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What Tech Can and Can't Do to Eradicate Ebola

BY Rebecca Chao | Monday, October 20 2014

Open Street Map assists WHO and MSF in Sierra Leone (Screenshot)

In theory, stopping Ebola should be easy, says Peter Piot, the Belgian scientist who discovered the virus in 1976 and flew to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) where he led an effort to contain it. Piot and his team mapped the disease’s spread with just pen and paper and were able to limit the death toll to 300.

Today, we have super computers, the Internet and ubiquitous mobile phone usage but also modern transportation and dense cities that have enabled the disease to travel as fast as we do, claiming 15 times as many lives as it did four decades ago. Over the weekend, a group of around 30 software developers, engineers, and computer scientists met at an Ebola Open Data Jam in New York City to discuss the limits and potential of technology in curbing the disease.

A trio of engineers from IBM, who asked not to be identified by name, said they could apply their skills contact tracing asteroids in space to Ebola, where one victim can generate a dizzying number of possible exposures. In Nigeria, doctors identified 898 individuals who may have come in contact with the disease from just one victim who passed away on July 25, though the country announced today it is now Ebola free.

In the hardest-hit countries – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone – half of the 9,191 infected have died and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates a worst case scenario of 1.2 million infected by January 2015. Currently, only one third of the affected areas in Africa has sufficient contact tracing; the World Health Organization (WHO) says the process is like putting out a forest fire -- there just aren't enough workers to stamp out the exponential number of sparks produced by a new infection.

There is one thing that can travel as fast or faster than fire: data. The IBM engineers argue that suspected Ebola carriers can be tracked using location information emitted by cell phones, especially since developing countries now have mobile phone penetration rates of 96 percent. In August, a Swedish nonprofit, Flowminder, demonstrated the promise of using big data to hunt down Ebola. Taking 2013 cell phone information from Senegal, it mapped the country’s traffic patterns and overlaid it with past Ebola outbreaks, providing a powerful model for following the growth of the virus.

The difficulty in tapping current phone data, however, is getting local governments to release it. To assuage concerns about surveillance and invasion of privacy, the IBM engineers suggested designing a platform with multiple layers of security that correspond with the granularity of the data. The finer and more specific it gets, the higher the clearance required. They hope that taking such precautions would encourage governments to ask telecommunication companies to release the data.

Other attendees at the data jam proposed building game-like education apps to stem the rumors that hinder healthcare workers from treating and isolating those infected. Even though the Red Cross and BBC have created SMS messaging systems to inform locals about the disease – how and where Ebola strikes, where to buy supplies, for example – the data jam participants questioned whether simple texts were enough to change a culture where many believe witchcraft is responsible for the deaths, not the disease.

While the majority of the ideas for apps and data visualizations over the weekend were hypothetical, one group of mappers spent several hours directly assisting workers on the ground in West Africa; they Skyped with volunteers from Open Street Map and learned that WHO, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and other humanitarian groups needed volunteers to help them identify residential areas, as well as roads and footpaths on satellite imagery of Freetown, Sierra Leone.

The mappers spent most of the day tracing and labeling buildings or highlighting clusters of houses hidden in the large expanses of fields and trees. They digitally joined a group of several hundred volunteers nearly entirely from Sierra Leone that had, in only one week, added close to 100,000 items to the map.

In the end, however, the Open Street Map volunteers in New York ran into a problem that could not be solved by technology. It was a dilemma that doctors in West Africa, who number one to 10,000 people, also face: the need for more manpower.