West Africa: Tech & the Big Ebola Picture

News stories are springing up left, right and centre about new technology to counteract Ebola, but surely there is a big difference between short, medium and long-term initiatives?

The Ebola outbreak began in December 2013 in Guinea. Nobody around the world took much notice. After all, isolated pockets of this disease had been cropping up perennially for nearly 40 years… and besides, they only ever occurred in disadvantaged parts of Africa.

This was ludicrous. During the 1990s Ebola was the big scare disease that one media outlet or another briefly shouted about before moving on to something else. And now, the truly shocking thing is something entirely containable has been allowed to escalate out of hand.  

It seems this has been the result of an incredible lack of big picture thinking – which in practice, comes down to basic communication. This is nobody’s fault per se, but many aid agencies have been working in virtual isolation.  Back in April, we published a piece from our Sierra Leone correspondent, Silas Gbandia, on how technology was being used to keep people informed.

In this, Gbandia reported on the daily push text messages being sent to all Airtel subscribers by the Red Cross and Ministry of Health and Sanitation. A similar system has now been updated. But what is clear, with hindsight, is just how woefully inadequate these initiatives were.

In fact, by the end of September the government had resorted to the pretty desperate non-tech measure of a complete lock-down on the population (just imagine that in a Western country) - Tim Mansel produced a fascinating day-by-day account of this for the BBC World Service.

At this point in time, it seems the most useful way new technology can help beat this disease is by helping to provide a big picture beyond the chaos and confusion. As four doctors at the Mercy Hospital Research Laboratory in Sierra Leone wrote in the Lancet back in July: “Emerging technologies can help early-warning systems, outbreak response and communication between healthcare providers, wildlife and veterinary professionals.”

“The ongoing west African Ebola outbreak serves as a call to ensure access to needed diagnostic technologies and health-care resources, to accelerate the implementation of smartphone-based health applications in developing countries, and to improve regional and global surveillance and health communication,” they concluded.  

Yet the truth is, like the new IBM tracking system announced this week, most of this is fairly long-term. Savvy tech can help provide panoramic insights to deliver medium-term outcomes and help prevent against future epidemics of diseases in the long-run, but at this point, it will struggle with the provision of instant relief.

However, naturally as the crisis has worsened, shorter-term tech solutions outside analytics or communication have been proposed. Some of these seem a little silly, like the “germ-zapping robot as a way to disinfect hospital rooms used by Ebola patients”.

This might have benefits in big Western hospitals, but it really doesn’t seem very relevant in the on-the-ground conditions in Sierra Leone [two minute diary of a healthcare worker serialised daily on BBC Radio 4]. And surely this is where the real containment job still has to be.


Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect


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