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CHIPS Articles: ONR Program Uses Cell Phones to Fight Epidemics

ONR Program Uses Cell Phones to Fight Epidemics
By Eric Beidel, Office of Naval Research - January 28, 2013
ARLINGTON, Va.— A program managed by the Office of Naval Research (www.onr.navy.mil) to get ahead of epidemic outbreaks has led to the deployment of new healthcare monitoring and information collection technology in South America and Africa, officials announced Jan. 15.

Building off of an original project funded by ONR, researchers are collecting data through a text message-based system set up to take advantage of widespread access to handheld devices in Colombia and Zambia.

Through the collection of pictures, videos, texts and geo-location information from cell phones in a given population, researchers can perform complex data analysis and begin to track and map a fluid situation such as an earthquake or the spread of disease.

In Sailing Directions (www.navy.mil/cno/cno_sailing_direction_final-lowres.pdf#ProtectedMode=1) meant to guide the Navy, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert has called on the service to employ resources in a variety of situations.

"The U.S. military continues to take on a bigger role in disaster relief and humanitarian assistance operations around the globe," said Cmdr. Joseph Cohn, program officer in ONR's Warfighter Performance Department (www.onr.navy.mil/Home/Science-Technology/Departments/Code-34.aspx). "Real-time epidemiological data allows military decision-makers to be medically prepared and, more locally, provide quicker responses to potential disease outbreaks in close quarters common to military facilities like ships."

Limited technical infrastructure in developing countries often can slow humanitarian aid and hamper responses to disasters. ONR's research delves into smart phone apps to take full advantage of the fact that more people have cell phone subscriptions than access to the Internet throughout the world, especially in lower income populations.

"When you're trying to get information from people in an area devastated by a natural disaster, you have to use technology that the population already has in their pockets," said Ryan Paterson, CEO of IST Research, LLC, which created an Android-based short message service (SMS) gateway to support the work being done in Colombia and Zambia.

The project, which also includes funding from Naval Sea Systems Command, is a partnership with the Zambian Ministry of Health, the University of South Alabama and Tiny People Matter, a global medical relief team that provides care for children and infants in developing countries.

"This effort shows it doesn’t require expensive solutions to effectively collect highly structured data from local populations in some of the least-networked locations around the globe," Cohn said.

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