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Fighting Pandemics with Mobile Phones
Jamais Cascio, 19 Jan 06

biohazrdphone.jpgIt's not just wild-eyed social networking evangelists and telecom industry types talking about using mobile telephones as tools for disaster preparedness -- now the US Centers for Disease Control are getting into the act.

We talk a lot about the ways in which mobile network devices like cell phones can be used to alert people to health problems (such as allergens or pollution) or imminent environmental disasters. Typically, this takes the form of centralized systems sending out SMS text messages to a select group of users; there's already a protocol available for just such a system. The CDC wants to take this further, however, with a mobile phone-based tool for alerting people to potential pandemic risks:

At the Center for the Advancement of Distance Education (CADE) at the University of Illinois at Chicago, researchers are helping the CDC to develop an emergency alert system that would rely on the Global Positioning System (GPS) features built into many of today's mobile handsets. In areas hit with an outbreak, people who carry GPS-enabled mobile phones and are subscribed to the alert service would receive an emergency alert text message with instructions about where to go or what to do during specific emergencies, such as an outbreak of anthrax or bird flu.
One version of these instructions has already been developed in the form of small applications written in the Java programming language that show emergency procedures step by step and can be downloaded to and stored on mobile devices that support Java. [...]
Reaching the general population and rapidly steering them in the right direction during a deadly outbreak or disaster, such as the next Hurricane Katrina, is a tricky problem. That's why the team is planning to leverage the GPS features found in all newer-model cell phones. In that way, people in areas hit with an outbreak could receive directions to the nearest medical clinic and be told what routes to take in an evacuation.

As the folks at the Mobile Technology Weblog note, Hong Kong tried a similar (but less-complex) system back in 2003 to let people know where SARS-infected locations were within a given radius. That system required the user to call a special number and enter a code for one's current location. The CDC plan would be opt-in (meaning that people wouldn't get the alerts without agreeing ahead of time), but otherwise wouldn't require active users.

GPS-enabled mobile phones, while certainly available, are not yet commonplace. The CDC plan requires that people who receive the alerts act as guides for the rest of us. This, in turn, requires quite a bit of social trust -- how would you respond to someone waving around his or her mobile phone, shouting "there's bird flu down the street, everybody get away!" or the like?

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Just for fun, here's a quick concept I did a couple years ago that might be of interest: Link

Posted by: csven on 19 Jan 06

Very cool, csven!

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 19 Jan 06

and are subscribed to the alert service

Isn't THAT nice. If you pay 'pheer' money, you will be told. How is 'paying for a service' good public health policy in this case?

Posted by: eric blair on 19 Jan 06

Actually, the opt-in aspect is meant to alleviate fears of government invasions of privacy. The notion is that, in order to give you correct information about localized problems, they need to follow your location. Some people (quite reasonably) don't want to participate in something like that.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 19 Jan 06

Privacy was actually a pretty big consideration of mine when I developed that RadTag device. One of the more challenging aspects of that thing was how to implement a system that both depended on tracking people and also got them to literally buy into it (there was a business idea behind it as well; part government program and part private sector).

I explain it both Here (ignore my using the term "yahoo", please; certainly doesn't apply anymore!) and Here. If anyone can build on what I did here, please do.

Posted by: csven on 19 Jan 06

There could be "community phones": one that is tied to a role in a certain place (the major, a tribe's elder) or just "someone in our group". We pass the thing from one person to another. Who has it right now? "One of us." Who exactly? "You don't need to know!"

Or maybe there's "call redirection" (from local satellite phone which is tied to a tree to local walkie-talkie which I carry in my pocket) and we control that and noone else knows?

Posted by: Lucas Gonzalez on 22 Jan 06

On the topic of cell phones, public health, and disease monitoring, folks might be interested in Voxiva, a for-profit company that's developed and implemented a technology platform to enable medical professionals to collect data in real-time and communicate with one another in order to effect change based on the data.

Not surprising coming from me, but it's an example of how for-profit business models can address basic development goals - like public health. Read more about Voxiva on

Posted by: Rob on 25 Jan 06



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