Computer scientists at the University of Washington (UW) have used Android, the open-source mobile operating system championed by Google, to turn a cell phone into a versatile data-collection device, thus making it a handheld tool to collect data on many issues, ranging from global health to the environment.
For the past year, UW computer science and engineering doctoral students Carl Hartung, Yaw Anokwa and Waylon Brunette have worked at Google's Seattle office using Android to create a data-collection platform for use in developing regions.
Their free suite of tools, named Open Data Kit, is already used by organizations around the world that need inexpensive ways to gather information in areas with little infrastructure.
Seattle's Grameen Foundation Technology Center is using the phone to evaluate its Ugandan text-messaging information hotline.
D-Tree International, a Boston-based nonprofit, is using it in Tanzania to guide health workers treating children under 5 years old.
Berkeley's Human Rights Center is using it to record human rights violations in the Central African Republic.
This fall, the Jane Goodall Foundation in Tanzania and the Brazilian Forest Service signed up to use it to monitor deforestation.
Many organizations are using Open Data Kit, but the biggest project so far is a major effort to track and treat HIV patients in Kenya.
Led by the 'Academic Model Providing Access to Healthcare', it is one of the most comprehensive HIV treatment programs in sub-Saharan Africa.
"Many organizations need to be able to make evidence-based decisions, and to do that they need data," Anokwa said.
"We hope our toolkit enables organizations to gather the data quickly so they can analyze it quickly and make the best decisions for the communities they serve," he added.
In the past, some researchers have harnessed individual cell phone models to collect data in the field. But when the phone gets outdated, so does the software.
Instead of creating a tool for a single phone, or even a single purpose, the UW team built something that would provide a reusable platform to collect all types of mobile data.
"We found a lot of organizations were building a lot of one-off tools that were very similar," Hartung said. "We're trying to make ours as compatible and flexible as possible," he added.
Open Data Kit's versatile suite of tools can collect data; store, view and export data on remote servers; and manage devices in the field from a central office.
The output is compatible with emerging data standards such as the Open Medical Records System, which aims to coordinate health ecords in the developing world.