How Israeli app technology helps beat Ebola

Snapp lets users build applications without programming knowledge, good for volunteers busy with a medical emergency

About Ebola screenshot (Photo credit: Courtesy)
About Ebola screenshot (Photo credit: Courtesy)

About Ebola, an app built using a programming platform developed in Israel and abroad, is providing medical workers in the field with what is turning out to be one of their most effective tools available for preventing the alarming spread of Ebola in the villages of in West Africa. Using the Snapp platform, it took volunteers only about three days to build a mobile app that provides information on what Ebola is, what to do if symptoms associated with Ebola appear, and how to avoid catching it in the first place.

Most important, said Asaf Kindler of Snapp — the platform is so easy to use that it was a simple matter for volunteers to reprogram for the languages used by villagers in the back-country villages of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and other affected countries – languages like Jola, Krio, Liberian English, and Wolof. “It’s essential that people understand exactly what is going on, and to do that you have to communicate with them in their own language,” said Kindler. “Using Snapp, anyone can build an app by clicking on a few buttons on their mobile device, so it was easy for the volunteers to install the languages into their app.”

Conservative estimates say about 6,000 people have been infected with the virulent disease, and predictions of its spread quote numbers of 1.4 million and more. The death rate is at least 50 percent. Basic knowledge and practice of hygiene can stop its spread, experts say.

The new app can help with that. So far, About Ebola (available for iOS and Android) has been downloaded about 5,000 times by residents of affected areas – meaning that word is filtering down to the villages about how to prevent the spread of Ebola. In fact, said Kindler, About Ebola is the first Android app in the Jola (also known as Diola) language, which is spoken by at least a half million people. “Because of us, Google is now in the process of recognizing Jola as an official language and is opening up its Android app store to include apps using Jola,” he noted.

Communicating with villagers in their own language and getting the message out is half the battle, said Kindler. “In almost all these villages there are at least one or two people with smartphones, and they are very highly regarded, both for their ability to access information from the outside world, and for their acumen in acquiring a device in the first place. So when they tell villagers that they should be doing a lot of washing with soap and water – one of the methods the app lists as a way to prevent Ebola – the villagers are likely to listen.”

Snapp isn’t just for Ebola – although the prevention app is, so far, the most important app that has been developed using the platform. “We leverage HTML5 to enable anyone to create almost any kind of app on their smartphone,” said Kindler. “Users don’t need to have any programming skills. All they do is click on menu and screen choices. Snapp provides an A to Z app development process, so by the time the user has gone through all the screens and made their choices, they have an app that can be used by anyone with an iOS, Android, or MozillaOS device.” Hundreds of apps have been created with Snapp, including one for an electronics store in Mauritius, a small island next to Madagascar, a fan app for an American tennis player, and dozens of apps that connect musicians with their fans.

The About Ebola app is important to Snapp not just because of positive effect it is having – but because it is being deployed exactly the way Kindler and his partners Vito Margiotta and Gabriel Gurovich intended. “There are other on-the-fly mobile app development platforms around, but all of them require either some programming skills or access to a PC for the development process. We are the only platform that allows users to build an app strictly on their smartphones.”

That makes Snapp the perfect platform for app developers in the developing countries of Africa, said Kindler. “The vast majority of people in Africa have never used, and perhaps never even seen, a keyboard and a desktop PC system. They made the jump from no technology at all directly to smartphones, and those are the devices they need to be able to develop on. Our tools will, we believe, help enhance technology in Africa, because they allow anyone with access to a smartphone to develop an app on the fly to fix problems.”

The About Ebola app was developed by a group associated with Singularity University, an international group that marshals technology to solve social, health, and other problems in the developing world. “They contacted us a few months ago about developing an Ebola information app, after they had checked with several programmers and professional app designers, all of whom wanted at least a few thousand dollars to do the work,” said Kindler. “At the time, Snapp was in alpha (development), but we provided them with the platform, even though it was still rough around the edges.” The platform, it turned out, was more ready than the Snapp people imagined, because it worked just fine, enabling the volunteers to get the app out in just a few days.

About Ebola has done more than educate Africans about how to avoid becoming Ebola victims. It has also inspired the Snapp team to think about other social issues their platform could help solve. “We have a lot of ideas now about ways Snapp could be used to help boost technology in Africa and elsewhere,” said Kindler. “About Ebola is exactly the kind of thing we were hoping to see when we set out on this road. We’re very proud of our role in helping to beat Ebola.”

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