Using computers to improve lives

11 Sep 2018 - 12:00

Dr Melissa Densmore, recipient of the prestigious $500 000 National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI) Challenge grant. Photo Michael Hammond.

The University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Department of Computer Science is set to enjoy a major boost with the naming of Dr Melissa Densmore, senior lecturer and Information and Communications Technologies for Development (ICT4D) staff member, as a recipient of the prestigious $500 000 National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI) Challenge grant.

Densmore is one of a group of four researchers from across the globe who will be using these funds to address maternal and child health issues through a digital communication project.

For the past few years, much of Densmore’s work has focused on providing computer-based support for healthcare and development in previously disadvantaged communities around Cape Town. She has been specifically interested in creating mobile health solutions that can serve as a complementary resource to overstretched local clinics.

“At some point, post master’s degree, I decided I wanted to use my computing skills to help people and to address issues of global poverty, malnutrition, health, etc,” she recalls.

“I was working in the start-up environment back in the US [United States] and just didn’t find it really fulfilling to work on projects that were helping people who already have money to make even more money.”

After completing her PhD at the University of Berkeley School of Information in California, and prior to joining UCT in 2014, Densmore was involved with a variety of healthcare projects around the world. These included developing a delay-tolerant tele-consultation system for doctors in Ghana, and infrastructure contributions to enable village health centres to consult with doctors at a local hospital.


“I decided I wanted to use my computing skills to help people and to address issues of global poverty, malnutrition, health.”

Digital Street Theatre

Through these projects, Densmore inevitably found herself networking with academics and researchers from across the globe who shared her passion for using computer science to improve lives.

Eventually, she joined forces with Kentaro Toyama and Mustafa Naseem from the University of Michigan School of Information, as well as Agha Ali Raza from the Information Technology University in Lahore, Pakistan, to work on a project to address the rising rates of maternal and child death around the world.

They recognised the fact that causes differ by country, but that the health knowledge and habits of mothers play a key role in reducing mortality. Mortality rates also tend to be highest among low-literacy families; those who most need health education are least equipped to absorb it from mainstream sources.

Based on all of this, the group came up with the idea of empowering mothers in low-literacy and low-income communities to share healthcare information among themselves through a locally-available digital channel, which they named “Digital Street Theatre”.

“Moms are super passionate about taking care of their children, so why not leverage that? Why not make a platform where they can actually create their own media, share it and have that be a vehicle for change around health behaviour?” Densmore questioned.

As she points out, mothers love giving advice to other mothers about what they should and shouldn’t do with their children. Of course, this isn’t always well received in person. In many cases, women turn to online communities, or technology, to find answers to their most pressing parenting questions.

Tailor-made digital solutions

The plan with Digital Street Theatre, then, is to address the problem of maternal health education by empowering women to create their own educational content, then share it among one another using technology with which they’re comfortable.

“It’s based on the idea that people have, historically, always communicated through stories. So, when you see a story coming from one of your peers, it’s much more convincing than, say, a story coming from a government official or a textbook,” Densmore explained.

She and her group, headed up by NAFKI alumnus Toyama, entered their proposal into the NAFKI Challenge. It was one of 78 applications from around the world.

After a round of peer-to-peer assessment by fellow applicants, followed by a final round of judging by an expert panel of NAFKI members, Digital Street Theatre was chosen as one of the three winning projects to receive the $500 000 award.

Dr Melissa Densmore in the field working to check available TV white space spectrum for a project she is involved with in Ocean View. Photo Supplied.

This NAFKI grant will be divided among Densmore and her group to enable them to conduct in-depth research into the different ideal manifestations of Digital Street Theatre in different country contexts.

Because of South Africa’s exorbitant airtime and data costs, people here are more inclined to share content manually – copying videos and other resources onto flash discs and sharing them via the “sneakernet” (the method of transmitting electronic information by personally carrying it from one place to another) – than by using expensive internet options.

In India and Pakistan, however, airtime and data costs are much lower, which means making phone calls, joining online chat groups and downloading content from the internet are all widespread and popular methods of sharing content across communities.


“Mothers will … be able to create content and post [it] onto the server, where any other mother will be able to download it without having to have a data bundle.”

Dovetailing on existing projects

Densmore will be kicking off her Digital Street Theatre research in Ocean View, a community on the outskirts of Kommetjie in Cape Town, where another recent ICT4D project could offer a good basis from which to start.

Along with iNethi Technologies and Ammbr Research Labs (ARL South Africa), Densmore and the ICT4D team have launched a pilot project to connect the community to a host of opportunities through a community wireless network.

Residents will be able to share their music, videos, news and learning materials for free within the community. They’ll also be able to connect with each other through a chat service similar to WhatsApp. Access to the internet will be offered in time, at a much cheaper rate than current options.

“I think it’s something that will dovetail really well with this project. Mothers will, for instance, be able to create content and post [it] onto the server, where any other mother will be able to download it without having to have a data bundle,” Densmore explained.

She is excited to see how Digital Street Theatre will unfold in Ocean View and other local communities over time.

Story:  Nadia Krige

Photo:  Michael Hammond