Using cellphones to change the world

MIT project leads to programs that help health workers, farmers in developing countries

A general practitioner in Batanes, in the Philippines, uses a cellphone with Moca software to transmit an X-ray to a radiologist in Manila. A general practitioner in Batanes, in the Philippines, uses a cellphone with Moca software to transmit an X-ray to a radiologist in Manila.
By D.C. Denison
Globe Staff / October 14, 2009

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It’s an unlikely medical device: a sleek smartphone more suited to a nightclub than a rural health clinic. But it’s loaded with software that allows health workers in the remote northernmost Philippines province of Batanes to dramatically reduce the time it takes to get X-rays to a radiologist - and to get a diagnosis for a patient being tested for tuberculosis.

The software, created by a nonprofit organization called Moca, is one of nearly two dozen cellphone-based projects that have sprung from NextLab, a course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It’s taught by Jhonatan Rotberg, who was sent to MIT by Telmex, one of Latin America’s largest telecommunications companies, to bring cellular technology to the “90 percent of people’’ who fall outside of the marketing plans of most phone companies.

Talking about his Telmex job, Rotberg made a peak with his hands. “We were dealing with the very top of the pyramid,’’ he said as he sat in his office at MIT. “We spent most of our time trying to sell more phones and products to the middle class and the upper middle class.’’

So three years ago, funded by a grant from Mexican investor Carlos Slim’s foundation, Telmex sent Rotberg to MIT to research methods for using cellphones to help “the resource-constrained countries, aka developing countries, aka low-income countries.’’

And when Rotberg settled into his research and teaching position at the Media Lab, he made a discovery: The same device that powers teenage texting in the United States can be adapted to help farmers in Mexico and illiterate women in India.

“Cellphones are inexpensive, personal, connected, and everywhere,’’ he said. “They are also the perfect Trojan horse for social development, because you don’t have to convince anyone to buy one.’’

In NextLab, Rotberg challenged students by asking, “Can you make a cellphone change the world?’’ And students have responded, creating nearly two dozen projects and three start-up ventures that have been working with communities in developing countries like India, Vietnam, and Mexico.

“It really kind of jumps out at you, the positive impact you can have with cellphone technology,’’ said Zack Anderson, a recent MIT graduate who was on a team that started Moca, a nonprofit that is developing mobile software to improve health care access in less wealthy countries.

“The next billion people who will be getting online will be using cellphones, not computers,’’ Anderson said. “That gets you thinking about how you can leverage this.’’

Using Rotberg’s course as a sounding board, the Moca team decided to focus on facilitating cellphone communication between health workers in rural areas and doctors, who tend to be in cities.

Last summer, Moca conducted a small pilot program in Batanes, using cellphones to send X-rays to urban doctors for screening.

Leo Anthony Celi, a physician who recently completed a master’s degree at MIT, has made three trips to the Philippines to field-test Moca.

“The Philippines actually adopted cellphone texting way ahead of the US, so there’s already a platform in place that we can leverage,’’ he said. “We started with X-rays, but there’s no reason we can’t also transmit ultrasound videos, echocardiograms, and other medical imagery.’’

Cellphones are well suited to what is known as telemedicine, networks that connect remote locations with sophisticated medical diagnosis and advice. But social entrepreneurs are also using cellphones to enable remote commerce and promote literacy.

Dinube, a NextLab spinoff that was tested in Mexico last summer, provides payment services to people who don’t have access to traditional banks.

“One of the powerful things about cellphones in Mexico is that there is a 75 percent penetration rate,’’ said Jonathan Hayes, a cofounder of Dinube. “But only 25 percent of the population has a bank account. So a cellphone-based system can fill a huge, important gap.’’

Two other NextLab projects show the mobile phone’s range: CelEdu offers cellphone-based games and quizzes that have been used in India to teach basic literacy skills. Zaca - developed by students at MIT, Harvard, and Tufts - helps farmers make deals with buyers using their cellphones, bypassing expensive middlemen. The cellphones also provide current crop prices and advice on growing practices.

MIT’s Legatum Center, which supports a variety of entrepreneurial programs to bring innovation to developing countries, has four cellphone-related projects in the works. That’s not surprising, given that the center’s director, Iqbal Quadir, founded Grameenphone, a company that introduced low-cost cellphone service to Bangladesh in the 1990s.

“For cellphones, it’s really only the beginning,’’ Quadir said, “because cellphones are becoming computers. Think about it: What are the limits of computers? Actually, there’s no end to it.’’

To stay ahead of this rapidly evolving technology, Rotberg recently launched what he refers to as version 2.0 of NextLab. The spring semester course, hosted by the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics, will be focused on creating a mobile phone-based platform for a broad range of projects.

“The magical part of this technology is that if we build something in one location, we can just tweak it and use it in another,’’ Rotberg said.

It’s safe to assume, he added, that there will be more opportunities for leveraging cellphone technology.

“There’s no question that the cellphone footprint will expand, and that phones will get cheaper, and that computing power will grow,’’ he said. “The only question is, will we recognize that this is an opportunity for social good?’’

D.C. Denison can be reached at