On Aug. 5, a group of open data mavens and government officials from Africa gathered in Washington, D.C., to launch an initiative called Africa Open Data. The goal was to help African countries tap open data as a means of addressing health, infrastructure and economic challenges. In a shocking turn of events, members of the Sierra Leone delegation simultaneously received text messages alerting them that their flight back home had been canceled due to the rapid spread of Ebola. Suddenly, they were citizens cut off from their country.
“They had looks on their faces of total panic, fear and trauma,” recounts Steven Adler, IBM’s open data evangelist and an organizer of the the event. On the spot, Steve and other participants started brainstorming ways they–and data–could help . They banged around ideas and began emailing and texting friends and associates they thought could lend a hand.
Like a pebble dropped in a lake, ripples from that event have spread around the world.
For one thing, it prompted Steve and others to immediately launch a new initiative, the Ebola Open Data Repository, aimed at gathering and cataloging data that might be useful to relief organizations, government agencies and policy makers who are grappling with the Ebola epidemic.
In parallel, our IBM Research Lab in Africa began collaborating with Sierra Leone’s Open Data Initiative, Cambridge University’s Data Voices project and local wireless telecom carriers to in a matter of days create s system for the government to engage directly with citizens about the crisis via sms or voice calls.
Countless similar grassroots, volunteer efforts have sprung up around the world–animated by a belief that a combination of open data, analytics software, crowdsourcing, and the willingness to collaborate across traditional boundaries can make a difference. People involved recognize that in the midst of this fast-moving crisis, traditional methods for solving problems can’t move fast enough. Sometimes you have to throw the world’s experts and its data together and try to get things done.
“The use of data and more importantly open data has now become an important tool for a national, regional and global understanding about the stakes in an effort to prompt the Ebola discourse towards a more strategic and rational response,” says Yeama Thompson, a member of Sierra Leone’s Right to Access Information Commission.
“Data can be a powerful resource for managing and mitigating epidemics,” says Jeanne Holm, evangelist for America’s Data.Gov initiative. “Governments and other organizations have valuable open data that could help in relief efforts – about roads, airports, schools, medical facilities and populations. Such information can help to drive data-driven decisions during times of uncertainty.”
Jeanne was one of the organizers, along with IBM’s Steve Adler, of an Ebola Open Data brainstorming session that was held in New York City on Oct. 18. There, about 100 people in the room and 100 more who joined virtually listened to health experts talk about the status of the Ebola epidemic and then divided up into working groups to develop solutions. A group in the West Bank of Israel set up a “satellite” brainstorming session.
For a first-hand account of the meeting, listen to IBM Researcher Saska Mojsilovic’s podcast.
If you want to contribute to the project or use the data and tools, go to the project Web site.
The breakout groups didn’t just talk about solutions; on the spot, the volunteers started gathering data sources and building the catalog for the repository. Using the open source data management tool DKAN, they made it easy for people to find and compare related data from diverse sources.
One of those sources was a Web site set up just weeks before by a graduate student in computational epidemiology at Virginia Tech, Caitlin Rivers. She’s associated with an institute there, the Network Dynamics and Simulation Science Laboratory, which is under contract with the U.S. Department of Defense and the National Institutes for Health to develop computer models for the spread of infectious diseases. Starting in early July, they began issuing weekly forecasts of the spread of the disease in West Africa. They organized a week-long hackathon starting Oct. 10 bringing together students and faculty to come up with ideas for dealing with Ebola.
Caitlin pitched in by setting up a GitHub Web site for gathering data and published blog posts about finding solutions to the crisis. “A lot of people would like to help fight Ebola, but they’re not sure how to do it,” she says. “We hit a nerve. We showed them how to mobilize and put their own resources to use.”
Social networking plays a crucial role in the life of these grassroots Ebola-fighting initiatives. The software tools not only help connect people to data but they connect people to people with overlapping interests and areas of expertise. Caitlin’s data fed into the Ebola Open Data Repository, and she, herself, has plugged into another Ebola-related initiative, the Ebola Modelling Community call, which was launched by IBM scientists at the IBM Research – Almaden, our lab in San Jose, California.
The call, which takes place every Wednesday, is designed for researchers studying Ebola epidemiology and modeling. Mathematical models of Ebola are designed to produce accurate predictions of the path of the disease. Healthcare organizations and policy makers can use them to decide what actions to take. For instance, according to James Kaufman, the IBM Research scientists that organized the Ebola calls, health authorities can decide where to focus their limited resources based on assessments of their results.
Using a technology framework called STEM (for Spatio Temporal Epidemiological Modeler), Kaufman’s team has created an open-source global model for Ebola. Some of their findings are quite alarming. “Ebola is evolving right now at the rate of influenza or a little faster,” James says. “It’s adapting to human cells and human to human transmission. So we’re seeing the birth of a new human disease that may never go away.”
While large organizations and academic institutions are taking the lead in the grassroots Ebola campaign, there’s a role for startups as well. In fact it was Alexander Jones, the co-founder of a brand new company, Operon Labs, in Philadelphia, who created the first Ebola model using STEM–just a few weeks ago. Jones, a former NIH scientist, is developing a business around big data ontology–which has potential to be useful in drug design and gene therapy. But his Ebola model was a volunteer effort.
He’s a strong believer in grassroots open data projects to solve critical, time-sensitive problems. “This a way to bypass the formal channels, where it might take months or longer to resolve a debate,” he says. “Here, scientists from different labs can speak directly to each other, and give each other immediate feedback.” Instead of taking months to resolve a debate, it can be done in near real time.
Are these projects really helping? The groups are sharing their data and insights with healthcare officials in Africa, Europe and the United States. But it’s too early to tell how useful they will be.
The sustainability of these grassroots projects is questionable as well. Frequently, groups of people pull together as volunteers to address a critical problem, but, since they have day jobs, sometimes their projects lose moment and don’t deliver the results they had hoped. The Ebola Open Data Repository project, for instance, needs people to identify and gather a lot more data sources, according to Rich Robbins, of Upper West Strategies, one of its organizers. And it needs curators and project managers to organize and move things ahead. “We need people who have the clout and the resources and connections to people who are directly involved so the group can help in a tangible way,” Rich says.
Any volunteers? Click here.