Although the Ebola crisis has been snuffed out of the news cycle in the U.S. these days, the epidemic continues to ravage parts of West Africa. And health workers are increasing their efforts to combat Ebola, including using smartphone applications to monitor the situation on the ground.
Malan and Philip Joubert, brothers from South Africa who recently moved to Palo Alto to expand their app-development company, Journey, saw the demand for mobile solutions, so they created the Ebola Care app to help aid organizations in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. The app has several core functions, including contact tracing, which identifies and diagnoses people who may have come into contact with an infected person; quarantine management, which tracks and manages the 21-day quarantine period of a patient; psychological assessments to determine the well-being of health workers; social work to build case files for orphaned children; survivor surveys, which are assessments of Ebola survivors upon leaving treatment centers; verification that supplies have been distributed; and event feedback, which captures thoughts from the community after educational events.
Malan said the app is designed to work well on low-end Android phones, which make up the vast bulk of smartphones in West Africa. If there is no wireless signal, the data is stored in a mobile relational database until there is, he said. Then the data is uploaded to the cloud where it can be accessed by approved agencies.
The app, built on the Journey platform, launched last November, a month after three U.S. residents contracted the Ebola virus and one man visiting the United States from Liberia died from the disease.
"We had been following the Ebola crisis for a while, but like everyone else we didn't think we could help," Philip said. "When I arrived in California, Malan and I started talking about Ebola, and it occurred to us that the challenges facing aid organizations in West Africa are actually similar to the challenges we solve for our business customers every day."
Initially, their goals for employing the mobile technology were "quite humble," the brothers said.
"We wanted to help a couple of organizations fighting Ebola. It turns out that there was a huge demand for the mobile solutions we were building, and we're now helping more than 20 organizations," Philip said.
Malan and Philip contacted GlobalGiving, a nonprofit organization that provides a global crowdfunding platform for grassroots projects, and the organization helped distribute the apps and smartphones, which were donated by tech companies, individuals and other organizations.
"Based on early successes with organizations like More Than Me (a group that provide girls in West Point, Liberia, education, health and social services), we received a donation of 1,000 smartphones," Malan said. "This helped us scale our work very fast. By simply being consistently responsive to the needs of the organizations on the ground, the project got a life of its own."
All 1,000 smartphones haven't rolled out yet but are being distributed in batches of a few hundred, Malan said.
"Depending on the organization and the work they do, the apps can be very leveraged," he said. "Some organizations might issue a phone to a team lead with five to 10 workers reporting to them, and each worker helps dozens of people in a week, so the 'reach' of a single phone can be huge."
Being digital, the app replaces paper forms and gives decision makers real-time access to data from the field, Malan said.
"A large part of fighting Ebola is about making smart decisions: Should this person be quarantined? Should we provide more health care to this area? In which zones is an outbreak spreading?" he said. "Accurate and timely data leads to better decisions, which results in less mistakes and smarter resource allocation, which in turn prevents infections and saves lives."
The feedback from health workers using the app has been overwhelmingly positive, Malan said, but the brothers are setting a higher standard on how successful the app is by looking at the "quantifiable change on the ground," he added.
"As Africans, we've seen the kind of damage that well-intentioned but ultimately misguided, aid efforts can create," Malan said. "So we ask hard questions to make sure we're creating real value: Do organizations actually use the app? Do they keep using it? Is the data they collect actionable and actioned? Does the utility of the app extend beyond the Ebola crisis and make their lives better on a sustainable basis?
"It's just like building a startup: You have to talk to your customers all the time, you have to hear them out, look at what they do and keep asking yourself, 'How can I make their lives better?' he said.
The brothers are trying to raise funds to expand the app to 10,000 health workers over the next year and to add additional features like education, chronic-disease tracking and hospital management.
"If we're serious about preventing something like this from happening again the root problems need to be tackled," Malan said. "We see the Ebola Care app as a good proof point that apps delivered in this manner can add massive value to aid organizations."