Photo: kensiev/flickr

In many parts of the world, and especially South Asia and Africa, infectious diseases like malaria and dengue fever are literally flying around the air: The main vectors are mosquitoes, which on top of being supremely annoying cause hundreds of millions of people to get sick, and hundreds of thousands to die.

According to the World Health Organization, there were about 219 million cases of malaria in 2010 and an estimated 660 000 deaths. “The first symptoms – fever, headache, chills and vomiting – may be mild and difficult to recognize as malaria. If not treated within 24 hours, P. falciparum malaria can progress to severe illness often leading to death. Children with severe malaria frequently develop one or more of the following symptoms: severe anemia, respiratory distress in relation to metabolic acidosis, or cerebral malaria.”

symptoms of malaria

Image credit: Wikimedia, public domain

The incidence of dengue fever, says the World Health Organization, has grown dramatically around the world in recent decades. “More than 2.5 billion people — over 40 percent of the world's population — are now at risk from dengue. WHO currently estimates there may be 50-100 million dengue infections worldwide every year.” An estimated 500 000 people with severe dengue require hospitalization each year, a large proportion of whom are children. About 2.5 percent of those affected die.

There are ways to greatly reduce the number of disease-carrying mosquitoes in densely populated areas, such as by draining open-air reservoirs and puddles of water where the insects reproduce and by spraying insecticides in key areas. But these measures are not as effective as they could be because of another disease common to many countries where malaria and dengue breed: corruption.

Sadly, the municipal workers who are paid to put these anti-mosquito measures in place often don’t do a good job for one reason or another. They may be slow and ineffective — corruption from within, so to speak — or they may sell their insecticide on the black market or refuse to spray without getting bribes. After all, it’s hard to verify if an area has been sprayed or if a reservoir is being emptied too slowly, so there aren't many negative consequences. There can also be corruption from third party sources, like people in wealthy neighborhoods paying workers so they do a better job in their area, taking resources away from poorer neighborhoods.

Until recently, these problems seemed intractable. But thanks to a combination of modern technologies, crowdsourcing models, and radical transparency ideals, the situation could improve to the benefit of millions. Lahore, a city of about 12.5 million people in Pakistan, has devised a way to fight disease-carrying mosquitoes and corruption!

The city has about 1,500 municipal workers, all armed with cheap smartphones, and workers are required to take before and after photos of their work. The GPS-equipped phones tag the photos by date and time and location and they are uploaded to a website that is open to the public and shows what actions are being taken on a map of the city. The map also shows where outbreaks have been reported, allowing more targeted action.

This increased transparency allows citizens to see how fairly (or unfairly) resources are being distributed, and it increases worker productivity by making them accountable for their actions. So far the project seems to be effective; there were no reported dengue deaths in Lahore last year — and hopefully this clever use of cheap digital tools will spread all around the world.

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Promotion photo of mosquito: hofluk/flickr