Using mobile phones to fight AIDS

I’m lucky to be up at the Pop!Tech conference, where we heard today about the largest ever project to use mobile devices to fight AIDS in South Africa. It’s a cool example of using an existing system to quickly, cheaply reach millions. People who attended Pop!Tech last year (or who read my article,) will remember Project Masiluleke. The effort grew out of a presentation at Pop!Tech 2006 by a South African activist named Zinny Thabethe, whose organization, iTeach, instructs people about HIV and about available anti-retroviral (ARV) treatments. Today, the team behind Project M, as it’s called, gave an update and the recent news is pretty intriguing.

As you probably know, South Africa is the epicenter of the AIDS crisis in South Africa. There are many reasons for this: poverty, an over-burdened public healthcare system with too few doctors and nurses, a lack of information about the disease, and a powerful social stigma that prevents people from even getting tested until they are close to death.

The team behind Project M has figured out a clever way to get around some of these obstacles and distribute health information by piggybacking on a free, widely used form of SMS called "Please Call Me." Thirty million "Please Call Me" messages are sent every day in South Africa by people who've run out of minutes and want a friend to call them back. MTN, one of the largest telecom companies in the developing world, is donating the unused space in up to 1 million messages per day to Project M – giving them a way to send information about HIV/AIDS and testing to millions.

Project M began beta-testing this mobile system three weeks ago, and so far average daily call volume to the National AIDS Helpline in Johnannesburg has increased by nearly 200%. The project continues to evolve: phase two involves the creation of virtual call centers that would both provide employment for adherent HIV+ patients and increase the capacity of the country’s health care system.