Melissa R. Densmore Facebook LinkedIn
Associate Professor, University of Cape Town Department of Computer Science
Director, Human-Computer Interaction Lab
Coordinator, Hasso Plattner Institute Research School at UCT
Centre in Information & Communications Technology for Development (ICT4D)
PI, Co-Designing Community-Based ICTs for Maternal and Child Health in South Africa

Information, Communications Technology, and Development (ICTD)
Content and Service Innovation in Bandwidth-constrained Communities
Family-centered Maternal and Child Health
iNethi Project: Fostering Conent and Services for Community Wireless Networks

I am a human-computer interaction for development (HCI4D) researcher, with a specific focus on the uses of new information technology and interfaces for healthcare in Africa. Actually, I've also dabbled in solar powered lighting for hospitals in rural Nigeria and Uganda, done some IT for education in Mexico, and helped out with wireless deployments in India, so I've been known to think about other problems as well, but my primary focus (i.e. my dissertation) is on information technology for healthcare in Africa. My motivation runs something like this: (A) I'm pretty good (compared to some, not so much compared to a lot of my colleagues ) at computers and actually get pretty obsessed with them at times. (B) God has placed a special and specific compassion in my heart for the needs of Africa. Since I'm absolutely sure that (A) is not a coincidence, and because God has managed to do a lot of things in my life to make this possible, I'm using (A) to address (B).

Prior to joining UCT, I completed a post-doc in the Technology for Emerging Markets group at Microsoft Research in Bangalore, India. I did my PhD at the University of California, Berkeley School of Information, where my dissertation committee was Dean AnnaLee Saxenian (co-chair), Prof. John Chuang (co-chair), Prof. Eric Brewer and Prof. Jenna Burrell. My work experience is in user interface and web application design, so my research also involves human-computer interaction, participatory design, and action research. By combining a theoretical approach with an experiential interaction, my work most closely approaches applied anthropology. My dissertation was primarily ethnographic - as part of my work I traveled five times to Uganda, with my main fieldwork occuring during a 15 month stay from January 2009 to the beginning of April 2010. While this work included the deployment of technology, my primary work was observation and inquiry, and my study was structured to enable me to deliberately step back from my role as a technologist, both to ensure sustainability of the deployment in my absence, but also so I would have the time to observe social dynamics as they emerged around the deployment over time.

During my stay in Uganda volunteered as a lecturer teaching Object-Oriented Programming in Java to 225+ first year students at the Mbarara University of Science and Technology Institute of Computer Science. I know this page is sort of 1995, but that's the easiest way to make lots of info available in the lowest number of bytes on the web (without compressing the text).

If you are a prospective PhD or MSc student, please read my Guide for prospective graduate students prior to contacting me.

Please note: publications prior to 2010 have been published under my previous name of Melissa R. Ho. My full list of projects and publications can be found on my Google Scholar profile.


Cape Town: Mobile-First Co-Design

For many township residents in Cape Town, PCs and laptops are used in the context of libraries, Internet cafes, and other public access venues. Instead their primary and often first use of the Internet is on a mobile phone. Unfortunately - these phones are designed often as secondary devices, assuming all the mappings that come with using a PC first. This research seeks to explore how we can design (and encourage co-design and self-design of) interfaces for these communities. We are exploring a range of applications areas, from cloudlet-based applications for community wireless networks to health applications and educational strategies for improving Internet literacy.

Mobile Content Creation and Evaluation

One of the biggest barriers to effective use of mobile phones for ongoing education (besides the small screen size) is the creation and dissemination of engaging and on-topic content. For this research we explore mechanisms of enabling local content creation, through the use of media on mobile devices or computers. Content can then be disbributed through bluetooth, community wireless or OTA. From there, community members can participate and provide feedback on the content, enabling participatory engagement between all the users of similar content. Primary domains of focus include public health education (maternal health, general topics), mobile literacy, and other topics of interest to target communities.

Inethi Cloudlet Apps The Net4D group has set up a community wireless testbed in the townships of Ocean View and Masimuphulele. Projects include baseline measurement studies of current mobile Internet use, and deployment a few systems to support local social networking and file synchronization. Next year we'd like to embark on some exploratory co-design studies to help students at the local high schools and other stakeholders to develop localized cloudlet apps for people to leverage the community network. This would entail workshops and prototyping sessions, as well as volunteering in the community once a week.

DCCT Train the Trainer: The Deaf Community of Cape Town runs an international computer driving licence (ICDL) course to help improve the employability of their community members. Past students have developed tools to make the (designed-for-hearing-students) curriculum more accessible to the Deaf students and trainers. We'd like to 1) find ways to make these materials also accessible from a mobile device and 2) develop tools to support training of Deaf trainers to customize the curriculum with the existing software. This is also a co-design project and would entail volunteering for DCCT at least once a week.

The Zanokhanyo Network: One of the big problems in South Africa is a high unemployment rate. To address this, the Zanokhanyo Network (TZN) and several other NGOs offer "job readiness training" to provide soft skills training and job placement services. While job placement rates are fairly high (60-70%), it's unclear how long they keep the jobs after training, and there are a number of people that still struggle to find employment. Key barriers include English language facility, and difficulty engaging potential employers through web services (e.g. Gumtree) and email. We would conduct a series of workshops to establish the needs of the NGO and their students, and to co-design and evaluate technological and social approaches to addressing some of these needs.

Resources, Situated Learning and Inclusion in Open Data Projects: Open Data initiatives have made ambitious promises for transforming health outcomes. Access to data is argued as critical for helping governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and multinational organisations (MNOs) make strategic decisions for addressing the UN SDGs. However, there are several primary barriers to making “open” data truly open. Firstly, data is often of low quality, and not consistently gathered, making it difficult to compare across countries. Secondly, users do not have the knowledge or tools necessary to turn raw data into useful information; further, we do not understand the ways in which digital literacy, social status, and other factors disempower users to make use of and contribute to open data. Finally, these largely top-down initiatives often ignore the information needs of the users - those at the bottom of the stakeholder value chain who actually generate the data. We propose to develop a model for open health data that is inclusive of the needs of all stakeholders, and will bring the broadest benefit to everyone, with an ultimate goal of developing appropriate and inclusive technologies that will help the world meet the SDGs.

Old Projects

Uganda: Claim Mobile

HealthyLife is a voucher program that reimburses existing service providers for services rendered. However, service providers are geographically distant, program management is information intensive and errors and other sources of delay affect service provision, quality of care, and payment timeliness. Claim Mobile is a dual web and mobile based platform designed to enable service providers to use mobile phones to submit formerly paper based claims digitally to a web-based application. The web application is additionally designed to cope with Internet infrastructure limitations found in Mbarara, Uganda, and supports asynchronous synchronization between locally and globally available web server, to enable access to claims data even when Internet access may be prohibitively slow or unavailable.

Nigeria: Women's Emergency Rural Communications and Reliable Electricity (WECARE)

WECARE is a joint project with Laura Stachel (School of Public Health), Christian Casillas (Energy and Resources), Hal Aronson (Solar Schoolhouse), and Drew Sproul (Adax), originally proposed as part of the annual Bears Breaking Boundaries competition. In this project, we propose to provide solar power not for the whole hospital, but for specific operating rooms, targeting surgical lighting, and communications and diagnostic equipment. The solar equipment has been deployed in Kofan Gayan Municipal Hospital, in Zaria, rural northern Nigeria, and designed to be easily deployed by hospital staff on a daily basis as necessary. Since mobile coverage is inadequate in this area, we have also provided walkie talkies, which are charged during the day, and used for summoning the doctors on call during the night. In collaboration with, WECARE is raising money to pay for additional solar equipment, as well as headlamps for the midwives and doctors to use during obstetric procedures. Laura's study involves both a baseline evaluation to gather information on patient care prior to the intervention, as well as improvements after the introduction of these services, and monitoring of the hospital staff's ability to maintain the deployed equipment.

Ghana: Amita Telemedicine

The Ghana Consultation Network is a distributed web-based social networking application designed for Ghanaian doctors in Ghana and in the United States to use to consult with one another about patients. Modeled on the existing practice of "curbside" consultation, the web site provides a directory service that enables doctors to consult with professional groups, social contacts, referral hospitals, and particular specialties. In addition, we have architected the system with local servers in each of the main participating hospitals, enabling doctors to interact with the application even when their Internet connection may be faulty or slow. The servers then transparently synchronize with each other over the available Internet connection, propagating new cases and responses throughout the network. This project has been done in collaboration with Rowena Luk and Paul Aoki, and has also been incorporated as a non-profit in Canada.

[Other Publications]