By Merrick Schaefer, Lead for Mobile Data at the US Global Development Lab at USAID
As the ebola epidemic in Liberia has been stamped out, but new cases continue to be reported in Sierra Leone and Guinea, USAID continues to work to get to zero. It’s the number that the global community must reach to end the outbreak, enabling us to build a lasting bridge to recovery. It’s also a number that will require ongoing monitoring and surveillance to maintain. For USAID, this continues to require focus on a data-driven approach to developing a dynamic, sustainable response in the fight against Ebola. Access to timely, accurate information throughout the most acute period of the crisis depended heavily on person-to-person contact led by dedicated response workers. During the global community’s response, new applications of technology, data and innovation emerged as key elements in supporting efforts to stem the spread of the disease.
Addressing the persistent and complex challenges of the Ebola epidemic required diverse solutions. To reach people faster, better and more efficiently means identifying and using new ideas and information. Two particular areas that are potentially invaluable to the global response to Ebola and other crises quickly became clear: data and connectivity. When the Ebola epidemic began, access to reliable information with geographic specificity on confirmed and suspected cases was limited, creating significant challenges for response workers to contain the outbreak through rapid diagnosis, safe isolation and contact tracing. Contradicting data points and the absence of accurate, real-time data made it difficult to orient the response. Gaps in connectivity also obstructed the demand for and delivery of recovery aid. In some cases, areas with weak mobile and broadband connectivity continue even today to handicap data collection, response efforts and recovery ability.
Over time, data accuracy and availability improved. This was the result of a variety of efforts from multiple stakeholders. Private sector partners like Facebook provided short-term connectivity expansion through satellite deployment. NGO and government teams made use of radio, mobile phones and cell phone apps to support contact tracing and deliver behavior change messages to decrease disease transmission risks. Leadership of affected country governments, including the Liberian Ministry of Health, took steps to ensure that data reporting and analysis could be centralized and streamlined through its Emergency Operations Center.
The Fighting Ebola Grand Challenge for Development also buoyed a team of innovators addressing gaps in the Ebola response, including two proposed solutions. CommCare, an open source mobile platform from social enterprise Dimagi, would support a range of Ebola-management needs: screening, triage, diagnostics, lab tracking, contact tracing and map-based visuals — all to help ease the communication burden and disconnect currently experienced on the ground in Ebola-affected countries.
Similarly, a dynamic, integrated health worker communication and coordination system called ‘mHero’ provides tools to help countries tackle the core communication gaps for health workers. mHero is an SMS-based mHealth platform developed by UNICEF and Intrahealth. It is designed to extend and enhance existing national health information systems to support rural and remote health workers.
Data collection has been essential to an effective response. More must be done to harness this information to shape decisions in humanitarian response environments. The limitations of current digital infrastructure revealed by the recent Ebola outbreak exposed the need to strengthen the capacity to prevent and respond to crises. Eradication in both rural and urban areas will largely depend on the affected communities themselves. And enhanced connectivity and real-time data systems have the potential to support these efforts and dramatically improve preparedness for future epidemics.