Live from SXSW: USAID Crowdsources Ideas To Fight Ebola

March 16, 2015       Joleen Ong      

After receiving more than 1,500 ideas to improve the design of an Ebola protective suit, USAID unveiled the winning design at a breakout session led by USAID representatives at SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas.

New features of the suit included anti-fogging technology to ensure visibility, Velcro ties to help facilitate self-removal, and mechanisms to combat the heat stress experienced by medical workers in the field. Johns Hopkins University posted a video on YouTube that demonstrates the suit’s features. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this suit was the approach that USAID undertook to implement this idea: crowdsourcing.

To receive these ideas, USAID launched the Fighting Ebola: Grand Challenge that, according to the website, “harness[ed] the power of crowdsourcing, competition, and partnerships to identify breakthrough innovation to address specific barriers faced by efforts to combat the current Ebola epidemic.” Winners of the Grand Challenge were put on a fast track, receiving funding to develop their prototypes and undergo testing for implementation in the field.

“Traditionally people think of government and innovation as an oxymoron, and we’re out to change that thinking,” said Ann Mei Chang, executive director of the U.S. Global Development Lab, a new entity within USAID.

“We are partnering with manufacturers and infusing quick cash to fund ideas,” said Wendy Taylor, USAID’s director of the Center for Accelerating Innovation and Impact, “[this can] ensure that the best ideas can move to people in a matter of months, not years. This is the new way of doing business at USAID, and we applied it to Ebola for rapid response.”

Chang and Taylor were joined by colleague Steven VanRoekel, chief innovation officer of USAID.

Nonprofits, especially those working in developing countries with unreliable ICT systems, can relate to the challenges encountered by USAID, which included offline action to disseminate information and engage local villages in Liberia with information to help identify and contain the virus.

“Technology is not the solution to Ebola, but can be a part of the solution,” said VanRoekel. “How do online activities apply to an environment where there’s dirt floors and no electricity?”

Creative tactics to disseminate critical information about preventing the spread of the Ebola virus included broadcasting the messages on local AM/FM radio stations, posters in public spaces, and SMS messages using RapidPro, which also helped to get data out of the field and into USAID headquarters for their team to examine and act on. Teams would also go out to local communities and discuss what Ebola was, symptoms to look out for, how to manage those that are infected, and how to manage deceased loved ones.

VanRoekel shared photos from Monrovia, Liberia, where a message was painted on a car bumper that read, “Ebola is real, wash your hands.” This image underscores a surprising challenge that USAID and medical workers are tackling on the ground: convincing local villagers that Ebola is a real epidemic. Early symptoms of the Ebola virus are commonly mistaken for malaria, a frequent disease found in West Africa, causing a lot of confusion.

When asked, “How do you remain agile when you receive information so you can help the community quickly?” VanRoekel responded: “We took an agile approach and applied it to Ebola prevention…we had to take the mindset that this wasn’t a normal government operation. We set forth with an evidenced based, data-driven approach and created a war room mentality to create a sense of urgency.”

Data harmonization was also regarded by VanRoekel as a key strategy for Ebola prevention. Epidemiological data and community data, for example, can help inform where to build treatment centers to have the most impact on lives.

According to the World Health Organization, there have been 4,910 confirmed and 13,767 suspected Ebola-related deaths as of Oct. 29, 2014, mostly impacting the West African nations of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.

“Our job is not done until we bring the number of cases down to zero in all countries where Ebola is present,” said Taylor. “We’re on the road to zero.”


Joleen Ong is marketing and publications director of NTEN.