I am regularly updating and revising this post (current update 14th November 2014; originally posted 12th October 2014), so that it brings together some of the most important work being done on ICTs and Ebola. In recent weeks there have been a plethora of new initiatives, but there is now a very real danger of affected regions and people becoming swamped with far too much digital information, and over-eager digital enthusiasts actually impeding the delivery of effective interventions.
I remember a conversation with a dear friend from Sierra Leone back in May about the growing impact of Ebola in his country. I remember him saying that it was already far more widespread than was being reported. I remember sharing this information with many people that I met at that time. I regret that I only started Tweeting about the seriousness of what was happening in West Africa on June 27th. However, I have been Tweeting ever since, and have become increasingly appalled about the tardiness of the international response. If appropriate action had been taken in May and June, if appropriate support had been given to the affected countries at that time, and if appropriate care had been given to communities and individuals affected, then I have absolutely no doubt that thousands of lives could have been saved across the world.
It is simply not good enough to say that we should be concentrating on practical action now rather than laying blame and being critical of the response to date – although there are some really very bizarre things currently being said in the mainstream and social media. The most important outcome of the current crisis has to be an investigation of why so many organisations and individuals failed to take notice of all of the early signs, and failed to act to prevent the spread of the virus. I also feel very angry that attention is only really being directed to dealing with the disease now that people are dying of it in Europe and North America. Undoubtedly, in the longer term, it is also essential that we all help build capacity in the health systems of poor countries so as to enable them to respond more effectively and swiftly to the outbreak of such diseases in the future.
In an effort to bring together some of the disparate information about ways through which ICTs can be used effectively to counter the spread of Ebola, I raised this issue among members of the ICT4D group on Facebook in early October 2014. Surprisingly, there was not an overwhelmoing response. Hence, I have tried to pull together some of the most interesting ongoing work, in the hope that it can be used as swiftly as possible to make a difference to the lives of people who are already affected and those who will become affected in the weeks and months ahead. It is great to see that some other organisations such as Telecentre.org and TechChange have also started to do this. Many, many poor people will die of Ebola before we get it under control collectively. We must never make the same mistakes again.
Communicating accurate and relevant materials to affected individuals and communities
It is critically important that people know how to respond swiftly and appropriately when a case of Ebola is identified in their communities. In the absence of an appropriate vaccine or cure, it is absolutely essential that early diagnosis and quarantine takes place. Changing cultural behaviours, especially surrounding the emotionally very distressing experience of death from Ebola, is extremely difficult, but if the rapid increase in cases is to be reduced, then this is absolutely essential. The use of ICTs, in the form of radio broadcasts, television messages, videos and text information in local languages through the Internet and on mobile ‘phones can therefore play a very helpful role. People can also use mobile devices to report where and when outbreaks occur, so that medical staff can respond more quickly. An interesting recent development has been the way through which the Sierra Leone government has been providing a hotline through which worried people can contact officials for advice, but as ever there are many challenges with such a service, not least prank calls and the quality of advice given. At last, though, some useful resources are being developed, and the following is a list of the ones that I have found to be of particular interest, value and importance:
- Great animated video on Ebola prevention (by Firdaus Kharas #Culture_Shift) (Link to small sized file)
- BBC News How not to catch Ebola
- Ebola Alert on Twitter
- Giving hope to people – stories of survival, such as this case from Sierra Leone
- Cosmos News: What is Ebola and how it works video
- About Ebola page on Facebook
- Washington Post informatic about spread of Ebola by Bonnie Berkowitz and Lazaro Gamio
- BBC Public Information Service on Ebola for West Africa using WhatsApp
- Graphics and posters about Ebola from UNICEF
- Commonwealth Broadcasting Association Ebola briefing 8 August 2014
- Guardian report on use of hotlines in Sierra Leone
- Awareness campaign through use of SMS in Mali – free service through which people can SMS the word EBOLA to short code 36011 and will then receive several text messages on Ebola over a 2 day period
- Use of music in reaching people with relevant information about Ebola – a collective of African musicians have come together to record a song to help raise awareness about Ebola in Africa. The song, entitled “Africa Stop Ebola”, features the singers Tiken Jah Fakoly, Amadou & Mariam, Salif Keita, Oumou Sangare, Kandia Kora, Mory Kante, Sia Tolno, Barbara Kanam and rappers Didier Awadi, Marcus (from the band Banlieuz’Arts) and Mokobe, and also includes the musicians Sékou Kouyaté (electric guitar, bass, electric kora) et Ludovic N’Holle (drums).
- Good report by Al Jazeera on Living with Ebola in Liberia
A real challenge now, though, is that so many initiatives are trying to develop digital resources to support the response to Ebola that there is a danger of massive duplication of effort, overlap, and simply overload on the already stretched infrastructure, and indeed people, in the affected countries. As Wayan Vota has noted in a useful overview at the end of October 2014, there are now more than 200 initiatives that are seeking to provide information relating to Ebola to communities. Many of these are being developed with little if any real understanding of the practical realities on the ground in west Africa! What, to me, is even worse, is the way in which many organisations and companies are now using this opportunity to generate income so that they can provide yet further Ebola resources. The following examples are typical of this:
- Afrelib’s Ebola Education Campaign – seeking $100,000 to fund Medikidz to develop a digital comic on Ebola for “kids”
- Ebola Grand Challenge – USAID partnering with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the United States Department of Defense to launch open innovation platform, challenge competition and partnerships
These may indeed be ‘worthy’ initiatives, but my fundamental point is that too many people are now using Ebola as an excuse to get funding for their own initiatives and ideas, and this is leading to massive duplication, replication and overlap. Moreover, by the time most of these initiatives might come on stream, the Ebola outbreak will either have been contained or will have become so out of control that none of these little projects will actually be able to make any difference at all! We know how to deal with Ebola. Countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo have learnt how to manage and control Ebola. If the world had acted back in May and June, using some of the lessons already learnt, we would not be in the situation we now are.
Communicating with sick relatives without touching them
Mobile ‘phones are excellent devices for communicating at a distance. Whilst being very afraid of Ebola, family members want to communicate with their sick relatives – at a distance, without touching them. Hence, the use of mobile devices can provide a really valuable and reassuring mechanism through which family members can communicate, when one or more of them are in isolation wards or quarantine locations. Very simply, if sick people could be given mobile devices to communicate with their loved ones, then some of the pain and anguish could be alleviated.
Mapping the spread of the disease
ICTs can be used very effectively to map the spread of Ebola, so that medical administrators can respond more quickly. As noted above, mobile devices can also be used to inform medical staff when a new case is identified. Crowd-sourcing (such as Ushahidi) could be used effectively to develop such response maps, although we must recognise that many people are very afraid of reporting that a friend or relative may have Ebola. There has also been some reporting on the potential use of call data records – although I retain concerns here about the ethics of such usage.
Information networks for professionals and others dealing with Ebola
A growing amount of information is now available for professionals and those dealing with Ebola and so only a limited amount is noted below:
Funding and crowd-sourcing for resourcing support for Ebola victims and research on the disease
There is an enormous need for funding to support health workers in affected countries, not least by providing enough protective clothing. Much work could be done on this, but there are few examples available.
Overall, this page is just a starting point. PLEASE respond and add information to it so that we can all use ICTs more effectively for tackling this outbreak of Ebola which could easily have been curtailed if only we had acted together sooner.