• Research

  • 22.Feb.12
  • Farevalue Final Prototype
  • This past summer we were really busy prototyping a smart, enhanced store value card capable of powering up an e-paper display, for a socially-focused urban planning company called Urbanscale. This is the final working prototype we engineered and fabricated together with our engineer wizard collaborator Todd Bailey and was meant as a feels-like, looks-like, works-like […]

  • Tracking

  • 05.Nov.10
  • GROUND Lab Lion Tshirts!
  • Our GROUND Lab T-shirts in 100% organic cotton are now ready for anyone who wants one! They can be made in lots of different colors and sizes. The T-shirts have the GROUND Lab logo on the back and the lion and penguin logo on the side. We hope you like them as much as we […]

  • Field Work

  • 29.Jan.11
  • GROUND Lab in Tanzania
  • In January of 2011 GROUND Lab traveled to Tanzania to visit the island of Zanzibar and to assess network coverage on the island and mostly on mainland where the lions migrate to, after they leave Kenya. While in Zanzibar we ran tests to collect GPS data from that area using different cell carriers in Tanzania. […]

  • Past Projects

  • 04.Nov.09
  • Device X v 0.3
  • We have been really busy and excited at the Lab because we are now finishing the first full version of the prototype for the mobile health device for health clinics in Uganda in partnership with UNICEF. New prototype. New prototype on, example of a menu screen with ATM style buttons. This version, finally includes all […]

  • Papers & Talks

  • 07.Jan.11
  • GROUND Lab on OpenSource.com Part 3
  • OpenSource.com, a wonderful online resource for everything open source related, asked us to share our thoughts about how the open source approach influences and affects our business model. In the third part of this analysis Justin shares his thoughts on how open source can be successfully applied to many fields such as wildlife conservation and […]

  • Media & Press

  • 20.Feb.11
  • GROUND Lab on the Arduino Blog
  • Thanks a whole lot to our friends at Arduino for posting about GROUND Lab’s recent trip to Kenya and Tanzania to test their latest development in the open source lion tracking collar project. One of the tests involved using an Arduino Mega board to test out the GPRS connectivity and speed of local cell-phone networks. […]

Mobile Printer Concept

After we returned from our field trip in December of 2009 to test the concept and feasibility of Device X, we started researching how to design and produce an open source, low-power, low-cost and robust cell phone-based printing device for remote health facilities in Africa that participate in health monitoring and reporting. This device was […]



After we returned from our field trip in December of 2009 to test the concept and feasibility of Device X, we started researching how to design and produce an open source, low-power, low-cost and robust cell phone-based printing device for remote health facilities in Africa that participate in health monitoring and reporting. This device was meant to improve the two-way flow of time sensitive medical information thanks to its ability to generate a variety of reports from a national health information system (or any website), on-demand and in real time. What follows is the result of months of research, brainstorming and hacking.

Many delays are due to the time paper takes to physically travel to destinations.

The Challenge:
Current data collection processes in the field are mostly being carried out following one of two paths: one which relays on a cumbersome amount of paper logging and handwriting, or a mobile phone based and completely paperless approach. What we are proposing here is the implementation of a smart and sustainable printing option that would allow local health clinics and remote village health teams to produce on demand a local copy of medical data collected, birth and death certificates, patients’ IDs, patients’ health records, monthly health reports, inventory stock-outs as well as other health time sensitive data that currently is being manually compiled and needs to physically travel to its intended destinations. The current processes cause dangerous delays in triggering efficient and rapid responses and, during our field tests at the Kasangati and the Kiruddu Health Centers in Uganda, we noticed a general concern among nurses and doctors that were participating in mobile data collection regarding the lack of physical record keeping. Taking advantage of the local cell-phone networks and the current existing distribution of point-of-sale equipment, it is feasible and viable to create and implement technologies that contribute to creating affordable and real-time physical reporting.

Clinics that are equipped with printers are faced with the burdening expense of monthly replacement of inks, which often times are as expensive as the printer itself. This device would leverage the already wide distribution of thermal receipt printers and their ink-free thermal technology, which guarantees that purchasing thermal paper would be the only expense. Thermal receipt paper is readily available since it is the same paper found in most cash registers, print calculators and other widely distributed point of sale equipment.

There is not a wide range of GSM/GPRS based printing devices on the market today, although there is a concrete demand for a networked printing system that does not rely on phone land lines or a wired Internet connection, especially in developing Countries. The only existing examples, mostly only available for Asian markets, for the UK or South Africa, are not accessible in terms of distribution and their price point per unit is still prohibitively expensive for the intended application (as high as $700-800 each). These existing devices are also not easily customizable, include proprietary software and drivers, are locked with specific cell-phone carriers and are not designed for the type of environments that this device needs to withstand.

Research on affordable and low power printing mechanisms

Our Approach:
Thanks to our expertise in open source hardware/software, cell-phones and GSM/GPRS networks as well as our experience in creating open source drivers for re-purposing proprietary consumer electronics to solve humanitarian/environmental and social challenges worldwide, we are confident in the overall feasibility of this project and have no doubt that the creation of a low-power and rugged cell-phone based printing device is a very attainable goal. We have already developed a logic board that was created from merging the Arduino reference (an open source hardware prototyping platform) with a GSM/GPS module and we have already made progress interfacing this board with an off-the-shelf thermal receipt printer. We have started a code library to interface the two hardware components and began writing functionality in order to print the content of incoming SMS messages.

We can not only develop a solution using off the shelf components, but we are certain that with more resources we could develop a completely open source architecture that includes our already open GSM platform as well as a completely open source printing mechanism. The benefits of this method would include a lower power consumption (between 5V and 12V), more rechargeable options as well as a completely open source design reference that can be ‘shopped’ to different manufacturing houses and OEMs and that can, in the long term, represent a more sustainable solution that be produced and repaired locally.

Although a completely custom design might require a higher investment upfront, designing the printing mechanism from scratch would lower the manufacturing cost per unit by 40-50%. Using off-the-shelf serial thermal printers interfaced with our open source GSM logic board, the price of each completed unit is around or less than 350$ per unit, while the development of an open source design from scratch would allow the device to be produced at quantity for around 100-150$ each.

Key Advantages of Our Strategies:

Low Cost/Affordable. This device is low cost in terms of manufacturing process as well as in terms of cost of supplies. The device will be available as an assembled unit as well as a Do-It-Yourself Kit, making it affordable to the majority of users. Given its thermal based technology and the wide distribution of receipt printers as well as other point-of-sale equipment, no ink will be necessary (making it a cheaper option than regular ink-jet printers) and thermal printer paper will be fairly easy to procure in most Countries.

Specific. This device can only be used for its intended purpose to print reports and it can’t be “hacked” or re-purposed.

Less Waste. With this device the health care worker or nurse is able to print only what is needed, avoiding the paper waste and useless duplicates involved in the processes in use today.

Low Power (<24V). This device offers low power consumption and currently runs off of a 24V power supply but can be modified to run off of rechargeable batteries that can be recharged through a variety of methods such as through solar panel, electrical mains, hand cranks and other means locally available.

Robust. This device is rugged, resistant to dust and weatherproof, designed to withstand the harshest environments.

Long-term Sustainability. This device will build upon existing supply-chains for point-of-sale equipment as thermal paper is used in most grocery stores and businesses in most African Capitals. The open source design will take in consideration existing distributors for the electronic components, which are widely used as educational materials.

Local Training and Maintenance. This device, thanks to its open source design and its thorough documentation, will be able to be assembled and replicated locally as well as repaired and maintained by locally trained technicians.

Other opportunities. This device and its system will definitely open up opportunities for many more data collection projects that now can offer the ability of retaining physical copies of the records. Because of the nature of the open source community, this project will be able to take advantage and involve the already existing community of students, researchers, professors and engineers invested in finding solutions to related global health monitoring and reporting challenges.

A diagram of mobile printers distribution.

Inherent Benefits of Open Source:
Applying an open source philosophy, by creating and distributing open hardware and open software, opens up the possibility for more people to share their existing expertise and contribute to the project with useful knowledge of hardware, engineering, networks, mHealth best practices and current processes and experiences. The open source approach that this device takes, will help in creating a community of researchers, hobbyists, programmers, technologists and anyone interested in the issue of mobile health record keeping in order for more projects to develop, more troubleshooting to take place and overall more progress to happen. This method has proven to bring more experts, enthusiasts and professionals together to tackle very important challenges such as efficiently monitoring global health conditions. This device is made of an open source platform composed of open source hardware (open board layout, schematics and parts list) as well as open source APIs, codes and drivers necessary to recreate a fully functioning system. The project documentation, Wiki and tutorials will be able to be used to train local technicians, or anyone interested, on how to assemble the hardware, install the software and get the system up and running so it can be not only created locally, but can also be locally serviced and repaired when necessary.

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