How a prize-winning computer programmer fights poverty

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Yaw Anokwa

If you’ve ever spent time in a hospital in the developing world, you see all kinds of problems. Sometimes conditions are decrepit, or the facility is understaffed, or it’s charging too much for healthcare.

Then there’s “the paper problem.” Data about each patient – name, age, symptoms, everything that’s critical to good treatment – gets scrawled on slips of paper. Often these slips get filed away, but they’re inaccurate or badly written. Or they get lost. The whole system is cumbersome and slow, which means worse health outcomes for patients.

In a challenging resource-poor setting, how do you solve this issue?

Yaw Anokwa figured it out. He’s one of the minds behind the Open Data Kit (ODK), a data collection platform that’s been implemented in hospitals in Rwanda and Kenya, where the it cut down processing times for AIDS patients  by months. Farmers in Uganda, street children in India, election monitors, even environmental activists in Brazil – all of them have used Open Data Kit in innovative ways to collect data using smartphones and then use the information swiftly and productively.

Anokwa himself has come a long way. He moved to the United States from Ghana at a young age, and his passion for computer programming once got him suspended from school for a week. Now he has a new software company called Nafundi whose business is built around ODK.

Tom Paulson talks to Anokwa about his personal story, why he eschews more lucrative technology work, and where Open Data Kit goes from here. ODK is an amazing technology, but the story of how Anokwa has used it – carefully, keeping it open-source, and in partnerships with local organizations around the world – is just as important. Before the interview, our Boston correspondent Tom Murphy and I discuss the headlines from this week, including food aid and corruption.

Listen to the end for Anokwa’s tantalizing comments on what the next generation of this technology looks like. (And don’t forget to subscribe to the Humanosphere podcast on iTunes.)

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About Author

Ansel Herz

Ansel Herz is a freelance multimedia journalist whose objective is to “go to where the silence is." His work has been published by ABC News, The Nation magazine, the New York Daily News, Al Jazeera English, Free Speech Radio News, Inter-Press News and many other publications. A Seattle native and survivor of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Ansel is producer of Humanosphere's podcast, among other things. You can contact him at ansel.herz[at]gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @Ansel.