Interview with Isaac Holeman of FrontlineSMS: Medic

Create for a Cause is starting to interview other social entrepreneurs and nonprofits that are working and creating to make the world a better place.
We're starting off with the recent 1st place winner of the NetSquared Mobile Development Challenge Competition 2009 -- FrontlineSMS:Medic.
This is an organization that helps coordinate health workers using FrontlineSMS, a free software platform enabling large-scale, two-way text messaging using a laptop, mobile phones, and a GSM signal.
They are also building modules on top of this core platform that will compress data into text messages to send electronic medical records, create real-time maps to visualize health programs, and connect clinics to a revolutionary mobile phone-based diagnostic tool. At clinics that serve about 1.2 million patients in Malawi and Uganda, text messages and cheap mobile phones are great tools on the front-lines of global health.
We interviewed Isaac Holeman, Director of Clinical Programs, whom I met at the recent NetSquared Conference
As a biochemistry and molecular biology major at Lewis & Clark College (Oregon) -- how did you become interested in development issues?

I was an exchange student in The Netherlands between high school and college when I first began thinking seriously about a career in medicine. At the time I think my interest sprouted from a search for respect more than from a desire to help people. Studying biochemistry confirmed my interest in and aptitude for the natural sciences, but the more I thought and read about medicine the more I began to focus on the moral dimensions of access to health care. At some point health care stopped being about me and started being about people I could help, and from then on I felt an inexorable pull towards the challenges and opportunities of global health.
How did you and your friends form the idea of FrontlineSMS:Medic?
I wanted to work with electronic medical records in East Africa in between undergrad and medical school. In a region with soaring adoption of mobile phones, I thought the system would be more approachable to a lot of local people if they could also use phones to communicate medical data. I submitted a proposal to a USAID sponsored challenge for mobile phones in development, and it ended up becoming a finalist. My proposal to connect OpenMRS (a medical records system) to "some open source mobile phone software" caught the eye of Josh Nesbit, who had been working with the text messaging platform FrontlineSMS in Malawi. He convinced me to integrate with FrontlineSMS and we decided to work together. Soon after Lucky Gunasekara and Nadim Mahmud joined the team, bringing ideas like communicating diagnostic results via mobile phones, so the whole project shifted towards the mobile phone platform and we decided to re-launch as FrontlineSMS:Medic.
What were some of the most difficult challenges with FrontlineSMS:Medic?
It's way to early to say what our challenges "were" in the past tense! Doing a pilot in Malawi, showing that the core FrontlineSMS platform could have huge benefits for a hospital serving 250,000 people, was a big step. Looking forward... getting working beta builds of each of our modules (medical records, mapping, diagnostics) is a pretty substantial milestone. Actually using these modules in the field is another big step for us. Finally, we're working on several studies that we hope to publish in the next year or two.
What is most rewarding about what you are doing?
The very idea that text messages can save lives is pretty extraordinary. They are so simple! We use them all the time! Just being able to say to people "I'm not asking you to depend on my help, but if we start using this awesome tool I think you will figure out how to use it better than I imagined."
Where do you see FrontlineSMS:Medic in 5 years? What goals are you trying to accomplish?
In the next year we want to create a comprehensive took kit of hardware, software, and implementation guidelines, and we want to help implement it at clinics that serve several million people across several continents. In 5 years we hope to negotiate a dramatic drop in the price of sending an SMS in healthcare, build up the Hope Phones recycling campaign to provide phones for all of our global partners, and have an impact on thousands of clinics that serve hundreds of millions of people across the globe.
As a child, or teen were you interested in "creating" or "doing"? How?
I was very interested in creating. I grew up out in the country and when I was little I took over the abandoned green house as my work shop. Then I took over part of the pump house (we lived outside the city water district so we had our own pump) because it had a sturdier work bench. I made all kinds of useless things; from harmless booby traps to intricately carved wooden swords. To be honest I didn't become interested in "doing" much of anything other than sports until I grew up a little, became a Christian, and decided that people have some obligation to help each other.
What are some of your most influential books or thinkers? And why?
As a Christian, the teachings of Jesus Christ are of primary importance in my world view. JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, and other fantasy writers kept me curious about nature and supernature until I was old enough to consider religion seriously. I later came to respect Lewis for his work in apologetics (especially Mere Christianity and The Abolition of Man). Martin Luther King's speeches and essays helped me understand that a thoroughly self-examined Christian world view truly is a radical one. Paul Farmer helped me find a meaningful career trajectory in global health.
What are the most important causes to you?
I think individuals and communities need to be healthy, educated, and autonomous. I take part in causes like global health or social entrepreneurship insofar as I feel like the ideas/people/movements serve those basic causes. It pretty much boils down to uplifting the human spirit.
How can readers/artists from Create for a Cause contribute their talents to Frontline SMS:Medic's work?
Call to Action: We started the Hope Phones campaign to get people to donate their old phones so that we can recycle and repurpose them for global health. We can give you all the basic tools you need to hold a collection campaign, the remaining challenge is for you to get people's attention and inspire them to take a few minutes to donate their old phone. Whether you want to get people's attention through posters, music, dance, is for you to figure out, we'd love to see where your creativity can take a collection campaign.

Isaac's websites:


Do you have suggestions of other nonprofits and social entrepreneurs to interview and feature on our blog? Please post your suggestions in the comments section!