ADDIS ABABA – In Ethiopia, mobile applications are spreading fast to help health care workers and the public fight against COVID-19, which has claimed 12 lives in the country and affected about 1,100 people. Ethiopian web developers have designed seven apps that do everything from virus tracing to sharing data and patient information among health workers. But while the apps are spreading in cities, getting into remote and poor areas of Ethiopia remains a challenge.
Just days after Ethiopia confirmed its first case of the coronavirus in March, 38-year-old software engineer Mike Endale, who emigrated to the U.S. 20 years ago, sent out a solitary tweet calling for help.
He called on all software developers and engineers in the Ethiopian diaspora to help the health ministry by contributing open source software to respond to COVID-19.
Endale became coordinator of the Ethiopia COVID-19 Response Team, a volunteer force of doctors, artificial intelligence specialists, software engineers and data analysts.
He spoke via a messaging application from Washington, D.C., where he works as principal technologist at BLEN Corporation, a company that provides technology solutions for the public sector and charities.
“People just organically gathered around a slack channel and we started figuring out how to help,” he said. “So, the impetus for the group was… to see if we could augment the Ministry of Health’s work in a couple of areas. One originally was around tech. Luckily for that there was already an internal initiative going on that started a day before [we originated]. We got connected with them and we started working on broad-based solutions.”
Alongside software engineers at the Ministry of Health and the Ethiopian Public Health Institute, Endale’s army of tech gurus helped to develop a series of applications to aid health workers.
The apps allow health workers to register the identity and medical profiles of people entering the country and also record information about those in contact with COVID-19 patients.
The ministry’s contact tracing team is then sent into communities with tablet computers to identify suspected infections and test for the virus.
Though still limited in their use, the apps are modernizing how health workers and hospitals accurately and quickly share information in Ethiopia, where — until the pandemic — patient data was recorded on paper.
Other apps created through the response team can be downloaded by the public.
The COVID-19 Ethiopia app was launched in late May so that the public can self-report cases or alert health authorities to others with symptoms.
And an app called Debo captures the identity of anyone who comes within two meters of the user so that contacts can be traced should the person one day test positive.
“This is very important work for the country in responding to COVID-19,” said Biruhtesfa Abere, a senior health information specialist at the Ministry of Health. “Also, for decision makers, the ministry task force is sitting here trying to forecast how many cases they’re going to have in the future, next month. So, they need data, they need baseline data.”
Biruhtesfa says the digital tools mean that test results — thousands per day — can be shared to health workers nationwide within 24 hours, allowing those who test negative for the virus to leave isolation quicker.
Data in the apps are also being used to record where test kits are sent in Ethiopia, how many are being used, and how many are being wasted.
But while the apps are making progress in cities, Biruhtesfa says getting rural health workers using the tools where good internet and smartphones are rare, is a challenge.
“The tool can help you manage your records, maintain contact listing and [record] the relationship of the positive person’s contacts in the past 14 days. That is basically automated and fully functional,” he said. “But the problem is bringing the users on board to use the system. We are strongly pushing contact tracing and the follow-up team to record using the system and they are coming a little bit at a time. They will be on board very soon.”
Biruhtesfa says the health ministry is rolling out training sessions via video link to health workers in rural areas so they can learn how to use the applications.
And 30,000 tablet computers that were to be used for Ethiopia’s national census are being repurposed so that health workers in areas with poor internet can also use the applications.
Endale’s global network of volunteers are now organizing themselves beyond developing digital apps for Ethiopia.
He says members of the community have organized themselves into ten different work streams for tasks such as donation drives and repairing ventilators.