Students use mobile to fight malaria, help vision-impaired

By: Neil Versel | Apr 13, 2011        

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Neil VerselMobile healthcare is on a roll, and you can partially thank the next generation.

Health- and healthcare-related projects took the top four spots in the U.S. finals of the Imagine Cup, an annual student technology competition sponsored by Microsoft.

Four students from Arizona State University won the contest over the weekend in Seattle with a creation that combines a custom-designed digital camera, a touch-screen Windows tablet PC and Microsoft OneNote software to help vision-impaired students take notes in class. The competitors, Michael Astrauskas, David Hayden, Shashank Srinivas and Qian Yan, share an $8,000 prize and win a trip to New York City in July for the ninth annual worldwide Imagine Cup finals. Microsoft also will make a $25,000 donation to ASU in their names.

Their project, called Note-Taker, presents a split-screen view so students with low vision can watch live video of the teacher on one part of the screen and type or hand-write notes on the other half.

The runners-up for software design, four grad students from around the country, found a way to help far-flung health workers diagnose malaria on a smartphone in hopes of treating the deadly disease and containing potential outbreaks. They won $4,000 for fitting a Samsung Focus (running Windows Phone 7, of course) with a microscopic camera lens to take a picture of a blood sample and developed an app to measure malaria parasites in the blood.

“It actually draws a red box around the clusters of malaria, and it actually notifies you how many it found,” team member Tristan Gibeau, of the University of Central Florida, told Reuters. And it works while offline, so it’s suitable for use in remote villages. When they do have Internet access, users then can upload data from their phones to a central tracking system for epidemiological purposes.

“It’s going to make a difference in trying to contain the outbreak of malaria,” Gibeau is quoted as saying. He’s reportedly trying to develop similar apps for other blood-borne disease. “In the big picture, it’ll hopefully help in the fight against most diseases out there and make everybody’s life a little easier,” Gibeau said. According to Reuters, the team is working on commercializing the technology.

Notably, one of the developers—and winners of the $4,000 second prize—is Wilson To, who is studying comparative pathology at the University of California, Davis. A year ago, To was part of the team that won the national Imagine Cup for building a mobile microscope.

Taking third place and $3,000 were a duo from the University of Central Arkansas who developed a mobile phone-based system for people with skin cancer to monitor their conditions. And in fourth place, worth $1,000, was an app to help improve child vaccination rates in underserved communities.

What’s remarkable about these results is that the Imagine Cup is not a healthcare competition. The theme for this year’s contest was: “Imagine a world where technology helps solve the toughest problems.” Not the toughest healthcare problems, but any problem at all that students wanted to address. Some 74,000 students in the U.S. entered, and the top four in the software category all found health-related issues that they decided to tackle with mobile technology.

That’s the power of mobility in healthcare.