A room full of young people with heads buried in their phones is not an unfamiliar sight. In fact, this was the scene in rural Margibi County, Liberia, during a training of youth-turned-social mobilizers in late February.
The audience members weren’t distracted, though — they were following the trainer’s instructions. To foster culturally adaptive community engagement in the fight against Ebola, USAID-funded training events like these are teaching social mobilizers how to use social media tools like WhatsApp and SMS-based U-report to stay connected while they’re out in the communities, educating people about how to protect themselves from the disease.
“This is enhancing coordination, it’s cost effective, and the young people find it exciting to work with,” said Jzohn Alexander Nyahn, Jr., executive director of nongovernmental organization (NGO) CHESS Liberia.
Outsmarting the deadly Ebola virus requires that communities and response organizations work together. A key component of the USAID-led U.S. Ebola response strategy in Liberia — where they have now reached zero cases — has been arming community members and responders with the information they need to prevent Ebola transmission.
For example, at-risk communities need to know the facts about Ebola and how to prevent its spread. Rapid response teams need to know where to find suspected cases as soon as they show symptoms. Health ministries need to know which public health facilities are not yet equipped to isolate and treat infected individuals.
But these types of data originate in thousands of different places with thousands of different people, and we must get the right information into the hands of thousands more who can take action. Fast moving collective action on such a massive scale is a serious challenge.
By weaving well-placed feedback loops into human response networks, USAID, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the governments of the affected countries, and private and NGO partners have coordinated efforts to prevent, detect and treat the disease. And, in many cases, mobile phones provide the key link to connect those who have life-saving information with those who need it.
The growing ubiquity of mobile phones in the developing world is unlocking tremendous opportunities to amplify humanitarian response efforts. Liberia, for example, which is one of the world’s poorest countries, has seen an explosion in its mobile market in recent years; phone ownership rates skyrocketed from 4 percent to 60 percent in just the last decade.
In the Ebola response, information and communication technologies like mobile phones empower local and international humanitarian responders to save lives by tightening the feedback loops between those who need help and those who can offer it.
Here are a few examples of how:
This Ebola outbreak has mobilized one of the largest public health crisis responses in history. Although it is the hard work and sacrifices of frontline responders and the people of West Africa, and not technology, that will ultimately defeat the disease, transformative technologies like mobile phones empower us to act together to get to zero cases.