The current outbreak of Ebola in West Africa is the worst on record, with the World Health Organization reporting 5,420 deaths – Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia have been the hardest hit nations. As international efforts are stepped up to combat the disease, attention has turned to the ways in which mobile technology can assist in Ebola awareness, diagnosis and prevention.
By Grace Benton
The technologies being utilised in the fight against Ebola all have their varying benefits, for example tech development company Code Innovation have released an awareness-raising app covering a wide spectrum of languages and dialects: Jola, Sierra Leonian Krio, Liberian English, Swahili and Wolof; eHealth & Information Systems Nigeria provided health workers with an app for reporting symptoms; while UK-based NGO Radar focuses not on the provision of information to those affected but on receiving and sharing information from communities on the ground in Sierra Leone.
What is interesting about the Radar approach is the way in which they are supporting individuals from even the most excluded communities by giving them the capacity to share news and influence policy – they do this by training citizen journalists to report via SMS.
For the past two years Radar has been working with Sierra Leoneans, organising two-three day training programmes in-country, which include basic journalistic skills such as gathering information from the community and how to verify information by cross-referencing. The training is followed by continued mentoring by SMS or telephone to give feedback on their reporting and writing; this might include suggestions of alternative sources or information that could be added to strengthen a story.
Unlike other initiatives which are designed for smartphones, Radar’s project is based on the use of SMS as they target marginalised groups who may have a low level of education and be without access to the Internet. Most, although not all, participants in their training are already able to send text messages. Corin Faife, Digital Platforms Manager at Radar, explains: “What we are trying to do is build on an existing skill-set that’s there and then just adapt it for the purpose of transmitting information that might not otherwise be transmitted”.
When Ebola struck, trained reporters were able to provide information from remote areas of Sierra Leone which mainstream media organisations struggled to access because of quarantines, curfews and restrictions on movement. Reports from Radar trainees have been picked up by the BBC World Service, Channel 4 and The Guardian. These reports provide an insight into the daily experience for Ebola-affected communities in Sierra Leone, such as food shortages or the difficulties faced by disabled people with impaired mobility. The NGO emphasise that they aim not just to increase awareness but for meaningful empowerment for their participants in Sierra Leone and elsewhere.
Faife says they often receive feedback from their reporters on what taking part in the project means to them: “We’re working with quite a lot of people with disabilities […] a lot of them have said ‘this is really helpful to me and has increased my standing in the community, it’s really great to be able to demonstrate that I have the capability to do this and though I might have a disability it doesn’t actually affect my ability to be a journalist in any way.’”
Radar’s ability to achieve this twofold aim is limited by its small size, although they do hope eventually to expand into non-English speaking countries and potentially work with local media. In the case of Ebola, the organisation’s strength came from their pre-existing network but Faife admits that this was due to ‘an element of chance’.
The organisation is, however, optimistic about the scope for their SMS model to develop; Faife says “the parameters for what we do is that we work with marginalised communities, we work in situations where access to communications technologies is a challenge […] Within those limits, there are really endless possibilities for what we could do. I’m sure in the next year and the year after next we’ll be taking on projects that we haven’t even begun to imagine yet.”