Fighting the spread of Ebola through Technology and Big Data

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By Terri Freemantle, Earth Observation Specialist, Satellite Applications Catapult

The Ebola virus, which swept through much of West Africa – most severely affecting Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea – has so far accounted for more than 9,000 deaths, since first being reported in December 2013. Naturally, much of the initial focus in containing the epidemic was on the medical and sanitisation efforts. However, the impact of technology and big data in the fight against Ebola has gained significant momentum throughout the past 15 months.

Advancing the fight through technology

A year after Ebola was first reported, the Satellite Applications Catapult was invited to attend the ‘Technology for Ebola’ (T4E) Conference in Cairo, Egypt, which discussed how big data and technology could assist in the management, alleviation and ultimately the eradication of the Ebola epidemic.

The T4E Conference made three key recommendations:

  1. Social technologies for building Awareness
  2. Technology for Ebola Case Prediction
  3. Establishing the African Library of Medical Information and Data for Aid Networks (al-MIDAN) – a cloud-based, information and data portal, providing a one-stop-shop for researchers, information seekers, and educators with an interest in improving conditions around outbreaks of diseases in Africa.

According to research from the US Agency for International Development, social technologies have helped successfully control Ebola through small, community-led initiatives driven by better education and the implementation of culturally acceptable practices aimed at establishing awareness within the local population. Building upon this success, T4E plans to run a hackathon in Nairobi involving Microsoft 4Africa and local innovation centres to assist in developing new social technologies by utilising local talent.

The broader picture

But extending technological reach and impact beyond local communities is where satellite technology can have a significant and positive effect on such epidemics. The three main satellite technologies – Satellite Communication, Position Navigation and Timing (PNT – which underpins GPS technology), and Earth Observation – make major contributions to modern day hardware such as mobile phones, and applications such as Google Earth.

Using their individual and collective power, these technologies and the associated downstream solutions could be invaluable in fighting future epidemics such as Ebola by providing several vital benefits.

Improved communication on the ground

Through better connectivity and the use of big data, communication can help establish early warning systems, outbreak response, and knowledge exchange between medical professionals.

Computers and mobile phones can assist remediation efforts by increasing access to information about symptoms and quarantine protocols for Ebola sufferers, as well as educating people about the virus to ensure its spread is limited. This also helps overcome the challenge posed by many people turning to self-help or traditional techniques, which are medically unsuccessful and create a huge risk in the spread of the disease in close-knit communities.

The T4E Conference also proposed using big data to develop robust solutions for contact tracing – the identification and diagnosis of people who may have come in contact with an infected person. One proposed technique incorporates use of mobile and cloud-based systems to allow rapid diagnosis and drug delivery, developed to operate in challenging infrastructure conditions.

Geolocationary advancements

Building upon the improved communication capabilities, satellite technology can also generate accurate location analysis and environmental assessments (including the presence of urban and rural settlements), and assist in the generation of maps and knowledge transfer.

While maps are invaluable to aid workers on the ground, more often than not, local maps are out of date, therefore not providing the most accurate information possible. This is where high resolution satellite data has an advantage, delivering updated maps which can feed into data fusion technologies, and thereby map the situation inside an infected region and disseminate information to governments and humanitarian response.

Such an approach has already been formalised through facilities like The International Charter, which, in October 2014, was activated to allow the World Health Organisation (WHO) to acquire imagery for Sierra Leone and Guinea in dealing with Ebola. This imagery will support the creation of maps, allowing emergency response teams to characterise where and how to deploy overseas staff and support bases. The UK-built DMC2 is one satellite that has been used to acquire images for the West Africa region, under the Charter.

Disease tracking

Satellite data has proven its value in tracking disease in the past, including when WHO used high-resolution satellite-based urban maps from the European Space Agency (ESA) to help combat an Angolan outbreak of the lethal Marburg virus in the last decade. This solution incorporated a combination of Earth Observation data and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to monitor environmental conditions in remote areas.

Joining up the pieces

Satellite technology has a vital part to play in helping fight the spread of epidemics such as Ebola. But ensuring the various solutions and benefits are maximised requires a joined up approach and the adoption of data fusion techniques. These will improve spatial information by incorporating socio-economic data (e.g. Census) and mobile phone/GPS data with up-to-date thematic maps created using satellite imagery. This will consequently assist in creating epidemic maps, outlining hotspots of transmissions based on population density, identification of transmission routes, and the rate of infection occurrence. These maps can be used in combination with spatial analysis to assist on the ground response teams, including the establishment of quarantine and medical centres in areas where the need is greatest.

The challenge is certainly not inconsiderable, but nor is it insurmountable!