Different problems, same solution

Two Sustainable Vision grantees provide low-cost access to vital information

It’s hard to go wrong when giving people access to new information: people crave it, markets need it, and the benefits often extend far beyond the initial application. Case in point: two Sustainable Vision grantees recently took a look at widely divergent problems and arrived at the same basic solution: these people need more information.

The first problem? A lack of adequate diagnostic x-ray services in poor areas throughout the world. Two-thirds of the world’s population is without access to x-rays, making a process as simple as setting a broken bone much more difficult and more dangerous. And even for those who do have access, getting those x-rays developed and interpreted can be a long and complex process involving physically carting your film from place to place—all with, say, a broken arm at your side.

The solution? Form a number of strategic partnerships to provide a complete, low-cost, sustainable digital imaging solution. That’s precisely what Matt Glucksberg, professor and chair of biomedical engineering at Northwestern and his diverse team of students, faculty and partner organizations are doing. Calling themselves the World Health Imaging, Telemedicine & Informatics Alliance (WHITIA, worldhealthimaging.org), Glucksberg’s team has gone from a senior design project to a certified Illinois non-profit dedicated to bringing x-ray technology to the areas of the world that need it most.

A number of attempts have been made to do just that, of course, with mixed success. One low cost system, the World Health Imaging System–Radiology (WHIS-RAD), was developed by World Health Organization. NGOs have deployed about 1,500 of the machines throughout the world, but they are plagued by several maintenance and sustainability issues, particularly with recurring costs associated with film and chemicals. It isn’t unusual to see rural clinics in the developing world with defunct WHIS-RAD machines covered in cobwebs and locked in closets.

To create a more permanent solution, WHIA has partnered with Sedecal, a manufacturer of x-ray systems, to provide WHIS-RAD machines; with Carestream Health, a medical imaging company, to provide digital (filmless) medical imaging; and with Merge Healthcare, a medical imaging software company, for the software package. On top of these partnerships, WHIA has contacts with universities located in their first test sites (South Africa and Guatemala). Close relationships with Rotary International and other organizations have provided WHIA with a lineup of future candidate sites.

In short, WHIA is well set up to tackle what has been up to now an intractable problem.

“We started this project with the modest goal of replacing film with digital technology,” said Glucksberg, “but soon realized that all the advantages of filmless imaging that we enjoy in the developed world are even more important in resource-poor environments. There is so much that can be done when the image is data. Telemedicine, computer-aided diagnostics, and electronic medical records are all things that are needed to treat patients and track disease, whether we’re talking about medical practice in Chicago or Cape Town.”

For the second problem, we have to come all the way across the globe from Africa to the west coast of the US. That’s where Dara O’Rourke and his GoodGuide team (goodguide.com) are creating a website that rates products based on how “good” they are in terms of social and environmental practices—part of a new movement called “eco intelligence.” Once again, it’s all about information: What chemicals are in your baby shampoo? Was sweatshop labor used to make your t-shirt? What’s the total environmental impact of this gallon of milk?

Using an iPhone app, shoppers can enter a product’s name on their mobile device and the site, currently in beta, replies with detailed health, environmental, and social ratings. GoodGuide has already posted a multitude of searchable products, from food to personal hygiene to household cleaners to toys.

GoodGuide has taken off quickly, going from a student startup in 2006 to receiving $3.7 million in backing from cleantech investors in late 2008. They’ve garnered media attention from Time and Oprah Magazine, among others, and recently won a Crunchie award—Silicon Valley’s version of the Oscars—having been voted the startup “Most Likely to Make the World a Better Place.”

GoodGuide and WHIA are two ventures on the brink of success in achieving their goal: giving people access to valuable information. Their success does indeed promise to make the world a better place.