South African brothers create app to help fight Ebola

Mobile technology is being used to prevent spread of deadly disease

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."

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Like this comment
Posted by Cellphone-Medicine-Is-The-Future
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 6, 2015 at 2:36 pm

For several years now people in a goodly number of health care segments have been advocating/demonstrating how cell phones would be the most obvious way to increase health care access in the 3rd world, and eventually, in the developed world. The lack of stable governments, and harsh environmental conditions, in Africa leave mobile telephones/smart phones as the only reliable source of communications.

Development of software, to be used by the health care providers and the people living in rural areas offers significant opportunities for developers. But the nagging question of who should provide the development capital always pops up at times like these. Should this sort of medical care technology be funded by the governments of these countries—rather than being funded by private capital?

Ebola is a relatively rare disease, albeit very deadly. It rareness has been one of the reasons so little work has been done to produce vaccines, and rapid diagnostic technologies. Given its likely source, there is probably no way to prevent its recurrence. So, being able to identify people who have contracted the disease as quickly as possible will be key to dealing with future outbreaks. Toward that end, having Ebola identification kits locally available that can provide rapid confirmation of the disease will be very important to future containment efforts. Linking this sort of medical diagnostic to cell phones so that the raw test data can be uploaded to a central site for further analysis would be an obvious step towards allowing local health care workers to identify Ebola victims.

One could argue that small efforts like this one might make a little money for the company owners—and might even provide some help in the affected areas of Africa—but the complexity of creating a meaningful worldwide response to diseases that range from plague to Ebola/Marburg calls out for a response from a larger, fully-funded entity that operates in every country in the world.

Like this comment
Posted by jivko
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 7, 2015 at 12:09 am

Hi guys,
[Portion removed.]
I read that 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 for the Ebola epidemic, so they created the Ebola Care app to help aid organizations in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea
I think this is a step towards the future.

2 people like this
Posted by mathewmurdock
a resident of another community
on Mar 11, 2015 at 12:53 am

mathewmurdock is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

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