Helping combat the Liberian Ebola outbreak

Most students’ first days of class are spent reviewing syllabi, getting to know their classmates and feeling out instructors. In assistant professor Steven King’s “Design and Development of Mobile Apps” course in the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication, however, this semester’s students went straight to work brainstorming how to visually represent statistics of Liberia’s Ebola crisis.

The result: ebolainliberia.org, a project requested by Liberia’s Minister of Information Lewis Brown to help the country strategically contain the outbreak. The Liberian Ministry of Information announced the resource during a Sept. 8 news conference.

Ebolainliberia.org, which can also be accessed at ebolainliberia.info, is a mobile-first website and a single resource for accurate and actionable real-time information about the Ebola crisis in Liberia. It serves Liberian healthcare workers, Liberian and world citizens, international journalists, and even the Liberian president.

The site contains graphs that include cumulative total cases of Ebola and cumulative total deaths as a result of Ebola. A map feature gives site users a color-coded view of number of cases and deaths by Liberian county.

The hope is the site will help Liberian officials make better-informed decisions to help contain the spread of Ebola while providing the public with a transparent view of the country’s Ebola statistics.

“This project has been rewarding in so many ways,” said King. “Frustrating, but rewarding, knowing that we’re hopefully helping to ease a pretty scary situation in Liberia and knowing that our students can affect this kind of change through this kind of work.”

King, who teaches courses in interactive multimedia, led a UNC team of 10 volunteer designers and developers — students and recent graduates of the journalism school, a student from the UNC School of Information and Library Science and two more from the computer science department — to help launch the site.

A call to action

Shortly before the start of classes on Aug. 19, King was approached by Ken Harper, a Syracuse University associate professor of multimedia, photography and design who serves as the project’s U.S. manager and facilitator, to create a data dashboard with visualizations and infographics.

Harper had been working with the Liberian Ministry of Information to help get better information and present it in a more meaningful and immediate way than the multiple pages of PDF spreadsheets that were being distributed.

King’s team could provide the data visualization to give meaning to the numbers, but from where would the data come?

For now, the team is using data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Ministry of Health in Liberia. But IST Research, a Fredericksburg, Va.-based company that uses technologies to solve problems in difficult global environments, has developed an SMS, or a short messaging system, survey and response system for Liberian healthcare workers to upload clinic information via text messaging on cell phones. The SMS system will soon be used to provide data to the site.

According to a study conducted by Liberia Telecommunications Authority (LTA) and the West African Regional Communications Infrastructure Program (WARCIP), more than 42 percent of Liberians have access to a cell phone, so the SMS system could be easily adopted. After training to use the system developed by IST, healthcare workers will text a specified phone number and receive a reply with a set of questions, each messaged individually after the previous one has been answered.

Rapid response amid logistical challenges

After Liberian officials reached out to Harper, the entire project took only two weeks to launch.

But the productivity happened in short bursts. Beyond the time zone difference, communication with Liberian counterparts was beset with logistical obstacles.

Members of the technical team in Liberia were forced to alternate workdays so as not to risk the entire team’s exposure to Ebola. King and his team’s point of contact changed every five days, making already highly technical and difficult tasks all the more daunting.

“Our counterparts in the field were working under great emotional stress,” King said. “When taking their situation into account, it definitely gives me a new perspective working on projects here.”

King communicated with Liberian team members by email, Skype or Google Hangouts. At one point, power went out, the Internet connection was lost and the work between the stateside team and people on the ground in Liberia stalled.

A tweet from King at 4:39 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 29, just 21 minutes before the project was presented to the Liberian president, read: “12hr deadline to rebuild one of the most important projects I have ever worked on. Couldn’t have made it w/o a few friends! @caseymiller.”

Casey Miller, a May 2014 graduate who recently finished an internship with the Los Angeles Times and will begin a new job as a news app developer for The Wall Street Journal Sept. 15, devoted most of her time between gigs developing the backend system. She signed on after seeing a post to J-school students from King on GitHub, a Web-based hosting service that allows users to collaborate on and crowdsource computer coding projects.

“Ebola is a topic that has been very prevalent, but I didn’t know how I could help,” Miller said. “Then I saw Steven’s post and knew I could do something really helpful.”

Miller began her college career as a journalism major thinking she would be a graphic designer, but after working on projects that included Reese News Lab’s Capitol Hound and Living Galapagos, she found that backend development — scripting and coding to visually make sense of datasets — was for her.

“I had no idea I wanted to do this,” she said. “I got lucky that I was in the right place to do it.”

UNC’s user interface, user experience development team also included 2014 J-school graduate Eric Pait, UNC School of Information and Library Science student Alison Blaine, J-school students Clinton King, Grayson Mendenhall, Denni Hu, Daniel Lockwood and Kate Weeks; and João “Jo” Ritter, a computer sciences major.

The team’s love of solving problems with information and graphics and their commitment to helping Liberia kept them focused on launching the website, even when designs were scrapped and completely reimagined.

“We needed two interfaces, one for the public and one for the decision makers,” said King. “And they both needed to be mobile-first in design.”

According to the aforementioned LTA and WARCIP survey, only 2.8 percent of Liberians have access to the Internet. But that number has increased from previous surveys because of the introduction of 3G services.

Applications beyond current Ebola crisis

Beyond helping Liberia contain the spread of Ebola, the group’s goal is to create open source code that can collect and display data sets for major events.

Developers can change the data fields, program different SMS questions, and then deploy the system to users on the ground who are able to upload data. The data collected can then be displayed in more graphic ways.

“Our hope is that all of this work can be used during events that might be completely different,” King said. “We could have a system up and running even more quickly to better serve various audiences with real-time information.

“I am blessed to have such talented and devoted students who were willing to give countless hours so that hopefully less people will have to suffer from this horrible disease.”

By Morgan Ellis, School of Journalism and Mass Communication

Published September 8, 2014