Managing dengue using mobile phones

June 2, 2013 | By More

{This is a reprint of an article from the Economist Technology Quarterly, appearing in the issue of June 1st 2013}

The female Aedes mosquito, carrier of dengue, gorges itself with blood

The female Aedes mosquito gorges itself with blood

LIVE in a crowded South Asian city and a host of problems—smog, contagious disease, corruption—may plague you. Each winter, the air grows foul. The monsoon season brings mosquitoes, bloodsuckers capable of carrying nasties such as dengue and malaria. As cities expand and people are packed closer, they are more likely to pass on infections. Overwhelmed municipalities, especially if weakened by corruption, offer a weak response. In Lahore, Pakistan’s second-most populous city, there were 21,292 confirmed dengue patients in 2011, a particularly dire year. At least 350 of them died, victims of associated haemorrhages or shock.

The usual response is to send out fogging lorries to spray a choking mixture of insecticide (such as DDT) and kerosene to kill mosquitoes. Public officials also advise residents to drain every reservoir of water near their homes. Mosquito larvae flourish in puddles, even inside old tyres or old flower pots. But foggers sometimes spread their helpful poison too liberally, where no dengue-infected mosquitoes are present, or too rarely, perhaps neglecting poor neighbourhoods. Municipal workers skip puddle-hunting, or fail to tip chemicals into ponds to kill the larvae. Crooked workers sell their insecticides or refuse to spray without bribes from residents.

Fogging may not be as effective as preventing mosquito breeding grounds.

Fogging may not be as effective as preventing mosquito breeding grounds.

After their especially grim spell, Lahore’s authorities last year looked for ways to use technology—in particular cheap, widely available smartphones—to help them put up a better fight against the mosquitoes.

They equipped 1,500 city workers with $100 smartphones and asked them to take “before and after” photographs of their anti-dengue tasks and to upload images, tagged by location, so that they could be plotted on an online map, made available to the public. They also recorded where larvae were spotted (usually in traps), and reported the locations of known dengue patients.

The resulting data were then analysed to create a visualisation showing where and when dengue was infecting people. It was then possible to predict where dengue-infected mosquitoes would buzz up next, so that fogging and larvae-hunts could be targeted appropriately.

Lahore map showing dengue patients (circles) and dengue-carrying larvae (red pins)

Lahore map showing dengue patients (circles) and dengue-carrying larvae (red pins)

The use of smartphones also had more subtle effects. Knowing they were being monitored and tracked in public, municipal workers also applied themselves more assiduously to their tasks. Anyone looking at the online map could see if the work being done in a particular area was adequate—and complain if it was not.

All this seems to have worked. Last year Lahore suffered just 255 dengue cases, and no deaths, says Umar Saif, a computer scientist seconded to the Punjab provincial government who oversaw the tracking side of the project. Strong political interest helped, too. The chief minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, who was re-elected in May, led daily meetings on the anti-dengue fight. Of course, 2012 might simply have been a milder year for dengue than 2011, so the effectiveness of the new approach will become apparent only after a few more years.

Already, however, the Punjab government is extending the use of mobile phones to gather data and improve broader public services.

Other officials, such as veterinarians who are paid to travel to farms to deworm cows, have to take smartphones to record themselves at work and upload geotagged self-portraits to an official website. This makes it possible to check that they are actually turning up for work. They are also required to record the phone numbers of farmers they visit, some of whom are randomly called afterwards to be asked if the service was up to scratch.

Lessons for the entrepreneur:

  • big problems can sometimes be solved simply, if creatively applied – involve others
  • solutions do not have to be expensive (just take a ‘before’ and ‘after’ picture using the phone)
  • getting people to help can sometimes have unintended (positive) consequences

For more information:
The Economist, issue 1st June 20113
MIT Technology Review
Dr Umar Saif, Associate Prof, Lahore University of Management Science, Syed Babar Ali School of Science and Engineering

 

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About the Author ()

EngTong, pioneer and innovator. Graduated from Imperial College London with an MBA from Cranfield School of Management. Lived in Scotland, England, California, Beijing and led teams in Italy, France, Japan, Taiwan and Malaysia to do the impossible. Now based in Singapore and believes the future is to blend the sophistication of western management practices with the strength of Asian Values. Trained as a Chartered Engineer. Member of IET, Associate of City and Guilds and a certified SixSigma Champion.

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