The Ebola crisis in West Africa has brought together aid organizations, governments and private companies from all over the world, which are donating resources and expertise to fight the spread of the disease. And although the outbreak is not yet over, progress is being made.
But one of the most difficult things for these organizations to access has been data. Access to reliable data is imperative in humanitarian situations — it can track the spread of disease or disaster, helps on-the-ground workers track the awareness and perceptions of their response, and assesses long-term impact after aid workers have left. Data is hard to come by during disaster situations, however, and countries most affected by crises often don’t have a robust system of data reporting. It can be difficult for researchers to access areas due to disease outbreak, damaged infrastructure or dangerous security situations.
In spite of these challenges, there are several ways technology and data have been brought together to fight the Ebola crisis — some organizations use mapping data to track spread of disease, others let people report Ebola-related issues through mobile phones. At GeoPoll, we have worked with organizations including the World Food Program and Keystone Accountability to collect data through remote mobile phone surveys that can be used to help target aid distribution and inform on-the-ground workers of citizen perceptions. GeoPoll issues surveys through SMS or voice messages, allowing organizations to quickly gather information nationally or from key areas, which can then be viewed and analyzed in real time.
With WFP, GeoPoll has been conducting monthly surveys on food security in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. Food insecurity is one of the biggest secondary risks of Ebola, as the disease has driven food prices up and made areas with high poverty rates even more dependent on outside aid.
Through remote mobile surveys, WFP was able to get a high-level understanding of the food security situation, finding that, especially in the Ebola epicenters, it was considered “severe” for many.
In November 2014 WFP released the first report of data collected using GeoPoll surveys, reporting that the Reduced Coping Strategy Index, a way to measure the severity of the behaviors households engage in when faced with crises, was high in areas hit hardest by Ebola, including Kailahun and Kenema in Sierra Leone. Over 80 percent of respondents in these areas reported consuming less expensive or preferred foods, and 75 percent reported needing to reduce the number of meals per day and portion sizes due to a lack of food.
The ongoing reports created from remote mobile surveys have been published by WFP’s mVAM unit, and data is being used to target aid and create awareness around the risks of food insecurity in crisis areas.
GeoPoll has also been working with Keystone Accountability’s Ground Truth Solutions team to survey citizens throughout Sierra Leone on the perceptions of the Ebola response and attitudes toward checkpoints, quarantine and welcoming Ebola survivors back into communities. This information is crucial for on-the-ground workers, as it gives them a real idea of how citizens view their progress.
We have been collecting data weekly and biweekly since December 2014, and the data truly does reflect the situation in Sierra Leone. The week of Dec. 3, 70.8 percent of the 350 respondents said they believed the Ebola response was making progress against the spread of the disease. This percentage climbed up steadily as the number of new cases went down, and in the week of Feb. 10, 86.5 percent believed the response was making progress. However, we saw this number decline to 80.2 percent in the week of March 10, and 84.8 percent the week of March 26.
Why is this? We found that the perceptions of the progress went down in early March as cases spiked in Freetown, and transport restrictions that had been stopped were reinstated. Other data points show that between 54 and 60 percent of respondents say people are worried about harassment at checkpoints, and over 70 percent report that people are scared to visit health facilities for non-Ebola related illnesses.
The value of this data is huge. One agency has used this data to request additional funding for quarantine supplies, and another has increased their investment in educational programs surrounding the stigma of Ebola. In addition, it is an excellent example of sharing resources and partnering for more effective development, as both Keystone and GeoPoll have made the data publicly available on our websites so that other organizations can take advantage of the findings.
Data provides increased awareness and knowledge of humanitarian situations, and allows NGOs and governments to act quickly based on accurate, timely information. In keeping with effective development cooperation as defined by the Busan principles, such data helps create transparent and equitable development, as well as ensuring a strong focus on results.
As the Ebola crisis continues, and even after the current outbreak has subsided, data will show the global community long-term effects of the disease, and eventually will inform how governments, organizations and citizens can work together to manages crises better in the future.
Amy Sweeney is director of client business development at GeoPoll, where she collaborates with potential clients and partners such as the World Food Program, USAID and implementing partners on incorporating mobile data collection into projects and programs. She previously worked at Chemonics International and spent four years in Central and Southwest Asia, serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan and working in Afghanistan and Turkey.
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