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Hacking a Different Kind of Virus

Two-Day Hackathon Explores Ebola Aid Solutions

Did you ever think that a hackathon could have the potential to turn the tide on a disease with an epicenter thousands of miles away? An event held in conjunction with the Greenhouse and the Design Tinkering Club at the NYU School of Engineering aimed to assist in the current deadly Ebola outbreak.

The two-day hackathon, Hack Ebola @NYU, was held on November 1-2 and was designed to bring together engineers, coders, hackers, designers, and medical and societal experts to brainstorm ideas to aid the public and medical staff in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. The event was formed to answer the challenge made by USAID and OpenIDEO to come up with implementable technological solutions. Several teams were formed to work on these open-sourced ideas that will then be potentially used as a means to combat the Ebola epidemic.

Using technology on the ground can prove to be challenging, as explained by Aissata Camara, co-founder of the There is No Limit Foundation, a non-profit that supplies education and entrepreneurship opportunities in Guinea. Camara expertly explained why attempts to disseminate Ebola information and to map its spread in the region have been a challenge to date. One major hurdle is that a large number of the population is illiterate, rendering most outreach pamphlets useless. The public’s perception of both the government and community outsiders also plays a large role. “Most of the population thinks that they’re lying,” said Camara, “and ethnocentrism is very big.” When members of Médicins Sans Frontières began to pour in at the onset of the outbreak, locals mostly met them with suspicion. Complicating things further is the fact that the technological infrastructure in western Africa is not the most sophisticated. While it’s not uncommon to own a cell phone, locals usually own older models that do not have GPS or app capabilities. Camara noted, “Only the very affluent have iPhones, so designing an app would be useless.”

The challenge, therefore, is to create a cheap and resilient database that should be easy to use, unburdening to caretakers who are already overloaded, and able to send information to affected areas as efficiently as possible. Locals should also be the primary users in order to build local trust.

Participants quickly began brainstorming solutions and several ideas came up. Many of them revolved around contact tracing, the practice of identifying who infected patients were in close contact with when symptoms began and monitoring these possible patients for signs of disease. This practice is already in use, but can stand to be streamlined and more efficiently stored in a database. Alessandro Rizzo of the School of Engineering described a possible project that helps figure out how to effectively distribute very limited human resources. Wilson Lau of the University of Washington asked for assistance on his visualization tool, Outbreak Investigator. This tool visualizes contact tracing by mapping patients and their close contacts. Other ideas included using standard SMS to send vital information to a database, ways to track high-risk groups who are not yet infected, and a crowd sourced, volunteer-based platform to take calls in crisis areas to offer assistance.

One of the ideas designed during the weekend, SMSanté, was selected by USAID and OpenIDEO as a challenge winner. SMSanté uses SMS to provide information on Ebola cases in a specified area. The SMSanté team, along with a second team, were also offered prototyping aid from the There is No Limit Foundation. In addition, the Greenhouse will be offering $500 mini-grants for up to three of the teams; the selections will be made at a later date.

This first step in innovating fresh ideas to combat Ebola is an important one. “We cannot be led by hysteria,” noted Camara. “In ten years, the next generation will judge our actions.”