In "Saving Lives With a Simple PDA," FORTUNE looks at how technology can bring changes and benefits to developing countries. The article focuses on bridges.org, a nonprofit consulting firm based in Cape Tow, South Africa. This group consults for governments in Africa as well as for the World Bank on IT-related projects. In one successful project, doctors in Kenya received Palm handhelds loaded with up-to-date medical reference documents. In another one in South Africa, people affected by tuberculosis receive daily SMS messages in local languages to remind them to take their medications.
No single issue in IT is more important than figuring out how to use technology in the developing world. That's why you should know about Teresa Peters. Raised on a farm in Ohio, she now runs a group in Cape Town called Bridges.org, a unique nonprofit consulting firm on IT and development.
Bridges.org consults on IT-related projects for governments, nonprofits, and groups such as the World Bank. It evaluates specific technologies, and advocates policy changes that will make it easier for tech to be useful in developing countries.
However, IT projects in developing countries and rural communities must follow different guidelines from the ones deployed in developed nations.
Many IT-related projects in Africa are failing. That's because, Peters says, too many ignore the basic criteria for success: "Small, cheap, local, and relevant are the key things for IT here, with a suite of applications around the device." Often, for instance, what's appropriate is not a PC but a handheld, or even just a cellphone. (One of the main reasons for that? PCs are often stolen.)
Here is an example of a successful project.
Peters says the most effective use of technology she's ever seen was in a pilot project that gave doctors and medical students in Kenya Palm handhelds that contained a regularly updated set of medical reference materials. Drugs change frequently, as do treatment regimens. But, she explains, "Doctors are out all day seeing patients two to a bed and on the floor—so many it's unbelievable. They make notes on each patient but without a handheld they have to wait until the end of the day to check reference books for drug interactions and other information." The program resulted in clear improvements in patient care.
And here is another one in South Africa.
Peters is excited about a program Bridges has underway in its home city of Cape Town, which has one of the world's highest rates of tuberculosis infection. One doctor at a TB clinic was frustrated that even among patients who had come up with the money to join a treatment program, success rates were only about 60% because skipping the drugs for even one day meant someone had to start all over again.
But he noticed that most of the patients had cellphones. ("In Africa people who don't even have addresses have cellphones," says Peters.) So he designed a program that automatically sends out daily SMS text messages to those phones in local languages. It says, according to Peters, "essentially that if you don't take your medicine you will die." Treatment success rates shot up.
For more information, visit the bridges.org website and the popular reports page. And if you want to send them money, go to this page.
Sources: David Kirkpatrick, FORTUNE, April 28, 2004; bridges.org website