Category Archives: SciDev.NET

Indian designer develops Morse-based texting for deaf phone users

An Indian graduate student has designed a mobile phone application that enables people with sight and hearing impairments to send and receive text messages.

The PocketSMS application was developed for Android smartphones, which are generally cheaper than Apple’s iPhones. The application converts text into Morse code vibrations so that users can “feel” the message.

Regular mobile phones already use vibrations to alert users to incoming calls or messages. Anmol Anand, a graduate student at the Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University in Delhi, realised that the same vibrations could also convey text message content.

He used the open source Google App Inventor to write a new application to covert each letter in a text message into Morse code — in which each letter corresponds to a set of a short and long tones — and then used the phone’s hardware to vibrate for each letter.

An accompanying application, MorseTrainer, has been designed to teach deaf-blind users Morse code, and to use it without having to rely on smartphone keyboards, which can be difficult to see.

Text messaging is growing in importance as a tool for safety and social inclusion. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo late last year, for instance, a group of deaf users protested for their safety late last year when the government shut down text messaging services, the BBC reported.

In Uganda, the National Association of the Deaf is working on a project in which hearing students and deaf students learn how to send text messages together.

“We saw that deaf kids were not integrating,” said education consultant Sacha DeVelle, who was volunteering in Kabale with the charity Cambridge to Africa.

When teachers began showing pairs of hearing and deaf students how to send text messages, deaf children became far more integrated into the school community. “It encourages them to go on and do what they want to do, [for example] go to university or set up a shop,” DeVelle said.

Anand’s collaborator, Arun Mehta — president of the Bidirectional Access Promotion Society (BAPSI) — said that internet access is just as important for the disabled as everyone else.

He said that the introduction of text-to-speech screen reading software had meant that “the gap between the sighted and the blind has shrunk dramatically. We would like to do that for the deaf-blind too.”

Inclusive technology can help disabled people take part in everyday life, said Mohamed Jemni, a computer scientist at the School of Science and Technology in Tunisia.

Jemni says he is now  testing an application to turn text messages into animated avatars which “sign” the message visually. He said the underlying software could be customised to suit national sign languages in use around the world.


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Phase-changing materials in trial to preserve vaccines

Insulating materials that could fit inside icepacks to transport and store vaccines more effectively are about to enter field trials in Vietnam.

The novel materials make use of the phase change — the point at which solids melt or liquids turn to solids — to keep the vaccines within a limited temperature range and prevent them from spoiling because of temperature variations.

If successful, the new vaccine carriers could be produced in India for use around the world, according to Shawn McGuire, an engineer at the global non-governmental organisation Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH).

Vaccines are only effective if they remain within a narrow temperature range, often between two and eight degrees Celsius. But when a health worker opens a refrigerator door, it changes the temperature inside.

In a hot climate with unreliable electricity, icepacks are often used in the vaccine supply chain to prevent overheating.

But ice is colder than vaccines need to be, and improperly stored vaccines can freeze and fail to protect patients.

“This has become more of an issue, as most new vaccines are freeze-sensitive,” said Osman David Mansoor, a senior adviser on new vaccines at the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), in New York, United States. “A single freeze exposure can inactivate some vaccines.”

Currently health workers have no easy way of knowing whether a vaccine has frozen and later thawed out.

Previous studies have shown that vaccines are often exposed to freezing conditions, as a result of ice, more frequently during transport than storage, according to Mansoor.

The phase-changing materials integrated into vaccine-carrying boxes act “like a shield around the vaccine” said Nancy Muller, PATH programme officer.

These materials absorb or release large amounts of heat by changing phases between liquid and solid states — just the way water does.

However, the temperature at which they do this — their melting point — can be above zero degrees Celsius, at a temperature appropriate for the safe transport of vaccines.

Used in combination with ice, such materials could provide additional temperature stability for vaccines, said Ian Tansley, founder and chief technical officer at the UK-based engineering company True Energy, which also uses the technology for fridges that can keep cool longer without electricity.

PATH expects its prototypes, which would fit into existing WHO-approved ice-carrying boxes, will cost more than existing coolers.

But over the product’s lifetime — which can reach a decade — it should save enough vaccines to make up for it.

“An ice-pack that did not expose vaccines to freezing conditions would indeed be an important advance,” said Mansoor.


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Virus-resistant cassava could be available by 2015

Cassava breeds that are resistant to two major viruses could soon be available to farmers in Africa.

Cassava mosaic disease and brown streak disease stunt the growth and rot the roots of crops, respectively.

Mosaic disease alone destroys an estimated 35 million tonnes of African cassava a year — the difference between needing to import food into Africa and achieving food independence, according to researchers at the US-based Donald Danforth Plant Science Center.

The team has shown in the laboratory tests that genetically engineered (GE) tobacco plants resist brown streak disease. Their results will appear in Molecular Plant Pathology next month (August), Claude Fauquet, lead author of the study and director of cassava research at the centre, told SciDev.Net.

Pending field trials will test the same modification in various cassava breeds selected according to farmers’ tastes and local growing conditions in Kenya and Uganda, he said.

The team is also awaiting approval to run field tests on resistance to brown streak disease with collaborators in Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda.

But it could be 2015 before the plants are approved for commercial use, said Fauquet, whose team is building local laboratories and facilities, and training African scientists and technicians to handle the field trials.

Researchers in Kenya and Tanzania are also expecting approval for field trials of cassava breeds resistant to mosaic disease, Morag Ferguson, a plant molecular geneticist at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, Kenya, told SciDev.Net. The team used a non-GE approach by cross-breeding native and wild strains of cassava to achieve resistance in laboratory and greenhouse tests.

Both teams hope for swift approval by the continent’s nascent biosafety regulation community, even though many African countries still lack clear biosafety laws.

Ferguson said that successful field trials of disease-resistant cassava could “prompt countries to get their biosafety regulations in place”.

Legislators are cautious of GE technology at first but if there is a chance of successfully controlling crop disease they would like to see those solutions applied quickly, Fauquet said.

But Anne Kingiri, a research fellow at the UK Department for International Development’s Research into Use Programme, said that the deployment of GE plants is not dependent only on biosafety regulations, nor are the regulations only dependent on the technology — country-specific social and institutional factors also play a role.

“Quicker passage of biosafety laws — which are pertinent for GE technology deployment — will depend on many factors, including honesty and transparency amongst researchers about benefits and potential risks,” she said.

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