How big data, mobile and cloud are fighting Ebola in Sierra Leone

IBM applies data analytics, mobile technology and cloud computing to help fight the Ebola outbreak in West Africa

IBM has pressed data analytics, mobility and cloud computing technology into service to bring the spread of Ebola in Sierra Leone under control.

The current outbreak has killed nearly 5,000 according to recent World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates, making it the worst Ebola outbreak since the disease’s discovery in 1976.

It centres on Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, where local government and healthcare systems have been overwhelmed by Ebola patients.

The spread of Ebola among some of the poorest communities in the world has also led to a large amount of misinformation and given rise to dangerous misconceptions about it.

For Uyi Stewart, chief scientist at IBM’s Africa research lab, the first commercial technology laboratory in Africa, it was essential to step up.

“Africa is ground zero, and we want to be essential to the continent of Africa so, when this disease became pervasive in West Africa, we felt we had no choice,” he told Computer Weekly.

Engaging citizens in Sierra Leone

Ebola has already exposed failures in public education and information services. IBM’s team uncovered a weakness in Sierra Leone’s existing approach – sending SMS messages to warn people about the virus.

Between 40% and 50% of people in Sierra Leone are illiterate.

Alongside Sierra Leone’s Open Government Initiative (OGI) and its technology partners, IBM has implemented a system to enable citizen reporting of Ebola through both SMS and voice.

“This is our core strength,” Stewart explained, “to collect data through innovative approaches and analyse it to generate actionable innovation.”

Alongside SMS, the government now uses radio broadcasts – which many also receive on mobile phones – and a callcentre has been set up to take voice messages.

The callcentre is already handling thousands of calls a day. Stewart said he would like that figure to be in the millions to improve the quality of the data generated.

Mobile network operator Airtel is running the toll-free number, and social scientists from the University of Cambridge are helping improve the messaging and conduct mini-surveys over the air to extract more meaningful datasets.

“Mobile technology is Africa’s most powerful communications platform,” said Airtel Sierra Leone managing director Sudipto Chowdhury.

“We will do everything we can to ensure mobile technology contributes to tackling the spread of Ebola, and we are partnering with IBM to ensure the effective flow of information between the government and the citizens of Sierra Leone.”

Kenya-based start-up Echo Mobile – a specialist in using mobility to benefit underserved communities – has also become involved, to help anonymise the data.

“We’re working to make sure that the stream of messages from patients, health workers and the general public can be used to augment the response effort and provide a direct and near real-time view of the situation,” said Echo Mobile product director Jeremy Gordon.

The final step in the chain is the analysis of the data collected, using IBM’s cloud-based supercomputers to aggregate and correlate topics of most concern to people. Through OGI, the results are shared with people on the ground.

It has already identified areas that need supplies of soap or electricity, for example, but has also exposed some popular misconceptions.

Africa's grand challenges

Based in Kenya, IBM’s Africa research lab opened last year and is undergoing a baptism of fire as the world’s worst ever Ebola outbreak spirals out of control.

The objective is to use science and technology to deliver commercially viable innovation that improves the lives of people across Africa.

Uyi Stewart and his team focus on what they term Africa’s “grand challenges”, which affect the lives of millions of people every day. These revolve around improving education and healthcare, financial inclusion and mobility, and providing clean water, sanitation and energy.

“Our ultimate goal is to help transform the African continent and the human condition,” says Stewart.

Challenging mainstream Ebola narratives with big data

“Based on the data we started to see a lot of people calling in about corpses on the streets and in their homes. It was the number one concern,” said Stewart.

IBM liaised with OGI to find out why this was, when the messaging around safe disposal of dead bodies is loud and clear, because corpses remain infectious for a long time.

The media has been reporting that cultural practices are stopping people from heeding public information messages and burying the bodies quickly,” explained Stewart. “But we found this was also for another reason: when people die, not just of Ebola but from other causes, because of the stigma associated with Ebola, families are scared and insist on an autopsy report to see whether or not it was Ebola.

“This led us to discover that the testing apparatus is overwhelmed in Sierra Leone – it can only do 50 tests a day – and there is now a backlog of families that need to bury their dead. These people get tired of waiting and bury their relatives in secret, which makes it much easier to contract Ebola if it is present. The infrastructure is simply being overwhelmed.

“That is actionable insight that allows governments and NGOs to step in and help manage it,” said Stewart.

A global benefit

Sierra Leone was the focus of IBM’s project, but it is by no means the end for Stewart’s team.

“This cannot be a one-off, this is proving the value of research labs,” said Stewart. “We must document and replicate this to create a framework of resiliency when disaster strikes.”

IBM volunteers are engaged in a community effort to identify, inventory and classify any and all open data sources related to the Ebola outbreak.

IBM has deployed SoftLayer cloud technology to set up an Ebola Open Data Repository, providing governments, aid agencies and researchers with free and open access to the data.

IBM’s Ebola outreach continued in Nigeria, the fourth country to be affected by Ebola, which was recently declared free of the disease.

Here donations of Connections technology, the same cloud platform previously deployed to assist with earthquake relief in Haiti, and following Hurricane Sandy in the US, will assist the Lagos State Government in its attempts to prevent a repeat of the Nigerian outbreak.

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