Tech Firms Extend Internet Access To Help Ebola Treatment in Africa


Inveneo, a San Francisco non-profit, this week began a three-month effort to bring Internet access to 100 locations in West Africa to fight the spread of Ebola. To determine how to deploy its equipment, Inveneo turned to an unlikely group: Facebook FB +0.65%’s data-science team.

Facebook’s scientists analyzed cellular coverage and usage maps in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia to find the fastest and cheapest way to extend Internet connections so that aid workers can more quickly send data to international health organizations.

The effort is part of the Ebola Response Connectivity Initiative, launched last month by Inveneo to expand Internet coverage to remote Ebola treatment centers and non-governmental agencies, and has since grown into a partnership of several organizations.

Tech-industry executives say better communications could have limited the spread of the worst Ebola outbreak in history.

It took three months after the first deaths in Guinea “before anyone got word to health officials and people figured out that this was Ebola and started reacting to it,” said Chris Weasler, Facebook’s director of global connectivity. “That was really a function of poor connectivity.”

Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg last fall asked Weasler to look for ways to use Facebook’s expertise establishing connections in developing countries to help fight Ebola.

The project dovetails with, which Zuckerberg started in 2013 to extend the Internet in the developing world. Zuckerberg had preached about the economic and social benefits of the internet. Ebola created a new rationale: public health.

The Ebola outbreak shows “that the communications infrastructure is a critical piece to healthcare,” said Bruce Baikie, Inveneo’s executive director.

He said the group is sending 10 people to West Africa to bring Internet connections to 25 Ebola treatment centers in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. Those centers will become bases from which to extend the Internet to more remote locations where NGOs are operating. In all, about 100 new locations will get Internet connections that will appear as Wi-Fi networks.

In addition to Facebook, Cisco Systems CSCO -0.83% offered equipment and support; the effort is backed by the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, started by the co-founder of Microsoft.

Andy Hickl, senior director of innovation at Allen’s company, Vulcan, said his early research last summer showed that “connectivity and communications infrastructure was just the bottleneck.”

Hickl said health officials told him they needed faster data gathering from the field. For instance, aid workers in treatment centers wrote weekly reports about new Ebola cases on pink forms, which were transported by motorbike to larger population hubs and then sent to organizations like the United Nations and the World Health Organization.

In November, Allen’s foundation donated 10,000 smartphones to enhance data collection and identify aid needs in West Africa.

Allen, who has pledged $100 million to fight Ebola, also made a commitment to help NetHope, a non-profit that helped start the Ebola Response Connectivity Initiative and is aimed at boosting connectivity in the developing world.

Lauren Woodman, NetHope’s chief executive, said officials at international health organizations have been struck by the role of communications in fighting Ebola. She said they are asking “Should we be looking that as an element of infrastructure planning going forward?”

Mark Summer, founder of EveryLayer, which drew up the plans for where to place each piece of equipment, said the new connections will be used exclusively by aid workers and won’t be available to ordinary citizens. But he said the equipment could help telecom companies add better connections later. “We plan to leave the assets behind and we do hope they can be used to connect other people,” he said.

Source: Wall Street Journal 21 January 2015