“It all depends on what we do in the next few weeks,” said infectious disease expert and TED Fellow Chikwe Ihekweazu, speaking about Ebola at TEDGlobal on Friday. What happens next: will the number of new Ebola cases grow or plateau? And how can the world know the right thing to do?
Reliable news about the outbreak has been hard to find, especially for people fighting the disease in their homes and villages, but also for the rest of us who want to know what’s going on and whether to worry. Which is why, this week, TED Senior Fellow alum Jon Gosier launched EbolaDeeply.org, a curated news feed that mixes journalism, experts and citizen reports to create a more informed global dialogue. We asked Gosier to tell us more:
There’s a lot of mistrust. There’s the belief that “all these people showed up, and then all our people started dying.”
What is EbolaDeeply, and what problem are you trying to solve?
EbolaDeeply.org is a nonprofit “impact journalism” project that aims to provide better information on the current Ebola outbreak to Western media, while providing health information and alerts to rural African communities. It was designed to give perspective on the outbreak by aggregating news, data, analysis and expert opinion. EbolaDeeply was founded by CNN anchorwoman Isha Sesay, who is from Sierra Leone, and Lara Setrakian, founder of NewsDeeply and SyriaDeeply. Other people on the founding team include myself and Bahiyah Robinson (Appfrica), James Andrews (TrueStory), and Azeo Fables (NewsDeeply).
The flow of information on EbolaDeeply includes articles being published on the outbreak, citizen-generated information from social media, as well as expert information that’s been curated from academia, peer-reviewed studies, and so on. There’s a timeline of events. There are other contextual aids that let readers quickly grasp what’s going on.
We’re dealing with two different sides of the world, but similarly high levels of ignorance.
We’re also convening global leaders at a very high level. (For instance, read this interview with Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.)
The other aspect of what we’ll do is an intervention strategy, a campaign to get public health information to the people on the ground in affected African countries.
What are some of the problems you’ve seen?
First of all, the Ebola outbreak was completely ignored for far too long. It was talked about a little bit, but not with the seriousness that it deserved. Part of this was just lack of information: Western media weren’t talking to local media, and local media had its own oversights. But once the story did become massive, the problem then became that the Western media outlets didn’t understand the complexities of what was happening in Africa, which feeds public ignorance.
If you go to CNN’s coverage of Ebola right now and visit the comments section, for example, you see a bunch of people saying all sorts of ignorant and enraging things. At the same time, they don’t really have any exposure to people who are actually living through this. It feels like the situation has become completely dehumanized.
Can you give me an example of what kind of misinformation is problematic?
Well, one misconception is that the medical capacity isn’t there in Africa to deal with this. It is, in some areas. For instance, Nigeria dealt with it very swiftly.
The real challenge is misinformation in the more rural communities — where, when loved ones die, it’s part of the custom to wash and bury the corpse. Washing someone’s body who’s died from Ebola is treacherous, right? Ebola is passed through fecal matter and blood and saliva. So that fundamental local misunderstanding is part of the problem.
On one hand, we have a public health information crisis. On the other hand, we have an uninformed journalist problem. EbolaDeeply is our attempt at a solution for both.
Local populations are also worried that the medical teams coming over in hazmat suits are attempting to hurt them. There’s a lot of mistrust. There’s the belief that “all these people showed up, and then all our people started dying.”
So we’re dealing with two different sides of the world, but similarly high levels of ignorance. On one hand, we have a public health information crisis. On the other hand, I would argue, we have an uninformed journalist problem. EbolaDeeply is our attempt at a solution for both.
How will you reach affected communities?
One of the companies we’ve partnered with just completed a pilot where they broadcast audio messages containing health information on Ebola to 2,000 people in rural Ghana. They also allowed these individuals to respond with questions or concerns.
We now want to scale this to other countries, so we’ve been working with partners in Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Nigeria.
We’re trying to get information upstream to journalists and way downstream to the people in the most rural parts of these countries. It’s not a super-technical campaign, it’s not super sophisticated — it’s not meant to be. EbolaDeeply just facilitates bidirectional flows of information.
How will the flow of information from people in Africa back to Western journalists work?
Everything that we’re setting up to push information to them, they can use to respond. They can record a voicemail and tell their stories, they can send a text message and let us know what they’re thinking about, and our editorial team shares that information with the Western press.
What partners do you have on the medical front?
We’ve had a number of great conversations with WHO and the CDC, who as you can imagine are quite overwhelmed. But these health organizations have made their data freely available for this purpose. It allows us to consult them where needed and share good information without getting in their way. We’ve also received support from the ONE campaign, who bring their medical relationships to the table.
How did you get involved?
I’ve worked on a number of humanitarian technology projects, including past projects in crisis communications with Abayima and crisis mapping at Ushahidi. I also founded Appfrica, a company that supports multinationals and NGOs all over the continent. I felt I had a lot of experience to offer the team.
Also, when I heard Isha’s passion for this project, her commitment to better journalism, and focus on the human aspect, I couldn’t say no.
Featured image courtesy of EbolaDeeply.