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CIO interview: Marc Touitou, the World Health Organization

Marc Touitou joined the World Health Organization as CIO at the time of the Ebola outbreak in Africa. He promptly set about being a catalyst for change

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The West Africa Ebola outbreak in 2014-2015 was a wake-up call. But nature was kind because, however tragic this outbreak was, the disease was not airborne and it was eventually contained.

Computer Weekly caught up with Marc Touitou, CIO of the World Health Organization, following his presentation at the Gartner Symposium in Barcelona, where he discussed his first 100 days at the World Health Organization (WHO), the public health arm of the United Nations.

His presentation was titled, The CIO’s first 100 days at WHO during the Ebola crisis – a digital transformation story. “You get a 100-day honeymoon. My first 100 days was Ebola, and nothing prepares you for that. You have a new reality,” he says.

Touitou highlights how close mankind came to catastrophe during the Ebola outbreak, and pinpoints skills that CIOs can apply in such circumstances.

“When you ask someone what they are, they may say, ‘I am a mechanical engineer’. Ask me, and I won’t say I am an IT director,” he says. “What keeps me pumped up and excited is being a change agent and a catalyst of change for the good. It just so happens I know a thing or two about IT.”

CIO as change catalyst

One of the roles of an IT leader is to simplify the complicated, says Touitou. This comes about by trying to innovate and do new things with technology. One such example is the fever patch, a wearable Bluetooth thermometer that monitors and records body temperature using a mobile phone app. It was tested during the Ebola outbreak. 

This simple device offered life-saving potential, especially for those responsible for caring for the sick. “During the Ebola crisis, the first symptom was a fever. And if it was Ebola, you had a 90% chance of death if you didn’t get help during the first 48 hours.”

It is a fantastic example of what innovation and technology can do to help during a crisis. “The call for action is clear – the threat of a pandemic,” says Touitou. “So you describe a value-add path forward and bring partners and coalitions together to better help protect humanity.”

Battle on through political challenges

To succeed with this strategy, he says it is necessary to have persistence and stamina. “It is not different to the politics you see in business. Politics is not only something that happens in the UN. It occurs whenever you have managers and a hierarchy.”

It is a situation many CIOs experience. “My message is to not give up. Even when you have a great idea, it is going to be tough,” says Touitou.

There were projects that he knew would be possible to achieve within four months, yet he says: “The UN is not a startup. It took us nine to 12 months to implement [cloud].”

Specifically, Touitou convinced the WHO’s lawyers he could make a public cloud work. He recalls how he managed to turn around a project while he was CIO of San Francisco city: “I had a project that was absolutely dead in the water. We owned the licences. Everyone understood it was better to be in the same cloud. Why weren’t we moving there?” It was down to politics, he says.

During his term at San Francisco, Touitou says he needed to remove all the excuses people used for not using the cloud. “It drove Microsoft crazy because it was not completely ready for a government-class cloud. But Microsoft did it, and San Francisco became the first US city to use it,” he says.

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However, data governance goes far beyond the sovereignty of a single country. “Here at the WHO, it is about international work,” he says. “The information has other attributes. Some of it must remain in-house, and must be absolutely protected from anything and anyone.” 

Just as in San Francisco, Touitou was successful at getting people to buy into cloud deployment at the WHO. He says his boss told him it would be very difficult to implement fast. Touitou was able to convince the organisation’s lawyers he could ensure the data was encrypted before it was moved to the cloud. He also stipulated that the encryption keys would be kept in-house.

“Who’d have thought the World Health Organisation would be a technology first mover? Yet, we are live on ServiceNow. We are live on Taleo and Microsoft Office 365,” says Touitou. These are all applications hosted in the cloud. “It is a game changer. We removed the obstacles, simplified and accelerated,” he adds.

Organising a global response

In his presentation, Touitou showed attendees his vision for the “WHO integrated digital platform” that will support the reform of the World Health Organisation and enable a better response to outbreaks and emergencies. 

He says the command centre at the WHO during the Ebola outbreak was not good enough, pointing out that “some of our people got killed because of the conspiracy that white people in helmets were here to steal their dead and they did not believe there was a virus”.

At ground level, the WHO needed to capture information about the burials through social engagement. “People get infected with Ebola by touching dead people. It is not just about safe burial, but also dignified burial,” says Touitou.

WHO also needed to coordinate with many partners, such as the World Food Programme, Unicef, Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“During a crisis like Ebola, you need to be able to see how many people have died, how many were buried correctly, and if anyone was contaminated during the burial. There is also the need to manage how many beds we have and where they are,” he says.

Then there are the databases that manage warehouses, containing information such as how much equipment is available. “After so many uses, we have to dispose of gloves and boots. We also need to see, for example, how much disinfectant we have left and, if necessary, transfer supplies from one warehouse to another,” says Touitou.

All of this needs to be tracked to keep WHO personnel safe and to ensure everyone on the ground helping to manage the outbreak has the resources they need and can accurately track the spread of infection.

It is a simple manufacturing resource planning system, something IT has experience in deploying. Yet the challenge is the diverse ecosystem collaboration required to get a full picture of the situation.

“We did not have global visibility of all our warehouses. There were not only the warehouses of WHO, but also those of the World Food Programme, the army and the ministries of health,” says Touitou. “We did not have a good enough global command centre.”

Creating a global health emergency digital platform

The WHO is the only entity with universal political legitimacy for global health issues. “We not only need a global command centre, but everyone needs to be plugged in with geographical information systems and logistics,” he says. “No one can do this on their own. We need global collaboration.”

His team strives to strengthen a global digital platform. “It is not good enough to have a vaccine,” says Touitou. “You need the immunisation campaign, the logistics to deploy and information about the populations.”

Being a CIO is about having a vision, a strategy and, above all, the determination and drive to pull it off.

If WHO can use the cloud, with all the complexities required for a multinational agreement, surely anyone can? CIOs in any organisation should consider why they have not been able to move forward.

Read more on CW500 and IT leadership skills