By adaptive - February 22nd, 2016
Early adopters and enthusiasts declare wearables have changed their lives, but as Siegfried Mortkowitz reports, some people are trying to use wearable technology to literally change, or at least improve, the world.
Now that connectivity has transformed the way we communicate, socialize, inform ourselves, keep ourselves fit and pass our leisure time, increasingly individuals, firms and organizations with humanitarian agendas are looking to exploit the technology to improve the lives of the underprivileged and most vulnerable.
The Wearables for Good Challenge is one such global initiative. It aims to attract wearable and sensor technology solutions to save the lives of women and children living in resource-poor environments.
The Challenge, a joint initiative of UNICEF, ARM and frog, was launched in May 2015 and attracted 250 entries from 46 countries. Denise Gershbein, executive director at frog, explains that “the Challenge was open to ideas from high- to low-tech, analog to digital, addressing one of the four focus areas in the Wearables for Good Use Case Handbook: Alert/Response, Diagnosis/Treatment/Referral, Behavior Change and Data Collection/Data Insights. Entrants could also suggest other focus areas.”
The submissions were judged across several categories, she explains. “The ideas had to be feasible, meaning they could realistically and economically be produced and distributed, and that the necessary resources and partnerships could be secured to do this. The ideas had to be well-designed. Not only did they have to be innovative and creatively solve a known problem, but they also had to follow the stated design principles of being rugged, durable, low-cost and low-power. They further had to adhere to the spirit of UNICEF’s innovation principles, which include things like being open-source, scalable, and human-centered.”
The ten finalists included a Vietnamese solution that uses a wristband to help protect children from abuse; a device worn in the ear to track a child's respiration rate, heart rate, body temperature and relative breath humidity, which was designed by a team of Indian university students; a U.S.-designed wrist-worn water purification device; and a bracelet used to monitor and analyze a child's temperature in real-time in order to save the lives of children at risk of malaria, which was created by a U.S.-Nigerian team.
The winners, announced in November, were Khushi Baby, a joint U.S.-Indian design of a necklace-type wearable to track child immunization in the first years of an infant’s life, and another Indian-U.S. project, the low-tech SoaPen, an interactive crayon-like device that encourages handwashing among young children. Both winning teams receive a prize of $15,000.
Interestingly, the SoaPen design involves almost no connected technology. It is a “soap-crayon” intended to promote handwashing among schoolchildren aged 3 to 6. Teachers and parents use it to write messages or designs on a child’s hand, which the child then washes off. Its aim is to make handwashing a habit by making it fun. The only technology it uses is a free mobile app to provide teachers with techniques to make washing with soap part of the academic curriculum.
As Gershbein puts it, “SoaPen stretches the contemporary definition of ‘wearable’, although its core function is to ‘write’ the soap on the child’s hand, provide feedback to the child as to whether the soap has been washed off or not, as well as to the teacher about whether the child has completed the task or not. So it’s a very classic and analog example of a feedback loop, and the beauty of it is that it is solving a huge problem, getting children to wash their hands properly, in the most simple and elegant way; it’s genius in that way, and will save many lives eventually. That’s ultimately what we were aiming for.”
Gershbein says that one of the Challenge’s aims was “to challenge the notion that technological solutions to intractable problems must be high-tech, expensive and worn on the wrist.”
One reason for this objective is simply that many, if not most, of the people the solutions are intended to serve live in areas where there is no connectivity. This was dramatically illustrated in a phone conversation with Sanjana Malhotra, director of Development & Strategy at Khushi Baby. She was returning from a village where the winning wearable had been deployed, and the connection was lost every few minutes as she traveled through holes in the network coverage.
Khushi Baby began as a class project at Yale University, she explains. “It was an interdisciplinary class on the use of technology in developing countries. The first version of Khushi Baby was in the form of a bracelet.”
After being awarded a Social Innovation grant from Yale, the team travelled to India, created a partnership with an NGO and worked with people in several villages. Its present form as a necklace came out of that on-site deployment.
“We tried to fit it into their lifestyle and their culture,” Malhotra says. “The bracelet kind of looked like a Livestrong band, with the same plastic material, and had an NFC chip embedded within the plastic. The community just didn’t value it. It was something they were not comfortable wearing. They would take it off and throw it, the kids wanted to play with it, put it in their mouths and chew it. After spending time in the community, we realized it would have to be something they inherently valued already, because it was hard to introduce value with a new object.”
The necklace was the perfect solution, not only because it was hard for the infants to put it into their mouths or remove, but also because it had cultural value in the community as protection for the child because it was seen as warding off the “evil eye,” she explains. “That idea tied in perfectly with the idea of immunization being a mechanism of protecting the child. So, we’re not trying to remove that cultural tradition, but tie it together with and add it to medical behavior practice. And they like the way the Khushi Baby pendant looks. It has a metal ring inside it, and the necklaces that are traditionally worn have a metal pendant or some kind of metal coin with engraving.”
The necklace works via a Khushi Baby app, which contains a form that needs to be filled out with the child’s name, the mother’s name, a phone number (if the family has one) and the child’s date of birth. The app then generates a unique ID and produces a form and calendar for immunization that is saved. The health worker then enters the day the child’s first vaccination, a BCG, is given. If the vaccine is not given, the reason—for example, if the infant was running a fever—is also entered.
“The health worker then transfers the data to the NFC chip in the Khushi Baby pendant,” Malhotra says. “The NFC chip we are using currently can store 8 bytes of information, and we’ve built the form in such a way that it can release all the information into that.”
Khushi Baby decided on NFC technology because it can work independently of mobile networks, the internet and electricity, “which makes it a really good technology to use in isolated rural areas,” she notes. “It just needs to be able to interact with the mobile device, which the health workers are able to charge when they go back to a city or wherever they have access to electricity.”
Currently, Khushi Baby is focusing on immunization required for the first year of life. “Next year, we are thinking of using it with pregnant women, through their ante-natal care period, using Khushi Baby to monitor their immunizations during pregnancy,” Malhotra says. “We’re hoping this will lead to better immunization for their children as well, if they could be in the same system.”
Khushi Baby has been in use since April and is currently being distributed to children in 96 villages in Udaipur district. Malhotra says she and her four Khushi Baby partners are looking to bring the solution outside of India and want to collaborate with the Wearables for Good Challenge organizers to make that possible. In addition, to monetize the solution, they want to share the system with the district government for a fee.
“Another model we’re exploring is the use of this technology in developed countries, where people have the same issues, such as forgetting the immunization days,” she says. “We’d like to explore partnerships with private hospitals, which would be our main source of revenue.”
They are also beginning trials on using the Khushi Baby as a “digital key of sorts, not just for medical services, but for other social services as well . . This is lacking now because people in India have a biometric identity card, but they have no way to access the information stored in it because it’s still dependent on the cloud.”