Project Masiluleke, or Project M for short, has been a cause celebre in several design subfields since its primary announcement last October. The project, which centers on text messaging to distribute information about HIV/AIDS treatment in deeply afflicted parts of South Africa, has been warmly praised by interaction designers, proponents of socially conscious design, advocates of technological leapfrogging in the developing world, and much of the design and innovation press as well (like Fast Company...and us).
If there were any concerns that this was a well-meaning but impractical solution that succeeded better in the minds of designers than the hands of users, though, they can be confidently put to rest, as this special report on health care and technology in April 16th's Economist points out.
The article, aimed at as pragmatic an audience as any publication on earth, introduces the project with a touch of skepticism, observing that "modern wizardry like molecular diagnostics and digital medical records seem irrelevant" in much of the developing world, and describing initial doubts about the effectiveness of high-tech to improve lives in the poor places of the world, by none other than Bill Gates.
It then proceeds to note that "the response has been spectacular," and outlines numerous related health care projects in Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere that are succeeding in providing services to populations that had formerly been written off as unreachable:
The most promising applications of mHealth for now are public-health messaging, stitching together smart medical grids, extending the reach of scarce health workers and establishing surveillance networks for infectious diseases. The use of the technology is spreading: a recent report funded by the UN Foundation and the Vodafone Foundation, two charities, documented more than four dozen projects across the developing world.
It's truly wonderful to see such an idea catch on and gain traction -- one that's both clever and full of conscience -- but a little bit of a bummer that the design expertise that's made it so successful gets such short mention. Project M is introduced as a co-operative project between South African outreach program iTeach, mobile carrier MTN, and "American academics and several other innovative groups." Careful followers of the project will recognize that frogdesign is one of those "innovative groups," and the extensive effort the consultancy has put into the structure of the project and some of its future extensions (like a locally appropriate testing kit, which the article does mention) has been key.
Still, we're not complaining. In a design environment where the most awarded products rarely make an impact on more than a handful of enthusiasts, a project with this kind of global reach and positive influence is worth a little short shrift.
For a longer collection of news and articles on Project M, check out frogdesign's page on the project here.