Empowering Students to Change Local Lives With Technology: What We Have Learned So Far

By Dr. Dorothy Okello and Paula Reinman 

“While technology is important, it’s what we do with it that truly matters.”
Muhammad Yunis – Founder, Grameen Bank

Two years ago, the Marconi Society Young Scholars, led by Dr. Joseph Kakande, created the Celestini Program to encourage undergraduate engineering students in developing countries to use technology to solve problems that are important in their local areas. The Program started in Uganda, expanded to India in 2017 and will launch in China, Colombia, Ghana and Rwanda in 2018.

With mentoring, support and global connections provided by the Young Scholars, the Marconi Society and other supporters including Google, IEEE, Nokia-Bell Labs, the Samueli Foundation and Vint and Sigrid Cerf, the Uganda project is now entering its third year. To date, 22 students have engaged in the project, as well as local OB GYNs and midwives.

Based on the positive feedback and results we have seen in Uganda and India, the Marconi Society will implement solutions and expand the program to benefit more people. Here are some of the most important things we have learned so far.

Makerere University and Maternal Mortality

The Uganda Celestini Project is hosted at Makerere University through netLabs! Uganda (netLabs!UG), a research Centre of Excellence in communications and networking technologies that is led by Dr. Dorothy Okello. NetLabs!UG is hosted by the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering under the College of Engineering, Design, Art and Technology (CEDAT). NetLabs!UG’s goal of a balanced mix of basic research, applied research and commercialization is a perfect fit for the Celestini Program’s strategy of incubating technology to solve critical local issues.

When Dr. Kakande approached her about the idea of starting a Celestini Project at Makerere, Dr. Okello was immediately enthused. “I loved the idea,” she says. “I want to expose students to international partnerships and collaboration. I was excited about applying telecommunications to a health care problem in a developing country. It is not enough to be good at programming – our students need to think about how their technical prowess can help othersand healthcare is a great application area for that.”

The netLabs!UG team selected a potentially life-changing issue: identifying and treating pregnant women with hypertension.

Uganda has the 37thhighest maternal mortality rate in the world. Hypertension, a condition that is easy to identify and treat, is the second most common cause of maternal mortality in sub-Saharan Africa.

While the cure is known, the mortality rate is caused by lack of awareness among pregnant women and the fact that many of these women live in rural areas far away from health centers.

Dr. Okello has run this program twice with students and is now gearing up for a third time, applying what she has learned in each new session. “One of my main expectations was for students to be able to work on a real problem that is important to Ugandans. We have been able to do that – twice,” she says.



How it Works

After selecting maternal mortality due to hypertension as the problem to solve, the students in the first year program moved immediately into developing applications and tools to address the issue. They quickly created and iterated on a mobile application to track the health of pregnant women and identify the potential for hypertensive disorder, as well as a database to track patients, generate reports for doctors and store patient data.

In the second year, Dr. Okello focused on integrating user input into the entire process, starting with the solution design. The second year session kicked off with a design-thinking workshop with 33 participants from local women’s health groups and from the University, including students beyond those in the Celestini Project.

“I opened the design-thinking workshop to additional students because I believe that all students can benefit from this problem solving approach,” says Dr. Okello. “The workshop provides the front-line practitioner perspectives that help students test and refine their assumptions and it gives students contacts within the stakeholder community that they are serving.”

For example, students decided to use a smart bracelet to allow health care professionals to remotely monitor pregnant women for hypertension. The design-thinking workshop surfaced the high costs of the smart bracelets, along with the extra work for medical staff created by the reports from each smart bracelet. Based on this, the team decided to provide bracelets only to high-risk patients, containing the cost and generating a level of data that the health care professionals could review in a timely and high quality way.

Students are also developing a nationwide telemedicine assessment to quickly analyze a given clinic or hospital setting to determine whether it has capabilities to support telemedicine. From the design-thinking workshop, students learned that telemedicine is an extremely broad term and that they need to understand the type of facilities available based on the five-level health center model (with options ranging from village health teams to urban hospitals) used throughout Uganda. The level of each health center determines the medical support and capacity for testing and treatment that it has.

Dorothy and her team complemented this work by collaborating with another Marconi Society project in Guatemala that focuses on creating tools and techniques to assess Internet connection capabilities in remote and rural areas. This collaboration helps the Makerere students assess the connectivity capabilities for telemedicine at various clinics.

What We Have Learned at Makerere

In addition to the specific findings about the solutions noted above, Dr. Okello and her students have discovered some organizational and logistical truths that drive program success:

  • Summer time is the right time. At Makerere, it is better to run the program during the summer than during the academic school year. Since this is an extra-curricular activity, not a scheduled class, work on the Celestini Project slows down significantly during the school year due to other academic commitments. Engaging third year students during the summer also lets them identify a program-related capstone project for their senior year. They work on the capstone project during the school year, giving them adequate time to design a strong solution.
  • User perspectives are critical for designing the right solutions. The design-thinking workshops are imperative in helping students create solutions that solve the users’ problems, rather than cool designs that may not hit the sweet spot. As students experience these interactions, user-inspired design becomes a standard part of their problem-solving toolkit.
  • Faculty flexibility is key for success. “We are fortunate to have a lot of latitude to introduce new programs,” Dr. Okello said. “When faculty are introducing a new idea, they need time and a place to experiment before they turn it into a formal program or coursework.” Success of the program depends on the latitude that faculty has for introducing new initiatives without significant administrative overhead.
  • International collaborations are motivators. Students and faculty enjoy getting the perspectives of and leveraging the research of people in other countries who are doing complimentary work. Collaborating with the lead for the Marconi Society-sponsored project in Guatemala is a highlight for faculty and students since they get to learn new approaches to solving problems in other developing countries.
  • Leveraging the program contributions with other departments will ideally drive more university support.  By sharing information about the Celestini Program and the equipment and resources that netLabs!UG has gotten from its participation, Okello is working with colleagues to leverage these new resources to serve other parts of Makerere. Leveraging the resource from the program will ideally drive participating universities to put more resource behind it.

We look forward to another year of learning with netLabs!UG and Makerere students so that together we can reduce maternal mortality in Uganda and lay the foundation to scale the impacts of the Celestini Program.