Plugging in to global health: The proliferation of mobile apps

Mobile apps. Photo by: Jason Howie / CC BY

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mobile apps are becoming an increasingly way to manage global health projects, but this technology must be scaled up beyond pilot programs to become an integral part of the aid strategy, writes Amanda Gleeson, Director of Global Health Policy and senior fellow at the Center for Global Development.

Mobile applications – or ‘apps’ – seem to be the latest craze in mobile technology for global health programming. The proliferation of these apps is converging around a growing interests in open (and big) data, so you don’t have to look far to find creative ways they are being used to collect and display data in the development sector.

Mobile users can download apps that map USAID’s portfolio and Development Expertise Clearinghouse (DEC) evaluations. And USAID’s 2012 Hack for Hunger event helped create an open data app from Gareem and Palantir which alert farmers about food security warnings. A few other apps from USAID which are not yet available include Family Choices, which aims “to enhance the perception of a girl’s place in and value to her family,” 9-Minutes, where the user experiences the “adventures of nine months of pregnancy” and Worm Attack!, which focuses on the “strategic use of deworming pills” – although the target audience for these aren’t exactly clear yet. Still, USAID was awarded the “best government policy for mobile development” earlier this year for establishing a dedicated mobile solutions team to bring these kinds of apps to underserved communities.

USAID isn’t the only organization that has started to apply mobile applications in their programming. Last year the WHO introduced its first app – a mobile version of its Global School-based Student Health Survey which collects information on the health and behaviors of adolescents – and more recently issued an app to help parents keep track of children’s vaccinations. The World Bank also offers 17 different mobile apps on its website, from the World Bank Gender DataFinder to Doing Business at a Glance.

Apps for global health have a short history – IntraHealth claims to have released the first global health app just last year (see full archive of global development apps here). So how important will they will be to the global health community?

The history of mHealth more broadly has shown that this convergence of mobile technology and data can have major implications for development — from tracking population movements to replacing traditional data sources. And the potential audience (and data sample) is enormous. In 2011, there were almost 6 billion mobile cellular telephone subscriptions globally (three quarters of the planet’s population). 

But there are certainly cautionary lessons that can be learned from the surging popularity of mHealth — now an estimated $2 billion dollar business this year. Despite mHealth’s popularity, few (if any) programs have been able to scale up past the pilot phase and become integral part of health systems. Similarly, the problems that have hindered the success of mhealth in terms of coordination across funders and implementers will likely also be a challenge for global health apps — potentially limiting the efficiency and effectiveness of investments in these technologies. While mobile apps seem promising, it remains to be seen if they will be able to overcome many of the same issues mHealth have faced.

Edited for style and republished with permission from the Center for Global Development. Read the original article.

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