Twitter, Facebook - and Google Alerts in an Iron Man suit - can fix Ebola and other pains in Africa. Seriously

If a crank in rural Africa claimed a UFO in his village, and a nurse tweeted about a disease that kills in 10 seconds, which would get more attention?

A FEW days ago I was reading the November 10 issue of TIME magazine.

The “Good Week/Bad Week” item in the “Briefing” section noted that it was a good week for Facebook; “Powered by strong mobile ad growth, the social network’s earnings beat forecasts”. And it was a bad week for Twitter; “The company saw sluggish growth in new users despite efforts to attract more eyeballs”.

I had read both stories earlier, so there was nothing new in those snippets. What changed it all was the story on Ebola in the magazine headlined “Missing in action: Why the World Health Organisation failed to stop Ebola.”

The opening paragraph of the story got me thinking. “In March a blurry photograph appeared on a news website in the West African nation of Guinea. The image showed two women in a remote village lying on a grass mat, while several men stood over them wondering what illness had struck their loved ones. The women were dying. The news site quoted the village nurse as saying the mystery killer ‘was extremely serious’”.

Ebola it is!

Soon the mystery was solved. However it took the news of the re-emergence of Ebola three months to travel from the village, to state health officials and the WHO office in the capital Conakry, and finally to WHO headquarters in Geneva. By then it was, well, too late.

The article explores what might have been done differently, the missteps, the big money required, and the institutional frailties of WHO. Everything except how Facebook and Twitter – or the web in general – could have helped, and possibly grown richer in the process. And, on the face of it, there was no reason to. But there is.

Traditional media rarely report and are not read or viewed (in the case of TV) in remote parts of countries like Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone that were first hit by Ebola. However, with the spread of mobile phones and the internet most these areas have a few teachers, traders, preachers, and local civil society activists who post developments in their areas on Twitter or Facebook.

A day in rural Africa

Many of them are typical; a deadly fight with clubs over land, a quarrel over a neighbour’s cows that strayed and ate another’s crops, a chicken thief beaten to near-death, and the witchdoctor who lifted an evil spell that had been cast by an evil stepmother over a child.

We sneer, we laugh, or are embarrassed, and ignore it all. And with that, we miss the early warnings of outbreaks of deadly diseases…until they go viral.

Still, there was no way that blurry photograph from the middle of nowhere in Guinea was going to trend. It needs to be posted on Twitter, with a clever hashtag, and for thousands of tweeps to jump on it before it trended.

Diseases like Ebola, therefore, trend when hysteria has hit and it’s time to run for the hills, well past the point when they could be nipped in the bud.

Techies saving the world

There are clever kids in Google, Twitter, Facebook and the Apps Universe out there who can turn the current logic of social media on its head, and figure out a way to bring to our attention the small things that eventually become big and kill many people.

Google has Google Alerts, but for Ebola we would have needed a Google Alerts in an Iron Man suit. A social media AlertNet that bring items posted on the web to the top of the list because they are atypical, because they are very different from the type of things that the rest of the users on social media are posting.

If a crank in rural Africa posted a claim that a mysterious 100 metre deep hole appeared at the edge of their village forest overnight, a few hours later many people would be all over his tweet.

If a nurse in a similar place posted a claim about a disease that kills its victims in 10 seconds, hardly anyone would pay attention. Part of the problem is that there is a widespread view that Africans “die of strange diseases all the time”, so there would be nothing different there.

On the bright side, the interest we have in strange sightings shows we are wired to be fascinated by the inexplicable, however isolated a case might be. Now if only social media can figure out how either to alert us, or get us as interested in mysterious diseases in remote places as we would be in UFOs or strange holes if they appeared there.

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