According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly 300,000 women die every year from pregnancy-related complications, mostly in the developing world. Heather Underwood, who graduated in December 2013 from the ATLAS Institute PhD program, sought to change this by developing the PartoPen.
The PartoPen is an interactive digital pen-based system that works with an existing paper-based labor monitoring system, the partograph. Widely used around the world, the partograph was promoted by the WHO in 1994 when a study demonstrated its effectiveness in improving birth outcomes in underdeveloped regions.
In a paper that won the first-place graduate student award in the prestigious Grand Finals of the 2013 Student Research Competition of the Association for Computing Machinery, Underwood wrote, "Used correctly, the partograph provides decision support that assists in early detection of maternal and fetal complications during labor. Especially in rural clinics, early detection allows transport decisions to be made in time for a woman to reach a regional facility capable of performing emergency obstetric procedures."
The PartoPen uses customizable software written by Underwood for the Livescribe 2GB Echo digital pen. It captures and synchronizes audio and handwritten text and digitizes handwritten notes into searchable, printable documents. An infrared camera in the tip reads a pre-printed dot pattern (placed by a laser printer) allowing the pen to detect its location on the page, interpret data, perform various functions and communicate with users.
"One of the key messages of Information and Communication Technology for Development as a field is the need to understand and work with the existing social and cultural factors when introducing a new technology," Underwood says. "While the PartoPen is a useful tool, you need a lot of things in place before realizing its full benefits."
Spending 12 to 15 hours in Kenyan labor wards on a daily basis helped her better understand the paper/data trail - and where improvements can be made. "I began to see my work expanding into occupational work flow," she says. "How are things done? How can existing procedures be improved?"
> Read the story of Underwood winning the top graduate student award in the Association for Computing Machinery Student Research Competition Grand Finals
> Learn more about her research at PartoPen.com