Interview: Gorgas Tracker

| January 22, 2024

Interview: Gorgas Tracker

Pierre Padilla Huamantinco is a PhD student at Institute for Biological and Medical Engineering, he led the development of the Gorgas Tracker, a device that was used to track the position of people and investigate the role of human population movement in malaria epidemiology in rural villages in the Peruvian Amazon river networks.

by the Open make team, Pierre Padilla Huamantinco. Copyright to the authors, distributed under a CC-BY 4.0 licence.


Banner image: fixme, By CERN, distributed under a CC-BY-SA 4.0

Interviewee: Pierre Padilla Huamantinco

Interviewers: Robert Mies (TU Berlin) & Moritz Maxeiner (FU Berlin)

Transcription and editing: Diana Paola Americano Guerrero, Robert Mies, Fabio Reeh, Moritz Maxeiner & Julien Colomb

screenshot of the interview

Screenshot of the interview.


The GORGAS Tracker in a nutshell

Parts of the Gorgas tracker

3D view of the parts of the Gorgas tracker.

Hardware products

The GPS tracker is based on the geo kit of RePhone. We found this hardware, the RePhone, and all these different models that allow to develop a wearable device for doing this tracking. This device uses small, rechargeable batteries. We could develop like a small device that patients, in this case, could use daily.

Hardware maturity

prototype to demonstrator


no known rebuilds

The Project


Some of the fund was from the Institute of Tropical Medicine. Gabriel got a funding from that Institute. It wasn’t a small budget.

How did the project Gorgas tracker start?

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Hardware components

RePhone is a GPS tracker with the main function to gather data. The device records the data and is connected to the satellite and gets the latitude and longitude.

In previous studies, researchers used a commercial GPS tracker.

Other limitations were about the technical features. One problem was about the sign up. If you start to communicate with satellites from these devices, it’s different in urban areas than in rural areas.

The other problem is about the technical side. Because it was a commercial device and we had to import it to Peru. Further the budget, that we had at the time, wasn’t enough to do that.

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Project start

This project started with the funding from the Institute of Tropical Medicine. We wanted to understand the relationship between population mobility and malaria transmission.

The main challenge to do this study and to collect data from from patients‘ mobilization was the device.

I knew about the DIY movement and then how the open hardware was used for biology. That’s why Gabriel asked me if I knew something that would help us for this project.

At the time, were you working as a researcher or research associate?

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Was this internally funded?

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Could you explain how does the hardware fit in the project?

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Core team and community

There were other students involved in this project. I lead the hardware development. There were other tasks such as programming or doing some mechanical designs involved. In this case, they are authors. There were two other people, Gabriel Carrasco and Edgar Manrique. They are biologists and work on malaria and in public health. We got feedback from them.

Did you and Gabriel work together handing out devices and making the test samples?

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Project process

After we decided which device or platform to use, we knew that we needed to get some user requirements in this case. We were working mostly with the researcher from the public health or the biological side.

We decided to use some design thinking workflow to get some iterations after one cycle to have something at the beginning, that could be helpful and then try to improve this device.

We got at least five versions of this device.

Additional, we looked for other projects that could use the devices.

How was the overall process organized on a technical level and project level?

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Major issues

Because we didn’t involve patients and we couldn’t travel to the Amazon to test the devices, we didn’t learn other things to include or improve.

The electricity in general was a challenge for this project. Again, the weather was challenging because of the humidity and temperature.

Customs are always a challenge because you have to prove that these devices are not weapons and met requirements of the Ministry of Telecommunication.

Another bottleneck was the 3d printers that we had available. We had only two 3d printers, that were part of our department.

It’s not simple because you ask people to track their movements. It’s difficult in terms of privacy.

Did you come across any major bottlenecks and how did you resolve them?

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Local production

It was difficult on one side to get the batteries and find suppliers and on the other side the functionality, some didn‘t work well.

We had to say to the customs that these devices were similar to Arduinos. We proved that was more for prototyping purposes than using as a mobile devices or mobile phones.

How many devices did you make?

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The Hardware

What are the hardware products that you have developed?

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Academic outputs

The main academic outputs were a proceeding, related to the GPS firmware, and a scientic paper, related to the GPS tracker and its application in a cohort study. For the publication, Frontiers in Public Health was selected because it’s open access. We shared on the GitHub repository almost all the information related to that project.

In terms of outputs, it’s not all about research and publishing a paper. The idea is to contribute with this data, for example, to the Ministry of Health or another initiative that could help control malaria in the Peruvian Amazon.

How would you rate the maturity of the product, in terms of prototype, demonstrator or market ready?

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Research Outputs

Publication strategy

At the beginning we wanted to have the device, that could be useful for doing these kinds of research.

We knew that we needed a paper. With that we wanted to prove to the research community that it’s possible to use these kinds of devices, develop your own device and to use it for these projects.

What were the envisaged outputs of the hardware development in terms of publications, hardware prototypes, documentation, learning and processes?

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What kind of information did you publish and how did you publish it?

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Successes and failures

If successful means to get the outcome, to get data and to study what we wanted to study, I think it was successful.

I think, the devices could have worked better if we could include other requirements related to the environment.

It’s difficult to recycle electronics in general in the Amazon. You could try to include sustainability as part of requirements

The outcome of this project is that we saw a relationship between the human mobilization and the malaria transmission. We demonstrate with the data, that we got from this study.

What do you think was successful about the project and what was not?

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Hardware importance

We wanted to understand and connect the data that we got from these devices, to the malaria test, which we did to verify if they got this disease or not in this period of time. We needed this kind of data to see if there was any correlation.

How was the communication with the communities?

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Has the hardware been built, produced or modified by others outside of your project?

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Why did you choose GitHub for project documentation and sharing? Did you find some barriers ?

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Did you find some limitations when sharing your files?

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What made you work on this project?

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Did you base everything on the RePhone kit, which is an existing technology?

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How many people have contributed overall to the project?

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What are the backgrounds of the participating people?

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How did you find these project members, who had complementary competencies?

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Work Coordination

For documentation we use the Google Suite to share any documents. We used emails and WhatsApp to communicate between us. In current projects I mainly use slack.

How did you coordinate the work inside the team?

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How much funding did you get?

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Personal gain

Students learned a lot from this process in terms of designing, how to apply, and trying to translate a requirement into a functional prototype. They benefited from this paper.

My main benefit was learning about hardware development and using different approaches, like design thinking.

Because of the project, the Health Innovation Lab was started. Gabriel had the opportunity to start this research group at the institute.

How did the members benefit from their work in the project?

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Can you explain the outcome of the study?

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