Microsoft Research India: The Faces Behind the Fight Against TB

The following is a post from Bill Thies, Researcher, Microsoft Research India.


In India, I have seen first-hand the faces of those stricken by tuberculosis (TB), one of the world’s deadliest diseases. Every year, 9 million people contract TB and here in India alone, two people die every three minutes. As a researcher at Microsoft Research India, I’m interested in using technology to help solve some of the world’s most pressing societal and health challenges. In partnership with Operation ASHA, a leading provider of TB treatment in India, I’m excited to share with you today a mini-documentary that takes a personal and up-close look at a biometric system we invented and are deploying in India to amplify performance and accountability in patients and care providers.

The concept is simple, but the impact could be immense. A fingerprint reader, a low-cost laptop and a GSM modem work together to scan a patient’s fingerprint, tracking visits and ensuring patients complete their full course of TB medication. This results in a full recovery for the patient and also prevents the spread of an even deadlier disease – drug-resistant tuberculosis. To date, the technology has enrolled more than 3,000 patients and logged more than 60,000 supervised doses in more than 40 treatment centers, spanning Delhi, Mumbai and Jaipur.

For me, this project represents the fruition of a wonderful journey that started while I was a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a strong desire to apply my background and skills in computer science to the real-world challenges facing poor communities around the world. I was drawn to MIT’s graduate school program by Professor Saman Amarasinghe, a kindred spirit who founded the first Internet service provider in Sri Lanka.

My specific interest in TB was seeded by an MIT-wide competition, the Muhammad Yunus Innovation Challenge, which in 2007 focused on improving adherence to TB medications. I entered this event with a talented team of colleagues and we went on to win a prize. This experience set everything else in motion: a trip to rural India; a connection to Manish Bhardwaj, who later co-founded the TB non-profit, Innovators in Health, with myself and others; and an introduction to Operation ASHA. Both Operation ASHA and Innovators In Health are field partners in this project.

Upon finishing my Ph.D., I wanted to continue the work I had started at the intersection of technology and TB treatment – and more broadly, technology and the developing world. Though I had aspired to pursue an academic career, upon graduation, I discovered a tremendous group at Microsoft Research India, called Technology for Emerging Markets, that combines rigorous research with grounded, real-world impact enabled by their proximity to low-income communities in Bangalore, India. Inspired by this interdisciplinary team of technologists and social scientists, and especially by the team’s founding manager, Kentaro Toyama, I joined Microsoft Research India in fall 2008.

Since then, I’ve felt privileged to pursue with absolute freedom a diverse array of research projects that meld the worlds of technology and socio-economic development. In addition to our work on tuberculosis, personal highlights for me include CGNet Swara, a mobile platform for citizen news journalism in rural India, and IVR Junction, which makes it easy for any organization to build interactive voice forums or similar, voice-based communities. We are active in the domain of education; for example, we recently developed a new system that enables interactive classroom polling at low cost. Additional projects are described on my personal website and on the website for the Technology for Emerging Markets Group.

While there is no silver bullet in the fight against global poverty, I am continually inspired by the tireless efforts and impact of our community partners, and it is my deepest desire to use every technology at our disposal to make sure their efforts count. Working together, we may be able to win the fight – even against adversaries as daunting as tuberculosis.