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Interview: African Access Point

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h1JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – At the Mobile Active 2008, PhoneReport met several society-focused entities that used mobile means to improve a sector of society, or to ease a task.

Henk Boshoff from S-Curve Technologies is building the African Access Point, which with the funding from AED Satellife, represented at the conference by Victorino Nhabanque, is changing the way Mozambique’s Ministry of Health deals with diseases.

PhoneReport’s Meraj Chhaya interviewed both representatives, and got to know a little bit more about these hidden companies that also participate in the mobile environment.

PhoneReport: “Henk, what does S-Curve exactly do?”

Henk Boshoff: “S-Curve does electronic development, strategic engineering and technology management.

On the African Access Point project we were the hardware electronic development company, that actually did the development of the hardware, and sub-contracted from a company called Thalamic Systems, who did the software.”

PhoneReport: “What does your organization do, Victorino?”

Victorino Nhabanque: “AED Satellife is an NGO that participates in the African Access Point project, via IDRC funds.

In this particular case, we are based in Mozambique. We are deploying a system, or a network, that allows health centre workers to collect data using PDAs, and then combine with a GSM network, which routes that data to the server, which is available on the internet.”

PhoneReport: “What is the goal of the African Access Point project?”

V. N.: “The goal of the project is to provide the Ministry of Health with accurate data, for them to be able to make decisions, and allocate resources, to where it is most needed.

The project is being deploying in five different districts in Mozambique, and what we’ve done so far is that we’ve converted the paper-based form collection, which is what the Ministry is using at the moment, into a digital format that can be read from the PDA.

We have trained health workers on how to use PDAs to collect health data, and transmit it to the access point, which is being manufactured by S-Curve.

The access point has a GSM card, so the user goes to the access point after the health data is collected, beam it through infrared, and the access point transfers that to server via GPRS.

The data is uploaded, and then it is available to be download at district-level, so each district has access to this data for analysis purpose.

At the same time, the Ministry of Health has full access to the data that is being uploaded to the server from all districts.”

PhoneReport: “What do yourself, Henk, do at S-Curve?”

H. B.: “I am the founder and CEO of the company. At this stage we are fairly small, we started two years ago.

We are responsible for the African access point that my colleague just mentioned. It’s basically a content router. You get binary data, which is stored on the access point, and then it’s routed to the server, and then from the server, the data is routed back to the end-point.

We mostly make use of sub-contracting. Basically the technology is ours, that uses modular sub-components, and we use these components to create the African access point.”

PhoneReport: “How about you, Victorino?”

V. N.: “As I said previously, the purpose of this project is to allow the Ministry of Health to analyse accurate data that is being collected at health centres.

The system itself actually allows more than just health data collection and transmission. The health centre workers at remote districts can also have email access. They can send and receive emails through the PDAs, as well as information and content for education. We have been talking about broadcasting some content over the network, for them to use.

An example of that is the broadcast of a malaria treatment manual over the existing network, to some of the districts. One of the health workers, who is studying at secondary school, a week before she received the manual, she was asked to write a paper about it. She was very glad that she had it on the PDA.

So this network goes beyond just the health data collection. For the workers in remote places, it is a useful tool for day-to-day use, that empowers the community.”

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PhoneReport: “When did this project start?”

V. N.: “It started in 2006, the network is active since June 2008. There had to a process where we configured the equipment, and trained the users. We had to train something like 100 users, we distributed 100 PDAs, and installed all the access points.

Right now we have 23 access points, installed in five different districts, where the project is being implemented.”

H. B.: “I got involved in 2007, with the training of the staff in the office in Maputo, setting-up processes and documentation, and getting everything in place for the roll-out, that happened in June.”

PhoneReport: “From whom do you receive the funding from? Is it the Ministry of Health that is involved, or is it your own funds, and then you present the pilot project to the Ministry?”

V. N.: “This specific project is being funded by AED-Satellife, which gets funded by IDRC (International Development Research Centre,) who are a non-profit organization from Canada.

The partners are the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Science and Technology in Mozambique.

It is a joint project, where AED-Satellife provides the funds for the Ministry of Health, and counts with the participation of the Ministry of Technology and Science.

The health workers are Ministry of Health employees, while the project itself is being funded by AED-Satellife. We have an office in Maputo, and the project staff are being paid by AED-Satellife.”

H. B.: “I might add that the health workers perform the data capturing parallel to the traditional, official paper capturing. They are providing extra effort to facilitate the pilot run, and see to it that the data has been captured on the PDAs.”

PhoneReport: “How will this project contribute to the improvement of the health status in Mozambique?”

V. N.: “The fact that the data is available online immediately, therefore allowing decision-makers to have access to that data. Based on what that data tells them, they make, for example, a contingency planning in case of a disease outbreak.

They can allocate resources to a specific district, or to a specific health centre, in case of an eventual outbreak.

The paper-base solution takes almost a month to reach the decision-makers, in order for them to allocate resources or make decisions.”

PhoneReport: “Although the government is your partner, are you facing restrictions in any sense?”

V. N.: “We are actually receiving full help from the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Science and Technology. We don’t have any kind of restriction so far.”

H. B.: “Let me add that the funding companies AED-Satellife and IDRC are providing quite a bit of a service from their sides.”

V. N.: “Some of the equipment, such as the PDAs, have to be bought from the States. The Ministries are helping us in customs clearance of those equipments.”

PhoneReport: “Could Mozambican citizens, or for example, the readers, help in any way to enhance the project? The employees that you currently have, are they enough, or could you make use of some volunteer work?”

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V. N.: “As the project is specifically intended for the Ministry of Health, it uses their employees, such as nurses working at clinics. There is no room for volunteers in this specific case of using the PDAs at the health centres. Of course there are some volunteers in the community who help keep the health centre clean, among other functions, but not directly involving in using the PDA for collecting the data and transmitting it. Only trained staff are able to do add.”

H. B.: “From the technical side, the access point software will be published under the GPL 3 open-source licence, in January/February 2009. If the community could get involved in testing and updating the software, obviously, that would help.

We are looking at a foundation in South Africa for the access point software, so any input in the software would definitely make a difference.”

PhoneReport: “Could any input from network operators or equipment manufacturers, help the project? For example: the information in PDAs is transferred via Infrared to the access point. If a network operator such as MCell or Vodacom sponsored GPRS or 3G infrastructure, it might ease your work. Do you need that kind of assistance?”

H. B.: “Most of the hardware on the device is actually proprietary hardware, so it is adapted according to the needs of the current system. If a major change would occur, one would not want them to change the GPRS protocols, and then all the access points would have to be changed, but from a technology management perspective, the odds of that happening are very slim, so not really, no.”

V. N.: “I would also to mention that the advantage of using access points is that you can have different users, while sharing the same GRPS connectivity, which lowers the cost, because if you have 100 users, everyone using their own connection, the cost of that route would be very high, while using an access point, you can have different users, sharing the same access point.

As a matter of fact, the calculations show that with the 23 access points working right now, the monthly network cost is US$150.”

PhoneReport: “For the total? That’s excellent.”

H. B.: “It is, it’s about US$5 per month per access point.”

PhoneReport: “How much data do you gather? How many individuals?”

V. N.: “It’s a minimum of 5 users per access point, but we have cases where it amounts to one user per access point.”

PhoneReport: “It’s quite low at the moment…”

V. N.: “It is unfortunately, but that’s because the access point can only work where there is GSM coverage, and sometimes, on that particular health centre, there is only one user.”

PhoneReport: “What network are you making use of?”

V. N.: “In this case we are using mCell’s GPRS, because it covers more districts than Vodacom, at this moment.”

PhoneReport: “Going back to the subject, where you are making use of PDAs. As a matter of fact, PDAs are getting outdated, and being replaced by smartphones. Do you plan to replace them as well?”

V. N.: “We have been testing smartphones. We are currently testing the Treo, in order to replace the PDAs. It will be more cost effective in health centres where there is only one health worker, instead of putting a more expensive access point.”

H. B.: “We are also in the process of redesigning the hardware for Mozambique and Uganda. We will add communication channels such as UHF, HF radio, and satellite.

At this stage we are forced to use GPRS, but very soon we will be able to use alternative methods of communication, which would actually make this question disappear.”

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PhoneReport: “Are those frequencies sponsored by the government?”

H. B.: “The development of the hardware is funded by my business, not any government. When we go commercial we will have to obtain a licence, in regulation with the government we are working with.”

PhoneReport: “So what’s next for the project, for your company, and for you organization?”

H. B.: “The first step we are excited about is that we’ve got the contract to publish the source code for the access point application, which is currently provided by Thalamic Systems, based in Durban.

We are busy with the opening of the access point application in GPL version 3, which would make this open-source, and any hardware platform will be able to use that software, which will open the outdoor model and allow sustainability.

From the hardware point of view, I mentioned that we are upgrading the hardware, making it more modular, and the concept would be creating a module-type system, if you need protection against power outages or low GSM signal, we could add that functionality, if you need satellite or HF radio communications, we could add that, alternatively, you could just have a small router box sitting in the office that don’t even have GSM coverage, so depending on your requirements, you modularly upgrade your system.”

PhoneReport: “Any notes from yourself Victorino?”

V. N.: “It has been approved by the Ministry of Health and AED-Satellife to extend the project in another district this year [2008], making it six districts. Because the project goes up to January 2010, we will be adding another district, to total seven districts, so this is what is next.

An important fact is that this is cost-effective. The project has been making queries on how the workers feel about using the network, using the PDAs, as at district-level, the IT person downloads the data and prints the report, and then analyses the data. So we have been asking questions on “What you think about this system? Is it better, is it worse than the paper-based?” and so far, their responses indicate that using the PDA is easier and faster, because it’s done once. Otherwise, at the end of the day, you have to sit and look at the papers, and make the totals, and at district-level, the statistics-person is responsible of collecting those papers and make the totals.

Based on their responses, they have reduced the time taken to collect the forms, make the calculations, and enter the information in a spreadsheet or a database.

They have reduced the time taken to do all that to one third, which is a lot. They can use that spare time for something else, so based on that, we can say that the project is cost-effective, and that it is a success.”

PhoneReport: “Do you plan on expanding to other countries?”

H. B.: “Yes. Right now we are focusing in Mozambique and Uganda. South Africa is the next part of the step. Botswana, and then once that is achieved, probably Namibia. We are also waiting for Zimbabwe to open, if the doors open to Zimbabwe, we will enter it as well.”

PhoneReport: “Do you have any partnerships with the countries with whom you wish to begin this project?”

H. B.: “That would not be initiated by S-Curve. From a strategic point of view, that’s where my aim is to expand the business, but it depends on the NGOs being available in the countries, companies like AED-Satellife.

If one wants to expand the project, one must consider if there is IDRC funding.”

PhoneReport: “Before we close, have you considered renewable energies, such as solar energy, to power the access points?”

H. B.: “Yes, it’s designed for grid losses, we have a power down circuit tester, and as soon as the device picks up that the power is being cut, in the miliseconds before the power is out, it will do a graceful shutdown of electronics, alternatively, we have a built-in sealed battery, and that has a charger that accepts solar panel power input.”

V. N.: “On the role of solar panels, we actually deployed some access points in particular districts with power from solar panels, because the health centres didn’t have public electricity. We have also provided particular health workers with PDAs that have solar power chargers, because they either don’t have any electricity options, or there is no electricity at the health centre.”

H. B.: “The bottom line of this is that it is a product developed in Africa, for Africa. It is being developed by companies and organizations that understand the conditions in Africa, and that’s how we have done it.”

About the companies involved

S-Curve does electronic development, strategic engineering and technology management. The company was responsible for the hardware section of the African Access Point.

For more on S-Curve: http://www.s-curve.co.za/

Founded in 1997 to develop custom software for the South African electronics industry and believing in versatility and performance at competitive prices, Thalamic Systems diversified into Network Servers with a specific focus on the GNU/Linux operating system and custom embedded Linux solutions (specifically uClinux). From there it was a short step to providing network installation and support services to companies on both Microsoft and Linux based platforms.

Thalamic Systems built the AAP’s software, and recently allowed it to be licensed under an open-source.

For more on Thalamic Systems: http://www.thalamic.co.za/

AED-SATELIFFE is an international non-profit organization dedicated to building healthier communities in the developing world through the power of information and communication technology (ICT). AED-SATELLIFE strengthens the global health community by facilitating dialogue and disseminating relevant information on the world’s most urgent health topics, including HIV/AIDS, infectious diseases, cardiovascular health and more. The NGO provided IDRC funding to the project.

For more on AED-Satellife: http://www.healthnet.org/

The International Development Research Centre (IDRC) is a Crown corporation created by the Parliament of Canada in 1970 to help developing countries use science and technology to find practical, long-term solutions to the social, economic, and environmental problems they face.

The IDRC provided funds managed by the AED-Satellife, for the AAP project.

For more on IDRC: http://www.idrc.ca/

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By , Editor-in-Chief, Johannesburg office

Published on Mar 22nd, 2009 GMT +2

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