Recoding the Red Cross

Imagine, for a moment, you’re sick. A disease is spreading around you, and the information that could stop it escalating is inaccessible. Despite every advance in medicine and an increasingly connected world, this is a nightmare that all too many people are living today.

The problem is especially pronounced in the developing world. Unlocking data to the benefit of science and medicine is one of the remaining great technological quests. For example, when a cholera epidemic began a deadly march across Sierra Leone in 2012, the paper based data collection process on the ground meant information sharing and trend analysis was slow and imprecise. With technology already helping to make miracles happen in so many places, how can we hack existing protocols to ensure that the ability to save a life is never restricted by a lack of access to data?

Anine Kongelf, a Community Based Surveillance (CBS) Coordinator for the Disaster Management Unit at the Norwegian Red Cross explains, “We know collecting data during epidemics is easy. The difficulty is having a system that makes it useful and actionable. We have looked at developing proprietary solutions; however, it has usually been cost prohibitive to achieve the global scale we need.”

While the Red Cross has always benefitted from the generous volunteer support of 17 million people worldwide, it has never tried to tap into the volunteers’ technical expertise, to try and address its technology needs. “We have asked ourselves how we could utilize these skills and competences, and ultimately leverage our volunteers to develop new technology,” she adds.

The answer came in the form of a Codeathon where employees and volunteers from technology companies in Norway came together at the Red Cross Head office in Oslo on a rainy day in late September. One of them was Bjørn Fossan Rasmussen, a 36-year-old Senior Developer from Tradesolution AS. “I’ve donated money to the Red Cross but never my expertise. Here I saw an opportunity to contribute something from my profession for the first time,” he explains.

Eva Turk, a Senior Researcher at DNV GL, a Quality Assurance and Risk Management company heard about the Codeathon on social media and didn’t hesitate to get involved. “When I think about digital transformation, I think about how we can make things that are really needed rather than just for the sake of it – this was the first time I was in an environment where I could see things being built with the purpose of making our world a better place,” she says.

Working in the healthcare industry, Eva has seen first-hand how collaboration can make a difference. “For me the biggest lesson was seeing how many questions needed to be asked before working on a solution. The most important question was: ‘How can we put ourselves in the field workers’ shoes?’”

Enter Thomas Lahnthaler, a Red Cross Emergency Response Unit team leader in Bangladesh who kicked off day 2 of the Codeathon – albeit remotely. His message was loud and clear – mobile phones present limitations and reliable internet in the field wasn’t an option, a hard reality which can often be overlooked.

Using SMS allows the Red Cross to overcome the digital divide. Structured messages in the form of numerical codes mean field volunteers who cannot read or write can easily report suspected disease cases to others. The team saw an opportunity to apply technology for analysis purposes and, with that data in hand, create alerts and automatic feedback loops within the community.

Einar Ingebrigtsen, Principal Technical Evangelist at Microsoft offered an unlikely solution – open source development. In the run up to the Codeathon, Einar spoke to Richard Campbell, a Microsoft Regional Director and Most Valued Professional (MVP) who founded the Humanitarian Toolbox in December 2012 – an organization designed to let developers around the world donate their skills to disaster relief organizations by building open-source software. While Community Based Surveillance isn’t part of the Toolbox, its previous use cases gave the team confidence that open source could be the solution.

So together, the Red Cross, developers and volunteers set out to build a new algorithm to collect coded SMS messages from volunteers during crises so they could maximize information flow. And the team is making progress. A scalable global SMS system was developed by one of the members of the project team – Kristian Ravndal — whose day job focuses on building an SMS system for business scenarios. This infrastructure will be part of the first deployment that will feed text messages into the cloud.

Moving the data up into the cloud makes it accessible to anyone at any time, and if they can make it work, it could save thousands of lives the next time an epidemic threatens to spread. The team has now defined the essentials needed to create an early prototype (or ‘Minimum Viable Product’ in development speak), which they are working to launch in early 2018.

The Nobel Prize winning Scientist, Sir Richard Timothy Hunt once said, “Most great advances have been a collaboration.” While minimizing the impact of disease epidemics may seem like a daunting, arduous and difficult task, the Norwegian Red Cross is a testament to this statement. Through the power of collaboration and technology, the organization’s volunteer-base is advancing how we respond to disease epidemics.

If you’d like to find out more about volunteering your technical skills for the Red Cross go here and join the venture!