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Feature

Handhelds' New Role Includes Global Outreach

PDAs get more innovative, from food-service to life-saving functions
Saving Lives
Perhaps handheld computers have best proven their worth in the nonprofit world, where they're saving something more valuable than dollars: lives.

Satellife Inc. is a nonprofit organization dedicated to using technology to build healthier communities in developing nations. "For 13 years, we've been addressing the problem of the digital divide in Africa," says Rebecca Riccio, director of programs. "Our mission has been to use appropriate technology to get life-saving information into the hands of health professionals who are otherwise cut off."

The first phase of the Satellife PDA project, funded with contributions from the Rockefeller Foundation and Cisco Foundation, operates through a partnership with the American Red Cross in Ghana.

Red Cross volunteers were in the midst of organizing a measles-immunization campaign when Satellife approached them with the idea of using handheld computers in the field. During previous campaigns, the organization had used paper surveys to collect data on local health conditions in order to plan follow-up visits. But as most businesses know, recording data on paper can be time-consuming and inefficient.

So Satellife equipped local Ghananian volunteers with Palm PDAs, each loaded with a custom-built survey application. After only a few hours of training, the volunteers were ready to work. "These individuals, many of whom had never seen a computer, were able to adopt the technology within a couple of hours," Riccio says. "People with no experience can use it. It's all pop-ups, yes or no questions, and everything is point and click."

The most immediate result of the project was that the Red Cross was able to complete its study on local health in record time, processing 2,400 surveys in three days. Previous paper surveys generally resulted in only a few hundred completed questionnaires. The Red Cross saved time and money on data processing and got a much wider sample pool, showing that the handhelds were a cost- and time-effective tool for data collection. The Red Cross and Satellife estimate that they slashed their costs per survey from $80 for paper to $2.50 for handhelds. The Red Cross also is better prepared to return to Ghana and meet the medical needs of the community.

But the PDA project does more than promote charitable interests. It's also good for business. "It advances a private-sector agenda as well as our humanitarian mission," Riccio says.

In underdeveloped areas such as Africa, nonprofit groups often are the first to introduce new technology.

"E-mail in Africa wasn't introduced by the private sector. It was introduced by humanitarian ventures like us," she says. "You need that kind of early adoption to stimulate a market."

By bringing the Palm devices to Ghana, Satellife not only opens up the area for handheld vendors to come and sell their wares, but creates a community of people who know how to use technology, so other businesses can come in and find a skilled workforce, Riccio says.

"Many people now who are prominent within the African IT community," Riccio adds, "got their start by working with people like us and then went on to launch their own entrepreneurial activities."

Illustration courtesy of Digital Vision/Getty