IBM tech to fight Ebola in Africa

'For us to tackle Ebola, it is crucial to maintain an open dialogue between the government and the people of Sierra Leone.'
By Bernie Monegain
10:19 AM
World map

IBM will use its engagement and analytics technology to help curb the spread of Ebola in West Africa, company executives announced today.

Combining expertise from IBM's global network of research labs with its experience in humanitarian disaster response, the computing giant will apply mobile technology, data analytics and cloud computing to help governments and relief agencies contain the deadly virus.

The technology will be in play in Sierra Leone, enabling communities affected by Ebola to communicate their issues and concerns directly to the government. Also, a donation of IBM Connections technology in Nigeria is aimed at strengthening the Lagos State government's preparedness for future disease outbreaks. The effort also includes a platform for sharing Ebola-related open data.

The work benefits from contributions from a number of partners including Sierra Leone’s Open Government Initiative, Cambridge University's Africa’s Voices project, Airtel and Kenya's Echo Mobile.

[See also: mHealth takes on Ebola in Nigeria.]

Citizen engagement
IBM's new Africa research lab, in collaboration with Sierra Leone's Open Government Initiative, has developed a system that enables citizens to report Ebola-related issues and concerns via texts or voice calls. It provides insight 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, in a statement announcing the 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 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. Because 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 that require urgent supplies such as 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.

"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 Uyi Stewart, chief scientist, IBM Research – Africa, he said in a news release. "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."

The system uses radio broadcasts to encourage people to get in touch and express their opinions. Cambridge University’s Africa's Voices project has helped to develop a radio engagement model, incorporating questions into public service announcements to elicit feedback from citizens in both English and Krio – one of Sierra Leone's most widely spoken languages.

"Radio is a powerful medium in Africa but its potential to gather and analyze audience feedback has not been fully seized," Sharath Srinivasan, director of Cambridge University’s Centre of Governance and Human Rights, said in a statement. "We are working with IBM to offer people across Sierra Leone a channel to voice their opinions and, crucially, to ensure that the data is rapidly analyzed and turned into valuable insight about the effectiveness of public service announcements and possible public misconceptions about Ebola."

More regional news

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