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Simple Cellphones Seen as Key to Improving Ebola Education, Reporting

  • Adam Phillips

A shopkeeper stands beside mobile phones charging from a generator in Tintafor, Sierra Leone, Sept. 17, 2009

A shopkeeper stands beside mobile phones charging from a generator in Tintafor, Sierra Leone, Sept. 17, 2009

West Africa's Ebola threat has been made worse by inept, ineffective and poorly targeted information about the latest developments and what can be done to help, according to philanthropist-entrepreneur Jon Gosier.

Gosier, speaking to reporters recently in New York, said rural African communities need to better understand the implications of the disease and how best to avoid spreading it. But in the West, there is also "a huge information crisis in how the story is being reported," he said.

"The lack of local voices telling the story, I think, has led to a lot of hysteria, a lot of fear, a lot of tension in the way everything has been covered,” Gosier said.

To help improve the reporting about the crisis, Gosier and Appfrica.com, his technology and software development company, have teamed up with Isha Sesay, a CNN anchorwoman and correspondent of Sierra Leonean descent, and News Deeply, a multimedia journalism company, to form Ebola Deeply, a multimedia news and information platform. Their goal, Gosier said, is "to impact the story as much as we are trying to cover it.”

Gosier used a computer screen to display the home page of the Ebola Deeply website and described some of its features.

“In the top right, we've got the total number of cases. ... Then we have an interactive map that shows exposure in particular countries," he said. "Video plays an important role. So we are capturing stories of survivors on the ground, perspectives of people within communities that are affected, and pushing those out live to the site as well.”

Online news sites have relatively small audiences in rural Africa, where Internet infrastructure is sparse. Three-quarters of Africans, however, use mobile phones. Most are basic phones that cannot connect to the Internet but can receive and transmit text and voice messages and photographs. So Gosier and his partners have also created Mobile Wire, which delivers Ebola Deeply’s content for those phones.

“If you look at the demography of the country, you see that most of these people are, unfortunately, illiterate," Gosier said. "So how do we help them receive the same amount of information? ... It makes a lot of sense that we send mostly voice messages to them, whereas in the urban centers, we might send more text messages, because those folks tend to be more educated.”

A key part of the plan is to encourage users of basic phones to send content back to Ebola Deeply, which then makes that information available to health care providers and nongovernmental organizations while also giving journalists information about the human face of Ebola in remote areas.

A pilot program in Ghana, which so far has escaped the virus, worked well. Gosier said the next steps are to replicate that success in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone until the Ebola crisis has passed, and to keep the infrastructure in place and available for the world’s next major health crisis.

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