A Kenyan start up is working with Airtel and IBM Research Africa to help governments in West Africa curtail the spread of Ebola. The partnership has seen communities affected by Ebola in Sierra Leone send information to the government through text messages collated by Echo Mobile – a Kenyan startup that specializes in leveraging basic data from mobile phones.
The information is then fed back to a Central Government coordination unit who then send out medical teams to assist the affected families and communities.
“We’re working to make sure that the stream of messages from patients, health workers and the general public can be used to augment the response effort and provide a direct and near real-time view of the situation on the ground,” said Jeremy Gordon, Product Director, Echo Mobile.
IBM’s Africa research lab, in collaboration with Sierra Leone’s Open Government Initiative, has developed a system that analyzes citizen reports sent via SMS or voice calls. The analysis is relayed to the government about the day-to-day experiences of communities directly affected by Ebola to help improve its strategy for containing the disease.
“For us to tackle Ebola, it is crucial to maintain an open dialogue between the government and the people of Sierra Leone,” said Khadija Sesay Director of Sierra Leone’s Open Government Initiative.
“IBM has enhanced our work on citizen engagement through the use of innovative technology and opened up an effective communication channel with the general public so that we can learn from their input and create actionable policies in the fight against Ebola.”
Tapping supercomputing power and analytics capabilities via the cloud, the system is able to rapidly identify correlations and highlight emerging issues across the entire data set of messages.
As the SMS and voice data are location specific, IBM is able to create opinion-based heat-maps which correlate public sentiment to location information.
For example, it has already brought to light specific regions with growing numbers of suspected Ebola cases which require urgent supplies like soap and electricity, as well as faster response times for body collection and burials.
The system has also highlighted issues with the diagnosis of Ebola empowering the government to approach the international community to request more testing facilities and equipment.
Telco operator Airtel has set up the toll-free number via which citizens are able to send SMS messages.
“Mobile technology is Africa’s most powerful communications platform providing an important channel for reaching large numbers of the population,” said Sudipto Chowdhury, Managing Director, Airtel, Sierra Leone.
“As one of Africa’s leading mobile operators, we will do everything we can to ensure that mobile technology contributes to tackling the spread of Ebola and we are partnering with IBM to ensure the effective flow of information between the government and the citizens of Sierra Leone.”
According to the World Health Organisation, Ebola’s death toll has reached 4,922 across eight countries as of Saturday with Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone bearing the greatest burden.
Timely detection of the virus and adequate medical attention is crucial in combating Ebola, as Nigeria demonstarted. Nigeria has taken a leadership position in the fight against Ebola and has recently been declared free of the disease after successfully identifying and isolating people that had been in contact with an Ebola patient.
A donation of IBM Connections technology in Nigeria to strengthen the Lagos State government’s preparedness for future disease outbreaks has been instrumental in early detection and management of the virus.
“As Africa’s first technology research lab, we are uniquely positioned to use innovation to help tackle some of the continent’s biggest challenges,” said Dr. Uyi Stewart, Chief Scientist, IBM Research – Africa.
“We saw the need to quickly develop a system to enable communities directly affected by Ebola to provide valuable insight about how to fight it. Using mobile technology, we have given them a voice and a channel to communicate their experiences directly to the government.”
By encouraging the use of data collection and sharing platforms like Echo Mobile, institutions like IBM and Cambridge University Africa’s Voices project are leveraging on government open data with the aim of monitoring and tracking population movement enabling scientists to map and predict the spread of disease.