Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has put tech to work in crisis situations and it’s looking for Irish tech firms who can help it do more, writes Sam Taylor.
One of the lightbulb moments for me regarding the potential of harnessing tech developments to help save lives came during the Ebola outbreak in Guinea, 2014.
It was the early phase of what would turn out to be an unprecedented outbreak of the virus, and we were facing a simple – but deadly – logistical issue. The sooner we could get patients into the Ebola treatment centres, the higher their chances of survival, but a lot of people were dying en route to the centre. One of the reasons was that, in this remote corner of rural Guinea, there were no maps with any kind of detail of the area where we were detecting patients, making it harder to reach them, and more difficult to plan and optimally deploy transport resources.
One day early on in the crisis, a bearded young Swiss man turned up in our offices with a load of kit I had never seen in MSF. He had large printers, a load of handheld digital devices and a bunch of laptops and other kit. He explained that he was part of the new geographic information system (GIS) team that had been recently established inside MSF. Astonishingly quickly, he was able – with his team of Guinean colleagues on motorbikes – to go out and map with pinpoint accuracy the wide range of areas where we were working. He identified where there were bridges, the road conditions, and exactly where villages and hamlets were situated, and how densely populated they were.
All of this work went into – in a matter of days – creating accurate, informative, detailed and populated maps, which meant that we could best use the transport we had to ensure that patients arrived as quickly as possible, and that staging posts could be established to triage and treat patients in the optimal locations. There’s no doubt that these maps helped save lives.
‘Tech-savvy volunteers – be they in Dublin, Beirut or Dhaka – can become directly involved in mapping for humanitarian purposes’
Open-source mapping has since become a major project with MSF, and our co-founding of the Missing Maps project has provided a great way for tech-savvy volunteers – be they in Dublin, Beirut or Dhaka – to become directly involved in mapping for humanitarian purposes, which results in improved logistics and epidemiology, helping our medical teams save lives.
Tackling challenges with tech
I was on the phone this week to the MSF emergency coordinator in Bangladesh, who is tasked with coordinating MSF’s huge response to the Rohingya refugee crisis. There, again, GIS mapping is proving invaluable to providing accurate information on epidemiology and population density in the camps that now are home to around 800,000 people, and expanding every day. He can follow outbreaks as they happen and, with accurately mapped vaccine coverage, predict which zones of the huge camp need to be prioritised.
“We’ve had GIS people here since the beginning of the project expansion and they’ve been invaluable in providing essential info to our water and sanitation people, to our epidemiologists, and to work out general population densities,” said Rob Onus, the emergency coordinator.
Working in war zones, in areas impacted by natural disasters, in places deprived of even the most basic healthcare and with people affected by epidemic and preventable diseases, it’s a massive understatement to say our workplaces can be challenging. Yemen today, with shipping and air blockades and firefights, or the Central African Republic, with significant insecurity and a fast-changing and unstable environment, throw up any number of medical and non-medical challenges.
These challenges require dedicated staff to come up with solutions to what can be life-and-death problems. Tech solutions are increasingly a part of addressing some of these problems.
Dr Joanne Liu is MSF’s international president, and a keen advocate to looking for new and innovative solutions to the challenges we face. A paediatrician by training, she has worked with MSF for more than 15 years.
For Liu, two examples of some of the major advances made in terms of tech and MSF are around vaccines and telemedicine.
‘What we’ve done with telemedicine is to enable a general physician in the middle of Uganda or the Democratic Republic of Congo to be in direct contact with a world leader in a specific area of medical knowledge’
– DR JOANNE LIU, MSF
“In terms of vaccines, we’ve seen the game changed with better needles, single-dose vaccines and less reliance on cold chain. The next development we are hoping for is fully thermo-stable vaccines,” she said.
Telemedicine also has massive potential to radically improve what we are able to do. “With telemedicine, what you are doing is bringing – at very low cost – specialised medicine to the bedside in some of the most challenging places we work,” said Liu. “What we’ve done with telemedicine is to enable a general physician in the middle of Uganda or the Democratic Republic of Congo to be in direct contact with a world leader in a specific area of medical knowledge.”
‘The potential here – a supercomputer in everyone’s hand – is game-changing. How do we leverage that new capacity to provide better care for our patients and their communities?’
– PETE MASTERS, MSF
Other areas where MSF can improve and potentially partner with tech companies is in how we take advantage of new technology, both in terms of hardware and what we can do with from the projects we run.
“We see a growing penetration of smartphones and devices in the places we work,” said MSF’s medical innovation coordinator, Pete Masters. “The potential here – a supercomputer in everyone’s hand – is game-changing. How do we leverage that new capacity to provide better care for our patients and their communities? We’re working on it!”
But, as much of an advocate as she is, Liu recognises that there are limits to what tech can achieve. “It is simply not possible to have tech solutions to everything,” she said.
“These solutions allow us to give better care to people but, ultimately, in a lot of places, it’s a political solution that’s needed. Tech cannot solve the issues the people in Yemen today are facing, or help those trapped under the bombs in Syria.”
How the Irish tech community can help
While tech is clearly not a humanitarian panacea, we recognise that we can do more, and better.
Innovation is something that is seen as key to MSF’s future and, as such, we have rolled out a fund for transformational investment. Some of the projects currently being developed have the potential to radically improve outcomes for patients. We are investing in innovation specialists across our movement, and capturing some of their successes and challenges, and sharing this publicly through blogs and websites.
Among the many projects under development, we are looking at how we can bring 3D printing into our remote field projects. We are looking at developing bedside ultrasound capacity based on a smartphone. We are looking at developing a tool that deploys machine learning and statistical algorithms to analyse water quality data to generate real-time water chlorination guidance.
And, as a priority for 2018, MSF Ireland is, for the first time, actively looking to explore partnerships with Irish-based tech firms, both large and small. So, if you are reading this and want to get involved in our live-saving work, please get in touch by email or on Twitter.
By Sam Taylor
Sam Taylor is the director of MSF Ireland and, before taking this position, worked for two years on MSF’s response to the Syria crisis. During his career with MSF, which began in Japan in 2009, Taylor has worked in around 14 different MSF projects in West and southern Africa, eastern Europe, south-east Asia and the Middle East.
Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders is an emergency medical humanitarian organisation working in more than 70 countries worldwide, bringing life-saving medical care to people affected by conflict, natural disaster, epidemic diseases and those excluded from healthcare. Since being established in Dublin in 2006, MSF Ireland has sent more than 250 Irish people to work in projects overseas and raised millions of euro in donations for its work.