Each Friday this month we’re featuring a series of articles focused on innovators and how they came to do what they do. Some are inventors, others humanitarian workers, but all have a passion for taking problems and turning them on their heads.
Ken Banks, author and innovator, is the editor of a book every international development student should read, The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator. This is the third in a four-part series looking at the opening chapters of the book. Find the review of chapter 1, about the use of subtitles to spread education in India, here, and chapter 2, about the concept of the outlier in innovation, here.
If you are interested in the book, download a sample by clicking on the cover image, or better yet, support their work and buy a copy (available in hard copy and ebook).
Chapter 3: Data-Powered Development, by Joel Selanikio
When he began working in IT, Joel Selanikio had no idea that he would go on to create the world’s top mobile data-collecting program. In fact, he originally left IT to go back to school and pursue a medical career, which led him to a fellowship at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). During this stint, he never thought he’d go back to the world of technology and computers — not until he was tasked with collecting substantial amounts of data regarding infectious diseases across the Global South.
“It was this latter work, which typically involved collecting a lot of data, that first turned my thoughts to the possible application of information technology — and specifically the mobile technology that was just being born — to the needs of global health,” he wrote.
His past experience working in the technology sector, paired with his knowledge of the health sector in relation to development, allowed him to identify an important gap that was slowing down work: the need to replace physical, paper forms in the medical field in both the Global North and South. Seemingly simple questions, such as ‘how many births were in X country last year?’ could not be answered easily, because there wasn’t an effective way of tracking data.
To practice good public health, you need access to data, but this is often difficult to collect regardless of where you are located. Not only is data difficult to collect, but with hundreds, or thousands, of paper forms, the data is also exceedingly difficult to organize. Today, we use computers to be much more efficient.
Simple and Versatile
In 1998, Selanikio decided to take technology to the next level. Using a Palm Pilot, he designed a program that allowed for simple data-collection. He surveyed the nutritional intake of refugees, and was thrilled that his invention proved easier than the old paper forms. However, not everyone took to this new method. It only worked for him because of his extensive background knowledge from working in IT. For anyone within the general public, understanding this technology enough to utilize it for widespread data collection was just too difficult.
But he didn’t give up.
In 2002 Selanikio partnered with his friend and colleague Rose Donna and began to develop a new program called EpiSurveyor — now called Magpi — with a goal of becoming the “first do-it-yourself system for mobile electronic data collection that didn’t require any technical expertise at all.”
However, this program was also not deemed easy enough to use, and still presented some kinks that needed to be fixed before the program could be deemed accessible for most humanitarian workers looking to collect large amounts of data.
But this innovation was starting at a time when technology began to boom worldwide. People were starting to use laptops on a daily basis, and email accounts were becoming the norm. Looking at the models of other social networking sites gave him the idea that he needed to take EpiSurveyor to the next level: utilizing online platforms that were widely accessible to anyone with an internet connection.
With the emergence of cell phones, Palm Pilots were replaced. Cell phones were also becoming rapidly available across the Global South, which is where the target market for this innovation lived. The timing was nearly perfect.
By 2012 there were more than 10,000 people using the program across 170 different countries; EpiSurveyor had become a huge success. It is being used for more projects and programs than what was originally intended. Data is now being collected on education, supply chains, sanitation, and more. It has proved to be extremely useful in more sectors than just health, and has helped reshape how data is collected in the field.
Changes are constantly being made as new advances in technology are made. The name was also changed to Magpi because the program ended up being used for more projects than just epidemiological surveys.