 pm
How tech is changing international development

Technology is not often the first thing that comes to mind when we think of international development. Usually we are more focused on overarching ideas like clean drinking water or halting a disease that was eradicated in the developed world decades ago. But in reality, some of the very same tools that are being used to post photos of your cat or find your way to the nearest mall are also being used in the developing world to solve some very basic and life-changing problems.

Picture2Take the problem of counterfeit medications, for example – an especially large burden in West Africa. It is estimated that up to 45 percent of drugs sold in Nigeria are counterfeit – that is, they either do not contain the active ingredient that will actually cure the patient or do not contain enough of it. A company called mPedigree, founded by a Ghanian entrepreneur, has created a simple solution. Legitimate pharmaceutical companies partner with mPedigree to add small scratch-off panels inside the medicine’s packaging which, when scratched, reveal a 10-digit code. A consumer then sends an SMS from their phone to a specified number, a process that by now is almost universally familiar thanks to scratch-off codes for mobile minute top-ups. The mPedigree system receives the SMS, does an instant database check, and replies to the consumer to tell her whether the medication is real or not. The World Trade Organization has estimated that fake malaria drugs alone account for 100,000 deaths in Africa every year. With this in mind, it’s easy to see how a simple verification system could have a huge impact.

A product called mSpray, introduced in Zambia in 2014, uses technology and data to monitor malaria elimination on the ground. Like many countries in the developing world, Zambia still battles with malaria, a disease that annually kills some 584,000 people.

One of the best tools we have to fight malaria is called indoor residual spraying – spraying walls of homes so that when a mosquito lands, it is killed by the pesticide. But it’s easy to imagine how huge of a task it is to spray the hundreds of thousands of homes that must be covered in any given season, much less accurately track that this spraying is occurring in the right places.

Picture1The mSpray process begins by using freely available satellite imagery to enumerate or map structures in a given area, ensuring the locations are known before a spray technician even enters the field. The team at Akros then takes into consideration factors like water and land use, population density and elevation to create a targeted “risk map” to determine where the spraying will be most effective and ensure the program dollars achieve maximum impact. When it’s time for the actual spraying to begin on the ground, technicians are sent out with tablets connected to the cellular network. The mSpray tool built by Ona guides spray technicians to the correct houses using GPS, then allows them to mark that the spraying at that house has occurred, a report that is tagged with coordinates to ensure accuracy. The feedback tool also allows the Zambian government to collect important data like the number of people living in the house.
During disaster relief, another method of mapping technology is used in humanitarian aid. A group called MicroMappers is using crowdsourcing infrastructure to gather important data on where and what type of help is needed during a disaster- a system utilized when Typhoon Ruby made landfall in the Philippines in late 2014. They use volunteers (which they call Digital Jedis) to sort through the thousands of tweets that crop up from the affected area when a Picture3disaster occurs. Volunteers read the tweets and mark whether it is related to infrastructure
damage, population displacement, or requests for help. The crowdsourced information is laid out on maps and can be accessed by aid groups to determine where interventions should be sent. Time is always of the essence in disaster relief, and MicroMappers has realized that it’s difficult for volunteers to be monitoring the tweets 24 hours a day for the extent of the emergency period. They have begun using new algorithms that can automatically classify tweets, creating more of an automated process.

Most of the components that make up these tools are not what we would call revolutionary by developed world technology standards today, but their applications are innovative. More and more we are seeing a movement toward collecting data that can drive decision-making in the world of international development. Tools like these that offer real-time feedback and a system of monitoring and evaluation are becoming more and more important, and the tech world should be paying attention. As the rest of the world develops, there is a huge market for innovations like these. How could the piece of technology you work with serve another purpose in the developing world?


Photo 1: Consumer checks validity of prescription drug using mPedigree’s SMS verification system. ©mPedigree                                                                                                                             

Photo 2: An mSpray technician checks mapping on her mobile device. ©Akron                   

Photo 3: Micromappers platform uses crowdsourcing and data aggregation to geo-tag maps- a potentially helpful resource for individuals and aid organizations during a disaster. ©MicroMappers


Andy Prinsen and Alexis Barnes

Andy Prinsen and Alexis Barnes

Andy Prinsen is a writer and multimedia producer based in Denver, Colorado. He has a Masters degree in public affairs and bachelors in journalism. @andyalacarte. Alexis Barnes is a multimedia journalist currently working in development in Zambia. @AlexisKReports.

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