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Mobile phone software that allows scientists to send, retrieve and map data from remote areas could benefit scientists in developing countries, but some barriers must be overcome first, a study finds.

The EpiCollect software runs on 'smartphones' — mobile phones with additional features such as web connectivity and PC functionality — and allows researchers or members of the public to collect, record, access and map data, photos and videos by connecting to a central online database.

UK-based researchers envisage the software being used largely by epidemiologists collecting public health information and ecologists recording data such as the location of species.

The phone's GPS system would record the location of the scientist so that data, sorted by topic, could be mapped globally using Google Maps.

The research was led by David Aanensen, a bioinformatician from the Department of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at Imperial College, London. Aanensen believes EpiCollect is of major potential use for field surveys in developing countries.

He says the software is open source and smartphones are increasingly available in developing countries — though it could take a long time before this new technology becomes adopted in some places, especially Sub-Saharan Africa.

There are a number of issues that currently limit the use of systems such as EpiCollect, says Aanensen. Cost is one limitation. Another is that data transfer requires mobile data networks.

"Mobile phone network coverage in Africa is good in some countries, but mobile data networks are much less widely available," the researchers write in PLoS ONE, where their findings were reported last month (16 September).

Peter Okoth, project information manager at the Tropical Soil Biology and Fertility Institute in Kenya, says EpiCollect is an excellent idea for the developing world, where mobile phones are the most convenient and available tool of communication.

"It will be good for people like me working in ecology, where data collection across vast distances is sometimes very time consuming," Okoth told SciDev.Net.

But he added that the cost of training users to understand the system and use it effectively might prove a challenge.

David Grimshaw, head of Practical Action's international programme in new technologies, told SciDev.Net that because the software is open source it can be easily and cheaply tailored for specific functions, languages, cultures, and geographies.

"But the reality is likely to be that fast connectivity [on mobile data networks] will be restricted to the urban areas initially. The costs of handsets is also an issue, with a basic mobile phone down to around US$15 but a smartphone costing over US$100," he says.

"The challenge is to upgrade the mobile phone networks to enable fast data traffic," he adds, suggesting that incentives for companies might be appropriate, such as the advance market commitments that have been successful in vaccine roll-out.

Link to full article in PLoS ONE

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