The technology is there — but politics can get in the way

Today is a ‘mHealth 101’ workshop for journalists and others who want to quickly catch-up on the issues involved in this large and diverse field of technological application before the summit kicks off tomorrow.

The first speaker of the day was Joel Selanikio, MD, CEO and co-founder of DataDyne — a company that among other things have developed EpiSurveyor, a neat way for health workers to collect data on things like vaccinations and disease outbreaks in rural areas. The technology is helping the ministry of health in Kenya to act much more quickly on medicine shortages and disease outbreaks, he said.

Cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe. Credit:Sokwanele Zimbabwe

Selanikio explained how the technology applications are playing catch-up with the explosion of mobile phones across poor areas of the world. Even basic phones are many times more powerful than desktop computers were 15 or 20 years ago, he said.

But the session also heard from Lucy, a radio journalist based in Zimbabwe, about the problems that limit access to health data in her country. In Zimbabwe, she said, the government is reluctant to release information on health to journalists. When there was an outbreak of cholera, the information came first from international news sources, and even then the government denied it for a long time.

Lucy’s story illustrates some of the challenges facing the roll-out of mHealth and other mobile technology applications in countries where information is restricted. While this summit will show us all the wonderful things mHealth could do, it’s important to remember that information is power — and a power that some governments, not just in Africa, are reluctant to share.

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net columnist

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