Student Googles her way to award

31 May 2010

Shikoh GitauLife applications: Shikoh Gitau, a PhD student in the Department of Computer Science, has bagged the prestigious Google Anita Borg Memorial Award for 2010 for information technology solutions to socio-economic problems.

Shikoh Gitau, a PhD student in the Department of Computer Science, has bagged the prestigious Google Anita Borg Memorial Award for 2010, the first recipient from sub-Saharan Africa.

The award is given to female students who show exceptional academic and leadership skills in computing and technology. The award carries a cash prize and a visit to Google's Engineering Centre in Zurich for a networking retreat.

After obtaining a computer science degree in Kenya, Gitau wondered how her qualification could help millions of poverty-stricken Kenyans. Then she learnt of UCT's Information Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) Centre.

Based in the Department of Computer Science, the centre looks at how information technologies can be designed and implemented to tackle socio-economic problems in developing countries.

Gitau's award-winning proposal recommends M-Ganga (Mobile-Healer), a mobile phone-based application that will record, catalogue and map traditional medicine knowledge both for archival purposes and to be passed on to the next generation.

Gitau said that the doctor-to-patient ratio in many African countries is as high as 1:50 000, compared to traditional medicine, for which there is at least one traditional healer in every village.

"This raises an opportunity for a more proactive ways to provide healthcare through this traditional means, which can be optimised through technology."

Her proposed system includes a web-based application that will capture and disseminate traditional healing sessions through a cell phone. The system records the sessions in both audio and video, and stores them in an online database. It will also show where the medicinal plants are available, how they should be used, and whether they are endangered or not.

Gitau is also involved in a study on the use of mobile internet. This examines the challenges faced by people whose only access to the internet is via cell phone. She is now designing a service that allows poor people in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, to find employment and upgrade their skills at minimal cost, through the mobile internet.

"My motivation is beyond a degree, and my biggest fulfilment is to see people's lives change for the better. It will be pointless if my PhD in computer science is not relevant in addressing people's real-life problems."

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