Mapping medicine availability via SMS

Medicine stock-outs are a potentially lethal problem in a number of African countries, yet governments insist they don’t occur. What could be more powerful than a map which contradicts this claim?

Last week activists in Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and Zambia started surveying clinics in their respective countries, checking stock levels of essential medicines, including:

  • First-line anti-malarials
  • Zinc 20mg tablet
  • Penicilin
  • First-line ARVs
  • Metronidazole 200mg tablet
  • Ciproflaxicin
  • Amoxicillin suspension
  • Ceftriaxone
  • Cotrimoxazole suspension
  • ORS – Diarrhea

Each of these are seen as essential in varying degrees to fighting disease and illness, and are widely used when available.

Armed with the data, activists report their results via structured, coded SMS – “x,y,z” – where the first number represents their country code (Kenya, Malawi, Uganda or Zambia), the second their district or city, and the third the medicine which they found to be out of stock.  These messages are received by a phone connected to a computer running FrontlineSMS, which then runs an automatic script which validates the data before it is sent over the internet to a Ushahidi-powered website.

From there the results are automatically displayed on a map, below (click to visit the live site).

Stockouts map

As of today, there have been over 250 stock-outs of these essential medicines.

Since the data is automatically populated, the map represents an almost real-time picture of stock-outs in the four target countries. After a successful launch and a week piloting the service, the “stock-out hub number” will now be distributed to medicine users throughout each country so that anyone with a mobile phone can send in a stock-out report. Unlike reports from official, known data collectors, these messages will firstly be checked by staff at Health Action International (HAI Africa) before being posted up on the map.

Stockouts Team

The technological portion of the campaign was implemented by Michael Ballard and Claudio Midolo, both Open Society Fellows from the Department of Design + Technology at Parsons the New School for Design in New York.  Ndesanjo Macha also helped in getting FrontlineSMS up and running in Uganda and Malawi.

For further background information and up-to-date news, visit the “Stop Stock-Outs” website.

Scraping the bottom of the barrel

There are many many good, dedicated, passionate people out there – struggling against the odds – working in developing countries to help improve the lives of some of the poorest and most marginalised people. Let’s make no mistake, these odds are regularly stacked against them. Corruption, world trade systems, lack of resources, the impact of global warming, natural disasters, you name it.

This week I read about another. They’re called Vulture Funds. And I felt sick.

Vulture Funds work like this. A company ‘buys’ the debt of a developing country from the original lender, often at a reduced rate (since they’re often about to be written off), and then sues the original borrower for the initial sum, plus escalated fees and interest. What’s more, it’s legal and ‘recognised’ by the International Monetary Fund, among others.

These Funds came to my attention this week while I was reading a news story from Zambia. A $4 million debt (money lent by the Romanian Government back in 1979, incidentally) had been purchased by one of these Funds, which then won a court case against the Government of Zambia for payment of $42 million by way of settlement. Yes, you heard that right – $42 million. A Zambian presidential adviser and consultant to Oxfam pointed out that $42 million was equal to all the debt relief the country received in 2006. “It also means the treatment, the Medicare, the medicines that would have been available to in excess of 100,000 people in the country will not be available”.

How do these people sleep at night? Sure, if you borrow money then it’s only right that it’s paid back. But chasing down some of the poorest countries in the world like this, to me, is really scraping the bottom of the barrel.