You can’t fight Ebola with drones!

Images: CDC/Cynthia Goldsmith; Doodybutch

Images: CDC/Cynthia Goldsmith; Doodybutch. Both from Wikipedia.

Inveneo recently published a blog post called “Top 4 Ways ICTs Can Help Defeat the Ebola Crisis”. To me that blog post is everything that is wrong with misguided ICT initiatives that focus more on “sexy” technology than on solving problems. You should probably read the article before continuing. Here is why I think that it is such a terrible example:

“More drones should be used to airlift medicine and supplies.”

Drones can be useful in emergencies when you want to get a quick, aerial overview of visible damage after a disaster. But you can’t see Ebola.

As for airlifting: Most rotary based drones, like a quadcopter, will only have 30 minutes of flight time under ideal conditions. That means you can only fly for a maximum of 15 minutes before you have to turn around and come back. However, one of the key factors in determining flight time is weight. If you add a payload to a drone then the range goes down. With a 2 kg payload battery life would probably go down to 10 or 15 minutes. What possible scenario is there in the current Ebola crisis in which you can’t deliver something more efficiently with a motorbike within the area that the drone can cover? In most cases it’s probably more efficient to send a guy with a backpack then a drone – at least that guy could do some health promotion at the same time.

And here is the next problem: What are those drones supposed to deliver? There is no cure for Ebola. People who fall sick with Ebola are given fluids and standard treatments to reduce the fever and stabilize blood pressure. I’d also like to know who the author imagine these drugs are going to. Individual families? How would you identify them? And how would you tell them what to do with these drugs? Would you include a pictogram how to lay an intravenous drip? Or maybe she means hospitals or community health centers. Then why not just send a truck?

Last but not least using drones is also completely pointless. The challenge in fighting Ebola is not delivering drugs to remote areas. It’s identifying the people who are sick, finding out who they have been in contact with, isolating them and providing them with care in a safe environment. Drones are completely useless for any of these purposes.

 “A 24-hour helpline of doctors should be readily available by Skype, Google Hangout, or video chat. “

Significant parts of the affected countries don’t even have mobile phone coverage, nor any type of internet connectivity, let alone at a quality that would allow them to do video calls. To suggest that ordinary people – particularly in rural areas as the author writes – would get on Skype to talk to a doctor is completely unrealistic.

Also, such a helpline wouldn’t even be very useful. You can only identify Ebola though a blood test, so the virtual doctor would probably advise “Go to a hospital if your relative has a fever or is vomiting.” That is indeed a message that is important to share with the population, but that can be done more effectively via radio, posters and – where appropriate – also SMS. Not through one-on-one video calls with doctors.

On the other hand, I know that Save the Children has a project in which they are using video calls in the current crisis in a very positive way: they are using video calls to connect patients in isolation wards with their relatives – but of course both computers are standing in the same compound and connect through the local WiFi because there is not enough bandwidth to do anything else.

 “Apps providing correct information on Ebola should be offered to local community leaders.”

This is assuming that local community leaders have smartphones – which in most communities is not the case. I also don’t understand how this would be better than providing that same information via radio, posters etc. to the whole community. But of course apps are more sexy – which is typical for bad ICT aid.

 “Access to social media will help sensitize others to the seriousness of this outbreak.”

Again, social media is simply not the right tool for this. Just because you have a tool that you like, this does not mean that it is the right tool for the country you want to help in. In Liberia, internet penetration is less than 5 per cent, in the other two countries less than 2 percent. Even assuming that all these people are in Facebook, it’s still a medium that will only reach a fraction of the people – and hardly anyone in rural areas. Not surprisingly, a recent look at how and where Ebola is being discussed on social media showed that the affected countries are at the very bottom of the list. It’s simply not the right medium to educate people in this context.

I think social media can play a role – but not as the author suggests. Rather than wasting money on an ineffective social media campaign in the affected countries NGOs could try to target the diaspora who are guaranteed to be in frequent contact with the relatives back home in this time of crisis. Social Media can also be used to mobilize the volunteer and tech community to help remotely, such as we have seen with OpenStreetMap.

What’s the harm?

Of course you can ask: “What’s the harm? Why not try everything that people come up with in the hope of making even a small difference?” The problem is that ideas like this bind resources that could be better used to make a real difference. In the best case it just wastes money that could be better used elsewhere. In the worst case it also forces people to commit time to deal with problems these so called solutions have created.

Read about how ICT initiatives that are currently making a positive difference in the fight against Ebola in my next blog post.