Digital Content

A Boston nonprofit has ambitious plans to build a nationwide, wireless computing network for Uganda’s impoverished health-care system. The project will be built "on the cheap" using the country’s existing cell-phone network, Palm handhelds and new battery-powered, wireless Linux servers.

"I think this is going to be a giant leap forward (for Ugandan health care)," said Satellife executive director Holly Ladd. "It could have significant benefits in health outcomes for people there."

Satellife’s system will be based on 3,000 to 5,000 Palm handhelds given to doctors and health-care workers in the field. The handhelds will be used for routine health administration, ordering and tracking medical supplies, delivering new treatment guidelines and, of course, communication.

In the field, the handhelds will connect to inexpensive, battery-powered Linux servers set up across the country.

Built by WideRay, a San Francisco startup, the Jack servers have built-in GPRS radios, which afford them an always-on connection to Uganda’s near-ubiquitous cell-phone network.

About the size of a thick hardback textbook, the Jack servers act as "caching" servers, storing content sent to them over the cell network from the administration’s computers in Kampala. In turn, reports and e-mail received from the handhelds are relayed wirelessly back to the capital. The servers communicate with handhelds using an infrared link.

The servers are powered by industrial-grade batteries and a single charge lasts up to a year.

"It’s all you need to provide connectivity in remote locations like these," said Saul Kato, WideRay’s founder and CEO. "The big issue is connectivity. There are no landlines. The only real infrastructure is cellular. Some of the facilities are literally huts, but you don’t need any other hardware on site."

WideRay’s Jack servers can be found in several shopping and sports centers in the United States, and will soon be deployed all over Europe. San Francisco’s baseball stadium, for example, has Jack servers for delivering stats and software to fans. WideRay makes versions that are equipped with infrared as well as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi wireless technologies.

"It’s an incredible project," said Kato. "There’s no other way to deploy this kind of thing. It’s a moneymaker for us, but its also serving a critical need. It’s good every way you look at it."

Satellife plans to launch a pilot program in Uganda later this year with about 50 WideRay servers and several dozen handhelds. The trial is funded by a Canadian body, the International Development Research Centre. Satellife hopes more money will be forthcoming, allowing the project to go nationwide.

Last year, Satellife ran a trial program in Uganda to test the utility of handhelds in the field. About 100 Palm handhelds were given to schools to use as e-textbooks, and to health-care workers for gathering survey data.

Satellife’s Ladd said the project went very well: The handhelds are low cost, easy to use, and very portable. Few were damaged or lost, and they greatly improved administration.

For example, health-care workers fill out a standard treatment form for every patient. Normally it takes an average of two months just for the forms to be transported from remote areas to Kampala. Handhelds cut delivery time to 24 hours, she said.

Ladd said good management is critical to Uganda’s overburdened health-care system. "Trending and tracking drug usage and demand is essential," she said. "They need to make sure supplies get to where they are needed and in time to be effective."

During last year’s trial, the handhelds also provided many health-care workers with their first access to e-mail, Ladd said.

"Here (in the United States), people use these technologies to keep their calendars and phone books," she said. "But in Africa, it’s more computing power in their hand than they’ve ever seen.",1382,58296,00.html