For many years, hot air balloons have filled the skies above the Navajo Nation. Each February, as balloons take flight for the Shiprock (N.M.) Balloon
by Erin Greer
January 1, 2008

For many years, hot air balloons have filled the skies above the
Navajo Nation. Each February, as balloons take flight for the
Shiprock (N.M.) Balloon Festival for charity over Tse'Bit'Ai
— Navajo for “Rock with Wings” — people
look up to see the soaring signs of hope that manifest themselves
in the brightly colored pockets of fire and air.

But this winter, balloons will come to mean more than just a
charity festival to members of the Navajo Nation. In fact, the
health of the Nation and its people will be measured by the rise
and fall of balloons called SkySites.

Developed and monitored by Space Data Corp. of Chandler, Ariz.,
SkySites are high-altitude, balloon-borne transceivers that collect
data from specified ground sources including Personal Digital
Assistants (PDAs). As of Jan. 2, the SkySite technology is in use
throughout parts of Utah, New Mexico and northeastern Arizona,
monitoring the health of Navajo who live in remote areas and suffer
from type 2 diabetes.

“Basically, [our SkySite balloons] are giving the Navajo
Nation a tool to manage their almost-epidemic rates of diabetes and
keep their people healthier through a new technology,”
explained Jerry Knoblach, CEO of Space Data Corp.

The SkySite technology has been utilized by the oil and gas
industries for years, to monitor everything from pipeline and
storage tank alarms to asset tracking. The technology also helps
with field communications. This fact has not gone unnoticed,
particluarly by the U.S. Air Force, which recently awarded Space
Data a $50-million contract to provide voice communications for
troops overseas. The Navajo Nation project marks the first medical
monitoring contract for the company.

The SkySites, which Knoblach described as “basically
communication towers attached to modified weather balloons,”
are launched from a municipal airport each day and soar more than
65,000 feet above the ground, collecting medical data — most
notably results of glucose readings — from PDA monitors below
in a coverage area that can range up to 420 miles. The information
is transmitted to a database monitored by health care
professionals.

The system is a lifesaver, according to Ray Baldwin Louis,
public information officer for the Navajo Nation Special Diabetes
Project, who says that without the program, many of the Nation's
diabetics would suffer.

On a steady rise for decades, diabetes among the Navajo has
reached almost epidemic proportions. In Tuba City, Ariz., in the
Western Navajo Agency, the Tuba City Health Care facility has
determined that at least 41 percent of its population has diabetes
or is in the pre-diabetes stage.

Compounding the problem of high diabetes rates is the relative
remoteness of the Nation's population. In the service area, 21,933
people live on 7,205 square miles of land. This equates to an
average population density of only 3.15 people per square mile.
Thus, the Navajo people, many of whom reside in clusters of hogans
or trailers, often have difficulty in traveling the distance to
medical facilities.

Additionally, many cannot drive themselves to medical centers
either because they lack transportation or due to health-related
difficulties.

But Louis said the SkySite program, which will equip Navajo
patients with modified PDAs to monitor glucose readings as well as
receive medical alerts and instructions, will remedy many of the
Nation's difficulties.

“Our program staff are scattered throughout the
reservation — over 28,000 square miles — and many of
our patients that are diabetic live in remote areas. They don't
have running water or electricity; they don't have available
transportation. They live in areas where cell phones don't work,
and they live quite a distance from the nearest clinic and hospital
facilities.

“But with this program, [the patient's] information will
be readily available, as will assistance to the patient. We can
send clinical help out to the person, even emergency vehicles, to
transport them to the hospital,” Louis said.

Initially outlined as a two-year project, the SkySite program is
funded predominantly through a U.S. Department of Agriculture
Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grant. According to Louis, the
fledgling program is starting with 200 patients but will continue
to add patients during the project timeframe.

Robert Nakai, program manager, called the SkySite system
“an innovative and technical communication solution”
for diabetic patients and said the program, which will be offered
to English-speaking Navajo, will “prevent illness, promote
health, facilitate early intevention and maximize the effectiveness
of treatment regimes.”

Further, “it will allow the case managers to prioritize
and focus limited resources on those who need the most and most
urgent attention,” he said.

In addition to saving lives, Knoblach said the program is a
cost-effective way for the Navajo to manage diabetes. “It
costs $31,000 to cover one emergency hospital trip for diabetes,
but for that cost you can monitor two people for a lifetime. Plus,
it saves miles and time for health care providers,” he
said.

Nakai said the system's applications will bring the Navajo
Nation to the forefront of medical technology. “We are very
excited about this unique project because it is another step to
closing the digital gap that exists on the Navajo Nation for those
who have diabetes,” he said.

To learn more about SkySite technology, visit the Space Data
Corp. Web site at http://www.spacedata.net.