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Traditional knowledge and mobile learning

April 22, 2011

Participating in the #MobiMOOC discussions for the week on #m4d and thinking a bit of mhealth, I thought of a project I work on currently, JSTOR Plant Science, and how mobile might stimulate the process that we participate in, namely the capturing, verifying, and disseminating of information related to plant science. Our express purpose is the identification and classification of all the plant species on the Earth (easy, right?), which is the first step towards actively preserving them.

In the process, though, we capture a lot of data surrounding the plant and this ventures a bit into the great field of Economic Botany, how these plants are used as economic agents, even as spiritual, social, ceremonial ones. We capture this information, flora information (descriptions of plants in regions), common names in local cultures, etc. I have always been particularly fascinated by the medicinal use information as it demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt the ingenuity of societies in using their natural surroundings for sustenance (both edible and medicinal). Also, it represents a clear cut case of traditional knowledge (TK), an issue deserving more attention.

Not to stand in the way of industry or anything, but the modern multinational pharmaceutical industry is built, to some degree, on the applicability of patents to their discovery. The drug is developed, tested, commercialized, and patented and that patented allows the corporation to reclaim the costs of research and development (and quite a bit of profit) by guaranteeing exclusivity for a period of time. However, patents are built on novelty (amongst other factors), the claim that this is truly original, existing nowhere else on the planet. Traditional knowledge and medicinal folk use counteract that novelty claim.

Case #1 

Aspirin-the next time you take an aspirin know the ancient Assyrians, Sumerians, and Egyptians knew about this as well. Hippocrates even wrote about it in the 5th century BC. It comes from the willow tree, specifically the bark, which contains salicin, the precursor to aspirin. The history of aspirin is actually an interesting read in itself (and not exactly a patentable case, but a good read regardless).

The above image is Salix acmophylla Boiss. from Assyria (present day Iraq), collected in 1893 and contributed by theMuseum National d’histoire naturelle in Paris.

Case #2

Catharanthus roseus, aka Madagascar Periwinkle. Madagascar is a treasure trove for botanists as most of the plants are endemic (unique to the island), but this one tops them all. Madagascarians have known about the medicinal properties of this plant for centuries in fighting leukemia and other forms of cancer. According to the use record for the plant:

It is widely known throughout its dispersal elsewhere in the world as a remedy for diabetes. There is however some doubt about its efficacy for tests have shown no lowering of blood-sugar levels. Such benefit as may arise from medication with the plant may come from its digitalis-like action. In Asia particularly the plant has innumerable applications to almost every common ailment (2).Clinical interest in the plant dates back to the 1950s when certain alkaloids were isolated that hopefully would give control of Hodgkin’s disease and chorio-carcinoma, carcinoma of the breast, and leukaemia. The most promising of the alkaloids were vinblastine, vincristine, vinleurosine and vinrosidine, the first two finding use in therapy but may be but palliative, not curative. A very extensive series of alkaloids has been extracted and identified from all parts of the plant with an extensive diversity of pharmacological activity (2–8).

Vincristine became the drug Oncovin and made some lucky few a lot of money (and still does).There are many many more cases like this (quinine as anti-malarial), but what concerns me is that this knowledge is being lost or not circulating as efficiently as it might.

So how can mobile ensure that this traditional knowledge is formalized in a way that ensures that local communities

  • have access to the medicinal uses of these plants (rapidly eroding as agricultural communities shift to cities)
  • have access to information on sustainable use
  • have access to information regarding legal claim over their use?

On a small scale, this can be done through a combination of low-tech and indigenously appropriate forms of information transmission (information delivery at this point) using SMS (Frontline SMS), mapping technologies (Ushahidi), and even radio. On a larger scale, how do we take trusted authorities (I am thinking practicing botanists here or perhaps even university departments), translate their knowledge and understanding to some media deliverable (video, audio podast, text-based with image accompnaiment) and get that distributed. Long-term, I can see this being a two way street for communication (Ask a Botanist or Agricultural Specialists campaigns with one central node stationed at a local university-all the SMS could be mapped to identify hotspots).

But for medicinal purposes, how can local knowledge be distributed locally? My friend and colleague, Dr. Siro Masinde of the East Africa Herbarium at the National Museums of Kenya is doing a bit of that armed with only a Flip camera (see videos above and below). Great work and entirely applicable, but how can this be distributed further afield and in the proper medium (perhaps video isn’t the best way to go). Certainly mobile has a place in this discussion. To distribute medicinal knowledge, knowledge developed locally, throughout the community seems primed for a simple, scalable technological solution, one that captures the natural communication patterns of local communities, one that even defers to traditional authority.

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