Don’t Throw Solutions at Us Because We are Desperate; Let Us Tell You What Our Needs Are

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Since the beginning of the fight against Ebola there have been a lot of proposals, discussions, blogs, tweets and posts (on the Internet) about a multitude of ICT solutions that can help improve information flow, collaboration, aid the fight against the deadly Ebola Virus Disease (EVD). International partners and other “goodwill partners” flew into Liberia to assess situations, propose and implement solutions that would aid in the fight against the EVD. The advent of these “goodwill partners” to deploy ICTs to help in the Ebola battle has led to what I call an “amalgam of ICT efforts”, which has given birth to the many new systems and software solutions we continue to hear about.

Yet despite what we hear and read about in “blogosphere” we are yet to feel the impact of these much touted solutions.  Hitherto writing this article, our call centers continue to use manual systems, the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) has no automated processes or dashboards that could facilitate information gathering, collaboration, or delivery. So, the question is where is all the “help” that we hear about? Obviously, the “help” is here but focused somewhere totally alien to our current needs. In fact, it seems this “help” isn’t or has not been provided based on demand from us but rather, based on the “helpers’ ” desire to test or deploy solutions that they feel is good for us. But what good are these solutions when they don’t meet our immediate or long-term needs?

A recent study done by USAID-GEMS identified several gaps and information system needs in Liberia. This study identified many areas where there is a significant need for systems, in most cases automated systems, to improve the way things are done in Liberia (now in the Ebola fight and for the future), reduce costs, ensure operational efficiency and effectiveness and promote economic development. Some of the areas identified include: The lack of automation at call centers, lack of Case Management Systems, Contact Tracing, Ambulance investigation, Team Dispatch Unit, ETU Management, Fleet Management, Asset Management, Rehabilitation Management Training Management, etc.

According to the report, “each ETU operator has independent systems and there have been reports of shortcomings, and challenges with standardization of reporting. Contact tracing activities vary across the counties. Paper-based systems provide base functionality in low-intensity areas, but have been overwhelmed in Montserrado. There is no automated national EVD fleet management system and there is no automated national EVD asset management system. I could go on but the survey has done that already.

From the list of areas that show gaps, one would ask: How can these “gaps” exist in the presence of the “amalgam of ICT efforts” and goodwill partners who have been touting ICT solutions since the genesis of the Ebola Virus outbreak?

There’s absolutely no doubt that the “amalgam of ICT efforts” could have a significant impact on the fight against Ebola in Liberia and other countries affected. And, there is also no doubt that there is a great need for ICTs in this fight.  The problem, I have come to know thus far, is that the ICT solutions are that are being proffered and deployed are not taking into consideration the immediate and particular needs of the responders. Moreover, they are yet to show any tangible results in terms of their impact on the fight against Ebola. 

Worst yet, there is a total lack of coordination when it comes to this “amalgam of ICT efforts.” This lack of coordination has led to neglect for the immediate and particular ICT needs of responders, duplication of systems/software solutions, and other efforts. In addition, the array of technologies and systems being eagerly proffered or provided has the propensity to compete with one another and prove ineffective if they are not coordinated.

Frankly, the way I see it, the eagerness to develop technology solutions stems from the fact that the EVD outbreak presents several opportunities for those solutions to be tested, deployed and subsequently sold. It is not expensive to purchase a plane ticket and run to these “hot zones”, assess the situation, develop software, blog and tweet about it even though it may or may not have any short or long term impact on that country or its crisis.

There are many different partners in Liberia and other Ebola infected countries who are trying to do important work, but the systems and approaches are not collaborating. Because of this, there are duplicate technologies and systems being put in place by those partners. We should watch out for those solutions that are only temporary or do not fit into our long term developmental goals. This means all efforts must have room for scalability.

Finally, there is a great need for ICT in the fight against the EVD for economic development in Liberia. Hence, we ask our international partners and “goodwill” folks to not only provide solutions to help us meet our short-term needs (Ebola Virus Disease), but they should provide solutions that would also help us meet our long-term (economic development) needs. A lot of people have died as a result of this outbreak and there are lots of indications that we need help in many areas. Help us in the areas where we are lacking; not where you believe your interest lies.

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