How Open Source Technology can be a Development Tool

Yesterday, the United Nations Foundation and the Vodafone Group Foundation announced the successful conclusion of a year long pilot program that integrated open source mobile phone technology into the public health systems of Kenya and Zambia. The pilot program equipped Palm Zires with a software tool called EpiSurveyor, created by the NGO Datadyne. (A little while back UN Dispatch featured a Delegates Lounge post by Datadyne’s Dr. Joel Selanikio, who was training public health officials in Zambia how to use EpiSurveyor.)

The pilot projects were huge successes.

[H]andheld devices facilitated the supervision of public health clinics, and resulted in improved drug supply-chain management and more regular access to public health trends. Additionally, country health officials modified the EpiSurveyor software to track and contain disease outbreaks, and to identify immunization campaign coverage rates.

And because the pilot program used open source software, it could be easily modified by country health officials as needed.

Designed to facilitate the supervision of health data in public clinics using handheld computers, the initiative broke ground when country officials modified the open source EpiSurveyor data-gathering software to meet other public health needs as they arose. In Kenya health officials modified EpiSurveyor to investigate and contain a polio outbreak, and in Zambia health officials modified the software to conduct a post-measles-immunization campaign coverage survey to identify which children had not been vaccinated. Because the EpiSurveyor application is open source, its application was owned and controlled entirely by WHO and country health officials without depending on outside consultants.

Next week, the United Nations will be hosting a conference on how free and open source software (FOSS) can be better harnessed as a development tool. The conference, organized by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development will “present case studies of successful FOSS implementations in various environments.”

No doubt they could point to the Episurveyor experiment in Zambia and Kenya as a case study.