Bridges handheld apps competition focuses on health, ed and agriculture

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Africa's ICT dilemma is how to find a multi-purpose computing device with connectivity at the right price. Computers are too expensive and therefore not yet widely used. Mobiles are widely distributed but lack the necessary computing power for slightly more complex functions. Before the dream device arrives, Bridges' Executive Director Teresa Peters believes that handhelds have considerable potential that is not yet fully used. To demonstrate this potential, Bridges organised a competition to support innovative ground level initiatives that want to use handheld devices (handhelds) to improve people's lives.

The competition was open to South African entrants and made use of a donation of 120 Hewlett Packard H4150 iPAQs that are to be given to up to the winning organisations that demonstrate a clear strategy to harness the power of handhelds for social or economic development. The devices were donated by Hewlett Packard (HP) after being used by delegates at the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting in Davos earlier this year.

It had over 30 entrants and attracted other entries from outside South Africa that were unfortunately not eligible. The winners who emerged from a judging session in Cape Town on Friday are:

- A University for education uses.

- A hospital in Johannesburg which has a unit dealing with cardiac patients. It will give the devices to doctors who can use them for patient notes and giving access to specialised medical materials.

- An organisation that wants to extend its existing SMS-based services and use a device with more computing power. It will use one of the handhelds as a "server" in the clinic whilst putting the other two out into the field to collect information for an HIV/AIDS clinic. New complex treatment programmes require better patient notes and the handhelds offer a route to providing improvements.

- An education programme in Kwa-Zulu Natal, working with a local University and the UK's Open University. It wants to take a programme it's already running in urban areas out into rural areas. Originally it had envisaged PCs but has replaced these with handhelds.

- An orphanage programme that sponsors three orphanages for orphans of AIDS. Some of the children themselves have AIDS and the handhelds will be used to track their treatment. It will also be used as an inventory device to track needs and inventory. The orphanages get many donations and it needs to match these effectively against future needs.

- An agricultural service which operates a breeding programme. Whilst it has good resources, it loses phd students once they go to America and Europe. It has started a new programme aimed at retaining these students. Currently research data gathering is done using paper and clipboards. It will now equip students with handhelds for data management.

The names of the winners will be formally announced this week. So why did Bridges focus on handhelds? According to Executive Director Teresa Peters: "PCs aren't working in Africa. They're too expensives. The sites where they're used are too centralised. Likewise the telecentre model is failing. Mobiles offer enormous potential but they lack the computing power."

"We don't really care what the device is. We think handheld computing power is the issue. So we we're looking for alternatives for getting computing to the people. The market hasn't yet recongised this need. Lots of people disagree, but we're either wrong or it's very visionary."

"I think that computing needs to be kept separate from connectivity in the African context because of the battery issue. Using computing power runs down the battery very quickly and this is not going to be helpful if you want to receive calls. These two needs are diametrically opposed."

So who will fill this need?:"Simputer tried but didn't succeed. The Worl Economic Forum set up a group (ITAF) to define specs for a new device. I said take an existing technology. Get rid of the expensive features and drop the price. But the PDA manufacturers say we're not going into Africa, talk to the mobile manufacturers. And they say yes, but it will be a while yet."

"One of the deal-killers is that PDAs are not sufficiently friendly for the African context. They need tech support and training. It's the soft issues that will hold it up. Maybe this service set can be provided by telecentres in the future and they can offer "synching" services."