One Saturday morning in August 2002, Nancy Marcos, a nurse in the Peruvian village of San Vicente de Canete, saw a patient with symptoms of measles. There hadn't been a measles diagnosis in Peru for nine years, and Marcos was terrified that she might have a major outbreak on her hands.
A few months earlier, Marcos would have delivered a paper report on the case to the Peruvian Ministry of Health and crossed her fingers. Instead, she used a system called Alerta to immediately warn both the Ministry of Health and doctors in surrounding areas. With a landline telephone and a toll-free number, she entered codes corresponding to the diagnosis and left a message that was instantly disseminated by both voice mail and a color-coded Internet tracking system.
Alerta represents a profoundly different approach to the so-called digital divide. Rather than connecting poor, far-flung regions through expensive computers and the Internet, it harnesses the technology already in place. "People were so focused on the Internet that they forgot how many phones there are in the world," says Paul Meyer, cofounder and CEO of Voxiva, the Washington, DC, company behind Alerta.
Meyer, 33, has made his name applying simple technology to social problems. He cut his teeth in development circles by creating a paper and online "phone book" that listed families and their locations in African and Albanian refugee camps. He then threw copies off the back of a truck. In Kosovo, with little more than a rusty generator and a healthy disregard for bullets, he set up the first postwar Internet connection.
Meyer founded Voxiva in 2001 with his mother, Dr. Pam Johnson, former deputy director of Al Gore's Reinventing Government project, and Anand Narasimhan, founding CTO of J2 Global Communications. Their goal: to create a technology platform usable by anyone, regardless of the communication devices available. The idea was slow to catch on — until the anthrax outbreaks of 2001. And smallpox fears. And SARS. Suddenly, everyone recognized the value of a system that interconnects widely dispersed health care workers in real time.
Today, some 40,000 medical cases have been reported through Peru's system. Alerta is also used by the U.S. and Peruvian navies, which together run 118 health clinics for sailors in the Amazon. A Voxiva team in Iraq is developing a disease-tracking system. And in the United States, Voxiva is monitoring the health of Defense Department employees who've been vaccinated against smallpox and documenting shortages at blood centers. The digital divide? A simple telephone, it seems, can bridge it.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.