How Technology Is Already Helping Fight Ebola

After yesterday’s rant about how not to use technology in the fight against Ebola, here are some positive examples showing how information and communication technology (ICT) is already making a difference in the current crisis. If you have additional examples, please share them in the comments.

  1. Mapping and geolocation:
Downtown Monrovia on on OSM before and after the push to improve maps that can help responders.

Downtown Monrovia before and after the push to improve maps that can help responders.

Aside from isolating patients in a safe environment, one of the biggest challenges in the Ebola response is tracing all contacts that an infected person has been in touch with. While that is difficult enough in developed countries, imagine how much more difficult it is in countries where you don’t know the names of many of the villages. It’s not very helpful if someone tells you “I come from Bendou” if you don’t know how many villages with that name exist nor where they are. The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team has helped this process through creating maps since the beginning of the response. See: West Africa Ebola Outbreak – Six months of sustained efforts by the OpenStreetMap community.

In addition, the StandbyTaskForce is supporting the response by helping to collect, clean and verify data about health facilities in the affected countries. The information will then be published on UN OCHAs new platform for sharing of humanitarian data.

  1. Digital forms

Contact tracing involves interviewing a lot of people and in most cases that means writing information down on paper which then has to be entered into a computer. That process is both slow and prone to errors. According to this Forbes article, US based Magpi is helping organizations working in the Ebola response to replace their paper forms with digital forms that enumerators can fill out using their phones. Digital forms not only save time and prevent errors when transcribing information, well designed digital forms also contain simple error checking routines such as “you can’t be older than 100 years”.

If you are interested in digital forms, check out the free and open source Kobo Toolbox.

  1. Connecting the sick with their relatives

Elaine Burroughs from Save the Children told me that they are using their local Wi-Fi network to connect patients in the isolation ward with the relatives through video calls. Both computers have to be within the same network because local internet connections are too slow. In situations where video calls are not possible, they provide patients with cheap mobile phones so that they can talk with their relatives that way. Elaine added: “Several survivors have told us that what kept them going was being able to speak with their family and not feel so isolated when surrounded by people in hazmat suits.”

  1. Image: Nickylarson; DepositphotosSMS to share and receive information

I have heard about a number of different SMS systems that are currently being set up. Some are mainly to share information, others also to receive information.

mHero (really?) is an SMS system specifically designed to share information with health workers. It works with UNICEF’s RapidPro system, a white label version of Kigali-based TextIt which is one of the best SMS communication systems I have seen.

RapidPro is also at the heart of a two-way communication system that is currently being set up by Unicef, Plan International and the Scouts.

The IFRC is of course using TERA to share SMS, a system that was developed in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and already used in Sierra Leone during a recent cholera outbreak.

  1. Social media – mythbusting for the diaspora

Social media also has a place, though not as much as some people think. With internet penetration at less than 5 per cent in Liberia and less than 2 per cent in Sierra Leone and Guinea, it is simply not relevant for most people – unlike radio for example. However, all of these countries have huge diasporas. The Liberian diaspora in the US alone is thought to be as many as 450,000 people strong – and they all have access to social media. Experiences from Haiti and the Philippines show that the diaspora is an important information channel for the people living in affected countries. Very often they assume that their relatives in the US or Europe will know more, not least because many don’t trust their own governments to tell the truth.

Social media can play an important role in correcting misinformation and indeed, both the WHO and the CDC are using their social media channels in this way.

  1. Remote support for translations

Last but not least, Translators Without Borders is helping NGOs remotely to translate posters into local languages.

 

Low tech does it

As a final word, I’d like to add that while technology can make a real difference we must not forget that very often low tech solutions will be more efficient than high tech solutions – it depends on what is more appropriate for the context. So don’t start an SMS campaign or launch a drone just because you can. It’s not about what you want to do. It’s not about technology. It’s about what’s best for the people we are there to help.

Do you have additional examples of how ICT is helping in the Ebola response? Please share them in the comments!