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How An Intelligent Text Message Service Aims To Tackle Ebola In Western Africa

A computer-controlled text message service could direct Ebola cases to appropriate medical facilities and track the spread of the disease in the process–provided it can raise the necessary funding.

  • October 20, 2014

Back in July, Cedric Moro started a crowdsourced mapping service to keep track of the spread of Ebola in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. Moro is a risk consultant who has created several crowdsourced maps of this kind using the openStreetMap project Umap.

Anyone can enter information about suspected or confirmed Ebola cases while hospitals and other health facilities can tell people whether they are open and functioning and how many spare beds they have.

The site tracks other information to such as unsafe burials, hostility towards health workers and links to information about the disease. It even tracks the movement of infected individuals to see how the disease spreads.

Moro’s work has been hugely important in helping to link potential victims with appropriate healthcare facilities and giving a broader overview of the tragedy as it unfolds.

But it also has an important limitation. Anyone hoping to contribute must have access to a computer or smartphone to upload their information. That means the system is accessible only to a relatively small portion of the population.

Today, Mohamad Trad from Doctors Without Borders in Paris, France, and a couple of pals outline plans to build on Moro’s approach and make this kind of information available purely through ordinary mobile phones. “We propose building a recommendation system based on simple SMS text messaging to help Ebola patients readily find the closest health service with available and appropriate resources,” they say.

The system will be easy for locals to use. The idea is that they can report their symptoms via text to a toll-free number where the messages will be analysed by natural language processing algorithms to determine whether theirs is likely to be a case of Ebola. The system will take into account the spatial distribution of known Ebola cases to classify the disease as accurately as possible.

Next, the system determines the person’s approximate location using the cell tower from which the message was sent or any postcode or village name included in the message. Finally, it will search its database for medical facilities with spare capacity in that area and text back the details accordingly.

The system also allows healthcare providers to update the database about the status of their facilities, such as their capacity to admit more patients, the number of spare beds and so on.

That could be hugely valuable on the ground. “There have been numerous reports where probable Ebola-infected patients had to be driven away from health care facilities due to lack of bed availability,” they say. A text message system like this could substantially reduce the likelihood of these kinds of wasted journeys.

Trad and co point out that the system will also be able to analyse the current status of the disease and predict the likelihood of future outbreaks and potential spreading pathways. That should provide a bigger picture that aid agencies can use to plan their logistics.

This kind of system has the potential to make a dramatic impact on the spread of the disease. While relatively few people have smartphones in this part of Africa, over 70 percent of people in Guinea have access to an ordinary mobile phone. Indeed, mobile phone use has spread rapidly in Africa in recent years and these devices have had a major impact on the way of life in many communities.

For example, in 2012, the humanitarian organisation HIJRA set up a service in Somalia that sent information about cholera by text message to anyone who wanted it. The service was set up to coincide with an expected peak in the spread of the disease and explained how people could avoid the condition or control it.

The service was well received by the 10,000 individuals who took part, not least because the messages could be stored on a phone and read later, unlike educational radio broadcasts which are more commonly used.

Trad and co are currently attempting to raise money to set up the service and say that they can get it working quickly should the necessary funds appear. Given the severity of the disease and the rate at which it is spreading, the people in this part of Africa need all the innovative ideas they can get.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1410.3576 : Guiding Ebola Patients to Suitable Health Facilities: An SMS-based Approach

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