Deadly and infectious viruses, such as Ebola, are an inevitable and unavoidable fact of nature. In other words, they are examples of a Hard Trend. And they demand new innovations in order to combat them.
I cannot overstate that Ebola, which is responsible for ending thousands of lives and devastating many thousands more, is a profound tragedy and a global crisis. But the deadly force of Ebola is the kind of imminent threat that inspires human minds to new heights. It teaches us that Hard Trends come at us fast and provide the catalyst to overcome inertia and bring about technological innovations.Telecommunication
Communication is key to mobilizing populations in countries affected by Ebola. In order to treat the sick and prevent the spread of the disease, healthcare workers need to be able to coordinate with people on the frontline and know where to send supplies. At the moment, telecommunications technologies are not keeping pace with the intense demands that Ebola creates.
In Ebola-affected countries, like Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, where there are approximately 1,000 new cases a week and death rates of almost 50 percent, the telecommunications networks are currently weak. For example, in Liberia the 3G and 4G networks are very thin outside of the capital city of Monrovia, and it’s hard for citizens to access electricity to power internet-capable mobile devices. U-report is a solution that uses simple mobile phones in West Africa to connect health workers to the government and hundreds of thousands of young people to key information and services using basic voice and SMS services.
On the larger horizon, though, Ebola demands that we find previously unthought ways to rapidly expand 3G and 4G network range and provide cheap and accessible internet-capable devices to large populations. The innovator who creates an internet-capable smartphone device that’s as affordable and simple-to-use as an SMS-capable phone will be at the forefront of helping to ease communication problems in Ebola-affected regions — and the rest of the world will benefit from the solution too.
Big data analytics is currently helping to draw detailed maps of population movements in Ebola-affected countries by gathering information collected from mobile phones. These maps then allow governments to understand the best places to set up treatment centers and the most efficient ways to manage travel in order to prevent the spread of the disease. Prior to this innovation, health workers and governments had to rely on anecdotal information, on-the-ground surveys, and police and hospital reports.
Nevertheless, data collected from mobile phones can only give a partial picture. Big data analysts recognize that they need to bring together information from multiple other sources and mine those sources to find patterns. For example, scientists are recognizing the need to collect train and flight data, physician reports, media reports, social media comments, helpline data, and transactional information from retailers and pharmacies. We can predict that the necessity of treating and stopping the spread of Ebola will result in technological innovations that gather, coordinate, visualize, and interpret data from these kind of disparate and previously disconnected sources. All of which enables us to build a more complete account of the outbreak as it transpires in real time, positioning us to better fight the disease.
The easily transmittable nature of Ebola means that it demands rapid medical care and also ready and reliable communication between doctors on multiple continents. For example, the simple matter of transferring patients’ medical information becomes crucial with Ebola.
When Thomas Eric Duncan was diagnosed with Ebola at a hospital in Dallas, he told the nurse treating him that he had just been in Liberia. The nurse wrote this information in Duncan’s medical notes; however, since the hospital’s electronic health record system was designed — for some reason — not to show this information to doctors, the pertinent details of his case were not appropriately shared with other healthcare professionals. As a result, Duncan was released from the hospital the next day instead of being isolated. The software was subsequently reconfigured to emphasize travel history, and specifically to reference regions where Ebola is prevalent, but this is sort of technological requirement that we should have seen coming.
Long before Duncan arrived in Texas, experts had been telling us that the spread of Ebola to the U.S. was inevitable. The high communicability rate of the virus, combined with the fact of rapid global air travel, made it certain. Why then were hospitals thrown into a panicked, reactionary mode, when all the information was available? Why were innovators not proactively figuring out how to improve electronic medical record systems?
Here are some simple facts: the spread of a virus is determined by the size of the susceptible population and the likelihood of transmission. We know that the human population is growing and that it is moving further and faster across the globe than ever before. New viruses will emerge and they will spread as a consequence of these linear changes. I’m not telling you that the sky is falling; I’m telling you what we know.
What this all comes down to is that the inevitable and dangerous change sparked by the Ebola virus is a hard trend. It is not a cause for panic. It is an opportunity for crucial, life-saving, world-changing innovations to arise.