about ebola

PRESS RELEASE: Update on our Free "About Ebola" App

7 October 2014: As the spread of Ebola virus continues to accelerate, Code Innovation has continued to update the free "About Ebola" app to educate smart phone users and their networks about the virus. This app is a complement to traditional and wider-reaching public health information efforts to educate the general public and health care responders (including home caregivers) about the virus and how to prevent its transmission. Mobile phone use exploded in Africa over the last decade, driven by the durability and low cost of simple phones. As smart phones drop in price and become available secondhand a steadily growing segment of the population is shifting over to this more versatile digital platform. The strengthening and expansion of mobile and data signals encourage this trend.

Code Innovation sees the mobile space as being the dominant technological platform for Africa in the coming decade, and we focused our innovations efforts in the mobile space around Ebola because nothing existed in late March and April of 2014, and we saw an opportunity to make a difference.

In our years of field experience in West Africa, we have noted that smart phone users enjoy increased social capital, influence and prestige in their families and communities. Because many areas affected by the virus also exhibit distrust of traditional authority figures, including government and national health workers, and also distrust of outside actors including foreign aid workers, we believe that smart phone owners have an important part to play as educators about Ebola virus in their families, social networks and wider communities.

The mobile app is just one component of a wider and far-reaching health systems response from all levels, including national government, international organizations, non-profits and NGOs. We created the app because we saw mobile technology as missing from the initial response of more traditional communications efforts such as radio outreach, print media and posters, as well as television spots.

The app is now published on Android and Apple platforms in five African languages: Jola, Sierra Leonian Krio, Liberian English, Swahili and Wolof. In addition, the app is in English and French. Because the Google Play store does not acknowledge African languages, with the exception of Swahili, the app must be searched for in French or English. Once it is downloaded, the African language of choice can be selected from the Main Menu. The iTunes store does not list any of these African languages as a category, not even Swahili, a regional language spoken by upwards of 140 million people.

Code Innovation has repeatedly approached Google and Apple to request that these African languages be included as language categories on their respective app platforms and app stores. To date, we have received no response. However, we continue to believe that local language content is pivotal in public health outreach and efforts, and we hope to influence these technology companies in this regard.

"About Ebola" empowers and encourages every one of us to educate ourselves and others about what we can to do contain the Ebola response and prevent the dangerous spread of Ebola rumors and misinformation. National health systems and medical caregivers are just one part of the bigger picture. We all have a part to play.

We continue to be open to receiving relevant language translations from volunteers, so if you'd like to help out, please get in touch.

For media and translation inquiries please contact Elie Calhoun at elie@codeinnovation.com.

Our Free "About Ebola" App is Featured on Sky News's "Digital Views" Program


On Saturday, 4 October, Sky News's Martin Stanford presented "Digital Views" and interviewed Code Innovation's Elie Calhoun about the place of our "About Ebola" app in the outbreak response alongside more traditional communications via radio, print media and television. You can watch the segment here:


You can read more about the UNICEF mHero program that Elie mentions in the video here.

In a supplementary video, Elie Calhoun shares more context on why we created the app for Android and Apple smart phones, even though smart phone owners are the minority in West Africa, where the outbreak has its epicenter. She explains that smart phone owners are often important influencers with social capital in their communities, and that people who would otherwise mistrust government and foreign health care workers may trust them, providing us with an important avenue for behavior change communication.

You can watch her more detailed explanation about the "About Ebola" app here:


We are releasing Elie's in-depth video under a free culture Creative Commons Attributions 4.0 International license, so please feel free to use the above video in your own outreach and communication efforts.

The "About Ebola" app, which is now in Liberian English, Sierra Leonian Krio, Jola, Wolof and Swahili, in addition to French and English, can be downloaded for free here:

Android: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=cc.snapp.aboutebola


Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/about-ebola/id891004317?mt=8

about-ebola-app-public-health-information-codeinnovation.com-itunes-appleAnd once again, thanks to our international volunteers, without whom this project would not have been possible:

The app was created using the Snapp mobile application building platform, where you can create a free app on your mobile phone. Learn more here.

And once again, thanks to our international volunteers, without whom this project would not have been possible:

Illustration of the virus: Fouad Mezher


French: Beatrice Clerc Liberian English and Krio: Dr. Bartum Kulah Swahili: eMobilis Mobile Technology Academy Wolof and Jola: Fatima Jobe and Lamin Goudiaby

Google doesn’t really care about African language content.


We created an "About Ebola" app in African languages.

Ebola virus graphic designed by artist Fouad Mezher for our free About Ebola informational mobile app

Rumor and misinformation are helping Ebola virus to decimate the already weak health systems of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. Fearful communities react with panic and mistrust when plastic wrapped health-workers attempt to isolate their loved ones or to control the circumstances of their burial. Health workers are dying in large numbers and infected people are hidden and circulated through healthy communities.

With the help of many African volunteers and Snapp.cc, Code Innovation created a free, informational app “About Ebola” to help with the public health messaging around the worst outbreak in the history of this particular viral hemorrhagic fever.

Our volunteers translated this app into some of the most widely spoken languages in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Senegal and the Gambia in the hopes that smart phone users in impacted areas could share vital messages with vulnerable people in their native languages.

Smartphones are associated with authority and financial success and our hope is that the people who use them to access public health messaging in local languages will enjoy greater social capital and hold more sway in impacted communities.

But we’ve encountered great stubbornness at Google when it comes to acknowledging these West African languages on the Google Play store. Ironically, there’s a Google initiative for saving obscure and dying languages. Google’s Play Store policies are sabotaging this initiative. We know that the spread of mobile phones is outpacing the distribution of computers in Africa; but while Google created a Wolof version of their search engine, they won’t recognize Wolof on the play store, or Jola, or Krio or Liberian English.

When we first tried to let the Play Store know about the existence of Wolof and Jola (primary languages in two robust African economies), we thought the process would take a day or two and we put our faith in the Google support forums. Our posts were removed within an hour as “irrelevant” and we never found an email address or contact form where we could send our request. The lack of any contact for customer service made Google seem like an anonymous futuristic behemoth with no care for the public. Nonetheless, we were undeterred.

Unlike most content creators in Africa who experience this problem, we have several personal friends who work at Google, an advantage that we thought would help to clear things up. But our friends came up blank after several weeks of asking around.

When we arrived at Singularity University in June, we figured our troubles were over because of the close relationship between Google and the university’s founders and various faculty. We explained our problem to insiders who expressed confidence that the situation could be quickly resolved.

But even here, we gained no access. Instead, we began to see the inflexible, colonial attitudes that were standing in our way. After a couple weeks of needling, we received word that Google’s Senegal office doesn’t consider Wolof a written language and that this was one

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of the reasons that it wasn’t to be found in the Google Play Store. Instead, French is the only language from Senegal authorized to appear on that list—same for Guinea and the rest of Francophone West Africa. Similarly, English is representing Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ghana and more.

Language is gendered.

Take a look at the official languages of Senegal

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(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_of_Senegal) and you’ll notice an alarming statistic. As of 2010, the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie estimated that only 1-2% of Senegalese women speak and understand French.

Let’s allow that to sink in for a minute. It’s a trend that you’ll notice throughout the Sub-Continent: women who access education less regularly are much less likely to speak colonial languages. They live their lives speaking their own, indigenous, African languages. So when Google makes it harder for Africans to find local language content on the Play Store, they are putting women at a particular disadvantage.

As a last effort, we recruited a world expert in public health and a frequent guest of Google—someone with the clout and situational knowledge to light a fire under the bureaucratic obstructionism that we’d so far encountered. Two weeks later he acknowledged that he’d gained no traction—and wished us luck.

Categorizing languages as written or not-written and basing company policy on these categories is old-fashioned and out-of-touch with reality. All around Senegal and, indeed Sub-Saharan Africa, many “spoken” languages are transliterated into whatever alphabets are most familiar. Popular websites are written in Wolof, text messages are sent in Wolof, advertisements are published in Wolof and, yes, mobile apps that deal with nearby disease outbreaks are also published in Wolof.

Beyond the fact that this grey area of spoken/written will continue to exist for decades to come, there is the fact that our app could have (and will eventually) include all of its public health information in audio files. Audio content in African languages—matched to clear icons and graphics—will likely be the backbone of many useful and entertaining apps that spring up in the next several years. Why would Google want to behave like a colonial gatekeeper, brushing off the languages of people just now joining the information economy?

(In the interest of being even-handed, the Apple Store doesn’t even recognize the existence of Swahili. We won't even bother blogging about the blind eye that Apple turns towards Africa.)

The fact that we’ve chosen to bring this to Google’s attention is an acknowledgment that we believe their broader mission and intention is not in line with their current policies and processes. Somebody inside the behemoth, please help it to recalibrate.

Releasing our "About Ebola" App in African Languages


West African mobile health "About Ebola" app in English, French, Wolof and Jola (www.codeinnovation.com) Sarah Joy via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

I was listening to BBC on the hotel TV getting ready to teach an evening yoga class to African feminists at a leadership conference in the Gambia. "Ebola virus" already meant something to me: I was a youngster in Nairobi when the Ebola virus first showed up in East Africa.

I saw 'Outbreak' and after SARS, it was my deepening interest in pandemics and outbreak emergencies that took me to Johns Hopkins University, where I got my MPH. Fast forward a few years, and here I am working from Dakar, Senegal at my small start-up tech company with my husband.

"Ebola is from East Africa," I remember thinking to myself as I grabbed my yoga mat. "What's it doing here?"

Frankly, the long incubation period -- of up to three weeks -- concerned me

and I quickly did the math. The thing about viral outbreaks and epidemics is that most people don't really understands exponents. It's hard to convince a group of people of the power of hitting an exponential curve; that kind of math gets dizzying too quickly.

Code Innovation, for the last couple of years, has been exploring digital learning and developing educational apps and our first one comes out later in the summer. After the yoga class I Skyped with Nate, when he suggested, "Why don't we make an app in African languages to tell people about Ebola?"

As soon as he said it, I knew he was onto something. During outbreaks, rumors spread faster that public health information and steps must be taken to actively inform and empower the public and to keep them out of a fear response, or panic. Rumors in northern Nigeria in 2004 about the true intent of UNICEF-administered polio vaccine are a perfect example; polio was headed towards eradication and now it’s around again. The cause? The spreading of bad information.

One of the things we like about digital technology is its ability to scale exponentially. Information wants to be free and open, I reasoned, so why not help information about Ebola virus spread?

Our friends from last summer at Singularity University have been working on a platform that enables people to quickly and cheaply produce a variety of simple mobile apps. They call it Snapp and they volunteered to program our app. From there, we made the Ebola app in just two weeks, but we could have been faster.

Here's how we made the About Ebola app.

Ebola virus graphic designed by artist Fouad Mezher for our free About Ebola informational mobile app

1. We decided it was a go.

For the first few days after I returned to Dakar, we monitored the pulse of Ebola without acting on our idea. It actually took us a few days to get our heads

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around the fact that we could create and make something like this and get it out into the world to be of service to other people. It seems weird to admit to that, but it's true.

Within a few days of starting the project and observing the outbreak potentially spreading to Mali, Sierra Leone and Ghana, we still weren't sure that making an About Ebola app was something we were able to put our time to. Although we tracked the news, I felt separated from the crisis and put off doing anything about it.

Looking back, this hesitance is something I wouldn't have accounted for. Part of it was getting my head around the fact that Ebola was around at all, and that it was a risk and a reality for people around me too. So there was also numbness I had to get over, in processing and integrating the reality that this is happening. Once I saw my resistance and moved through it, then

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it felt energizing and exciting to say yes to the project.

English About Ebola virus mobile app for public health outreach and emergency communications response (www.codeinnovation.com)

2. Getting the content.

We used the World Health Organization (WHO)'s Global Alert and Response (GAR) page on Ebola virus disese (EVD), the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention's Ebola Hemorrahagic Fever and the CDC's Infection Control for Viral Haemorrhagic Fevers in the African Health Care Setting to inform the content, which is divided into sections "Do This," "Don't Do This," "What is Ebola?" "Do I Have Ebola?" and "What More Can I Do?"

To make sure everything was correct, I called in a U.S. public health expert who has experience in government-level and regional level epidemic control. I also had an expert in epidemiology and public health communications have a look.



3. Build.

Part of the menu from the English "About Ebola" app

We mocked up a prototype on FluidUI.com and our colleagues at Snapp said they could turn the app around in less than two days.

Snapp is a mobile application builder that empowers you to build your internet ideas with no need for technical knowledge required, for free, and from your smartphone. We think they're super cool.

They also offered tremendous flexibility around updates and strategies for recuperating expenses with mobile ad revenue—this took away the stress of trying to make everything entirely perfect and complete for the initial launch. We plan to iterate and improve upon this product as we would any other tech initiative.





Wolof About Ebola mobile app for public health outreach and emergency communications response (www.codeinnovation.com)

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4. Translations.

Within 12 hours of finalizing the content, we had French translations from a professional I work with regularly, who volunteered to work for free.

We figured it would be easy to reach out to our Dakar networks and find a paid or willing-to-volunteer professional. Our plan was to have a handful of African languages, but to publish with whatever translations would prove fastest and easiest to get.

Getting local language translations was the most difficult part of the processes. The organizations, networks and colleagues I reached out to were unable to hook us up with African language translators. We reached out to people asking them to pass our request on to their professional networks, but our emails got us nowhere, which was unexpected.

Wolof About Ebola virus mobile app for public health outreach and emergency communications response (www.codeinnovation.com)

We had been looking for health professionals to be translators, because of the importance of getting precise about the vocabulary involved. After a few days had passed, though, I started scrolling through my phone to find a responsible and capable friend. When she said yes, she brought Wolof and Jola (or Diola, in French) to the table. Then our colleagues at eMobilis in Nairobi stepped up to get us translations in Swahili.

After amassing the content, 100% provided by volunteers, we worked through the technicalities of launch and got our publicity and promotional strategy in place.

5. Launch.

From getting the translations, it's only taken a day to turnaround the app, and here we are. Now, there is an app where people can learn about Ebola and how to prevent and contain the virus.

With the help of our friends, we have made an outbreak of viral hemorrhagic fever less scary for anyone who accesses this information. And while it will take time to find out where and how frequently our app is downloaded, one additional benefit of this information being presented on smartphones, is that the individuals who possess this technology tend to enjoy a slightly elevated level of prestige and clout, especially once they are out in deeply rural areas. We’re hoping that this means that a few well-equipped individuals can use the materials in the app to reach a large number of their friends, family members and neighbors.

Another thing. Although the "About Ebola" app has content in Wolof and Jola, because these West African languages are not yet language categories on either app stores, they are

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listed (!) under English and French. West African languages can be accessed in the app's drop-down menu, FYI (and just for now, we hope).

The "About Ebola" app lives on the Google Play store for Android here.

The "About Ebola" app lives on the iTunes Store for Apple devices here.

Too bad the Apple Store takes weeks to approve a new app. We can only conclude that iOS isn't very good for emergencies and wait for the link.


We are sharing these steps because, with digital technology, your message can reach out like this too, directly to the people you want to reach. Sure, Ebola virus may have burned itself out, but if it hasn't, now you can download an app to learn the facts about the virus in your local language. That makes me happy.

You’ll notice, also, that we cut out the time-consuming steps of fundraising and formal partnerships. If ad revenue compensates us, in some small way for our time, that’s great. But this sort of thing is becoming possible to pull together faster and cheaper than ever before. What do you want to build? What are you waiting for?

I hope that you enjoyed hearing about our project. We could not have done it without Snapp and our volunteers Foaud Mezher (who created the artwork), Connie Johnson and Michelle Skaer (public health expertise), Beatrice Clerc (French translation), Fatou Jobe (Wolof translation), Lamin Goudiaby (Jola translation) and eMobilis (Swahili). Much love.