Andrew Deonarine is the winner of the first Economist-InnoCentive Challenge, 21st Century Cyber Schools. On September 15, Andrew was interviewed on stage by The Economist’s Digital Editor Tom Standage, where he described his winning solution, the “EduCell,” at The Economist’s Ideas Economy: Human Potential Conference in New York City.
I am a third year resident in the Public Health and Preventative Medicine (Community Medicine) residency program at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and a junior fellow of St. John’s College. I’ve always had an interest in biology, medicine, and computer science. I completed a BSc. Hons. in Biochemistry and Chemistry at the University of Western Ontario, as well as an MSc. in biochemistry. After, I pursued my interest in medicine and completed my MD at the University of Toronto. During that time, I had a chance to do research with Dr. Sarah Teichmann in bioinformatics at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology, University of Cambridge. After completing my MD, I started my residency training at UBC. I also completed a Masters of Health Science at UBC as part of my residency. For my major research paper, I spent a few months working with Dr. Mark Musen at Stanford University on biomedical ontologies. This year I will be enrolled in the Clinician Investigator Program at UBC, and will complete a PhD in bioinformatics with Dr. Teichmann at the University of Cambridge, where I will be a member of Girton College. I will then return to UBC complete my residency training in Public Health.
Often I’m asked about how my studies in bioinformatics, public health, medicine, epidemiology, and biochemistry and chemistry fit together. I believe that one needs a holistic approach to solving developmental problems. Often, NGOs will pursue a “silo issue” rather than taking an integrated approach to development. In other words, they might look at economic development but not education, health but not economic development, the environment but not health, etc. Some of my other interests pertain to the creation of conceptual models for development and education in resource-poor areas. In order to address international health issues, one should have a strong understanding of technology (informatics), public health, epidemiology, education, and basic science, in addition to understanding local cultures and politics. Hence my academic course.
I became interested in education by cellular phone after listening to speakers from South Africa discuss the educational hurdles being faced there after Apartheid. As well, I’ve read Gandhi’s teachings on education and the importance of “universal media” in teaching. Many social, health, and economic problems in developing countries could be addressed if the populations were literate, and had a basic education. I developed a system called “Phonecasting” which distributes interactive educational lessons by inexpensive cellular phones, using software called “EduCell.” “EduCell” fulfills the test of being a “universal medium” as described by Gandhi, and could be an important, open-source teaching platform for the 21st century. The goal of “EduCell” is to plug the “education gap” that many children face in developing countries.
When I saw this education challenge issued by The Economist magazine and InnoCentive, I was excited. This was something I’ve been working on for years, and the Challenge fit my ideas perfectly. It has provided me with a chance to get my ideas out to the world and start to translate them from conceptual documents, emulator code, and schematics into real working pilots. I hope to start an NGO and employ students part-time to develop this idea over the coming months, and eventually to have this technology deployed across the world. I believe that basic literacy is a pre-requisite to solving many of the world’s problems, and Phonecasting is the way to help the world become literate.