It may be one of the busiest medical facilities in downtown Johannesburg, but the pharmacy in Auckland Park’s Helen Joseph public hospital is far from state of the art. With just a few exceptions, tracking drugs and monitoring storage is – for the most part – done manually, which is both time-consuming and open to abuse.

“Medicines are often stored at temperatures that are too high,” explains Stephane Martin (pictured above), “There’s no way to keep track of it at the moment.”

Martin is one of a group of 25 students from next door, the University of Johannesburg, who visited the hospital as part of the university’s first Engineering Innovation Week. The five-day program, which is planned to be an annual attraction, gives engineering students a chance to hone their skills by examining real life problems and looking for simple, cost-effective ways to solve them.

The problems aren’t always high-tech.

“The hospital has a large and diverse staff, with varying levels of computer literacy,” says Martin, “So we decided to use knobs instead of key entry for all our systems.”

The week was co-sponsored by Intel, which flew a team of volunteers out from its US offices to guide the graduates, and supplied UK with enough Galileo development boards and low-cost sensors for the students to start experimenting. A similar course has also been established at the University of Cape Town.

Galileo is a development board which is fully compatible with Arduino electronics and programming environments, but which comes with on-board networking, USB ports and an SD card reader built-in. It’s not on general sale in South Africa, but it costs just $50 in the US.

Because of this, students were able to devise prototypes for medicine monitoring equipment such as pill counters and fridge monitors which synced with free data crunching services like Xively. Xively is a data clearing site that can create customised web dashboards quickly from almost any data set. It works a bit like popular service linking site If This Then That, but with raw numbers rather than emails – and can be used to trigger SMS alerts and too.

“Through this web interface you can see how many tablets have been dispensed,” explains student Kalinka Faul, who built an automated lockbox for securing medicines and dispensing pills in appropriate amounts with her partner Zandile Blignault, “And receive an SMS when stocks are running low.”

“This is an opportunity to build a new program from the ground up,” says Intel South Africa’s director of corporate affairs Thobane Khupe, “And help prepare students for their careers.”

Sadly, that means that the none of the ideas will be developed into working models for the hospital right now. Still, it’s definitely worth checking out the students’ work in the gallery below.