Sierra Leone pushes ITU members to back tech against Ebola

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Spurred by Sierra Leone, the U.N.’s ITU has teamed up with the GSM Association, the World Health Organization, and the Internet Society, committing resources to a worldwide effort to develop technology tools to help stop the spread of Ebola.

“We have the technology,” said ITU Secretary General Hamadoun Toure in prepared remarks at the International Telecommunications Union Plenipotentiary Conference in Busan, Korea. “We have the information—but in a world in which everybody is talking about big data, we still haven’t been able to set up the right mechanisms to accelerate the distribution and utilization of realtime information when it is mostly needed.”

The ITU formalized its commitment to technology in a resolution proposed this week by Sierra Leone, one of the countries hit hardest by the Ebola virus in what has become in a matter of months the worst epidemic of the disease in history.

Sierra Leone proposed that the ITU identify communications infrastructure needed for the timely exchange of information on Ebola virus transmission and collaborate with organizations, particularly WHO, to combat its spread. The resulting ITU resolution, with the overwhelming endorsement of member countries including the U.S., Canada, Russia, the UAE, U.K. and Japan, offers assistance and support to consumers, humanitarian organizations and industry to develop technology to fight Ebola.

Japan immediately responded to the proposal, offering 180,000 Swiss francs (US$187,000) to develop a mobile application for smart phones that can provide crucial information for the prevention of the spread of Ebola diseases, as well as other effective measures.

More than 13,000 people have been infected with the Ebola virus and more than 4,800 have died, mostly in the West African nations of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, according to WHO.

The ITU has already tapped technology to help battle Ebola, according to Cosmas Zavazava, the chief of the Project Support and Knowledge Management group at the U.N. organization’s Telecommunication Development Bureau (BDT).

“ITU has deployed satellite terminals to be used in remote areas where there is no fixed or mobile-cellular coverage,” Zavazava said in email.

The ITU has also focused on developing various apps, Zavazava added. The apps have been designed to provide a means of communication for government agencies to disseminate information to the public, and can be used for early warning, Zavazava said. “Victims could also contact government agencies, their families, etc. The apps could also help in big data analysis for decision making,” he said.

The use of apps and various forms of messaging are efficient uses of technology partly because of their ability to connect a large number of the growing mobile phone users in the affected areas.

Apps are increasing awareness of the disease worldwide as they provide updates on what is happening in Sierra Leone and other affected countries, said Al Turay, the developer of the Sierra Leone Ebola Trends app.

“On a local level, alerts from the app provide current statistics including expanded details on lost lives including health officials and survivors and how to take further precautions to prevent the disease,” Turay said via Facebook. “It also helps to keep users engaged in sharing their stories, pictures and videos of popular news briefs around the world about the disease.”

Every day, the Emergency Operation Center in Sierra Leone churns out figures on new cases and the latest developments in the fight against Ebola, using several channels to communicate to the public. Apps such as Turay’s could be helpful in the effort, though he noted that a major challenge has been the low number of Android and iOS devices in the hardest-hit areas.

On its website, WHO noted that the recent halt of new cases of Ebola in Senegal was achieved not only through the country’s rapid infectious disease control work, but also by using a novel SMS-driven platform originally designed in partnership with major mobile phone operators in the country to help people manage diabetes.

The GSMA has also been working with many organizations and individuals to develop tech tools and services, including mobile apps, said spokeswoman Claire Cranton. The tools include WHO’s Ebola messaging services delivered via SMS and applications using the USSD protocol; UNICEF’s U-Report, a social media application for engaging communities in discussing Ebola issues, monitoring affected areas, polling, and counselling; and Mobilium’s Smart Health Pro, which consolidates onto a single user interface a number of services involving supportive care, enhanced diagnostics, improved patient monitoring and health payments.

Cranton added that the GSMA Disaster Response team has also been involved in continuing anti-Ebola efforts by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), and has helped update the wider humanitarian and technology community on progress. The GSMA has also been working with The Gates Foundation, and USAID to identify problems in anti-Ebola efforts and prioritize activities.

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