The Grill: Dieterich Lawson

This newbie CTO oversees a network that connects doctors and saves lives.

The young and charismatic chief technology officer at FrontlineSMS:Medic, Dieterich Lawson, 21, is committed to his company's mission of using low-cost mobile technologies to advance healthcare networks in underserved communities. Combining the use of inexpensive cell phones with free, open-source software, Lawson and FrontlineSMS:Medic are helping to better organize healthcare records and connect patients with doctors in rural areas around the world.

Dieterich Lawson

Favorite movie: Good Will Hunting

Favorite technology: It's a tie between the Hubble Space Telescope and the Large Hadron Collider.

Favorite vice: StarCraft II

Life's ambition: To go to space for a few days, preferably on a commercial flight. I'm extremely interested in spaceflight, humanity becoming an interplanetary species, and the discovery of aliens, so I aspire to contribute to progress in those areas.

Dream dinner guest: Oscar Wilde

Favorite book: The last book I read was also the best book I've read -- Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire. It's such a beautiful mind trip, and I've never read another book like it.

Tell me about FrontlineSMS:Medic. When was the company started, and what are its goals? The project that inspired Medic started in late 2008, when Josh Nesbit, our CEO, went to work at St. Gabriel's Hospital in Malawi. St. Gabriel's is a rural clinic, and many of its patients live 50 or 60 miles away, without access to cars or motorbikes. A 60-mile walk would be difficult under any circumstances, but for someone who is sick, it can be brutal, potentially deadly. To combat this problem, many clinics have begun training community health workers, or CHWs, who live in these rural communities and provide basic medical care as a proxy for the clinic. Unfortunately, the CHWs have limited supplies and only a few weeks of training and are often as disconnected from the clinics as the patients themselves.

Josh had the idea to give each CHW a cell phone and equip St. Gabriel's with a laptop running FrontlineSMS:Medic, a free and open-source software package that allows users to send and receive text messages from their computers via a USB-connected mobile phone. This simple improvement in communication saved the clinic 2,048 hours of worker time, reduced motorbike fuel costs by $3,000 and doubled enrollment to their tuberculosis treatment program.

Two years later, we've created a collection of software tools that have been deployed in 10 countries and are being used by 1,500 CHWs who serve over 3.5 million patients.

What projects is Medic working on? One of our first projects, PatientView, is a simple and easy-to-use electronic medical record targeting small clinics or single departments that have little support from professional IT staff. Many of these clinics are currently using paper medical records and would benefit from the improved efficiency and reliability of an EMR but do not have the technical staff to maintain one, as they are typically large and complex. To address this problem, PatientView was designed to be easy to set up, easy to maintain and easy to use. Beyond simplicity and usability, PatientView has many mobile features that are useful when working with health workers in the field, like the ability to coordinate SMS to and from the workers, accept forms submitted on mobile phones, and more.

PatientView is a desktop application, and at times we've been criticized for limiting it to offline use only. However, we have found consistently that our partners do not have a reliable enough connection to access a Web application that is hosted remotely and do not have the expertise to maintain network infrastructure and a full Web stack locally.

How will the needs of Medic's users change as this technology develops? One such need involves Internet connectivity in many resource-constrained areas. Currently, we are very focused on SMS technology because it is reliable and available nearly everywhere. But as Internet tech like GPRS becomes more widespread and reliable, our users will want technology that takes advantage of this faster, cheaper connection method. In a similar vein, many of our deployment areas will eventually have stable access to wired Internet and will want to leverage all of the advantages that it can provide.

What is your role at Medic? Technology visionary? Operations manager? My job revolves around defining our software direction and goals, and coordinating the achievement of those goals.

Defining our software goals begins with gathering data and input from many groups of people, including our staff and end users. From these conversations, we work to home in on a set of realistic and attainable features. It's my job to ensure that the goals created represent the best interests of Medic, and that the goals are communicated to our development team.

The second part revolves around ensuring that our development team is operating at peak efficiency and accomplishing the goals that we've established.

How do you measure success? Medic has a research arm, headed by Nadim Mahmud. The job of Medic Research is to oversee studies at our implementation sites, determine our impact and publish the results in peer-reviewed journals.

What are some of the advantages of being a young CTO at a fairly early-stage growth tech company? The main advantage to being younger is having fewer assumptions about what can be done and how to do it. Other than that, I've found that it's mostly a challenge -- I'm inexperienced at public speaking and still get stage fright. I don't have shared experiences with many of the people I meet.

I'm learning, but every day I wake up kind of surprised that I haven't stepped on a proverbial land mine. All that being said, though, I also wake up feeling incredibly lucky to have found such a fulfilling and challenging job while I'm still young. I have the rest of my life to be timid.

Interview by Sara Forrest, a freelance photographer and writer in New York (studio@saraforrestphoto.com).

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Sara Forrest

Computerworld (US)
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