Steven VanRoekel heads to West Africa on Monday to help lead the U.S. response to the Ebola outbreak. As a former Microsoft executive and more recently, the U.S. CIO, he's already started thinking about technology he might be able to use to stem the tide of the virus.
He's thought about technologies that might help health workers, communications technologies that might help the broader community, and big data applications that might help track the spread of the virus.
Currently, doctors and nurses on the ground in West Africa are wearing personal protection equipment -- the equivalent of a hazmat suit-- that were designed for use in air conditioned labs. "They weren't made for West African summers," VanRoekel said, speaking at the Geekwire Summit in Seattle today.
As a result, health workers are able to spend only 20 to 40 minutes in the suits. "They need to work 12 hours," he said.
Last week, U.S. Agency for International Development, the agency VanRoekel will be working for, launched a challenge for anyone willing to work on solving this problem.
In the meantime, he wants to put wearable sensors on the health workers to get a baseline of their body temperatures during the day so that the innovators have a sense for how the workers are responding and what changes need to be made.
VanRoekel also envisions deploying ruggedized tablets and belt worn printers that health workers can use to print labels for blood samples. Right now, they're using paper based systems, he said.
Secondly, he's thinking about communications technologies that can help both the workers and the community. He'd like workers to be able to have access to broadband connections so that they can upload data to a central place so that it can be analyzed, modelled and shard with other groups who are working on the problem.
In addition, he said he'd also like to investigate social campaigns, such as blasting text messages, that might be able to help with encouraging people to change any dangerous behaviors.
Finally, he's been thinking about ways to use big data to help in the fight against Ebola. For instance, if he can trace people who have been in contact with people infected with the virus possibly using cell phone signals, responders might be able to frontload aid supplies or clinics based on modelling that might predict where the virus might flair up next.
Similar techniques might help authorities track travel patterns in a way that might similarly help head off the spread of the virus.
"I'm probably just hitting the tip of the iceberg of the role technology can play," VanRoekel said.
He said that fighting the spread of Ebola is actually more than just heading off the impact of the virus. When scenarios like the Ebola situation happen, political radicalism and other upheaval may occur he said. "It's a public safety problem because of the disease as much as it is a national security problem," he said.