The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned recently that “the death rate in the Ebola outbreak has risen to 70 percent and there could be up to 10,000 new cases a week in two months.” A WTO official added that if the world’s response to the Ebola crisis isn’t stepped up within 60 days, “a lot more people will die.”
Extreme situations call for extreme measures. It’s therefore welcomed news that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has turned to a strong medicine: it has asked the world for help. A few days ago, in partnership with the White House Office of Science and Technology, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Department of Defense, USAID launched a crowdsourcing campaign titled Fighting Ebola: A Grand Challenge for Development. Prizes in the range of $100,000 to $1M will be awarded for innovative designs of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to protect and empower healthcare workers dealing with Ebola patients.
As every strong medicine, crowdsourcing can provide cure only if used smartly. A key to success here is to identify and proper formulate the question to ask the crowd. “Fighting Ebola” is happening on so many different fronts that it’s easy to lose focus and fall in chasing goals that are too broadly defined to be handled by crowdsourcing (like “fighting world hunger,” in the United Nations’ parlance). So one can only applaud the USAID officials for choosing a perfect target for their first anti-Ebola hit. It goes without saying that containing the Ebola outbreak can only succeed if the medical personnel treating Ebola patients–the first line of defense, so to speak–are fully protected. Unfortunately, this is not the case right now as the currently available PPE is not suited for the extreme heat and humidity of West Africa. Very appropriately, the USAID Grand Challenge is seeking “novel PPE or modifications to current PPE that address issues of heat stress and comfort for healthcare workers.” The problem is defined in such a way that even people without any experience in infectious diseases can productively contribute to its solution, a hallmark of many successful crowdsourcing campaigns.
Crowdsourcing is a powerful technique that, unfortunately, has not yet become a mainstream innovation tool. Moreover, some public applications of it, such as largely unsuccessful BP’s oil spill crowdsourcing campaign to deal with the consequences of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico disaster, had cast a shadow over its ability to address, in a rapid and effective way, the world’s most pressing problems. It is therefore so crucially important for the USAID Ebola Grand Challenge to succeed. The world will be safer when healthcare workers facing Ebola are safer. As an additional bonus, crowdsourcing will prove that wisdom of crowds can deliver.
Image credit: http://www.ebolagrandchallenge.net