The Impact of Open Source Software in the Fight against Ebola in Liberia

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Over the years there have been several discussions and literature over the impact of open source software (OSS) on economic development. Countries, international organizations including the United Nations, the USAID, the British DFID, have all touted the benefits of open source software on economic development, especially on developing countries. Yet, in Liberia, the discourse has not been as ubiquitous and widely embraced as it has been in other countries or in the literature. While open source software has made some progress in permeating the Liberian society over the years (Mozilla Firefox, Apache Webserver, PHP, Java, MySQL), its impact has not been felt as much as it has been in recent times.

The current Ebola Virus Disease epidemic has not only exposed many of the challenges the country faces, it has also kindled new opportunities for economic development. One of those opportunities is the adoption and integration of open source software in the Liberian society in a more robust way to allow innovation and competition. In the past, we have spent scarce and limited resources on proprietary software to develop and maintain a digital platform. That approach has obviously hindered the development of the ICT sector especially, the development of a software industry, because proprietary software does not allow the type of innovation that open source software allows. Moreover, the cost of maintaining proprietary software-based platforms is extremely prohibitive and one of the many reasons why IT/ICT systems and projects in Liberia have failed or cannot be sustained. 

The current Ebola epidemic has shown that there is a critical need to establish a more robust communications and data collection system between health workers and other stakeholders. Equipping health workers with the right kind of information about the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease will enable them to support their communities to fight back against epidemic diseases. This requires robust IT/ICT systems that are likely to cost a lot if proprietary software becomes the solution, hence the ubiquitous utilization of open source software by various countries and international organizations to help fight the Ebola virus outbreak. This massive, efficient, and effective use of open source software to fight the Ebola virus disease further confirms that development in African countries as well as other developing countries cannot occur in the absence of open source software.

In finding the cheapest, fastest and most efficient ways to track the Ebola virus and disseminate information among health workers, international organizations, and the Liberian public, a plethora of open source software have been deployed. Below I list and briefly discuss a few.  

  • DHIS 2: DHIS 2 is a flexible, web-based, free and open-source software released under the liberal BSD license. Developed in Java, DHIS 2 runs on any platform with a JRE 7 installed. It also follows HTML 5 standards and is typically used as national health information systems for data management and analysis purposes. DHIS 2 is also used for health program monitoring and evaluation, facility registries and service availability mapping, for logistics management and for mobile tracking of pregnant mothers in rural communities.
  • FormHub is a free and open source software that allows mobile data collection. It was created to provide NGOs and local communities with the tools to better collect data. FormHub’s powerful APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) make integration with external services simple. It was previously introduced in Liberia a while ago, through training by members of Modi Lab to prepare key energy and data specialists from the Liberian energy sector in the use of mobile rapid data-gathering tools, to estimate the urban and rural energy demand in the country.
  • RapidPro: UNICEF recently (September 22) , “launched RapidPro, an open-source platform of applications that can help governments deliver rapid and vital real-time information and connect communities to lifesaving services.” The platform was produced by UNICEF’s global Innovations Labs in collaboration with a Rwandan software development firm known as Nyuruka. RapidPro is already being used in several countries, including Liberia.
  • mHero: UNICEF  in recent times has been working with the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare of Liberia  to launch mHero (Mobile Health Worker Ebola Response and Outreach), which is an application available on RapidPro. mHero reports “new cases; broadcast messages about care and prevention; share training information; and allow for real-time coordination between the Ministry and the health workers.”.
  • iHRIS: iHRIS developed by a firm known as IntraHealth, is a suite of free and open source software applications that help countries around the world to gather and manage their own workforce data. It interoperates with other health information systems that are already in wide use across West Africa, such as OpenMRS and DHIS 2. iHRIS can help government officials and clinic workers easily find, share, manage, and update personnel files, including mobile phone numbers. In 2013, Liberia’s Ministry of Health and Social Welfare began implementing iHRIS.
  • I-RAMP: In recent times, the I-RAMP developed by Liberians in Liberia, for Liberians, and based on open source software tools, made its debut.
  • Epi Info: Epi Info has been made freely available since the 1990s by the CDC.
  • Epi Info VHS: The Center of Disease Control (CDC) is utilizing a new tool known as the Epi Info Viral Hemorrhagic Fever application (Epi Info VHF), to help locate people exposed to the deadly virus in a faster way. Epi Info VHF is an open-source program that runs on the Epi Info software platform.
  • EpiCollect is a free (open source) web and mobile app for the generation of forms (questionnaires) and freely hosted project websites for data collection. Recently, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) provided a two-day training in the use of the EpiCollect data collection and storage technology for the Government of Liberia through the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare (MoH).
  • HeathMap: HealthMap is a tool (open source) that monitors and aggregates data from numerous online sources worldwide including social media on topics related to public health threats. It crunches and analyses this data and provides real-time updates on health threats, anything from West Nile Virus and rabies, to E. coli and Ebola.

Over the years, when one mentioned the use of open source software as a solution (be it for business, government or academia) in Liberia, many, especially those who were schooled in Windows-based software, would argue that open source software was not a good solution. This argument according to them was based on several myths about open source software.  On a personal note, many of my colleagues think my advocacy of open source software adoption in Liberia is because it’s my research focus. But the fact is, I have seen the progress/innovation that open source software can bring and how it sustains ICT infrastructures and platforms, as compared to proprietary software. Take a look at the USA government, the British, French, Canadian, Chinese and in Africa, South Africa, Kenya, etc., and understand the impact that open source software or its development paradigm has had on those nations.

Finally, had it not been for open source software, (Linux, Apache, Java, PHP, MySQL), its paradigms and philosophy, we may not have achieved all (the Internet, social media, etc) that we have achieved in this information age. New software would not have emerged as quickly and of good quality, as we see today if we were still stuck with the proprietary approach to developing software. Hence, I can argue that the success and sustainability of ICT systems/projects in Liberia demand wide and robust integration of open source software and encouragement on the part of stakeholders and decision makers for its adoption as well. Proprietary software which was hitherto the Ebola epidemic, the “de facto” choice of software in Liberia, does not allow innovation. Worst of all, its prohibitive costs do not ensure sustainability because a country like Liberia cannot afford to pay thousands of dollars in licensing fees when basic necessities are lacking.

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