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A Lab Within a Lab
The Mobile Lab is housed in FIL and spearheads SCU’s participation in the explosive field of mobile health, money, agriculture, and a plethora of other application areas that address various human needs around the world. This “lab within a lab” provides an environment for students to evaluate technology solutions used in the field, and enables the development of a comprehensive set of mobile applications for underserved communities that have limited access to life sustaining resources.
Cellular phones are bringing computing to under-served communities. As people in these communities across the globe lack access to information, but do own cellular phones, apps are filling the gap by delivering meaningful information to improve lives. The Frugal Innovation Lab at Santa Clara University has been collaborating with local and international partners to make cellular phones work for different communities.
For example, FIL students joined forces with social enterprise SalUno to provide improved means for diagnosing cataracts in patients living in remote areas of Mexico, eliminating the need to travel long distances to the nearest urban health center for prognosis by an eye doctor. The FIL team developed a concept for SalUno to integrate an MIT-produced device called CATRA, which can be assembled for less than two dollars and attached to a smartphone to scan the eye and map cataract locations via an interactive app.
Mobile Project Examples
(Both past and current projects.)
Artisans in under-served communities have always had a problem pricing their products. Isolation and consequent lack of market information have led to under-priced products. World of Good  have developed a calculator to help artisans in South America price their products. The calculator works on cellular phones, is configured to work for a specific community, and takes into account costs such as the cost to pay workers, the cost of electricity, the cost of materials, and so on. We worked with World of Good to develop interfaces for different phones so that anyone could use the calculator, which originally was web-based and only usable by people with access to a computer and to the Internet. Note that several of these artisans are women who own a little business.
Farmers in Kenya used to be isolated, with no information about other farmers and their crops and prices. Project mFarm  solved the problem by developing a system in which farmers can use their cellular phone to check information on local crops and prices, enabling them to make better business decisions. As Android phones become widespread in Africa, we have been working with mFarm to develop a more powerful Android interface for their system. Note that mFarm was created by a group of women.
Some mentally challenged adults may be able to walk around on their own, but they do tend to get lost and panic. We have worked with a local adult education center in Santa Clara, California, to develop an app to help these individuals walk on their own by enabling a caretaker to create a path with pictures and directions that they can follow. The app also includes a panic button, which triggers the phone to call someone for help.
Water contamination is a problem in under-served communities around the world, particularly in rural areas. A group of bioengineering and electrical engineering students at Santa Clara University have been working on a simple and inexpensive way of checking water for pathogens and other substances, and we have developed an app to interface their device, making the device mobile and enabling the analysis of the water to be done on the spot. The phone receives the data from a USB cable, checks the concentration of the substance, and displays a safe/unsafe result to the user instantly. It also keeps a log of previous measurements, which are shown in a map.
One real problem in under-served communities is the lack of books. We are developing a tool to digitize books that can be read on any phone. Anudip and iMerit are social enterprises in India, where they operate IT centers to train (Anudip) and employ (iMerit) local workers for large companies. We have been working with them in the design of a tool to digitize books. This tool will be used by women in a poor community in Kolkata, India, to digitize books for publishers. Making the books available on any phone will provide people with the opportunity to read a variety of books, otherwise not available. However, making books available on any phone constitutes a challenge, as less sophisticated phones may only be able to receive text and may also have less storage space. Therefore, we are working on a strategy to provide books in chapters to enable the download to “wimpy” phones. This project is part of a collaboration with Dew Mobility.
Teenagers and young adults in under-served communities lack information to help their development. Equal Access, based in San Francisco, California, has established radio programs in nine countries to fill that gap. They provide the radio infrastructure, but the contents for the broadcasts are created locally. We have been helping Equal Access to start using mobile apps to take advantage of the phones available. One of the projects will enable users to listen to previous broadcasts. Another project will create a mobile educational forum, which will enable Equal Access to deliver not only audio, but also text and video, which will be available from a website and accessible by any phone. Note that the Equal Access was created and is run by a woman.
For homeless people, cellular phones have a special meaning, as they enable their connection with the world. Some individuals tend to spend a significant portion of their low income on a cellular phone. We are working with the Community Technology Alliance organization to develop apps that will make these phones even more useful for these individuals. One of the projects on the works now will enable low-income people, homeless or not, to find out about resources available, such as free meals, spots in a shelter, or even jobs.
One of the main problems with under-served communities is the fact that individuals lack certain skills, which might enable them to get better jobs. The Center for Employment Training in San Jose has projects to help a local under-served community by providing employment training in different areas, such as business office technology, culinary arts, early childhood teacher assistant, and electrician. We have been working on a project to improve the training with practice exercises on different phones. We are designing a web-based application to generate exercises to be exported to any phone and a mobile app to read and execute the exercises.
There are over 2 million cases of untreated cataracts in Mexico alone, with 700,000 cases of preventable blindness. salaUno, a social enterprise founded in 2010 has a mission to eliminate avoidable blindness in Mexico. With a CATRA technology developed in MIT Media Labs, the Frugal Innovation Team - in conjunction with salaUno - have created a mobile enabled solution that allows for the field screening of cataracts without the need for on-site physicians. Please see attached poster for details.
Frugal Innovation’s Mobile Health Lab helped Assistant Professor Chris Bacon and his student Ian Dougherty from the Department of Environmental Studies to test a mobile tracking solution for seed banks in Nicaragua. The project aims to help seed banks collect, store, and analyze data from seed deposits and withdrawals to help combat seasonal hunger. Mobile Lab TA Ryan Davidson worked with Ian to install an OpenXData server in Nicaragua and create the electronic data collection forms to be filled in via mobile phone. This initial implementation increased the efficiency of seed banks in the area by allowing them to share pricing and quantity data. Eventually the data collected at each seed bank will be analyzed for trends, which can then be used to prevent seasonal hunger due to shortages of seed. This is an example of how the tools hosted by the Mobile Health Lab can be utilized by organizations to test, develop, and distribute functional mobile software applications.
Maana Mobile is a mobile phone service that provides financial instruments appropriate for the un-banked population in South Africa. Merchants and individuals who make up a bit part of the marketplace rely on borrowing and exchanging goods and services. These peer to peer transactions are conducted using basic paper, word-of-mouth and memory. This mobile platform improves on these everyday practices making life easier for these users. It builds a track record that can lead to new trusting relationships and opportunities. Two Stage Development: First, build a mobile application with a back-end database like MySQL. This would be a social mobile application. Second, developing on the application built in the first stage but enabling its use without internet. In this stage there would also be a feature developed that sends out text messages to peers with notifications and requests.