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R U Ready to Fight Ebola? How Texting Has Combatted the Ebola Outbreak

Though Western panic about the 2014 Ebola outbreak has largely calmed down, the epidemic remains a deadly reality in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea. With cases on the rise on the West African coast and fear of the disease's spreading East to Cote d'Ivoire growing, efforts to quell the epidemic in this region are of critical importance. One surprising, and surprisingly effective, agent of these efforts is, yes, texting.

One way texting has been used to combat Ebola is through U-Report. U-Report is a communication platform designed by UNICEF to combat Ebola in Nigeria, and was launched in April of 2014. It is a subscription-based service that relies on SMS and aims to spread essential information about Ebola within the affected region. U-Report subscribers can ask questions about the Ebola outbreak via text, and receive reliably accurate answers in real-time.

The availability of accurate and pertinent information in this region is critical. Due to the fear and stigma surrounding Ebola, several misleading rumors regarding the epidemic and disease prevention have spread, often through social media. Some such rumors, like one promising that bathing in saltwater and drinking some of it would stave off the disease, even increased the risk of disease spread.

The use of texting as a platform for UNICEF's effort against Ebola is a particularly powerful choice. Not only is it a fast way to spread information, but it has proven effective even in regions that are harder to reach by other means; texting affords U-Report the broadest reach and therefore the greatest impact.

A texting-based platform has also been effective for another very important reason. While information is powerful, the magic of U-Report really comes from its subscribers' forwarding the informative texts they receive, causing a sort of signal amplification. In the words of UNICEF's Geoffrey Njoku, U-Report "is intended to strengthen community-led development, citizen engagement and behavioural change." Community-led development, to borrow Njoku's term, is an especially critical element of change, and one that is often overlooked in Western intervention.

The reach and impact of U-Report has been substantial. The platform gained tens of thousands of subscribers on its first day alone after launching in Nigeria in April of 2014, and, with over 100 million residents of Nigeria owning cell phones, held and exercised significant power to effect change. The success of U-Report in Nigeria sets an important precedent for future efforts against epidemics, including those against Ebola in regions where the disease is still being transmitted at high rates.

Additionally, the Red Cross has employed a similar project in Sierra Leone, known as the Trilogy Emergency Relief Application (TERA). While this platform is not as interactive and dynamic as U-Report, it sends periodic texts for free containing important information and reminders regarding Ebola to cell phone owners in Sierra Leone. The use of texting as a platform once again affords reach to the almost 70% of Sierra Leone residents who own cell phones, as any cell phone can receive texts, even in regions where Internet access is not widespread.

Another significant effort to quell the Ebola outbreak is the United Against Ebola campaign. The United Against Ebola campaign is an effort backed by 41 telecommunications companies across Africa in which any customers of these networks can contribute money to aid efforts against Ebola. Participants do this by texting "Stop Ebola" to a set number, for which they will be charged the equivalent of pocket change, all of which goes to combat Ebola.

The telecommunications companies participating in United Against Ebola are encouraging each of their collective 300 million customers to donate by texting, making the project a promising one. The project is a great example of African countries' making a strong and effective effort to create change within their own continent.

The United Against Ebola campaign also demonstrates the potential power of crowdsourcing, even when applied to situations as grave as the Ebola epidemic. It also makes clear the suitability of texting for use in crowdsourcing efforts, as it is a medium available to large amounts of people in many parts of the world, even where Internet access is hard to come by.

These two projects are not the only applications of texting to the effort against Ebola, but are particularly powerful examples of this trend. They demonstrate the strong positive impact of texting and establish a significant precedent for things like crowdsourcing and work against future epidemics.

About the Author -
Sharon Housley is the VP of Marketing for NotePage, Inc. a software company for communication software solutions. http://www.notepage.net

 


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