"We were not prepared for it, as it had never happened before in Pakistan, and we had to create barriers that would help to prevent the epidemic from happening again," said Dr. Umar Saif, a Cambridge-educated computer scientist who is now chairman of the Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB) of Pakistan. The epidemic – a widespread dengue fever outbreak – hit the province of Punjab in 2011, following a devastating monsoon.
Every year, more than 100 million people worldwide catch dengue fever, a mosquito-borne viral illness common in subtropical regions, which tends to manifest itself in large outbreaks rather than isolated cases. Home to 120 million people, Punjab Province, in northeast Pakistan, proved to be a perfect breeding ground for mosquitos that carry it. In 2011, around 21,000 people in the province were confirmed to be infected with the disease, with 17, 000 alone from Lahore, the provincial capital.
In response to the quick spread of the virus, Saif and his team at PITB developed a simple app, loaded it onto more than 1,500 Android smartphones, and handed them out to fieldworkers across different governmental departments.
"It was one of the worst dengue epidemics anywhere in the world, and the first time the application we developed was used to fight the epidemic," Saif said.
Instead of using a digital camera to take photos of prevention activities, one could use a smartphone to take a picture of one's performance and submit it via cellphone to work inspectors.
Due to the sometimes tedious nature of these jobs, the app needed a way to prove that people were actually out in the field, putting into place preventative measures. In order that fieldworkers could not submit fake photos to their supervisors, each image was GPS-tagged and timestamped by servers as it came in. Thus, inspectors could track when and where work was taking place in the field.
During the first week with the new technology after it was adopted in 2011, only about 20 activities were reported. Now, more than two years later, workers are used to using the smartphones as reporting platforms. "In the past 18 months or so, we've had around 724,000 GPS-tagged photos of prevention activities," said Saif.
Numerous barriers were put in place to quell the spread of the virus, but it was only after the app was created and widely adopted that a noticeable amount of success was achieved, marked by a zero percent death rate in Lahore in 2012.
Countries hit by something like dengue fever generally experience a magnified epidemic during the following year, as the virus does not exhaust itself completely in a year's time. However, largely thanks to the smartphone-related prevention work going on there, Punjab Province's epidemic was brought swiftly under control.
Cellphone use on the rise
Once a rarity, cellphones are now widely used and wildly popular in Pakistan, making apps an innovative and effective weapon in the fight against everything from disasters to corruption. The fifth largest mobile phone market in Asia, 74 percent of the Pakistanis now own mobile phones.
Due to myriad difficulties, the use of computers in Pakistan is lagging far behind. One major challenge is finding access to an uninterrupted power supply, which is not guaranteed or even impossible in the country at present. Due to severe power shortages even in big cities like Islamabad and Lahore, the power is cut off several times a day to relieve pressure on the supply. Additionally, computers need a continual network connection to be effective means for communication, and this, too, is impossible for the time being. Perhaps the biggest hurdle, as Saif mentioned, is that many in the country were simply never taught how to use a computer.
"If you buy a computer for a bureaucrat, most likely he will give it to an assistant and the computer will become a typewriter, rarely used for anything as complicated as automating government processes," said Saif. "So the approach we took was to heavily invest in smartphones for this task."
Stepping into the traditional roles of computers in Pakistan, cellphones have become indispensable. Smartphone penetration is on the rise in Pakistan, too. While currently less than 20 percent of the population owns a smartphone, this number is expected to increase dramatically following the introduction of 3G networks to the country later this year.
Aiding in this growth is the relatively inexpensive price of smartphones. Devices made in China sell for anywhere from $50 to $100, offering an uninterrupted network connection and their own batteries. The phones also act as social aids, encouraging civil servants to learn to navigate their applications. When given to government workers, in addition to gathering data or monitoring operations, they also use it to call family and friends and thus learn its functions more quickly.
Wide variety of applications
The PITB's dengue fever activity-tracking system that helped the Punjab Government control the outbreak in 2011 and safeguard the province against a recurrence in the following years has now been extended to monitor all 26 of the World Health Organization-recognized infectious diseases in the area.
Smartphones are now heavily used across major governmental departments in Punjab as well, with their missions covering far more than fever prevention.
One arm of the Punjab Government has adopted a wide-reaching program to fight corruption. For example, when a resident visits a government department to register property under his name, the office will record his cellphone number as part of that transaction. The resident will later receive a call from the government, asking him whether or not he had been forced to pay a bribe.
All the data from this service are collected and analyzed each week, and the government will take administrative actions against reports of corruption. So far, this program has been made accessible to 4.8 million citizens. "This is a very successful program that helps us fight corruption, which has run rampant in certain organizations in Pakistan," said Saif.
When it comes to the police in Lahore, every police station now has two smartphones equipped with a crime reporting app. By analyzing patterns of criminal activity, police are better able to more effectively tamp down on crimes. After a resident files a report at a police station, the police will take a photo at the scene of the crime and specify its nature; over the past 18 months, 51,000 different reports have been submitted through smartphones. The police then gather and analyze this information, working out effective ways to prevent and counter these crimes.
Smartphone apps are also revolutionizing the state of education in Pakistan. "In Punjab, a big thing we are now trying to do is put textbooks online so they are freely available to children," said Saif. "We take lectures that are either produced locally or from open sources – we have about 4,000 lectures now – and adapt them into Urdu, the local language." Unfettered online access is a bold new step for the government to take towards textbooks.
Saif's group, PITB, even makes the uploaded textbooks interactive: There are different animations and simulations in the content, along with automated self-assessments, so children can better understand and learn from the books. Students who read a chapter can try to answer review questions, and are then told whether or not their answers are correct.
With problems like energy shortages and network security making it impossible for computers the same integral role in Pakistan as they do in many other parts of the world, cellphones are quickly filling in the gap and helping conduct a wide range of important work in Pakistan. Mobile technology is helping the country keep pace as the world of information technology progresses ever forward.
(Reporting from Lahore, Pakistan)