Summer 2018

Hold the Phone

How cell phones and fitness trackers can help fight hunger in developing countries.

By Taylor McNeil

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A chart shows how men in rural Ghana spent an average day. Accelerometers revealed that economic activities, such as farming, accounted for 51 percent of the calories they burned.

Measuring whether people in developing countries have enough nutritious food is vital work. It warns policymakers when people are running out of food, and is critical to staving off malnutrition.

It’s also time-consuming and expensive. Teams fan out, often to rural, isolated areas, to conduct interviews at homes, a monthslong task. But there might be an easier, less expensive way to do it, said Patrick Webb, Alexander McFarlane Professor of Nutrition at the Friedman School, who focuses on food insecurity and programs that try to alleviate it.

Webb’s idea was a simple one. “What if cellphone usage were some reflection of the poverty level, which is often linked to the food security level?” he said. “If we were able to assess the ownership of cellphones, volume of calls, or money spent on recharging cellphone plans, could that be correlated with food security?”

Webb already had teams at twenty-one locations in rural Nepal, who had been doing the old-fashioned food-security surveys with more than 4,000 households for the past three years. Now he is seeing how cellphone data matches up with that on-the-ground information, controlling for other parameters that can affect poverty rates, such as distance to market and road density. And the preliminary results, Webb said, show “there does seem to be quite a strong correlation between less cellphone use and more food insecurity.”

On the flip side of nutritional intake is energy expenditure: the calories people burn as people go about their work and daily lives. If people are getting more nutrition but expending more energy, there’s still a problem. Measuring energy expenditure of rural workers has never been easy—because it has required in-person observation by researchers—and it’s rarely done even now.

But Webb and a colleague had a better idea: How about modifying fitness trackers, often used in developed countries by people trying to lose weight?

A start-up in Cambridge, England, devised such an accelerometer for Webb’s team. It measures a range of motions typically employed by rural workers: hoeing, pounding, carrying buckets of water. A study is underway in India, Ghana, and Nepal, following men and women at different times of year; researchers are also charting their food consumption.

Initial results suggest the device works, Webb said: “It could become a new measurement tool for assessing if people are doing more work than they are able to cover for in their diets.”

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