Yes, software can help save the world -- It just can't do it alone
Quartz reported today on efforts to create software that might allow people in Ebola-stricken nations to better communicate with and inform the proper organizations about an emergency. The group is working with Virginia Tech University, and it could release an application or two within just a few weeks of the crisis-focused hackathon's ending, according to Quartz's report.
The efforts, and Quartz's report on them, have drawn criticism on Twitter for the seemingly misplaced idealism leading them to believe that software can help Ebola-stricken countries combat the disease that has spread throughout Africa. Meanwhile, infected Europeans and Americans have been sent home to receive treatment because the African facilities cannot handle the extra cases.
Ebola has become such a threat because the systems put in place to prevent its spread have failed or been let down since it first became a problem. The World Health Organization may have responded to the threat sooner if its government funding hadn't been cut. Workers might be more willing to clean the streets or bury Ebola's victims if they were offered hazard pay. The organizations tasked with helping Ebola sufferers might be able to save more lives, or at least bring in more patients from the streets, if they had sufficient resources to handle them.
Software isn't going to solve those problems. These issues will require increased funding, more attention on African Ebola victims instead of those sent to Western countries, and a significant improvement to the emergency response systems in Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and other countries struggling to contain the virus as it continues to spread despite their best efforts to combat it.
But that doesn't mean that improved software can't play a role in helping these countries -- and the people who live in them -- respond to the Ebola crisis. Perhaps it will be easier to share info with emergency responders with an app; maybe gathering more data about Ebola's spread can help these countries be proactive in their response instead of simply being reactive to disaster.
I don't think anyone would argue that software alone can help manage the Ebola crisis. It's not like the virus is going to halt its spread just because everyone it might possibly infect has a new app on their phone. Anyone who does think this way might want to remove themselves from the insular bubble of technology, particular if they're in a country that doesn't have the same problems as the countries most affected by Ebola's spread.
Still, there's little harm in doing whatever you can to help solve a problem that threatens so many people. Arguing otherwise is like saying that I shouldn't help someone who suffered an injury to their leg increase the elevation because I don't have a medical degree or suture kit. You don't have to solve a problem entirely to help, and that's what these "hackers" are doing.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]