In a decade-long mission asking survivors of war and mass conflict how they were faring and what they and their societies needed to heal, Patrick Vinck and his wife Phuong Pham often felt hampered by standard paper-and-pencil surveys. Both work at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI)—Vinck as director of the Program on Vulnerable Populations, and Pham as the director of Evaluation and Implementation Science. Today, with open-source software that they themselves developed, called KoBo, the researchers are able to document both the complexities of postwar suffering and the most pressing public health needs in ravaged populations.“

mHealth technology represents the second wave of humanitarian assistance,” says Vinck. “When you ask victims how to redress war suffering, they will often say, ‘Help me get prosthetics for my injuries. Build a hospital for my children. Improve the health care system.’ In the past, we’ve seen billions of dollars poured into proceedings meant to help the victims—but nobody was asking the victims exactly what they wanted and needed. With digital technologies, we can do just that.”

Adds Pham, “We wanted smartphones that integrated audio, video, text, data, and geolocation all in one place, and we wanted it to be freely available.” Compared with conventional data-gathering tools, their mobile digital technology is more secure, more cost-effective, easier for trained health workers to use, and its results can be swiftly translated into case management and timely evidence-based policy recommendations. Ultimately, the phones could help health care workers diagnose disease, document human rights violations, photograph (through an attachment to a light microscope) a smear of blood potentially laced with malaria parasites, and even gauge through surveys how post-traumatic stress disorder colors postwar attitudes toward transitional justice and reconciliation.