Dimagi CEO Interviewed by SSI

The Sustainable Sciences Institute monthly newsletter in January provided an interview with Jonathan. The Sustainable Sciences Institute works to develop scientific research capacity in limited resource settings by providing technical training, informatics tools, and financial resources for local public health science.The interview is re-printed here:

How can ICTs make a difference in public health?
We don’t yet know the reach and impact of ICTs in public health. Given the rapidly evolving technology landscape, it’s difficult to imagine what possibilities are ahead in 2, 5, or 10 years. It’s important to keep in mind that at best we can provide some tools to increase the effectiveness of healthcare workers and organizations. In all industries, it’s often difficult to pinpoint, quantify, or even be sure of the benefit of information tools on increasing productivity or impact and the same will be true here. One thing we’re learning is that a lot of the inventions that sound great when you think of them are often less clearly beneficial when implemented in the complex environments in which we work. At the moment, we’re particularly excited by the potential of ICTs to provide organizations the real-time monitoring and feedback tools to help adapt and improve their impact. Many organizations currently work with very limited, very late, and often not very reliable data. We think we can improve upon that and provide fast feedback channels as well, and thus give organizations the tools to strengthen themselves.

What are the benefits of using open source technologies and ICT tools?
A common misconception about open source is that its only benefit is being cheaper. While this is often the case in the long run, open source can be more expensive in the short-term. Regardless, the benefits of using open source technologies extend far beyond cost considerations. Strong open source projects create a community of engaged, collaborative, eager, and innovative individuals and give them a forum to combine ideas and resources to create powerful tools. These ecosystems allow projects to be locally owned by the organizations that need to use them. This is critical for driving down the long-term cost of implementing these ICT tools. Proprietary tools will always be owned by a third party and additional features will need to go through some mechanism, which they provide. While some proprietary products do a great job fostering an open ecosystem (such as the iPhone platform), most if not all proprietary projects targeting ICT for public health do not. Further, innovators are always beholden to the proprietary platforms decisions (such as iPhone being able to reject app store applications). By using open source, local innovators are able to own their innovations and be assured they can re-use and re-sell their innovations to other users. This is critical for creating a strong entrepreneurial spirit among the technologists working in ICT for public health.

How are Dimagi and partners helping to make eHealth solutions more accessible and locally sustainable in limited-resource settings?
At Dimagi, we believe that ICT capacity-building is more likely to happen when more of a project’s “coding” (programming) is done in-country, by local software and technology developers. Our Coded in Country (CIC) initiative, developed in conjunction with DataDyne.org, aims to increase awareness of this by encouraging programs to put more than 50% of their programming funding towards local coders. Towards this end, Dimagi and DataDyne have created a CIC office, or node, in Nairobi Kenya, where DataDyne Kenyan programmers will work in collaboration with Dimagi trainers and other organizations on collaborative projects including the JavaROSA project.

Currently, the need for many software development projects in public health is being met primarily by programmers trained and based in wealthy countries. This is unsatisfying on many levels, including that the projects remain foreign solutions and incur high maintenance expenses, and that these solutions are often overly dependent on single individuals. CIC proposes to utilize the expensive experts to train, mentor, and supervise talented junior developers in low-income countries, rather than paying those experts to build the software themselves. While this may take slightly longer and even cost more initially, the result is strengthened capacity by increasing the number of local, skilled software developers with expertise in the relevant eHealth packages. This will result in lower total cost of ownership as future development, modifications, and support can be provided locally.

What are the next steps for the OpenRosa community and how can others get involved?
The OpenRosa community is a vibrant and active group of open source mobile technologists from around the world. To date, the OpenRosa consortium members have created four data collection platforms: JavaRosa, OpenData Kit, OpenXData and EpiSurveyor. All four of these individual platforms have a growing number of software contributors and users. Over the next 6 months, we hope to harmonize the small differences between these platforms to enable easier “plug and play” between the four platforms. In addition, there are multiple tools being introduced by the community to make these kinds of tools easier to use and to create your own mobile data collection applications. We will continue to share and learn from each other to foster tools that can be locally owned and support local innovation. To join the discussions, learn about OpenRosa’s work, or see what went on at the last OpenRosa meeting in Tanzania in July 2009, you can visit the website at www.openrosa.org.

What inspires your work?
Inspiration comes in many forms, from many sources. The desire to work on something we personally believe can make an impact is a wonderful opportunity, and we are fortunate to work with our amazing staff and partners whose effort and caring seems to be boundless at times. Our initiatives to build local capacity and local innovation have introduced us to countless amazing organizations and people, each one of which would provide enough inspiration to keep us happy. Ultimately, global inequity is a profound injustice that we hope we can contribute to shrinking that in some small way.



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