11 Nov Former US CIO’s new enemy: Ebola
The US government is reaching out to the technology development community in its fight against the Ebola epidemic in West Africa by using big data and rapid development tools. This effort includes projects to improve regional communications and IT infrastructure, using big data tools to track the disease and coordinate medical responses, and developing better equipment for healthcare workers.
As the point agency coordinating the US and international response to the crisis, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is working on a multi-faceted approach to applying technology to solve the crisis, Steven VanRoekel, the agency’s chief innovation officer, said at a recent government/industry symposium. In September, VanRoekel left his role as White House CIO to rejoin USAID, where he had worked previously.
One pillar of the USAID approach is rapid diagnostics for Ebola patients. Currently, blood samples are analyzed with polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machines. These machines are large and very expensive, making them unsuitable for field deployment. Health officials have developed a rapid turnaround rate, analyzing blood samples in as little as 24 hours. But even a 24-hour turnaround is not fast enough when dealing with large numbers of patients.
USAID is working with the scientific community to develop a portable, field-ready diagnostic machine roughly the size of an espresso machine, VanRoekel said. Rapid progress is being made on developing and certifying the device.
Communications between health workers, laboratories, and government agencies is another important area of work. Because of the poor infrastructure in the region, cellular and wireless access to the Internet is either impossible or very slow. In some areas of limited connectivity, it can take up to 24 hours to send or receive a text message, VanRoekel said. USAID is developing and acquiring methods to bolster this capability by working with local telecommunications carriers and governments to help improve regional communications.
Data is also very important to stemming the crisis. Many people in West Africa are collecting data, VanRoekel said, but this information needs better analysis to know what is happening on the ground. The US government is creating databases of regional information such as logistics capabilities, electronic health records, and epidemiological data about Ebola to help nations build their medical capacity to fight future outbreaks.