Cellphone voice and SMS tech developed to fight Ebola

mobile phone tech
Copyright: Petterik Wiggers/IDRC / Panos

Speed read

  • The new tech, launched in Sierra Leone and Nigeria, aids quick Ebola responses
  • It can generate heat maps that correlate to location-specific public sentiments
  • An expert recommends other countries to adopt the tech as a contingency plan

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[MUTARE, ZIMBABWE] A new technology that enables the public to report Ebola-related concerns through short message service (SMS) or voice calls on mobile phones has been developed to aid quick response to the deadly virus.

According to IBM Africa, which developed the information and communication technology, the innovation provides citizens with convenient channels to voice their concerns.

“We saw the need to quickly develop a system to enable communities directly affected by Ebola to provide valuable insight about how to fight it,” says Uyi Stewart, IBM Africa chief scientist, in a statement released on 27 October. “Using mobile technology, we have given them a voice and a channel to communicate their experiences directly to the government.”

“We saw the need to quickly develop a system to enable communities directly affected by Ebola to provide valuable insight about how to fight it.”

Uyi Stewart, IBM Africa

Voice data are recorded and classified using spreadsheets emailed to IBM for analysis. “As the SMS and voice data are location specific, IBM is able to create opinion-based heat-maps which correlate public sentiment to location information,” the statement adds.

Uyi Stewart says that negotiations with Sierra Leone’s Open Government Initiative (OGI) to develop the technology started in June this year, resulting in its development and testing by August and its subsequent launch in Nigeria and Sierra Leone in October.

Stewart tells SciDev.Net: “We hope that our projects in these two countries will demonstrate the important role of technology in helping to tackle Ebola and other epidemics, and based on the success of our work we will consider extending the initiatives elsewhere in Africa.”

Khadija Sesay, director of Sierra Leone’s OGI, says IBM Africa’s technology has boosted effective communication with the public to help fight Ebola.

“The platform has created an innovative and unique open portal for citizens to engage in discussions on Ebola,” says Sesay, adding that it helps verify truth from myths, thus reducing fear and anxiety among citizens.

According to Stewart, the project is a humanitarian initiative funded by IBM and its partners such as OGI of Sierra Leone, but he did not specify the cost of developing the technology. 

A WHO report released this week (17 December) shows that in the continuing epidemic the virus has contributed to 6,900 deaths from 18, 569 infections in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Tendai Zuze, a public health expert based in Zimbabwe specialising in clinical infectious diseases, says countries not yet affected must quickly adopt such a technology as a contingency measure to help prevent the spread of Ebola.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.