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Scientists have harnessed a free operating system to turn a mobile phone into a device for collecting data in the developing world.

The Open Data Kit (ODK), developed by scientists at the University of Washington, United States, is a free set of tools that helps organisations collect information in areas with poor infrastructure.

It uses Android, an open-source mobile operating system launched two years ago by a number of companies including Google.

"There are many organisations working on all kinds of projects to improve different aspects in developing regions. In order for these organisations to make decisions or determine the effects of their projects, they need to collect various kinds of information," study co-author Carl Hartung told SciDev.Net.

ODK enables users to collect a range of data including GPS locations and barcode scans. "The tools we've developed can help them collect a wide variety of data, create visualisations, and analyse it very quickly," Hartung said.

"We've found a lot of organisations were building a lot of one-off tools that were very similar," he says, adding that they're trying to make theirs as compatible and flexible as possible.

One example where ODK has been successfully trialled is the Academic Model Providing Access to Healthcare (AMPATH), said Hartung, a partnership between Kenya's Moi University and Indiana University in the United States. The programme seeks to train Kenyan community health workers testing patients in rural areas for diseases.

In field trials, health workers used the phones to scan patients' identity codes — rather than entering them manually — locate themselves within seconds using GPS, and upload the data automatically.

Following the success of the trial AMPATH will deploy 100 ODK phones by the end of this year, with an eventual goal of 300 phones.

"This opens doors by allowing us to bring data collected in the field directly into our medical records system," said Burke Mamlin, assistant professor of medicine at the Indiana University School of Medicine.

"Now we have a phone, all the personal digital assistant capability, the ability to read barcodes, and the ability to capture images or video, all in one unit."

The system is described in the October issue of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' Computer magazine.

Link to abstract