The Ebola crisis developing in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone has been a matter of severe concern over the past few months, with the death toll in those countries now standing at over four and a half thousand lives. The fatality rate of the current outbreak is 70%, meaning only three out of ten people survive the infection in affected countries. Understandably, the international responses has been huge, with the World Health Organisation issuing strict guidelines on all aspects of the disease. At time of writing, the US and UK are both preparing military interventions in an attempt to curb the rate of infection in developing countries, where the standard of healthcare and living conditions are aiding rather than abetting the progress of the disease.
And that isn’t all: technology has been playing its part. In an attempt to combat misinformation and provide advice and instruction to the populace, the BBC have begun providing information and images via WhatsApp. As the most widely used messaging application in Africa, the platform allows life-saving information to be disseminated directly to people’s mobiles in the BBC’s biggest health information drive since reporting on HIV and AIDS in the 1980s.
In addition to using pre-existing apps, efforts are also being made to develop new, Ebola-specific applications. The Network Dynamics and Simulation Science Laboratory of the Virgina Bioinformatics Institute held a hackathon last week, with the goal of creating tangible, easy-to-use apps for residents of the affected countries. The hackathon involved over eighty programmers from inside and outside the university, working with sophisticated synthetic data sets provided by the US Department of Defense. One of the results of the hackathon is an app that allows those suffering from Ebola symptoms to alert health authorities, who can then dispatch a properly outfitted vehicle from the outset, thereby limiting the potential for infection.
On a grander scale, the IBM Watson supercomputer may be used to predict the spread and virulence of the disease. Earlier this year, IBM announced a £60m project to use Watson to solve African problems – and Ebola is that and so much more. Watson can be used as a diagnosis tool: as a unique ‘learning’ computer, it can be fed reams of data regarding Ebola, previous cases and their outcomes, and can then be asked questions, providing a prognosis and suggesting treatment for patients based on available data.
Despite the grand technological leaps of the past several decades, we are not in a position to rely on technology to the exclusion of the human element, when the human element is the one most at risk. We are a long way from the halcyon of having invulnerable drones and robots look after our sick, thereby saving our doctors and nurses from the risk of infection. Technology, however, is an enabler, providing information for both healthcare professionals and their patients, and co-ordinating the work of governments, NGOs and local residents. Software cannot save the world yet, but it can make a difference.