D-Lab's Mobile Technology Group: Background and Reflections

Two years addressing human needs wtih mobile phones at D-Lab

As mobile phones have become an increasingly important part of people’s lives in developing countries, I launched the Mobile Technology Group nearly two years ago at D-Lab to help apply this technology to address important human needs, such as health, agriculture, and education.

In many ways, our Mobile Technology Group is a synthesis of my experience and training at the MIT Media Lab, with whom I still collaborate, and where I had the opportunity to spend 20-plus years working with three amazing mentors: Neil Gershenfeld (Physics and Electronics, FabLabs), Hiroshi Ishii (Human-Computer Interface Design), and Roz Picard (Physiological Monitoring and Machine Learning).

At D-Lab, I am able to apply these interdisciplinary skills to tackle some of the world’s most challenging problems with meaningful impact on people’s lives.

Global health, medicine, agriculture, environmental monitoring, and education

Approximately 60 percent of our group’s work is focused on global health, with other projects in medicine, agriculture, environmental monitoring, and education. Our research projects range from mobile apps and devices to assess newborn babies in India, to low-cost tool kits for diagnosing pulmonary diseases and cardiovascular disease, which are a substantial burden throughout the world. For this work, we’ve been fortunate to receive a variety of research grants and awards from many organizations, including USAID, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the MIT Tata Center for Technology and Design, the MIT-MISTI program, and the Vodafone Americas Foundation. 

Much of what our group does is build clever little devices that connect to a mobile phone to perform specific tasks—such as measuring the amount of particles in the air or scanning a person’s skin to detect early signs of diabetes. Since Bluetooth adds additional cost, and requires the need for people to remember to recharge the batteries, we have developed a common USB interface for Android phones, so the external devices are powered by the phone itself without any need for batteries.

Some of the mobile apps we develop don’t need any external devices at all, because smart phones already contain many integrated sensors, including high resolution cameras. Using advanced signal processing techniques and machine learning algorithms, we can transform a smart phone into a portable lab, to diagnose disease or test dairy milk, for example. Since no hardware is required, these technologies can be deployed and scaled very quickly once the clinical and scientific validation is completed.

Interface design: pioneering the use of augmented reality

Of all the things we do, interface design is probably most important, although it’s probably the least appreciated. Many engineering schools around the world have designed mobile apps and electronic gadgets to be used in low-resource areas, but most of these have failed—not because the technology did not work, but because it did not match the skills and resource constraints of the users.

As an example, one area of interface design our group has been pioneering is the use of augmented reality for application to health screening, medical devices, and printed diagnostic tests. When I was working in the US Air Force 20 years ago, we were using augmented reality to help people to do maintenance on very complex machines, such as aircraft engines using fancy glasses. In our group, we are now applying this technology to enable unskilled health workers to essentially do maintenance on people, and to interpret complex biochemical tests that are emerging in the field of point of care diagnostics.

Shifting the focus from apps and gadgets to the ways in which mobile technology can influence behavior

The next wave of technology innovation, however, is not about apps and gadgets, but rather thinking about how mobile technology influences people’s behavior. As an assistant professor at UMass Medical School Department of Psychology, I also study how mobile technologies can play an important role in mental health and behavioral interventions. As the world’s population ages, an increasing proportion of our disease burden is not infectious diseases, but rather chronic diseases, such as diabetes and cancer. Improving our lifestyle and nutrition is an important part of that.

As a culture, we increasingly rely on mobile phones to communicate with the rest of the world and to spread ideas. These little devices that we hold in our hands are actually very powerful platforms to deliver images, audio, and video, as well as to connect us to a wide variety of social media and a select network of humans. In collaboration with other clinical researchers, we are exploring topics which are perhaps less palatable but equally important, including: depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide, and the process of radicalization. Research in these areas is complex, but includes tools such as passive screening of affect and psychopathology, tools for meditation, and navigating social support networks. This is our next frontier.   

Certainly, mobile phones are used by communities in both developed and developing countries. However, in developing countries, there are few technology alternatives. Whether it is for scanning a newborn child or screening for Alzheimer’s in an elderly woman, the mobile phone is a versatile tool that is both personal and ubiquitous. At D-Lab, I hope to continue to explore these different research paths.

On a personal note: why D-Lab

As a child of immigrant parents, and the first person in my immediate family to go to college, I’m happy to have the opportunity at D-Lab to work with poor communities around the world. My step-father was a carpenter, so I grew up with power tools, learning to build houses and fix cars. The environment at D-Lab seems quite familiar and very real, with everyone here knowing how to use tools to build things, like bicycles or cooking stoves, with natural materials, like metal, wood and stone.  

At the D-Lab 10th anniversary celebration a few years ago, I was impressed that invited guests were instructed to screen print their own T-shirts once they arrived. I think this grounding is a refreshing balance to many of the technologies we develop at MIT, which are often virtual or synthetic. The D-Lab perspective and its focus on the local community needs serve as important guiding principles for any successful technology deployment, and certainly mobile technology is no exception.

To learn more about our projects and team, visit the Mobile Technology Group website

Rich Fletcher of the Mobile Technology Group explaining a phone app to health workers.
Rich Fletcher of the Mobile Technology Group explaining a phone app to health workers.
Rich Fletcher of the Mobile Technology Group explaining a phone app to health workers.
Collaborator cardiologist Dr. Sengupta examining an Indian patient using mobile tools to measure a patient’s cardiac activity.