Telecoms tech to help in Ebola fight

Mobile apps and call data analysis providing information and assistance in Africa
CDC EIS officer is pictured outside of the local office before departing to the main hospital to collect data for new Ebola cases.
CDC EIS officer is pictured outside of the local office before departing to the main hospital to collect data for new Ebola cases.


Researchers are collecting mobile phone data from operators to help tackle the Ebola virus in western Africa. Mobile technology is proving to be key to helping fight the latest outbreak of the virus, with organisations including the World Health Organisation and the International Telecommunication Union undertaking initiatives focused on the disease.

Paul Sitbon, CEO at Sikiwis, a company which has developed an app for the WHO, told CommsMEA that the app serves several objectives such as providing local information on Ebola Treatment Centres and procedures, local contact information, survey tools, instant notifications for communicating with targeted populations on an immediate basis, and assistance requests from users of the app who need to receive instructions when they have concerns about suspected cases.

IBM is using big data analytics to analyse data from calls to Ebola telephone helplines setup in Sierra Leone, to better target aid efforts. Researchers at IBM’s Africa Lab in Kenya are using the data to create maps to show where relief efforts are most needed.

The ITU as part of the UN, along with the GSMA and the Internet Society (ISOC) also pledged to combat the outbreak during the recent ITU Plenipotentiary Conference in Busan. The ITU has already deployed satellite terminals to provide communications in the field, and is also developing an app, with efforts focused on better preparedness, early warning and response.

“Mobile technology has been the most prominent means of information exchange,” commented Dr Cosmas Zavazava, chief of project support and knowledge management department with the ITU’s Development Bureau.

“Technology is playing a big role in Ebola prevention as it is being used to raise public awareness on the epidemic, disseminate information on measures to be taken to reduce transmissions, and it serves as medium through which the public report suspected cases resulting in good information management thus lowering anxiety and preventing panic. Social media has also been instrumental in information dissemination,” Zavazava added.

However, mobile penetration, particularly smartphone penetration, remains low in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone, countries where Ebola has mainly been concentrated, which may hamper app-based efforts, according to Oluwole Babatope, research analyst, Telecoms and Networking Africa, at IDC. He said that the lack of smartphones should be taken into consideration when attempting to create new communication channels.

“With respect to fighting the spread of Ebola through mobile applications, focus should be given to developing apps compatible with feature phones especially as smartphone penetration is low. Also channels like SMS and USSD that do not require 3G connectivity should be exploited in distributing information since 2G penetration is higher in all the countries,” Babatope said.

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