By Timo Luege, TC103: Tech Tools and Skills for Emergency Management facilitator

As Ebola continues to ravage Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, people from all around the world are working together to stop the disease. In addition to the life saving work of medical staff, logisticians and community organizers, information and communication technology (ICT) is also playing a vital part in supporting their work.

After consulting the TechChange Alumni community and other experts in international development and humanitarian assistance, I pulled together a list of different technologies being applied to manage Ebola. Below are six examples showing how ICT is already making a difference in the current crisis.

1. Tracing outbreaks with mapping and geolocation
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.

Monrovia OSM pre-Ebola
Map of Monrovia in OpenStreetMap before and after volunteers mapped the city in response to the Ebola crisis. (Humanitarian OpenStreetMap)

In addition, the Standby Task Force 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 OCHA’s new platform for sharing of humanitarian data.

2. Gathering Ebola information with digital data collection 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, who just won a Kopernik award, 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.

3. Connecting the sick with their relatives using local Wi-Fi networks
Elaine Burroughs, a Save the Children staff member who is also TechChange alumna of Mobiles for International Development, shared 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.”

4. Sharing and receiving Ebola information via SMS text messages
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 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 know. 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.

5. Mythbusting for diaspora communities via social media
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.

6. Supporting translations of Ebola information remotely online
Last but not least, Translators Without Borders is helping NGOs remotely from all over the world 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.

A Summary Infographic

TechChange Ebola Infographic

We will be discussing these technology tools, Ebola, and many similar issues in TC103: Tech Tools and Skills for Emergency Management and TC103: mHealth – Mobiles for Public Health. Register by October 31 and save $50 off each of these courses.

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

This post originally appeared in Social Media for Good.

About the TC103 facilitator: Timo Luege

Timo Luege

After nearly ten years of working as a journalist (online, print and radio), Timo worked four years as a Senior Communications Officer for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in Geneva and Haiti. During this time he also launched the IFRC’s social media activities and wrote the IFRC social media staff guidelines. He then worked as Protection Delegate for International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Liberia before starting to work as a consultant. His clients include UN agencies and NGOs. Among other things, he wrote the UNICEF “Social Media in Emergency Guidelines” and contributed to UNOCHA’s “Humanitarianism in the Network Age”. Over the last year, Timo advised UNHCR- and IFRC-led Shelter Clusters in Myanmar, Mali and most recently the Philippines on Communication and Advocacy. He blogs at Social Media for Good and is the facilitator for the TechChange online course, “Tech Tools & Skills for Emergency Management“.

We’re excited, honored, and humbled to be featured in Fast Company as one of the “best learning resources for aspiring social entrepreneurs”, with recognition for the “hybrid” online/offline learning category!

Here are some highlights from the article:

  • “Their open courses draw an international audience of participants, interested in social media and social change. They also create custom courses in partnership with organizations such as the United Nations, World Bank, USAID, UNICEF, Red Cross, US State Department, training student leaders in Pakistan, civil society leaders in Sudan, or international aid workers.”
  • “Nick Martin, one of the founders of Techchange, saw a growing need in his field for continuing professional education. “We took dozens of online courses from all kinds of providers and found that most of them were pretty awful. So we set out to build a model that was more social, interactive, scalable, and suited to the needs of the social change community.”

See the full article on Fast Company here.Fast company logo_blog post

By Kate Pawelczyk, UNICEF – Cross-posted from Voices Of Youth

Maps can represent many things – adventure, discovery, a journey, a return home or even a sense of order – but now they are also representing youth empowerment.

In 2011 UNICEF staff from New York and Rio de Janeiro, a team of digital innovators, government officials, community leaders and other partners came together on a mission: to train young people to create maps which depicted the social and environmental risks in their surroundings.

Two years, 12 communities and two countries later, this process of training youth to map and participate in the improvement of their neighborhoods is Voices of Youth Maps, a UNICEF initiative which promotes the use of digital mapping to empower young people.

Voices of Youth Maps is now looking for up to 50 tech-savvy individuals from around the world who are ready to help test the newest feature of the digital mapping technology: a system that allows users to draw attention to the most urgent issues they have mapped.

Creating maps, promoting change

There is no better way to see the potential of digital mapping than in Morro dos Prazeres, a neighborhood in the heart of the Santa Teresa area of Rio de Janeiro. In 2011 the first training of young digital mappers took place in Prazeres with UNICEF, the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science and the MIT Mobile Experience Lab. Since that first training, 50 youth mappers in Prazeres have collected information on social and environmental risks with a specially designed mobile and web app called UNICEF-GIS.

UNICEF used the maps the young people created to work with the local municipal government to find and fix the most life-threatening issues documented by the young mappers. Spurred by the work of the mappers the community also decided to address the issue of garbage, which was captured on the maps, launching a community-based Reciclação program for recycling and garbage disposal.

Mapping successes bring a new challenge

In 2012, expansion of digital mapping in Rio and in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, revealed a new challenge. With so many reports coming in, those responsible for assessing the digital maps could no longer quickly see which reported issues were most important. A life-threatening landslide risk near a school demanded more urgent attention than a pothole in the road; a way to rank reports by urgency was needed.

To help create a solution, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation provided UNICEF with a grant from its Prototype Fund to test ideas on how to rank the reports and improve the mapping technology. Working with an organization called Innovative Support to Emergencies, Diseases and Disasters, and with technical advice from MIT, UNICEF developed its Urgency Rank Prototype.

Now the prototype is complete, and Voices of Youth Maps needs your help to test it. During a month-long program the selected testers will learn about how the Urgency Rank works, upload real reports to a map and provide feedback on the system.

If you are between 18 and 25 years old, have access to a computer and the Internet, and have an interest in environmental issues you can apply to test the Urgency Rank Prototype by filling out this form.

Applicants should submit their forms by 30 July 2013.

Note to applicants: The selection process will not be on a first-come, first-served basis. In selecting the participants we will strive to have representation from as many regions of the world as possible, as well as gender balance.

Since the Urgency Rank system is a prototype reports that are submitted will not be acted upon or reported to any authorities.

By Nicole Emmett, graduate student, George Washington University

Imagine you’re a citizen in a country where over half of the population is under the age of 18 and few are over the age of 55. You enter the job market along with 400,000 other qualified youths, only to learn that you’re all competing for a meager 9,000 jobs. The prospects don’t look good. You’re frustrated. There are so many other problems your family and community are facing. A job and an income would help tremendously. You just want to be heard but you can’t find a voice. If only there was a way to be a part of the conversation with your local community, its leaders, and perhaps even Members of Parliament…

The country you were just imagining is real. Uganda has the world’s youngest population with the highest rate of youth unemployment at 62% in 2012. And that’s not the only problem the country is facing. Ugandans also worry about disease, adequate food supply, clean drinking water, health, and education among many, many other issues. But how can aid agencies or the government determine which of these many issues are important to the people they serve? Are the issues determined by demographics such as location, age, or gender? That’s where uReport comes in.

uReport is an SMS-based system that allows Ugandans (specifically youth) to speak out about what’s happening in their community. By texting the word JOIN to 8500 and providing additional information such as home district, age, and gender, any Ugandan can become a uReporter! UNICEF Uganda created the platform using the free, open-sourced software RapidSMS which allows the aid agency to quickly and easily push out information and polling questions to uReporters via SMS.

In the first year, 89,000 Ugandans became uReporters. Today there are more than 200,000! uReporters receive weekly SMS messages with information on topics such as female genital mutilation, disease awareness, safe water, early marriage, education, and health. In return, uReporters respond to survey questions with a simple yes or no, and have the option to provide more details via text. uReporters provide invaluable information to UNICEF, who then can share the information with other aid agencies and the Ugandan government, improving service delivery across the country.

UNICEF and other agencies have also begun to use uReport as an extension of their monitoring and evaluation system. uReport is a simple, inexpensive, and effective way to get real-time feedback on projects in the field and to ensure that aid programs are being targeted correctly. And because users provide demographic information at the time of registration, UNICEF can dissect the data and decide where to concentrate their resources and programs. This is so important at a time where every aid agency is working with limited resources and must get the most bang for their buck.

uReport has proven so successful in its first two years that even the Ugandan Parliament has joined in! Oleru Hude Abason, a Member of Parliament from the Yumbe district, was one of the first MPs to join uReport as a way to keep in touch with her constituents needs. Parliament has even created their own version of uReport – U Speak – to conduct constituent outreach. While it may have not been the original intent of the application, uReporters are now able to interact with government officials and hold them accountable like never before.

The success of uReport has been astounding. It’s innovation for information, improved service delivery, and real-time policy creation and has the potential to do so much more. It is Uganda’s next killer app!

We’re excited to partner with the mHealth Alliance yet again to offer our Mobile Phones for Public Health for open enrollment. And we think it matters: When it comes to IC4D (or M4D) projects, even the best technology is often not as helpful as the latest best practices. Patty Mechael, the Executive Director of the mHealth Alliance, was recently quoted in an NYT article about lessons learned from the past ten years of “mobile phones for public health” concluded:

“The tech is only as good as the people it is connecting or system it’s connected to,” Mechael said. ”We can get excited about the shiny new object, but the real impact comes from thinking about the cultural and professional context in which it’s being implemented.”

That same article cast a skeptical eye on the impact of many mHealth programs to date, but singled out Project Mwana as being successful on a large scale in Zambia and Malawi for testing babies of H.I.V.-positive women. When asked to describe what makes Mwana work, Erica Kochi, the co-leader of tech innovation for UNICEF (and confirmed speaker in our upcoming course) described: “Incredible simplicity….It’s not trying to replace the health information system.  For its users, it makes things easier rather than adding more

Nick Martin interviewing Merrick Schaefer

mHealth Interview with Merrick Schaefer on Project Mwana

complexity to an already difficult, challenging health system.”

But mHealth solutions aren’t as simple as scaling successful programs irrespective of context. It requires creating an ongoing dialogue between public health professionals, the medical community, technologists, and government funders.

To that end, we’ve attempted to not just build a successful-project showcase, but a conversation that includes the following speakers and organizations:

  • Robert Fabricant, Frog Design
  • Gustav Praekelt, Praekelt Foundation
  • Alain Labrique, JHU University
  • Sarah Emerson, Center for Disease Control Tanzania
  • Erika Cochi, UNICEF Innovation
  • Yaw Anokwa, Nafundi
  • Martin Were, Regenstrief Institute; Hamish Fraser, Partners in Health
  • Armstrong Takang, Federal Ministry of Health
  • Kirsten Gagnaire, MAMA Global
  • Lesley-Anne Long, mPowering Frontline Workers; Sandhya Rao, USAID

Class starts June 3rd. Visit the mHealth course page to apply and reserve your spot today. Seats are filling up quickly. We hope that you’ll join the conversation!