IBM, in partnership with the Zambian government, has launched a pilot project to deploy analytics and mobile technology in a bid to better manage the supply of medicine in the country.

The 12-month project, supported by the World Bank, the Department for International Development (DFID), UNICEF, London Business School and Zambia's Medical Stores -- a government agency -- is expected to provide Zambians with improved access to 200 drugs.

The goal of the medicine supply chain management project is to save lives by making medicine widely available when and where it is needed. Zambia's public health sector registers 100,000 deaths annually due to preventable and treatable diseases, according to IBM.

Zambia, like many other African countries, is faced with gaps in its medical supply chain and the theft of essential drugs by health workers for sale to private health institutions. The IBM pilot project is expected to provide a real-time view of drug usage and inventory, while analyzing data to identify trends and forecasts to prevent gaps in the medical supply chain. The system being set up can pinpoint the exact locations where stocks of essential drugs are running dangerously low, project officials said.

"The Zambian government has been seeking ways to address the challenges it faces with the supply of critical medicine to its population with a view of making healthcare more accessible," said Vera Rosauer, IBM's Africa external relations leader, in an email exchange.

"The Zambia Ministry of Health tapped into IBM's expertise based on the success of the IBM run SMS for Life initiative in neighboring Tanzania," Rosauer noted.

In Tanzania, IBM teamed up with Vodafone on an SMS messaging system designed to help ensure dispensaries did not run out of stock. Health care staff at various facilities received automated SMS messages prompting them to check the remaining stock of antimalarial drugs each week. Using toll-free numbers, staff updated via SMS to a central database system in the U.K.

Rosauer noted, however, that the specifics of the analytics used in the Zambia project have custom-fit to suit the needs of the Zambian Ministry of Health. The analytics are based on an IBM SPSS medicine supply forecast model, taking into account local conditions such such as the local rainy season to optimize distribution of drugs across an initial 2,190 health centers. IBM's ILOG optimization technology ill be used to calculate the ideal composition of drug shipments based on available inventory, resources and historical usage, IBM said.

The IBM analytic capabilities will be integrated with the IBM MobileFirst application development portfolio, enabling workers at health facilities in Zambia to use mobile devices with barcode scanners to record and transmit drug stock and utilization details to a central inventory control system.

The project is expected to result in understanding the usage patterns of, and assuring continued access to, vital medication.