SA scientist, engineer pioneer tech in TB research

Johannesburg - A simple tag pioneered in South Africa could soon be used to curb the spread of tuberculosis in Africa.

In efforts to better understand how the disease is spread, IBM engineer Toby Kurien and research scientist Darlington Mapiye have developed the concept of a tracking device which measures the proximity of TB patients. 

“We had to look at what we could do to collect data about patients and how we can track infection,” Kurien said. 

“The solution was to create a cheap sensor that could track when someone who has the disease comes into contact with a person who is not infected," he added. 

The device was developed in the Maker Lab at IBM’s second Research Lab in Africa which is situated at the Wits Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.

READ: IBM launches Africa's second lab in Joburg

Mapiye said that there was a stigma attached to people who had TB and that the device was developed to destigmatise the disease as well as further understand what kind of treatment patients needed. 

“With the kind of data that is collected by the tags we are able to optimise what strategies are put in place and better understand how people come into contact with one another to contract the disease,” he said. 

Mapiye added that from the information collected, which is then uploaded to a cloud server, they can then analyse the data to know what kind of treatment people need.  

“We are doing research into different areas and what people are already wearing. We are trying to make the device as invisible as possible by turning them into bracelets or watches,” Kurien said. 

Mapiye said that no two devices would look the same, meaning that even when people came into contact with one another, they would not know whether they were indeed wearing a device. 

Would you be comfortable wearing a device to help track how TB is spread? Tell us by clicking here.

Kurien also said that the device only tracked proximity with other devices and did not include a GPS or recording mechanism. 

While the project is still in its research phase, the team is hoping to conduct trials in Johannesburg soon and thereafter in Kenya, where IBM’s other African research lab is based.

When rolled out, the tag is expected to be distributed among people who have the disease and also those who do not. It would also only be distributed among people voluntarily. 

The data collected from the tags is uploaded to IBM’s supercomputer, Watson which offers a cloud service via more than 50 application programming interfaces (APIs). 

The team are currently using Watson IoT (internet of things) for the TB project.

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