People in developing countries may not have the luxury of access to many modern technologies. They do, however, have affordable access to smartphones increasingly. According to a recent mobility report from Ericsson, there are 2.6 billion smartphone subscriptions globally, with another 3.5 billion expected to come online by 2020.
With that growth comes increasingly rapid SMS penetration, and with that penetration has come a slew of apps using SMS to support better health care. In the past, we’ve seen numerous SMS messages for disease prevention, surveillance, self-management and compliance in developing countries. (An academic study dating back to 2012 had identified 98 related applications.)
Many of those apps have focused on HIV/AIDS and used bulk messaging. Today, at Disrupt London’s overnight hackathon, a team comprising two astronomy PhDs from the University of Cambridge, along with three developers who they met here, came up with another seemingly useful app called MedicSMS.
The idea behind it is to allow someone without easy access to healthcare providers to text frightening symptoms that he or she is experiencing. Using IBM Watson, the app then delivers that person the best advice that it can regarding what the condition might be and what measures to take. Additionally, it asks the person sending the text for his or her location, data it then feeds to local government and NGOs. (The team also whipped up an interface that enables the NGOs to see on a map where the text was sent, so they can attend to the person if necessary.)
George Stefanis — one of the developers on the project (his full-time job is at the Walt Disney Company) — tells us that, already, “in principal, the app works if you were to call it from a browser.”
Next steps involve improving its infrastructure and figuring out how to overcome some restrictions of Twilio, whose SMS API MedicSMS is currently using.
Down the road, says Harley Katz, one of the PhDs on the team, MedicSMS could also help governments and health care organizations better understand when and where epidemics are taking root. “Eventually, we’re hoping to track much more, including where similar symptoms are popping up on the map.”