By Osamuyimen T. Stewart, Ph.D.
The World Health Organization estimates that almost 10,000 cases of the Ebola virus disease have been reported since the latest outbreak was first reported in March 2014, resulting in more than 4,800 deaths. According to the WHO, widespread and intense transmission is occurring in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, while localized transmissions have occurred in other countries, such as the U.S.
Of the many daunting challenges facing local governments and aid organizations as they try to contain and manage the virus is the collection and analysis of information — current and insightful data about the situation on the ground, such as the needs of affected people, the supplies and services they require and the need for education to address socio-cultural obstacles.
If we can map all the data, we can figure out what needs to be done and who we need to partner with to get it done.
That’s where IBM is turning its attention. The company is combining its network of research labs and years of experience in humanitarian disaster response with data analytics, mobile technologies and cloud to help governments start gathering and analyzing critical information.
IBM Research’s new Africa Lab, the continent’s first technology research lab, is helping with humanitarian efforts in West Africa by partnering with the Sierra Leone’s Open Government Initiative (OGI).
Together, we have collaborated with Cambridge University, Airtel and Kenyan start-up Echo Mobile to create a system that allows citizens to communicate their issues and concerns about Ebola to the Sierra Leone government via SMS text or a toll-free hotline. The communities in Sierra Leone directly affected by Ebola can provide valuable insight about how to fight it, and by using mobile technology, they are able to communicate their experiences directly to the government.
In Sierra Leone, where the literacy rate is around 40 percent, it is crucial that we do not only rely solely on SMS text messages, but also provide a channel for people to call. So we have worked with OGI to set up a 644 number, similar to 911 in the U.S.
Via these two channels, over the past few weeks we have received thousands of text and voice messages. To respect data privacy, the identities of the callers have been made anonymous before being analyzed by IBM data scientists. Using geo-spacial data and machine learning, the system creates digital heat maps that correlate public sentiment with specific locations and pinpoints where the number of Ebola cases are increasing, where supplies such as electricity and soap are needed, and where services such as ambulances and faster burials are required. The information in the heat map is powerful and can provide a way for the government to respond to citizens and manage the disease.
Using this information, the Sierra Leone government has been able to approach relief agencies and the international community to request more supplies, equipment and testing centers to fight the spread of Ebola. With our decades of experience and contacts in this area, we are helping them in their efforts.
The mission of IBM Research – Africa is to address Africa’s grand challenges and be essential to the continent of Africa. We measure ourselves by how much we are affecting people’s lives through the use of science and technology. Our response to the Ebola outbreak speaks to that mission and is an important part of the the young history of the Africa lab.
Our efforts to contain Ebola are part of Project Lucy, an initiative to collaborate with companies, universities, governments and development agencies to apply cognitive technologies to address some of Africa’s biggest challenges.
Looking forward, we want to scale up our data analytics efforts and are looking at incorporating mobile phone signal data to help track population movements and try to predict the spread of disease.
For Africa’s first commercial technology research lab, this effort is not only necessary, but expected. Those in a position to bring to bear critical expertise and resources on particular challenges and crises have a responsibility to do just that. We believe that innovation has a significant role to play in tackling Africa’s biggest challenges. By using technology to engage with the people and communities in Sierra Leone who are directly impacted by this terrible disease, we are tapping one of the most powerful resources for fighting it.