'Project M' aims to combat AIDS using cellphones

PopTech conference aims to implement solutions to world problems, rather than just talk about them.

"Project M," announced Friday at the PopTech conference here, is one of several efforts to move PopTech beyond a place to talk about solving world problems toward a place where solutions are incubated.

This year the conference acted as "the glue and infrastructure" to put together what it hopes will be a breakthrough effort to combat AIDS in South Africa. The program brings together medical experts, a charitable foundation, a design firm, a South African telecom, and National Geographic.

The result is a scheme to tap cellphone technology to try to raise AIDS awareness and promote testing. Even the poorest Africans now have access to cellphones. When their paid minutes run out, they often text a friend to ask them to call back. A public service message about AIDS rides piggy-back on that "Please call me" text message, 120 characters of free information that can inform millions about how to learn more about the disease.

But that's just a first step. Project Masiluleke (it means "to give wise counsel" and "lend a helping hand" in Zulu) will expand to include a program called TxtAlert, which will remind patients of their scheduled clinic visits.

South African men, especially, are difficult to coax into health clinics to be tested for AIDS. By the time they are willing to go, they are often very ill. Project M is developing a home self-test kit for AIDS that can be done in private. A lot of thought has to go into the design, making sure the materials are easy to use and the picture-based instructions clear, even for someone who may be illiterate.

Meanwhile, black urban music artists from South Africa's Ghetto Ruff Records are putting some glamour behind the "I Know My Status" campaign.

Project M has made a radical course correction since the goal of developing a response to the AIDS epidemic was set at last year's conference. But that doesn't bother Andrew Zolli, the conference's genial host. He sees failures as the progenitors of success. "If the ratio is 100 humble pies to one great outcome, we'll eat them," he told a group of reporters attending PopTech.

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