It’s not hard to guess from his technology competition name—The Hex Pistols—that 20-year-old Shawn Frank is a fan of music. He's also a strong advocate of ensuring that women in developing nations have access to quality prenatal care. Six months ago, while walking to an internship, Frank came up with the idea for momEcare, a mobile device that helps provide medical assistance to pregnant women who can't get to a hospital. Now Frank, who just graduated from the computer science program at the University of Wollongong in Dubai, is headed to Microsoft's Imagine Cup, a technology competition for socially conscious high school and college students happening next week in New York City (we've covered the other young finalists here, here and here). I caught up with him to find out what first sparked his interest in technology and learn more about how momEcare works.
GOOD: When you were a kid, what first inspired you to become involved in science and technology?
Shawn Frank: I think the main reason for my interest in science is from movies. When I was eight or nine I loved Arnold Schwarzenegger and Terminator 2. I watched it tons of times and from there began the curiosity to know more about technology. I would also take this opportunity to pay tribute to my school which actually made science a really fun subject, so from a young age I was curious about things like planets, aliens and animals.
GOOD: What do you think schools and governments should be doing to get more students interested in these subjects?
Frank: I think governments should get more involved, especially here in the Gulf where governments give priority to expensive institutions and so the ones which are attended by most people do not necessarily get the best support.
The blackboard method (of teaching) is not as effective anymore since children use laptops and have iPhones. Schools need to use more technology in classes like computers and focus on being more practical instead of theoretical. Equipment would involve things like laptops, hardware and new things like electronic desks connected to digital boards. All this is very expensive and this is where the government could come in. It depends on how much they value shaping young minds. It might seem a bit too much but I feel it would help increase a student's willingness to learn.
GOOD: How exactly does momEcare work?
Frank: The momEcare system has three parts: the mobile app, the server side at the U.N. and a website. Governments and local organizations know how many villages or areas face problems with maternal issues in their countries, so they make a request on the website for the momEcare application. It's a request for the mobile device so it is one device per village, not one device per mother.
Eighty percent of maternal complications are really trivial—like hygiene and family planning issues—and 70 percent of maternal complications can be cured without any technology. The phone is carefully designed so it can be used by people who have no education and it has features like a mini-expert system to diagnose basic things like lack of rest, excessive exposure to sunlight, which seems basic to you and me but people in Africa and Asia fail to diagnose those. Another fact is that 80 percent of maternal deaths are caused by excessive bleeding, obstructed labor, hygiene and high blood pressure, so there is a education center on the phone, a mixture of videos and audio books, along with education on family planning and childbirth.
The phone is connected to the website and the website has a forum which is accessed by medical professionals from all over the world. User questions can be recorded on the phone and sent to the website. Experts view these and send replies using voice recordings, pictures and videos. All the information from the phone is collected and sent to a server side application at the U.N. so the number of pregnant women and the number of staff available is all recorded for every location. Now showing the problem is one thing but it also shows the nearest well-to do-region which can afford to give doctors and thus helping to stabilize the ratio.
GOOD: Do you have investors interested in your project?
Frank: When I won the regionals one of the Microsoft representatives spoke about a U.N. internship to make my project a real solution. I did not promote my project too much locally because I wanted to focus on getting it ready for the competition, but when I get back from New York it is something I will look at.
GOOD: What are you most excited to experience at the Imagine Cup?
Frank: I am looking forward to everything from the flight and the in-flight entertainment, to the Marriott in New York, to chilling in Times Square, and of course participating in the competition itself. I cannot wait.
We'll be interviewing our other top picks of the best student projects competing in the Imagine cup over the coming weeks.