Information and stories about technology news.

Burden of COVIDThe most recent pandemic has wreaked havoc on countries all over the world and has stagnated, or even reversed progress in many developing communities. While officials have been trying to reduce the number of cases worldwide, there have also been many tech developments that help alleviate the burden of COVID-19. Various apps and websites allow us to spread information, contact-trace and even enforce quarantine.

6 Ways Technology Helps Alleviate the Burden of COVID-19

  1. Afghanistan- Without proper guidance, misinformation can spread like wildfire and can be deadly. For this reason, the Ministry of Public Health joined forces with the Ministry of Telecommunications and Information Technology to create software that provides health information to Afghani citizens. Corona.asan.gov.af translates virus updates and information into three different languages, making it easily accessible for all people.
  2. Bulgaria- Local IT developers created a free app that connects citizens to health authorities to help ease the burden of COVID-19. Users verify their identity and can input various symptoms they are experiencing. A doctor will then review their symptoms and decide whether or not to send the patient to the closest medical facility for treatment. In addition to this, the app also can predict the future growth and spread of the virus. The developers are also willing to sell the software to other countries for a symbolic one euro.
  3. Germany- A Berlin-based tech startup created an initiative that would work on Android devices in developing countries throughout South America and North Africa. The project, called #AppsFightCovid would display health information on popup ads that already exist on different apps. The ads take info from the WHO website and advocate for frequent hand washing and wearing a mask in public. Because of these efforts, underdeveloped communities now have access to important COVID-19 information.
  4. Mexico- The Mexico City government created a screening service that determines how likely a user is to contract the coronavirus. The website also features a map that displays the closest hospitals and how much space is available in each of them. People can also filter the map based on whether they need a general care bed or a ventilator bed. In addition, users can input their symptoms and determine whether or not they require hospitalization. This helps alleviate the burden of COVID by reducing the number of unnecessary hospital patients during a global pandemic.
  5. United Nations- It is extremely difficult to get access to personal protective equipment and accurate information, especially for developing countries. Because of this, the U.N. partnered with the WHO and launched the Tech Access Partnership or TAP. This initiative helps reduce the burden of COVID by connecting expert manufacturers with developing manufacturers in poorer countries all over the world to share resources, knowledge and technical expertise. TAP will also aid countries in creating affordable and safe technology.
  6. Argentina- In hopes of reducing the number of coronavirus cases, a company is looking into enforcing quarantining and social distancing through a tracking app, though it is not yet operational. This would be a way to prevent the spread of COVID since the app would send an alert each time a person leaves their home. In addition, the Argentinian Ministry of Health created an application that allows people to evaluate their symptoms and see whether or not they require hospitalization.

 

Though the novel coronavirus has thrown us all for a whirlwind, many countries are doing their part to alleviate the burden of COVID by using technology. Whether it is through self-assessing symptoms, tracking hospitals or enforcing quarantine, government officials everywhere are trying to flatten the curve through the use of technology.

– Karin Filipova
Photo: Unsplash

It is easy for many to take the internet for granted. Roaming around the city, chatting with friends and staying connected with family using mobile applications is possible only because of internet connectivity. One might argue that the internet comes as a luxury element post healthcare, energy, food, shelter and education. The Internet can help people with communication and decision making. For example, farmers can charge their yields at a reasonable price post referring to market prices on the internet. They can even predict weather and harvest accordingly. Money transfers from people across the city can occur instantaneously. This list never ends. Now the internet giant Facebook is teaming up with a company to provide free internet. Here is why Facebook added Reliance as a friend.

Why Facebook Wants to Provide Free Internet

Back in 2015, Facebook experimented with Free Basics for providing basic internet services to the rural population of the world. However, things did not go according to Facebook’s plan because of the regulatory conditions across telecom sectors in different parts of the world. It violated net neutrality laws. After public consultation, the Indian telecom regulator banned Free Basics. Since then Facebook has been eagerly waiting to do something about it.

There are more than 400 million WhatsApp users in India. Added to this fact, Facebook’s core platform has more Indian users than any other country. However, half of the Indian population is still offline. Facebook wants to target that new user-base.

Reliance’s Jio Initiative

Reliance’s Jio initiative succeeded in doing what Facebook was not able to do. It succeeded in providing mobile phones and the internet at a very low cost. It was able to do so because of the revenue generated from other divisions of the organization and the exorbitant loan that Reliance opted for. This move wiped out the telecom sector foundation in India. Competitors such as Vodafone Idea and Airtel lost millions of customers to the new Jio network.

Internet services and call services were provided by Reliance Jio at free of cost in 2016. This move forced competitors to charge less, which in turn, resulted in the internet revolution. Most of the poor population across India started using mobile phones and the internet. As of December 2019, more than 370 million people across India had subscribed to the Reliance network

How Facebook Added Reliance as a Friend

Facebook’s failure in the past to enter Indian markets with the Free Basics concept taught the company an important lesson. Starting from scratch will not work all the time. Acquiring an existing player was an easy choice at this point. Mark Zuckerberg was intelligent enough to detect Jio’s achievements. Added to this fact, the market capitalization of Reliance was down because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Indian National Rupee was at all-time low-value trading around 76 INR for 1 USD. After recognizing these facts, Facebook acquired 10% of the stake in Reliance India Limited at $5.7 billion. Facebook can leverage Reliance’s data for targeted advertisements. It will realize a significant jump in advertisement revenues from the Indian region.

Benefits of Increased Internet Access

Education is not available to everyone. Fortunately, people from poor backgrounds can get access to quality education through the internet. Poor people can access online education sites like Unacademy, Coursera and edX at free of cost. Added to this fact, people search and apply for jobs mostly through the internet. All jobs are highly interconnected these days. Thus, the internet would certainly provide intangible benefits to the rural population.

Millions of people could come out of poverty because of free internet access. Economic growth, employment and productivity of a country will improve significantly because of the internet access provision. In fact, Internet connectivity can generate $6.7 trillion of the global economy and create new jobs. India is the second-largest market for internet connectivity ranked only below China. It has around 600 million internet users.

Moving Forward

Around 30 million local stores in India were not online yet. Reliance’s latest experiment JioMart is working towards enabling this dream. Local Kirana stores can connect to the entire Indian population through the internet. If WhatsApp pay is leveraged on this occasion, possibilities will become endless. Owing to all these facts, accepting Reliance’s friend request was a strategic move towards achieving Facebook’s dreams.

– NarasingaMoorthy V 

Photo: Flickr

Apps Improving Agriculture in Africa
As Africa moves towards a knowledge-based economy, the development of new smartphone apps is paving the way for agricultural improvements. Apps have the potential to create lower prices for consumers. They also help farmers utilize production to maximize the amount they produce. Conventional models often lead farmers down the wrong path due to false information. As a result, fake and unrecommended seeds increase in growth. Luckily, there are several smartphone apps improving agriculture in Africa.

Benefits of Apps over Conventional Models

Apps have the ability to improve data and provide feedback from each harvest. This data improves democratization and informs policies to improve the livelihood of small farmers. Mobile apps also have the ability to allow children of farmers to take over the business from elderly parents. An emerging trend shows young people beginning to view agriculture as uninteresting and inefficient. They often also hold the view that a career in agriculture has no chance of upward social mobility. As a result, the average age of African farmers is 60. In contrast, the median age on the continent is 19. The digitization of agriculture is securing the future of Africa as a whole, making sure that the growing young population is not only willing to take over the business, but also has security in doing so. Apps also help improve the value chain. Farmers often have no connection to buyers. Furthermore, they are frequently unaware of pricing and conditions that exist on the market outside their own crop. This results in price insufficiency and insecurity. Utilizing apps geared towards improving agriculture, however, creates a more organized and interconnected value chain. This, in turn, moves Africa away from a fragmented supply and demand system.

GeoFarmer

One such app revolutionizing farming is GeoFarmer. Using internet communication technology (ICT), farmers can manage their farm and crop by communicating their overall experiences with other farmers and experts. This free-flowing communication allows farmers to learn from the positive and negative experiences of others, better improve their yield and reduce risk. Many ICT programs are still out of reach to a large portion of farmers due to usability issues and cost. GeoFarmer, however, is a cost-effective alternative to this. Farmers can use the app offline or in rural areas with poor service. By using near real-time, two-way data services, farmers are able to co-innovate and improve their performance.

Pix Fruit

Pix Fruit is an app that CIRAD and the Senegalese Institute for Agricultural Research developed jointly. The app cuts down the length of the supply chain, resulting in the ability to lower the cost for consumers. When farming fruit such as mangoes, farmers estimate their crop by guessing the amount of fruit on a plantation by counting a single tree and applying it to the entire farm. Pix Fruit’s research team noted that the margin for error for this method could be as much as a factor of 10. This means that farmers lose out on a large portion of their profit by not having an efficient counting method. Pix Fruit’s solution is simple. Farmers first take a photo of the fruit on a selection of trees using their smartphone. The app then uses fruit-recognition technology–in collaboration with data from drones that have information on climate, sale constraints and soil–to calculate the probable overall harvest. This technology helps farmers know the true value of their crop. This results in an increase in farmers’ ability to bargain for a fair price.

TruTrade

TruTrade is another of the apps improving agriculture in Africa. This app seeks to help provide fair prices to farmers. With focuses on Uganda and Kenya, TruTrade is a resource for farmers to learn about the true value of their crops and market pricing points. The app also provides information on new consumer markets. Furthermore, it works as a payment transaction system. Because of the mobile payment system, women have said that the app helps them feel more empowered because they are no longer afraid of someone robbing them while carrying cash to the market. TruTrade’s mission is to create viable village agent sourcing networks that can broker deals on behalf of small-scale farmers. Farmers bring their crop to a collection point, where someone weighs the crop and checks it for quality. TruTrade then pays the farmer directly to their mobile device. After the farmer receives payment, TruTrade delivers the final product to the buyer.

The Road Ahead

GeoFarmer, Pix Fruit and TruTrade are just a few of the many apps improving agriculture in Africa. While developers are still figuring out ways to make ICT products available to all farmers across Africa, many have taken great strides to create a more interconnected system, which in the end benefits both the buyer and the seller.

– Laurel Sonneby
Photo: Flickr

Companies Fighting for Women's Rights
Women around the globe are still fighting for a world in which they can receive equal treatment. In many developing countries, women are more vulnerable to human rights abuses and others often deny them opportunities to reach their full potential. Here are three technology companies fighting for women’s rights.

3 Tech Companies Fighting for Women’s Rights

  1. IBM: The multi-national technology company has celebrated the success of women throughout its history. IBM has had a female CEO since 2012 and has been strategic in empowering women throughout the company and around the globe. For International Women’s Day, IBM Systems Lab Services created a #BalanceforBetter campaign. The campaign engages employees around the world to advocate for women’s rights. IBM employees held up signs challenging stereotypes and biases, celebrating IBM women and supporting gender equality. IBM’s Corporate Service Corps (CSC) gives women and girls across the globe the opportunity to thrive. Additionally, the organization supports organizations that serve women in 40 countries. These organizations support economic growth, health care and violence prevention among others. In Ghana, an IBM team paved the way for educating girls in rural communities. In Kenya, India and Mexico, IBM has supported organizations preventing violence against women. Additionally, in Peru, IBM supports initiatives increasing cervical cancer screenings. Through these efforts, IBM hopes to empower and protect women, while continuing to bridge the gap between women and STEM.
  2. Microsoft: For years, Microsoft has used its research technology for good to protect vulnerable populations. For example, the organization has partnered with WorldPop to count every person on Earth. By using Microsoft Azure, organizations can track the location and distribution of vulnerable populations. Microsoft hopes to aid in the creation of programs and policy changes that protect vulnerable populations and empower women. Microsoft researchers recognize that women are more vulnerable to poverty. However, they also recognize that pulling them out of poverty has exponential effects on their families and communities. In January 2020, Microsoft partnered with Care Egypt Foundation (CEF) and the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT) to launch a women empowerment campaign. Through this initiative, all organizations hope to empower women through the development of practical skills necessary for the workforce. Since 2014, Microsoft has also had an ongoing partnership with the Central Department for Community Development, aiming to tackle unemployment and economic issues through the empowerment of women in Egypt.
  3. Google: Another prominent tech titan among companies fighting for women’s rights is Google. The company equips young women with skills they need to thrive in the tech world and advocates for gender equality around the world. For example, Google’s partnership with Technovation Girls empowers young women around the globe to learn and develop technology that will impact their community. Technovation is a tech education nonprofit that empowers individuals to problem-solve, create and lead. Each year through its Technovation Girls program, the organization invites young women from all over the world and equips them to solve real-world problems through technology. Google is a platinum sponsor and has hosted these young innovators to pitch their apps at the company’s main campus in California for the chance to win scholarships. Additionally, in Google’s Arts and Culture section, the company has created a “Women in Culture” page, celebrating women in a variety of different fields. The page highlights women like Dolores Huerta, creator of the United Farm Workers, who advocated for the rights of impoverished farmers in Central America. It also features the unheard stories of women in India who have impacted Indian culture. Above all, the page champions women’s equality around the world, highlighting many unsung female heroes who have fought against injustice.

Why It Matters

An increase in women’s rights around the globe can have drastic effects on the global economy. According to U.N. Women, there is a very strong connection between empowered women and thriving economies. Providing women with job opportunities increases productivity and growth within economies. Supporting women through health care and education can also protect them from potential violence and discrimination. Large companies fighting for women’s rights have the potential to use their prominent platforms to advocate for women and to reflect these values within their own companies.

– Megan McKeough
Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Poverty in Nepal
Nepal is a beautiful country and mountains make up most of its terrain. Though the topography of the country adds to its magnificence as it sits atop the Himalayas, it also complicates travel, communication and distribution of resources. Nepal is mostly rural, as more than 85 percent of the population depends on agriculture for survival. Social evils like caste discrimination, youth delinquencies, socially excluded indigenous people and sex and human trafficking also plague the country. Consequently, measures to alleviate poverty in Nepal are increasingly challenging to implement. One heartening fact is that technology is slowly creeping into this vastly rural country and gradually aiding the mitigation of poverty in Nepal. Here are the top four technological developments to alleviate poverty in Nepal.

The Top 4 Technological Developments to Alleviate Poverty in Nepal

  1. Medical Cargo Drones: Tuberculosis is the leading cause of death due to infectious diseases in Nepal, and it affects 70 percent of the country’s population. Most of the health care facilities are remote and inaccessible by road, and the testing labs are only in the major cities. Hence WeRobotics teamed up with Nepal Flying Labs and various other funding organizations to develop medical cargo drones. These cargo drones collect sputum samples from the affected people in remote areas and send them to distant health care facilities for rapid testing. These drones delivered the samples in 25 minutes, whereas it took two to three days before. By October 9, 2019, 150 drones had carried more than 1,000 samples from health posts in remote villages to two central health care facilities. These drones have helped diagnose and treat the disease quickly. The government is seeking to develop this technology to control TB in other remote areas of the country soon.
  2. Baby Warmers: In the initial days after birth, babies need to keep warm to avoid contracting pneumonia or hypothermia. Between 63 and 85 percent of newborn deaths are due to hypothermia. Hence a group of biomedical engineers has put together a baby warmer using a ceramic heater connected to a parabolic reflector to reflect the heat towards the bassinet. The assembly parts and the developers are local to the region, and hence these baby warmers are affordable and easy to manufacture to maintain the neonatal health of newborn babies even in rural areas of the country. The Kirtipur hospital in Kathmandu has implemented this technology since January 4, 2020. The National Innovation Center of Nepal is working with the government on manufacturing and distributing more baby warmers soon.
  3. Krishi Gyan Kendra: Krishi Gyan Kendra is a research center located in the Agricultural Development Offices of various districts to connect the researchers with the local farmers. It follows the Krishi Vigyan Kendra of India as a model. Teams of researchers do onsite research on locally cultivated crops and soil to find new ways to improve cropping, processing and marketing practices. These centers act as knowledge resource bases for the local farmers so they can learn how to use modern technology. These also serve as open laboratories for the farmers themselves. Additionally, they also act as information centers providing pieces of information such as what crop might offer a better yield at a particular season and location and what the amount of rainfall will be at different times. This has helped the farmers make informed decisions and adopt better farming practices and pieces of equipment. This idea is still in the starting stages in Nepal, but many expect that it will be as successful as it was in India.
  4. Interactive Digital Soil Maps: Initiatives in Nepal have collected extensive data regarding the soil nature of the country and digitized it into interactive maps using satellite imagery. Certain types of soil are more suited for certain kinds of crops, and the land usage pattern and groundwater table levels can also determine the fertility of a region. Using these digital maps, a person standing in any area within the data range can instantly know about the soil properties of the soil he is standing on, such as its nature, its fertility, the ideal crops that might give the maximum yield in that soil and the soil management techniques ideal for that soil. Nepal’s Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development, along with the National Agricultural Research Council (NARC), developed this mobile-friendly technology. They are actively gathering soil data for more regions of the country in order to update it.

These four technological developments to alleviate poverty in Nepal show incredible promise for the country. Irrespective of the drawbacks that might hold Nepal back, its people’s untamed spirits are always on the path to catch up with the scientific and technological innovations and developments of the modern world to better their country and themselves.

– Nirkkuna Nagaraj
Photo: Unsplash

10 Accomplishments Made By ThornIn 2012, Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore founded Thorn: Digital Defenders of Children. Thorn is an organization that works globally to fight sex trafficking and the exploitation of children. A documentary on the sex slavery of children in Cambodia inspired Moore to create the organization. Thorn created technology to help identify victims of sexual abuse and protect children from online sexual abuse material. Since its foundation, Thorn has made a large impact in eliminating one of the most common and overlooked crimes in the world. Additionally, Thorn gained traction as a very well-known and respected organization. Below are eight accomplishments made by Thorn.

Top 8 Accomplishments Made by Thorn

  1. In 2017, Thorn created Spotlight. Spotlight is software that helps law enforcement save time by identifying predators and victims quicker. In addition, more than 1,200 law enforcement agencies across the United States and Canada use Spotlight. Spotlight has helped reduce critical search time for victims by 60 percent. To date, it has identified a total of 16,927 traffickers and 14,874 children.
  2. In February 2017, Ashton Kutcher gave a 15-minute testimony in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the importance of ending modern-day slavery around the globe. He told a story about when the Department of Homeland Security reached out to his team at Thorn. The Department of Homeland Security needed help to identify the perpetrator of a 7-year-old-girl being abused and watched on the dark web for three years.
  3. In addition to Spotlight, Thorn creates a Technology Task Force. This made up of more than 25 technology companies. Google, Facebook, Microsoft and so forth work together to create even more software to prevent the sexual exploitation of children. Thorn has partnered with a variety of organizations, ranging from government to non-profits. Some other notable partners include Amazon, Twitter, Flickr and Verizon.
  4. In 2018, Thorn surveyed 260 sex trafficking survivors in order to understand the needs of survivors. This survey was able to give insight on average ages of victims, how victims know their traffickers and advertising.
  5. In the 2018 Thorn impact report, it reported that Thorn assisted law enforcement in identifying more than 10,000 victims of child sex trafficking in 38 countries around the world.
  6. In 2018, Thorn educated more than 2,000 teens on Sextortion. Sextortion is a form of blackmail that uses sexual content. Since creating its Stop Sextortion campaign, Thorn has educated more than 3.5 million teens about online sexual extortion.
  7. In 2019, The Audacious Project by TED gave a $280 million grant to eight recipients, Thorn was one of them. Thorn is using grant to launch new software called Safer. Safer helps companies, especially image-hosting websites, identify and eliminate sexual abuse content on their platforms.
  8. With a combination of the software that Thorn has created, the organization is currently able to identify an average of 10 kids per day.

Being less than 10 years old, Thorn has accomplished many things is a short period of time. Though the organization has fewer than 40 employees, Thorn is still able to continuously create and evolve its technology. Thorn already benefits thousands of children worldwide. It will continue to fight child sexual exploitation and trafficking for years to come.

Alyson Kaufman
Photo: Flickr

Worldreader Empowers Communities to Create Lifelong Readers
Illiteracy is not much of a problem in developed countries, but for developing countries, rates of illiteracy are high. Around 617 million children are not meeting the minimum reading level because the regions they live in do not always stress education as much or it simply is not available. Illiteracy is a huge problem, especially in this day and age. It can cause an average decrease of 35 percent in income, and a lack of reading can lead to a lack of cognitive development. Worldreader empowers communities to create lifelong readers.

Worldreader Empowers Readers

When people have an education, they tend to give posterity a better chance. Children born to literate mothers are 50 percent more likely to live past 5 years old. Worldreader is an application with a library of 35,000 books in 52 different languages. It is available on advanced but affordable e-readers and other devices. The content of these books depends on the reader but all titles aim to be culturally relevant.

There are four categories of reading on the application. Worldreader has tailored the programs to each of its audiences to best address the main problems for each crowd. These programs include pre-reading, library reading, lifelong reading and school reading.

Pre-reading is for younger people up to age 19 but can also help illiterate adults. This program promotes positive interaction, cognitive development and school preparedness. Library reading focuses on promoting reading culture through libraries no matter the age. The goal of this program is to get more people to visit libraries and more librarians to emerge in their areas.

Lifelong reading is for people from 16 and up to read digital books on the Worldreader Open Library application. This program seeks to build a reading habit in people and promote an overall joy of reading. It also wishes to gain more regular readers by transitioning users to readers. That may sound similar, but really it is for a noncommittal user to develop a reading habit and become a lifelong reader.

Lastly, school reading is just how it sounds. School programs have e-readers with books for any age or grade level, language or even cultural context. It has a teaching program for educators to help cultivate learning and reading cultures. Worldreader also works to train families, schools and libraries so they can reap the most benefit from its programs.

Worldreader’s partners help to make this happen. Worldreader’s partners provide the resources that it needs to reach people in need. Its main partners are Binu, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and Opera Mini. Binu helps to promote Worldreader on its Moya app. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation helps to launch e-readers in all national Kenyan libraries. Opera Mini promotes Worldreader to its users from 34 sub-Saharan African countries. Other prominent partners include USAID, The U.N. Refugee Agency, UNHCR, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, LinkedIn, Pearson and Amazon. Penguin Random House, Sub-Saharan Publishers, Longhorn Publishers, Modjaji Books and Rosetta Books are the partners that help to publish and translate books for Worldreader.

Worldreader’s Accomplishments

The year 2018 saw an increase of 3 million readers with over 10 million readers overall. Worldreader has gained 100 million hours of reading since 2014 and has received $12.1 million total in donations. These donations have made it much easier for Worldreader to reach more potential readers from around the world. These funds mostly went toward program services, but other notable areas are management and fundraising. Worldreader empowers communities through this funding. As of 2018, Worldreader is already in 49 countries including Mexico, Ghana, India, Kenya and Jordan.

The Future for Worldreader

Worldreader empowers communities to improve literacy rates. Worldreader’s plans for the future consist of continuing to provide cheap but good technology for under-resourced people, which should in turn help schools to save on book money. The application also plans to expand on its pre-existing book collection. While 35,000 titles is a lot, it aims to add much more. It will also collect the data from its readers to provide future insights into technology improvements. Through this data collection, Worldreader will be able to improve its technology and books. Worldreader encourages sharing costs and responsibilities for sustainable impact. Its donors and supporters help to do so. Worldreader is always searching for more supporters to bring reading to the under-resourced. The Worldreader website has options to sponsor schools, volunteer or join its Reading for Opportunity campaign.

Nyssa Jordan
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

E-Mental Health in Chile
As mobile technologies and the internet spreads throughout the developing world, health care has become a new field for emerging technologies to treat patients from a distance. While the number of online programs and mobile apps has increased exponentially in the past decade, the science to verify their effectiveness has lagged. For this reason, Swiss researchers with Frontiers, a peer-reviewed health journal, studied a series of Chilean intervention technologies to test their effectiveness in treating and monitoring different mental health symptoms in adults and adolescents. The results show that while case studies are lacking in scope and resources to date, initial findings are that e-mental health in Chile is addressing inequalities in mental health access and affordability.

Mental Health Problems in the Developing World

A common misconception of the developing world since the 1990s was that depression and anxiety were conditions unique to the developed world. The Millenium Goals of the United Nations (U.N.) in 2015 made no mention of mental health as a global issue. The U.N. Millenium Development Goals for 2030 now include low-cost mental health as a pillar of development. The belief that poor countries were relatively immune to mental disorders due to their communal living and family-centered life has often inflated this misconception. Experts believed that these strong ties safeguarded poor communities in developing countries from developing mental health disorders. Health professionals, including doctors, psychiatrists and the World Health Organization (WHO) held this belief for most of the 20th century.

However, WHO reported a stark lack of access to mental health services in Afghanistan, Rwanda, Chad, Eritrea and Liberia in a 2005 report. Each country at the time had only one or two psychiatrists nation-wide. Poorer countries spend almost no money on treating mental health in comparison to general medicine. Many still consider access to mental health a luxury in these countries, exposing the socioeconomic inequalities. Prior to this, the World Bank (WB) in 1993 had found that mental disorders were the greatest cause of disability worldwide, including both in developed and developing countries.

According to Tina Rosenberg of The Guardian, the data from the WB in 1993 did not fully capture the influence that depression has on general health in poor countries. The data neglected to take into account how depression and other mental health issues can interact with other illnesses such as its effect on the immune system, remembering to take HIV and other essential medicines or maltreatment of newborns from a depressed parent, for example. Although the debate over mental health has changed since the turn of the century, poor countries still spend very little money on mental health programs or access to treatment.

Affordable Solutions

Psychiatrist Vikram Patel, a Pershing Square professor of global health at Harvard Medical school, stated that the majority of people with mental health disorders require very little counseling to guide them in what he describes as “hope interventions.” In his research in Zimbabwe, he found that there are inexpensive solutions to providing mental health help to those experiencing depression or anxiety. An example he points to is a program that elder community members in Zimbabwe runs. This program sets up benches outside of clinics to engage the public in talking through issues with lay mental health workers. He concluded from his research that mental health coverage in poor countries depends on implementing solutions that were affordable and scalable.

Technology is becoming one of these affordable solutions to address the lack of mental health care. Recent data from WHO shows that 85 percent of developing countries are not getting the mental health treatment they need. The spread of mobile phones in developing countries is a novel solution to bringing a therapist to low-income and rural areas to help bridge the accessibility gap. WHO is now promoting the use of electronic health technologies in its Mental Health Action Plan 2013-2020. Technology also offers a confidentiality element that gets around the mental health stigma in some places so patients can seek help in privacy if desired. Smartphones can also be proactive in monitoring their owners, offering routine check-ins, noticing a drop in sociability, reacting to phone usage and vital signs. Above all, e-mental health has the potential to cut costs as there is no need to travel to see a trained professional.

E-Mental Health in Chile

Although technology seems to be a viable and affordable solution to the gap in mental health services in the developing world, it has so far outpaced the science to back up the claim that it is an effective solution. In an effort to catch up with the science, Swiss Researchers with Frontiers Public Health conducted several mini studies on the effectiveness of different mental health intervention technologies in both adults and adolescents in Chile which the Millennium Science Initiative of the Ministry of Economy funded in its Dec. 2019 publication.

Researchers also wanted to know how to address the inequalities in treatment that are observable between socioeconomic groups. They found that only 38.5 percent of people diagnosed with a mental health disorder received treatment in Chile. This comes in spite of 25 years of progressive policies by the government to support the expansion of health services in the country. Those who received treatment tended to come from wealthier and urban communities, such as the capital city.

Nevertheless, the researchers concluded that internet-based digital technologies that individuals used as interventions could reduce the gap in access to mental health care in Chile. For example, the researchers evaluated remote collaborative depression care programs that can monitor patients who live in rural areas with little support. The results show that the program received a higher user satisfaction ratio at six months of care when compared to traditional care. The program utilized internet and telecommunication training for interventions, while making it clear to participants that a trained profession was available in an emergency situation.

Another case study the Swiss researchers examined was from the University of Chile Faculty of Medicine that conducted a feasibility and acceptability study for depression management among adolescent females with mild to moderate depressive symptoms. The psychotherapeutic tool used was an online adventure video game to score and recognize negative cognitive bias, interpersonal skills, healthy lifestyle skills and behavioral health. Most patients, as well as their therapists, rated the game favorably, indicating that they believed their mental health benefited from playing it. In a similar project, called The Mascayano, mental health providers created a suicide prevention program through an online intervention for adolescents. The format for the technology was both an online platform and a mobile application with a virtual community. The intention was for the program to be informative and interactive for participants as well as identify those most at risk.

Another program, called Ascenso, aimed to monitor patients post-discharge from treatment. It used an online assessment to monitor symptoms on a biweekly basis and provided automatic feedback. Most patients accepted the program favorably and said that the program was easy to use, educating them on depression, teaching them self-monitoring skills and being a generally beneficial source of support.

The Implications of E-Mental Health in Chile

The heterogeneous studies that researchers conducted regarding e-mental health in Chile show that digital technologies have the potential to bridge the gap in coverage for low-income and rural areas through a patchwork of different programs that aim to improve mental health for those experiencing depression and other mental health disorders. Those who participated in the different programs reported a good level of acceptability on par with traditional care, if not better in some instances. This is particularly hopeful for those who live in remote locations of Chile and have limited access to health care but experience mental health issues at higher levels than their wealthier counterparts due to economic inequality or location.

Furthermore, the conclusion of the mini studies suggests that the spread of internet-based technology and mobile devices to a younger, tech-savvy generation has proven to be a feasible method of reaching people living in low-resource areas. The authors of the study project that digital technologies such as these have a larger implication for the developing world as well. They represent an affordable delivery system to reach poor communities with mental health treatment, follow-up, education, monitoring and interventions that may inspire policymakers and stakeholders from other developing countries to invest in their own mental health infrastructure to resemble the early successes of e-mental health in Chile.

Caleb Cummings
Photo: Flickr

5 New Technologies in Latin AmericaSilicon Valley may be the world’s tech Mecca, but technological innovation isn’t restricted to the San Francisco Bay. Latin America is in the midst of a technological revolution. Nations like Argentina, Columbia and Mexico are continuing to invest in IT infrastructure and modernize STEM education standards. Latin American nations now rank higher than China and India in English fluency, making the region an appealing prospect for outsourcing IT services. Latin governments recognize the economic potential in new technology: Argentina’s Program AR ensures public school students learn to program while Columbia’s Plan Vive Digital finances 80 percent of tuition and fees for IT students. Those investments are paying dividends. Here are five new technologies in Latin America.

5 New Technologies in Latin America

  1. Clic Educa (Chile): Clic Educa is a modular e-learning platform developed in Chile. The program measures students’ emotional states and behavioral patterns and provides instructors with customized feedback. Teachers can modify Clic Educa’s curriculum and learning materials to best suit their needs. They can even design lesson plans for students with learning disabilities or other conditions.
  2. Emiti (Mexico): Emiti is a startup headquartered in Guadalajara, Mexico. It created a health-monitoring smartwatch for eldercare purposes. The watch includes an emergency button, and it automatically detects if the wearer is undergoing a medical emergency. Sudden falls and cardiac irregularities are among the conditions the device will detect.
  3. Biofase (Mexico): Environmental sustainability is a hot topic in the current zeitgeist. Chemical engineer Scott Munguia founded Mexico’s Biofase in 2014. It is a bioplastics firm that converts avocado seeds and synthetic organic compounds into plastic goods. Biofase uses only inedible food waste to manufacture its products. Its bioplastic degrades naturally, so the company’s operations do not contribute to food shortages or greenhouse gas emissions via waste incineration.
  4. Emi Labs (Argentina): Artificial intelligence and machine learning are transforming business and technology worldwide, and Argentina is no exception. Emi Labs utilizes a virtual AI assistant to automate rote tasks necessary to HR operations such as screening resumes and scheduling interviews.
  5. La Casa Uruguaya (Uruguay): La Casa Uruguaya is an environmentally friendly construction project aiming to revolutionize the housing market by designing sustainable smart homes. These energy-efficient houses use solar energy, recycle water and employ a sensor network to regulate temperatures and lighting. La Casa Uruguaya’s homes are surprisingly affordable. They range in price from $50,000 to $90,000 and are installable in just 15 days.

These five new technologies in Latin America are but a few examples of the region’s ongoing tech boom. Latin America’s rapidly growing middle class offers entrepreneurs a consumer base for their products. Digital transformation is well underway. Internet penetration rests at 57 percent, but 70 percent of citizens subscribe to mobile plans. On average, Latin Americans log on to the internet for longer lengths of time than anyone else in the world. The next Silicon Valley may well rest south of the border.

– Dan Zamarelli
Photo: Newsroom

Supercomputer in East Africa
Scientists based in Nairobi, Kenya, with the Intergovernmental Authority on Development Climate Prediction and Applications Center, are successfully combating the worst surge in locusts in 70 years by predicting the conditions and location of future swarms with a supercomputer. The new technology has shown to predict with 90 percent accuracy so far and has saved food crops in Uganda. The scientists’ hope is that a supercomputer in East Africa will protect crops from locusts for other countries as well. Locusts are large, tropical grasshoppers. They threaten the food security of many East African countries such as Uganda, Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya.

The Locust Problem

Since biblical times, locusts have plagued the MENA region (Middle East, North Africa, Afghanistan and Pakistan). Locusts eat and destroy vital crops. The traditional spraying of pesticides has controlled the spread of locusts. However, between shortages in pesticides, armed conflicts and climate change, locusts have made a startling resurgence.

In addition to the shortage of pesticides, countries like Kenya lack expertise in controlling the threat to their food supply. Ethiopia is facing the same threat and does not have enough planes to spray its fields. The country needs planes to spray in hard-to-reach areas where workers cannot exterminate. Meanwhile, civil wars in Yemen and Somalia prevent any coordinated response to the surge of the plant-devouring bug. Furthermore, exterminators in those countries have no guaranteed safety in times of war.

Some have blamed the rise of locusts in the region primarily on the extended rainy season and warming seas that have accelerated egg hatching, with strong cyclones spreading the insect farther. According to The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO), people need to address the problem soon. If not, the number of locusts could multiply up to 400 times by June 2020. This could leave approximately 25 million people hungry. The organization warned that the locusts, which have a generation life cycle of three months, have grown 20 times more each new generation.

A Supercomputer in East Africa Can Protect Crops from Locusts

Satellite information scientists, such as Kenneth Mwangi of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development Climate Prediction and Application Center, used a supercomputer model to predict areas of locust breeding that they did not monitor on the ground. The model fills in the information gaps of where new swarms could hatch.

By determining where there may be an upsurge in hoppers, the model is able to target likely areas of breeding for future pesticide spraying. To get to those areas before eggs hatch is crucial in preventing the spread. It also saves money by preventing an uncontrolled swarm. Young locusts or juveniles eat vegetation and reproduce well in 50-70 percent humidity levels and temperatures between 86 F and 104 F.

To date, the supercomputer has predicted where these areas are likely to be with a 90 percent accuracy rate according to the scientists involved.  The Weather and Climate Information Services for Africa Program out of the United Kingdom funds the technology. It uses data such as humidity, soil moisture, wind currents, vegetation cover and temperature to predict where locusts will lay their eggs. The supercomputer then sends the prediction model information to other African countries so they know where to spray. This represents a critical period of time so that the people can begin their cropping season without incident. Major crops in Uganda include cotton, sorghum, millet and maize.

In one instance, the supercomputer warned the Ugandan Government of the likely migration path that locusts would take as they crossed the border from Kenya to Uganda. Then, the government mobilized the army to assist with the spraying efforts and killed millions of locusts and eggs. Uganda has not seen anything like it since the 1960s.

The supercomputer has proven to be an important tool at combating a new (and old) agricultural foe in East Africa. The ability to predict new breeding grounds and swarm migrations in the region has the potential to limit damage. It can also limit the cost of extermination on a grand scale. Uganda is evidence, thus far, of its effectiveness. But the UNFAO warns that if people do not mitigate the crisis soon, the new cropping season will coincide with a booming locusts population that would leave millions without the food on which they depend.

Caleb Cummings
Photo: Flickr