Two professors from UCSB’s Computer Science Dept. received $100,000 last week for their project to bring a low-cost communications network to Africa’s rural areas.

Professors Elizabeth Belding and Amr El Abbadi, the program’s two principle researchers, were awarded the funding for their initiative to create local cellular networks for residents to collect and disseminate information about available vaccines. The team received one of 110 grants distributed by the Grand Challenges Explorations program — created by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — to target global health concerns.

Researchers will launch a preliminary investigation in the town of Macha, Zambia — the project’s initial test site — this year to assess the community’s technological needs.

According to Abbadi, ImmuNet will further research on technology’s role in rural settings and will ultimately help improve health conditions in third world countries.

“I hope this project will … help us do interesting finds in a new environment because research is so often biased toward the Western world,” Abbadi said. “This will open us up to new and very interesting problems from a different context. It will have direct effects on the people in places that are very disadvantaged.”

The project will also provide researchers an opportunity to study how technology and data management can impact rural regions, according to Belding.

“We are thrilled to receive this award from the Gates Foundation, and are very excited about this project,” Belding wrote in a press release. “Technology brings empowerment to people in many ways, and health care is one of the primary areas that can improve quality of life. The development of ImmuNet is a key example of how computer science can be applied to a humanitarian cause for widespread benefit to many people, particularly, as targeted by this award, to infants and children.”

According to Abbadi, ImmuNet’s primary challenge is understanding the region’s terrain and culture from a technological perspective. UCSB graduate and undergraduate students comprising the research team will use Macha as a prototype to determine technology’s effectiveness in improving sub-Saharan African residents’ health conditions. Abbadi said the team hopes its initial success will garner supplemental funding to bring cellular networks to other rural communities.

According to Ceren Budak, a computer science Ph.D. student working with Abbadi, ImmuNet is an initial step toward improving the region’s livelihood.

“I really hope the project will be successful in saving many lives. I know that this will take time — such a challenging problem cannot be solved overnight,” Budak said. “If our project can be deployed in a small scale as a proof of concept opening the door for a solution at large scale, I would be really happy and I hope the ideas that we explore in the context of immunization can be extended to make lives easier in various ways in rural Africa.”