On the contribution of ICTs to overcoming the impact of Ebola

I am regularly updating and revising this post (current update 21st December 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:

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.


Filed under Africa, ICT4D

13 responses to “On the contribution of ICTs to overcoming the impact of Ebola

    • Hello Tim – This is Larry Ajuwon, Director and co-founder of Afrelib.
      Thanks for your piece. Regarding your reference to the Afrelib Education Ebola Campaign, I am sorry I think your characterisation of this initiative is wrong and misleading.

      This initiative is aimed at developing a medical education comic to for children and schools in the affected countries and elsewhere. This is intended to be an engaging learning resource that will free available as apps and other digital formats. Similar initiatives/projects has been done for other diseases such as malaria, HIV/AIDS, pregnancy and STDs. We are working with contacts and local schools in the region and they expressed the need for their children to better understand the health, medical and social issues raised by the ebola epidemic.

      In terms of funding, all monies raised will go into the creation and distribution of the comics (digital and print) as well as in supporting schools and communities with health education programs.

      We believe that our effort will contribute to the global fight against this ebola epidemic – children and young people are perhaps the most affected.

      Our vision is to make it as easy and fun for the child in the rural area as one in the urban setting to read fantastic stories, write intelligently and learn about their world – regardless of circumstance.
      Please feel free to contact us if you wish to learn more and or wish to support our campaign.

      • unwin

        Dear Larry,

        Thanks so much for this detailed – and well-articulated – account.

        I am not against the use of comics at all – far from it. I completely support the agenda of helping young people (and indeed people of all ages) to read fantastic stories.

        However, what concerns me about this particular issue, is that there are far too many organisations ‘getting on the bandwagon’ of Ebola, and not working in a co-ordinated and systematic way. Too many seem to be using Ebola as a way of getting money to support their initiatives, rather than the other way round. People had pointed out your initiative as a good example that I should include in my list, but when I looked at it, I had both the above generic concern, but also some specific worries, which I note below:

        1) The imagery used at http://www.afrelib.com/ebola-education/ seems to be to be totally inappropriate for dealing with Ebola in West Africa – it seems mainly to be of young white people in an affluent part of the world. Surely, if you are going to be working on/with/in a West African context, then this is not appropriate?
        2) This made me wonder whether your team has any experience in working with people from West Africa. My approach is much more to help local people build up their own resources, rather than ‘parachuting’ in what might be inappropriate material from abroad.
        3) The imagery also rather conveys the impression of ‘super-heroes’ (the Medikidetz) who will come in and solve all the problems, yet in dealing with Ebola what we need is the building of local capacity to deal with the situation.
        4) There is no indication of your timeline. It struck me that by the time you had raised this money and the comics had been prepared and distributed, it might well be too late, since either the current outbreak would be dealt with, or things would have become so out of hand that some comics would be unlikely to help solve it.

        So, I very definitely applaud your desire to try to do something, but I do have reservations about the particular approach you are adopting.

        Thanks again for contributing, and I am sure that in some contexts your approach is great!

        Best wishes

  1. unwin

    Thanks David – indeed using mobiles for tracing loved ones is an important modality – although do you know of a systematic initiative along these lines in the affected countries. A challenge is that although some parts of Africa do have high numbers of mobile devices, country’s like Sierra Leone are still rather less connected

    • There is ongoing research using call detail records (CDR), also known as call data records, in modeling population movements and thereby disease spread. However, privacy concerns limit access to individual records. The suggested application of crypto-secure anonymity can overcome this.

      Network build out would likely accelerate with the employment of Virus Radar, since this would generate increased traffic and revenue. Wireless infrastructure can be built out very rapidly, particularly in cities where cell towers can be placed on the tops of buildings. The NSA could contribute some of their Sting Ray drones, which are mobile cell towers 🙂

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  3. Reblogged this on Transmedia and commented:
    Cómo pueden las TIC ayudarnos a superar/aliviar el impacto del Ebola?

  4. Tim thanks for this great summary. In terms of future disaster and epidemic preparedness it would be useful to have a mapping of all health facilities, in all countries, geo-located on OpenStreetMap. A map that enables anyone to drill in to access data on resources available at any facility, dual verified by actors on the ground. A colleague has a team building such a map in three African countries. Do you have any contact or suggestions that might help us to ensure that this is not replication of / can complement work going on elsewhere?

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