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Doing Better: UNC students develop online tool for tracking Ebola outbreak

Steven King, UNC-Chapel Hill assistant professor of interactive media, works with former UNC student Casey Miller on the website, ebolainliberia.org.
Steven King, UNC-Chapel Hill assistant professor of interactive media, works with former UNC student Casey Miller on the website, ebolainliberia.org. UNC

While the Ebola virus has killed thousands in West Africa and raised alarms across the United States, most of us have been able to do little more than watch in horror.

But a small group of students at UNC-Chapel Hill has jumped in to help, playing a critical role in efforts to track the epidemic thousands of miles away in Liberia.

The day before classes started in August, Steven King, assistant professor of interactive media at the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication, received an urgent request: Liberia’s Ministry of Information needed a real-time way to visually depict Ebola’s impact throughout the country.

Could the agency count on assistance from King, a multimedia expert and former editor and director of video at The Washington Post? And could he get started immediately?

Joined by a volunteer team of 10 current and former UNC students with expertise in Web design and development, King took on the challenge. The goal: Develop a smartphone-friendly website that regularly provides updated information on new Ebola cases and deaths in different regions of Liberia.

King and his team worked furiously through the last week of August, experimenting with one prototype after another. The team had to overcome logistical obstacles that included a four-hour time difference, lost Internet connections and the erratic schedules of their Liberian technical counterparts who were trying to reduce their exposure to Ebola. On Sept. 8, the Liberian Ministry of Information called a press conference to roll out their handiwork: www.ebolainliberia.org.

Real-world experience

The site is designed to help Liberian and international leaders make better decisions in responding to the disease and keep the public informed about Ebola’s reach. It graphically reflects the number of Ebola cases and deaths, how the number of cases and deaths are progressing over time, and where they are concentrated. As of Thursday night, the site told a grim story that King and his students say keeps their challenges in launching the site in perspective: 4,657 cases of Ebola had been reported in the country, and 2,694 people there had died from the disease.

“In no way in the classroom could I simulate the problem-solving issues we faced,” King says. “We took what we teach in school and did it for a real client in a crisis.”

Beyond contributing significantly to the world’s response to Ebola, the website initiative also serves as a case study in the development of next-generation leadership skills for the students who are involved.

A 2012 survey of nearly 500 global executives by the Center for Creative Leadership identified the top six leadership skills that organizations will want in their employees in 2022: adaptability/versatility, effective communication, learning agility, multicultural awareness, self-motivation/discipline, and collaboration.

The students who built ebolainliberia.org enhanced their abilities in all six areas. For Clinton King, a senior journalism major who wrote code for the design of the site, the project became a boot camp for increasing his adaptability. The high speed at which the team had to work and the constantly shifting look of the site required comfort with ambiguity and continual flexibility. “It was a good, first real-world experience,” King says. “It gave me more confidence in my skills.”

Learning agility

Alison Blaine, a second-year graduate student in information science, wrote code for charts on the site and helped stream updated news articles and photos to it. She says the project “gave me experience in collaborating online with people around a shared purpose to make something useful in a short amount of time.”

It also offered an education in learning agility – the ability to learn from experience and apply that knowledge effectively in new situations. “I think that some people might not go into tech careers because they feel excluded from a club that has its own language and customs, and I admit to being intimidated by that at times,” Blaine says. “This project gave me experience in navigating that language, and I would like to help others learn it.”

In the meantime, Steven King and some colleagues are pursuing funding that would support the development of similar websites for every country that has an Ebola outbreak. If the money comes through, King and his students are ready to take the lead once again.

That will likely mean pulling more all-nighters and juggling a semester’s worth of schoolwork. When they stop for a moment to ponder the chaos in Liberia, those are the kind problems King’s team is happy to have.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of “Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.” Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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