The avatars can also speak regional languages and dialects, Swamy said.
Dimagi is part of a maternal health project, along with the international charity CARE, in Bihar, India, where infant and maternal mortality rates are among the highest in India, according to UNICEF.
In partnership with the Washington-based Grameen Foundation, a microfinance organization, Dimagi is putting cellphones into the hands of healthworkers to monitor pregnancies and educate expectant mothers about prenatal and neonatal care.
Not all mHealth campaigns center on maternal care. ZMQ developed a mobile program for India’s campaign against polio. Deployed in 13 high-risk districts throughout the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the mobile software is intended for use by 1,300 community healthworkers to track vaccination rounds, register vaccinated families and collect data on missing children.
What has been a paper-and-pencil operation for more than 20 years is to be digitized.
Hilmi Quraishi, a ZMQ founder, said mHealth took a Gandhian approach: “Local technology to be self-reliant.”
To avoid dependence on donor funding, some initiatives have taken a more businesslike approach. While these may be called companies, their bottom line extends beyond profit, putting them in the category of social enterprises.
mHealth service mDhil founder Nandu Madhava is skeptical of governmental and nonprofit projects, dismissing them as bureaucratic and lacking strong technical talent.
MDhil operates on a subscriber model: For one rupee, a user gets three health-related messages via mobile text. In the last year, Madhava has branched out to focus on health videos.
He says that “Android handsets have become very affordable for the poor” and that customers can be reached through more sophisticated means than simply text messaging.
Rajesh Sawhney agrees. He set up the Global Superangels Forum, a venture capital fund, to invest in mobile technologies that have social impact. DhilCare, one of its startups, performs electrocardiogram testing remotely and transfers the results through 2G networks to cardiologists for diagnosis.
Numbers tell the story: India has 6,200 cardiologists, but needs about 60,000 to serve all of its citizens. To reach more people, cellphones connect urban doctors with rural patients.
Gray Ghost Ventures managing director Arun Gore said an impact investing fund in Atlanta, said he had decided to support mDhil because mobiles “remain among the fastest-growing sectors globally.”
Still, Gore cautioned, the cellphone should be viewed as a facilitator, not a foolproof solution.