Published on December 19th, 2014 | by Peter Ward


Technology for Ebola Conference and what it means for us

Featured image: Dr Boutros Boutros-Ghali addressing the conference, with His Excellency Ambassador Dr Hazem M Fahmy, Secretary-General of EAPD alongside

We all know just how dangerous the Ebola virus can be and how severe the latest outbreak has been. This week I was privileged to attend one of the responses to this, the Technology for Ebola conference, as an invited expert on the basis of my consumption research. I was there as a representative of the Business Transformation Group at WMG funded by the ESRC Impact Acceleration Account and the University of Warwick. The conference was held in Cairo, Egypt.

The conference was arranged by a large software multinational and had strong endorsement from Egyptian government, with three ministers and an ambassador attending and an address from the sixth Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dr Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Attendees from the software company included senior figures from several of its research laboratories and its director of disaster response services. Several universities were represented as well as representatives from NGOs, while the CIO of the World Health Organisation was there throughout. All told, around 100 people from North America, Europe, Africa and India came together to plan how they could use technology as a basis for action on Ebola.

There was a good mix of outlooks expressed and lively dialog throughout. The conference was in two parts, with the first day made up of presentations and panel discussions (I joined the panel on epidemiological and biological computation) and the second day dedicated to workshops on three strands emerging from the first day:

  1. Establishing an information hub
  2. Disease identification using technology
  3. Disease information dissemination

I joined the dissemination strand since effective dissemination relies on an understanding of context.

As expected, most of the attendees had experience of working in Africa. However, I found it interesting that they brought quite different experiences. It’s not really surprising since Africa is 54 non-homogenous countries, but it is a very important reminder of the importance of context. One example of this arose when discussing use of SMS messaging vs voice. The preference of the population varies by country and region but someone whose experience was mainly seeing Ghana’s voice preference didn’t realise things were the opposite in Tanzania. To me, such differences and preferences are symptomatic of wider differences that must be taken into account when designing interventions and which can be understood through the lens of Service-Dominant Logic that underpins my research.

My contribution was both academic and practical. I was able to call on my business background, my experience of multiple projects in Africa, and my “Last Yard” consumption research. I think I probably provided most value by trying to keep focus on learning before doing, since interventions can be unsuccessful without a clear understanding of the context. I proposed that my research could fit very well with this aspect of the Ebola response and I volunteered to visit at-risk populations to use my research to gather information. I see this as being very much to do with adherence since people need to follow instructions for Ebola protection, for example, on physical contact or seeking inoculation. The key part is making sure that the messages are communicated in the right way, by the right people, and are culturally acceptable.

From my consideration of the discussions during the conference, I also identified another element of adherence which is of relevance to my research; it relates to health staff. Where they must administer doses direct to patients, for example injections, then they must also adhere to the consumption instructions for the medicine in order to deliver effective care. This implies that they must also receive communications that are suitable for the context. Extrapolating, this makes me think that there are actually three loci of adherence: the patient, the health staff and the patient-staff interface. This provides me with additional insights into adherence challenges, which are also – as with all my consumption research – widely relevant beyond the healthcare sphere of my case study since there are many other contexts where consumption according to the instructions requires that the consumer-facing provider must also follow instructions.

Overall, it has been an excellent if draining conference with fascinating people and a real passion not just to address Ebola in the short term but also to create a framework of resources for future natural disasters of whatever type. I have pledged my support and look forward to being able to offer my research in support of its aims.


Peter is studying for a PhD within WMG's Service Systems Group. The research question for Peter's PhD is "Why are some supply chains better than others at delivering value propositions that address contextual variety in the last yard? The case of patient adherence in sub-Saharan Africa".

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