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WATCH: Real-time data communication saves lives


Cell phones are often at the center of rapid emergency response plans, as we saw during the recent earthquake in Nepal. Several researchers in Upstate New York are now looking at how that technology can be used for scenarios in the United States.

Solomon Abiola has been making more frequent trips to his native Lagos, Nigeria to demonstrate his latest project. The researcher from the University of Rochester created a smartphone app he says could change the way that we respond to epidemics like Ebola virus disease, which is still affecting thousands of West Africans.  

(Video after the jump.)

The app (currently for Android), called Node, could also connect infected patients with a doctor more quickly. It has the ability to provide location data to researchers and can help identify a sick person’s last known whereabouts when disaster strikes.  

“It uses sensors on the smartphone to know where people are located and this helps inform policy decisions in an effort to deploy resources to stop the spread of infectious disease, and also helps users of the device be alerted if they’re at risk,” says Abiola.

Node is designed to be easy to use. People input their physical symptoms, and information about their behavior. If the answers are consistent with symptoms of the disease, then the user can be linked up with health care workers.

"In Lagos state, a lot of health officials were looking for ways to do improved contact tracing. A lot of the contact tracing is done in paper form. So let’s say you had Ebola and you wanted to know who else have you gotten in contact with – they’d have to ask you questions, you don’t know where you’ve been in the last 21 days, it’s a very tedious, costly process and you would have to drive out to all those towns.”

Technology for Disaster Management

Brian Tomaszewski, an assistant professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, has been studying mapping technology for disaster relief for more than a decade. Disaster mapping involves the real-time gathering, display and analysis of data during a crisis.

Map created after April 2015 earthquake to show roads and towns into the Dhading district, outside Kathmandu, Nepal.

The world hadn’t talked much about this technology until the massive Haiti earthquake in 2010, where we saw technology and digital mediums enabling people from other parts of the world to lend a hand.

“Here you had a developing country, with a high poverty rate that just didn’t have the mapping infrastructure. It was the first time you saw people volunteering and helping to do mapping. The disaster situation drew the whole international community in,” says Tomaszewski.

The researcher says the mapping work can involve watching newscasts and reading articles, and making sure that all the information reported is being gathered, analyzed and made available. It could also mean scouring Twitter, looking for tweets posted with requests, for example, about people needing water in a specific town.

Both Tomaszewski and Solomon Abiola are also thinking about how that sort of information could be applied to challenges like an influenza outbreak.

Tomaszewski’s mapping work focuses on prevention. The Rochester Institute of Technology professor says it’s really important to have good, accurate up-to-date maps, essential for understanding the scale of the problem and managing the response.

“Even though it has become much more integrated into emergency management operations in the United States, there’s still in the disaster management world, cultures of people that don’t really know about it and don’t really see its value.”

Health Texting

Ammina Kothari, from RIT’s School of Communication, has studied public health messaging over mobile networks in her native Tanzania. She says text messages are very effective when it comes to reaching the masses, people don’t always have access to a smartphone especially in remote or rural areas. And smartphones themselves have inherent challenges. 

Credit PBS.ORG

“You’ve developed an app, that’s great. But cell phones keep changing and software keeps getting updated all the time. Who’s going to update that? Somebody has to be paid or you have to volunteer all your time to fix all the bugs and things that come up,” says Kothari.

Kothari visited the continent last year, and conducted focus groups to test her theory on using texts to inform the community about HIV and AIDS. The topic is no stranger to that part of the world, but she says there’s still a lack of knowledge about medication. In addition to the free incoming text messages, residents will also have an inexpensive way to reply to health care workers with questions.

Health care workers who took part in the study say they like Kothari’s idea. But though doctors view the texts as a tool to help them do their jobs, they’re also realistic about expectations. They have asked researchers to look for ways to gate keep the messages.

“They don’t want to be receiving text messages throughout the day when they’re working with patients,” says Kothari.

Next Steps

Brian Tomaszewski recently wrote a book on Geographic Information Systems (GIS), which discusses how to apply mapping technology to manage disasters as viewed through a series of real-life case studies. He’ll head back to Rwanda for a second time this fall, to teach a group of students how to map their community using smartphones and tablets. This time around, Tomaszewski will test their skills at the Kigeme Refugee camp and its surrounding areas.

Solomon Abiola is currently testing the Node app in Nigeria with about 100 users. When he returns to Rochester, he has plans to try it out at home. Node is expected to be available for download in 2016.

Ammina Kothari is seeking the support of government agencies in Tanzania and applying for additional grants to fund a nationwide test of the text communication project.  She says it will be at least a year before it’s ready to go.

Watch Sasha-Ann Simons' report as aired on WXXI-TV's Need To Know.


Sasha-Ann Simons joined the team at WXXI News as a Multimedia Reporter/Producer. She most often tells stories about the innovation economy and technology in upstate New York as part of a journalism collaborative, and is a fill-in host and regular contributor to WXXI-TV's weekly news magazine program, Need To Know.