Kenyan Startup Echo-Mobile partners IBM and Airtel to track Ebola in West Africa

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Echo Mobile, a Kenyan start up specializing in the use of SMS to give underserved communities a voice is working with Airtel and IBM Research Africa to help communities in Sierra Leone track the spread of Ebola.

This is how it works; Community members send information via SMS to Airtel, Airtel sends the data to Echo Mobile who then anonymise it, and format it for analysis. The information is then fed back to a Central Government coordination unit (Sierra Leone Open Government Initiative) who then send out medical teams to assist the affected families and communities.

The move is thanks to IBM’s new Africa research lab, in collaboration with Sierra Leone’s Open Government Initiative, this will provide actionable insight to the government about the day-to-day experiences of communities directly affected by Ebola to help improve its strategy for containing the disease.

The efforts combine expertise from IBM’s global network of research labs with the company’s years of experience in humanitarian disaster response by applying mobile technology, data analytics and cloud computing to help governments and relief agencies as they seek to contain the deadly disease.

Open dialogue between the public and the government through the use of innovative technology will contribute highly in tackling Ebola in the country which is IBM’s mission to assist the government create actionable policies in the fight against Ebola.

Tapping super computing power and analytics capabilities via the cloud, the system is able to rapidly identify correlations and highlight emerging issues across the entire data set of messages. 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.

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For example, it has already brought to light specific regions with growing numbers of suspected Ebola cases which require urgent supplies like soap and electricity, as well as faster response times for body collection and burials. The system has also highlighted issues with the diagnosis of Ebola empowering the government to approach the international community to request more testing facilities and equipment.

“As Africa’s first technology research lab, we are uniquely positioned to use innovation to help tackle some of the continent’s biggest challenges,” said Dr. Uyi Stewart, Chief Scientist, IBM Research – Africa.”

The system uses radio broadcasts to encourage people to get in touch and express their opinions. Cambridge University’s Africa’s Voices project has helped to develop a radio engagement model, incorporating questions into public service announcements to elicit feedback from citizens in both English and Krio – one of Sierra Leone’s most widely spoken languages.

Radio is a powerful medium in Africa but its potential to gather and analyse audience feedback has not been fully seized Cambridge University is working with IBM to offer people across Sierra Leone a channel to voice their opinions and, crucially, to ensure that the data is rapidly analyzed and turned into valuable insight about the effectiveness of public service announcements and possible public misconceptions about Ebola.

As one of Africa’s leading mobile operators, Airtel has assured efforts to ensure that mobile technology contributes to tackling the spread of Ebola and the partnership with IBM is to ensure the effective flow of information between the government and the citizens of Sierra Leone. The Telco operator has therefore set up the toll-free number via which citizens are able to send SMS messages.

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IBM is currently looking to extend the work to analyze mobile phone signal data in order to monitor and track population movement enabling scientists to map and predict the spread of disease.

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