This past week, I read an exciting article on the Open Data Kit (ODK), "Open Source Data Collection in the Developing World", in the October issue of the IEEE Computer magazine. You can download a copy from the University of Washington's Computer Science and Engineering site. To give you an idea what it's all about, I've embedded here a short video from the ODK's project page at Google Code:
The technology is wonderful, but the article got me thinking about something only tangentially related, implied in the story: what constitutes the "developing world"? I've visited people in northern Peru who live on a dollar or two a day, with reasonable quality of life as long as things don't go wrong (which of course they always do, eventually, for each and every one of them). One remote village I visited, La Arena in the region and province of Piura, has been in existence since 1826, and hasn't changed a whole lot in its 183-year history. Their medical care is probably better than it was a century and a half ago, but not by much, and the ODK has promise to make some quantum-leap improvements in that realm.
I began to wonder if the "developing world" isn't much closer to home, though. There are pockets of poverty within two hundred miles of Ann Arbor, in both rural and urban areas, that are similar in some ways to what I saw in La Arena, perhaps not in the level of income but in other factors: the degree of disparity between their economic situation and that of the richest segment of the country's population, for example, and the degree of hope for a better life for one's children.
I can see a lot of ways in which the ODK could improve health care delivery in Michigan's less economically advantaged areas, especially if coupled with a lightweight EMR system like the one marketed by Cielo Medsolutions (disclosure: I consult for Cielo at times, and its principals are friends of mine). Because my involvement in biomedical informatics is in the area of clinical research, I can also see a lot of ways in which ODK could further in situ research in areas such as comparative effectiveness and health disparities. This would be especially effective if the research were conducted through the practice-based research network (PBRN) with which the University of Michigan is affiliated, the Great Lakes Research in Practice Network (GRIN).
If time permits, I will be exploring the ODK further. If I do, I'll report my findings.