Harnessing Open Source Software in African Healthcare Information Systems

Open Source Software (OSS) is distributed under a license that gives users the freedom to run, study, modify and redistribute the code without restriction. Linux’s operating system, Apache Web server, MySQL database and PHP hypertext processing language are examples of common OSS in use today.

OSS can be easily customized to meet specific needs and can be deployed on small and large settings, such as high performance hardware platforms and personal digital assistants (PDAs). To me, OSS seems superior to proprietary software in terms of performance, security, reliability, scalability, cost effectiveness, integration with other software, as well as localization, thus making them ideal for use in African environments. Furthermore, the continent has a number of resource challenges--including financial ones--that limit its computer hardware and software choices to OSS and refurbished hardware (that works well with low resourced OSS).

The Capacity Project has developed free, integrated OSS-based Human Resource Information System (HRIS) software that is capable of capturing healthcare workforce information throughout training and career for current and accurate healthcare workforce information maintenance.  A team of local developers in Kenya, one of the countries where the Capacity Project is working, managed to customize the application to meet the requirements of the Ministry of Health, which included compatible modules that track staffing, payroll and training. The Kenyans will provide the Capacity Project with their modifications and extensive documentation, which the Project will then make available to the global Open Source community.

Taking advantage of telecommunication technology advancement in Africa, PDAs are now used for survey data collection to minimize surveyors’ skills requirements and to maximize data capture speed. The questionnaire or survey form resides in OSS-powered PDAs.The collected data can be automatically uploaded into a central database, eliminating errors and delays in data collection, data entry and reporting, thus saving time and money as well improving data collection.

A joint project between the United Nations and Vodafone Group in 2007 also used OSS powered PDAs to monitor health services in rural areas in Africa. The one-year pilot programs in Kenya and Zambia used EpiSurveyor OSS on PDA to facilitate the supervision of public health clinics, and resulted in improved drug supply-chain management and more regular access to public health trends.

Empowered with sustainable OSS, public health professionals in African countries can get more critical health information that can be used to improve lives, fight disease, and reduce deaths without expensive technology or outside consultants. Such a growing trend can make Africa a leading OSS applications frontier as the continent navigates towards harnessing OSS power in  leveraging its underdeveloped healthcare information systems in  their efforts to achieve overall development--including bridging the digital divide.

- - Bakari Bakari

Bakari A. Bakari (MBA), has served as the Information Systems Manager with the Medical Stores Department, Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, since 1999. He is currently a Hubert Humphrey Fellow 2007/08, at the School of Public Health, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He spent six weeks as an intern with IntraHealth International Inc., Chapel Hill working with HRIS, Open Source Technologies and PDA usage in data collection.